The city got its mojo back as the European City of Culture. Now it is about to host a showcase for business
Max Steinberg hasn’t forgotten how hard it was trying to find 30 potential investors to fill a bus tour around Liverpool in the wake of the 1981 Toxteth riots.
The Liverpudlian had been seconded from the Housing Corporation to help Michael Heseltine’s efforts to revive the city. The “minister for Merseyside” had cajoled the investors to come up from London.
“We struggled to get those people here,” admitted Steinberg, who 33 years later is chief executive of Liverpool Vision, the city’s economic development agency.
Today a far greater challenge confronts Steinberg, 62, as he contemplates the stunning vista from his 10th-floor office that takes in the “Three Graces” — the Royal Liver, Cunard and Port of Liverpool buildings — across the Mersey to Cammell Laird’s shipyard and Tranmere, Wallasey and New Brighton in the distance.
There has not been anything like it since the Festival of Britain in 1951, when an austerity nation weary after almost six years of war pushed the boat out.
Liverpool is playing host on behalf of the country but it is not hogging the limelight. Of the more than 200 events, some will be held in Manchester or Sheffield.
David Cameron has endorsed the festival. “This is going to be an event on an unprecedented scale,” the prime minister said. “It is a chance for British businesses to show what they are made of.” The government has given £5m to support it, matched by big commercial sponsors such as BT, Santander, and John Whittaker’s Peel Holdings, which is investing £10bn in the city region over the next five years.
The CBI, IoD, the British Chambers of Commerce and the Federation of Small Businesses, which will take its annual meeting to Liverpool, are all backing the festival.
And if the tens of thousands of business people who are expected turn out, Liverpool will have pulled off a stunning coup — for Britain, the northwest and the port that finally managed to escape the toxic legacy of the postwar years as a city riven by political and economic strife.
“This is the first time in a century that Liverpool people think the future might be better than the past,” said Sir Terry Leahy, the former chief executive of Tesco. “When I grew up here, it was all about the decline.”
The turning point came when the city won the right to be European Capital of Culture in 2008. “The effect was, ‘Right, we can do something else apart from whinge about our image’,” explained Brookside creator Phil Redmond, who became the city’s “cultural tsar”.
“What 2008 did was to show people that if you have a badge of authority it gives you the excuse to come together and collaborate and achieve big things.”
Redmond recalled a business conference in 2008, where speakers expressed pity for Liverpool having got its act together just on the brink of a global financial crisis. “I told them. ‘You’re missing the point’,” recalled Redmond. “We are at rock-bottom. We can’t go anywhere — the future can only be up.”
In 2010 the city put up a pavilion at the Shanghai expo for six months. Its success convinced Steinberg and Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson that more could be done on an international stage. They lobbied Leahy and Lord Heseltine when they wrote a report for No 10 on Rebalancing Britain. Liverpool’s aspirations began to gain traction in Whitehall.
In 2011 the city hosted the Global Entrepreneurship Congress on behalf of America’s Kauffman Foundation, putting it on a par with Dubai and Rio de Janeiro. The idea that Britain could host an international trade fair like Germany or China moved closer to reality.
“I’ve got no doubt that IFB would not be happening without what happened in 2008,” said Redmond. “To his great credit, Joe Anderson has always had the view that culture in all its forms is a way to harness the creativity and the passion of the city.”
Anderson, a former shop steward on the ferries, may seem like the archetypal old Labour politician, but his sense of purpose has driven Liverpool’s reawakening.
“We talk the same language — that of economic growth,” said Greg Clark, the Tory minister for cities. “Joe is quite rightly working to establish a reputation for Liverpool as being pro-business.”
Robert Hough, who chairs the Liverpool City Region local enterprise partnership, which unites private and public sector interests, points to the success of Jaguar Land Rover at Halewood as a barometer of the region’s economy. His organisation is focusing on the port and logistics, the low-carbon sector and the visitor and knowledge economies as key to the region’s growth. “There is a clear and strategic direction that is no longer dependent on the public sector,” he said.
Yet renewing all of Liverpool will be an uphill struggle against history. “The industries it relied on declined,” said Alexandra Jones, chief executive of the think tank Centre for Cities.
“It has faced real challenges and some of those still remain. It still has issues of poverty. In common with seven out of eight of the largest English cities, it punches below its weight and below the national average on all kinds of measures, from skills to business start-ups.”
It’s here that the festival could help. “It can be part of a turning point,” said Leahy, an ambassador for the festival.
“Liverpool was a merchant city and it was rammed full of entrepreneurs who made serious money trading. That disappeared almost completely over the past 40 years. It has to be regenerated, not just physically, as a place for entrepreneurs.
“It’s fairly difficult for young people to become entrepreneurs if there is no example to see or follow in their street or their family.
“I grew up on a council estate so I know what it feels like. You haven’t got the first clue about business and there’s nobody to tell you.”
Redmond prefers the informal, chaotic approach to entrepreneurship. “The paradox of role models is that people like John Hargreaves of Matalan and Steve Morgan of Redrow don’t fit with the bureaucratic agenda because they started in their teens and worked their way up.”
Tom Cannon, professor of strategic management at Liverpool University, points out that there are a host of businesses in Liverpool that have lasted centuries.
The jeweller Boodles was founded in 1798 and goes from strength to strength. Billington’s, founded in 1858, owns a range of companies specialising in anything from Fairtrade honey to mayonnaise and bio-energy. Bibby Line Group, whose interests run from shipping to financial services and woodland burials, traces its history back to 1804.
Just a 15-minute walk away from the cappuccinos and lattes of Liverpool One, the shopping centre created by the Duke of Westminster’s Grosvenor Group, the Baltic Triangle is home to budding entrepreneurs in the former meatpacking district.
“It’s an amazing array of technology-based micro businesses,” said Cannon, who will be running two days on the business of sport for the festival — in Liverpool and then in Manchester at the Etihad stadium.
Vincent Porquet from Angers in western France is a former sales executive who decided to start a new life in Liverpool four years ago. “Liverpool’s a good place to start up a business, especially in the digital and creative sector,” he said.
A “Google-trusted” photographer, Porquet, 30, creates virtual tours around buildings for Google Maps, including the Baltic Triangle where he pays Basecamp £250 a month for two work stations — for him and his apprentice.
For Steinberg at Liverpool Vision there is a goal attached to the festival, which is to generate £100m of foreign direct investment.
“In one sense for me and the mayor, the work starts the day after,” he said.
“Some people would say this city looked inward for a long time. Now the city is looking outward: to China, to America and to Europe. It’s here, it’s happening, it’s up to business to participate.”
Help from across the water
The 4,500 staff working round the clock at Jaguar Land Rover’s Halewood plant on Merseyside, assembling a new car every 82 seconds, have helped the manufacturer achieve a place on the inaugural Sunday Times Inward Investment Track 50 league table. This will be published on June 8 to coincide with the start of the International Festival for Business in Liverpool.
The league table, researched by Oxford-based Fast Track and supported by the consulting firm PA and the government department UK Trade & Investment, will rank the 50 overseas-based multinationals employing the most people Britain. It will also highlight 20 up-and-coming subsidiaries based in each region of the UK.