Sunday Times Best Places for Business 2020

Extract taken from The Sunday Times newspaper: 


The second city has produced the most start-ups in the country outside London for seven consecutive years. After decades of industrial decline that saw the closures of the Rover plant at Longbridge and the contentious sale of Bournville-based Cadbury’s to American food giant Mondelez, Birmingham is booming. It has become the youngest city in Europe, with five universities, and almost 40% of inhabitants under the age of 25, while it is attracting workers with its low house prices and high quality of life.

HSBC has shifted its UK headquarters to Birmingham, while the accountancy giant PwC and HM Revenue & Customs are also moving into the Centenary Square area, bringing an extra 7,000 jobs. The influx of banks and professional services firms has spawned the growth of financial technology start-ups. Other leading sectors include the creative industries — in part spurred by the success of Brummie gang drama series Peaky Blinders — and life sciences, with Birmingham University set to open a science park to help commercialise academic and clinical research.

The redeveloped New Street station is a gleaming retail hub, compared with the brutalist eyesore that occupied the terminus for almost 50 years, while Birmingham stands to benefit from the HS2 railway line — should it go ahead — and it will host the 2022 Commonwealth Games. The “city of a thousand trades” is well set to prosper over the next decade.

Who to watch START-UPS

School of Code This Digbeth-based start-up runs free 16-week boot camps for wannabe technology stars, and three cohorts have already completed its programme. Founder Chris Meah, 31, launched it to boost diversity on computer courses, with graduates including a stay-at-home mother and a geology student. He charges a fee to companies that employ his coders, and has also won sponsorship from the West Midlands Combined Authority. This company helps members find discount codes for their online shopping at more than 42,000 stores including Amazon, Asos and Marks & Spencer. Under founders Sonu Bubna and Manoj Krishnapillai, it claims to save users about 15% on their online shopping bills.

Fluence World Founders David and Jennifer Hore have created an artificial intelligence programme that helps financial and professional services firms improve their quality assurance processes by automatically reviewing documents. Based in the Jewellery Quarter, it has won investment from the Bristol Private Equity Club and Ufi Charitable Trust.


Click Travel makes corporate travel easier and cheaper for customers ranging from TalkTalk and Premier Inn owner Whitbread to Land Securities and the British Heart Foundation, which use its website to book tickets and hotels, find deals and manage their travel budgets. It made more than £237m sales last year. Oxbridge Learning This distance-learning provider has helped more than 60,000 pupils achieve their education goals by teaching A-levels and GCSEs, as well as courses ranging from accountancy and book-keeping to writing and journalism. Founder Matt Jones, 38, has won a succession of local business awards.

Gymshark Based just outside Birmingham, in a 42,000 sq ft hangar off the M42 in Solihull, Gymshark has become a sportswear empire driven by its popularity among the under-25s. Sales hit £179.5m last year, just seven years after founder Ben Francis, 27, started with a sewing machine in his parents’ garage.


Andy Street The former John Lewis boss has been the Conservative mayor of the West Midlands since May 2017, and has become one of the region’s most high-profile — and energetic — business cheerleaders. Street, 56, who grew up in Solihull, was head of the local enterprise partnership for five years while still running the department store chain, and has helped spearhead efforts to bring HS2 and the Commonwealth Games to the West Midlands.


Sir Peter Rigby’s entrepreneurial career started in 1975, when he turned a £2,000 investment into IT services business Specialist Computer Centres. His giant Rigby Group has grown to have interests in aviation, airports, financial services, IT, hotels and property, employing 8,500 staff in 20 countries. Rigby, 76, has amassed a £660m fortune, according to The Sunday Times Rich List.

Jo Bradwell founded medical diagnostics pioneer Binding Site, which develops specialist blood tests for diagnosing and monitoring bone marrow cancers and other immune system disorders, in 1983. After selling a majority stake to private equity firm Nordic Capital in 2011, Bradwell, 74, donated £15m to Birmingham University to help set up an institute of forestry research.

Richard Harpin The founder of emergency repairs provider HomeServe has turned a plumbing firm backed by a local water company into a FTSE 250 stalwart. Harpin, 55, who is worth £531m according to The Sunday Times Rich List, has also launched Growth Partner, a long-term investor in start-ups.


Digbeth The inner-city industrial area has become a hipster hub, with cafes, independent shops, cinemas and arts venues alongside start-ups in the creative industries and social enterprise.

Birmingham Science Park, Aston Home to the city’s innovation quarter, the Birmingham Science Park helps foster partnerships between academia and business. It is made up of two campuses: the Innovation Birmingham campus and the Science & Technology campus. Longbridge Technology Park and Innovation Centre Based on the former MG Rover site, this £100m development is home to nearly 60 technology start-ups and is owned by the FTSE 250 regeneration specialists St Modwen.


The Silicon Canal group The name is a reference to the fact that there are more miles of canal in the second city than there are in Venice. It has become the voice of the local tech community and fosters an “ecosystem” by hosting social events and awards ceremonies.

Tech Wednesday This group has a regular meeting on the third Wednesday of every month, while the Birmingham Entrepreneurs Meetup is an informal gathering of founders seeking advice or to build a network.


Innovation Birmingham campus More than 170 start-ups have raised £56m in funding at the campus. Previously owned by Birmingham city council, it is part of property developer Bruntwood. Velocity The Investment Association has launched Velocity, a new incubator for fintech startups, alongside the mutual Wesleyan this year. It is providing 10 start-ups with free co-working space in the city centre.


Natwest Accelerator This group has helped more than 300 businesses scale up since 2018. It offers courses ranging from eight weeks to six months with free office space, coaching and access to business mentors. Forward Accelerator The Birmingham Enterprise Community has launched the programme with University College Birmingham for student and graduate entrepreneurs. The six-month programme was launched last September and offers coaching, virtual resources, workshops and training.

The School of Code, with founder Chris Meah, centre, offers courses for would-be technology entrepreneurs. 13% Share of jobs in private-sector, knowledge intensive activities (2018) 30% Share of population with degree or equivalent (2018) 49% Graduate retention rate (2013-15) – Birmingham in numbers.


Coventry has been at the heart of car-making and advanced manufacturing for more than a century, with Jaguar Land Rover and Aston Martin among the biggest employers today. The city has become a hub of new manufacturing, including driverless car technology, and was chosen as the location for a £108m car battery factory and autonomous vehicle testing centre. Chinese automotive giant Geely picked Coventry as the place to build the new electric London taxis.

In digital technology, video games dominate, with Coventry University the site of the Serious Games Institute. Nearby Leamington Spa has been dubbed “Silicon Spa”, with the charge led by Codemasters, maker of the Formula One series of games, which floated in 2018.

The area is home to Coventry and Warwick universities, highly rated for commercialising academic work. In 2021, Coventry will be the UK’s city of culture.

Who to watch START-UPS Diabetes Digital Media

Founders Arjun Panesar and Charlotte Summers have developed an app that helps diabetics follow a low-carb diet. It is used by more than 4,500 NHS patients. The company is plotting expansion to the Irish Republic.

Third Kind Games

This video game developer was founded in Leamington Spa in 2016 by former employees of the American giant Activision. It was the lead developer of Blankos Block Party, a blockchainpowered online multiplayer game.


ParentPay More than 3m parents use ParentPay to pay for their children’s meals, trips and other costs online at more than 9,000 schools. It helps them monitor expenses and what their children are eating. RDM Group Based in a former Humber car factory, RDM is transitioning from making electrical parts for cars to pioneering autonomous pods that will ferry passengers short distances in cities, airports and retirement villages.


Ralf Speth As the outgoing boss of Jaguar Land Rover, Britain’s biggest car-maker, Speth, 64, looms large over Coventry. Every job created by Jaguar is estimated to create a further five in the supply chain.

Jonathan Browning A former boss of Volkswagen in America, Jaguar and Vauxhall, Browning, 60, became chairman of the Coventry and Warwickshire local enterprise partnership (LEP) in 2014 and has shaken up the organisation. He has led it to become one of the fastest-growing LEPs in the country.


Lord Bhattacharyya founded the Warwick Manufacturing Group at Warwick University in 1980 to revive British manufacturing by forging strong links between international businesses and academia. He helped convince the Tata family to spend £1.15bn on Jaguar and Land Rover in 2008, while his final achievement was the Professor Lord Bhattacharyya Building, which houses the National Automotive Innovation Centre. He died last year aged 78.

David Burbidge The chairman of family-owned woodworking company Burbidge & Son, Burbidge, 76, spearheaded the successful campaign for Coventry to become the UK’s city of culture in 2021.


The Custard Factory The former home of Bird’s Custard in Digbeth is one of the largest hubs for digital media and creative businesses in Birmingham. The estate is home to about 400 companies.

Alpha Works This space is in the heart of the city, across three floors of the iconic Alpha building. Entrepreneurs can rent “hot desks”, coworking spaces or private offices, and Alpha Works also helps businesses moving into the region.

Where to get money Equity funding for start-ups in Birmingham has long lagged behind rival cities, though small business investor BGF opened an office near the Bullring in 2011, when the Business Growth Fund was founded, and LDC, the private equity arm of Lloyds Bank, has its Midlands base in Birmingham. A group of investors — led by Rupert Lyle and Sharonjit Clare — has established a new venture capital outfit called The Ark to foster greater cooperation between entrepreneurs and local angel investors, with the support of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull local enterprise partnership.

Recent exits Enterprise internet telephone provider Nimvelo was acquired by Bristol-based Where to watch


Ansty Park Located just off the M6, Ansty Park has become one of the biggest and most innovative science parks in the country, and is home to the London Electric Vehicle Company. Aerospace giant Meggitt has committed to building a £130m hub here.

FarGo This has become Coventry’s creative heart since it opened in the city centre in 2014. It is home to independent businesses such as breweries, cafes and design boutiques.


CWLEP Growth Hub All the mentors at the Growth Hub have run their own business or been a boardlevel executive. It has helped more than 3,000 local companies with funding, planning, land and technology.


Ignite Based at Warwick University Science Park, Ignite lets early-stage companies tap into the wealth of academic knowledge at the university.

telecoms group Simwood. Founded in 1969, Cannock-based ATP Group remanufactures car transmissions. It was bought by Oklahoma’s ATC Drivetrain last May. Nick Holzherr, a former finalist in The Apprentice, built food technology start-up Whisk to make use of the “internet of things”. It was sold to South Korean technology giant Samsung last March.

Recent fundraisings Tonik Energy, a renewable energy supplier with more than 100,000 members, raised £10m from the Japanese giant Mitsui to expand its business. Voxpopme, which has developed an app to provide video and data analytics so companies can survey customers and record responses, raised £7.5m in a round led by Mercia Asset Management.

A maker of fully recyclable and biodegradable plastics, Aquapak Polymers raised £6m last year.

I moved my business here because HSBC returned the Midland Bank to its roots by choosing Birmingham as its HQ for its high-street bank. More than 2,500 people now work at its 10-storey base in Centenary Square. “We weren’t frightened about coming out of London,” said HSBC UK’s chief executive, Ian Stuart. “We made a decision on the back of ringfencing that we could do something quite different.” The location and workforce were key. “We have had no problem getting the skill set we require,” Stuart, 56, said. “And we can be in touch with our customers very easily. Nobody is more than four hours’ drive from Birmingham.”


The Enterprise Hub Run by Coventry University spin-off CU Social Enterprise, the Enterprise Hub encourages entrepreneurial spirits. It offers mentoring, networking, pitching and interactive workshops, and helped spawn 15 social enterprises in 2018-19.

Where to get money Established in 1994 as part of Warwick University Science Park, Minerva Business Angels invested in more than 80 companies between 2010 and 2018.

Recent exits Microsoft bought Leamington Spa’s Playground Games, which makes the Forza Horizon motor racing series, in 2018. Rant & Rave, a technology start-up that helps clients collect customer data, was sold to American software developer Upland for £52m in October 2018.

Recent fundraisings Warwick University spin-out Medherant, which makes patches that deliver pain-relief drugs, raised £2.4m from Mercia Fund Managers. We Are Digital, which tries to reduce social exclusion by training vulnerable people with limited technological skills, raised £1.5m.

I moved my business here because Rugby union side Wasps left London for Coventry in 2014. Nick Eastwood, who led the controversial relocation, said that while the chance to buy the Ricoh arena was key, there were other factors. “We got a huge amount of support from the local authority, Jaguar Land Rover and the LEP,” he said. “It’s a great place to do business — it is a big city, but small enough that you can develop key relationships with people.”

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