ent is the English county called the Garden of England. Plant a seed in Kent and it will grow and flourish — apples, pears, cherries, grapes, strawberries, blackcurrants, almost every vegetable imaginable, oats, barley, grain … Kent feeds millions of people on a daily basis.
Non-agribusinesses also grow and flourish in Kent, but sometimes bad news comes along.
Early 2011 brought grim news for the coastal town of Sandwich in the South East of Kent. Pfizer, one of the world's biggest and most distinguished pharmaceuticals businesses, announced that after 50 years it was to close its Sandwich facility. Two thousand four hundred direct jobs were set to go (at one point the facility employed 6,000 people). Kent County Council estimated that the coastal Kent economy would see job losses approaching 8,000 when the Pfizer redundancies were added to big cuts in public sector employment and the contractions or failures of local firms in the wake of the credit crunch.
Pfizer's decision to end its time at Sandwich was a commercial reaction to very large changes in the way global pharmaceutical firms undertake research and development. Across the globe the giant players have been moving from an exclusively in-house R&D model to an approach that, among other benefits, reduces risk and centralizes costs.
Sandwich, one of the oldest established towns in England, is also home to the famous Royal St George's Golf Club. The one sure bright spot in a difficult year for the local economy was Royal St George's hosting the Open Championship. Many millions of pounds were spent in the area over the weeks before and during the great event, but worries about the future of the local economy were never far away.
Then something happened that I've seen happen in other parts of the U.K. and overseas, but which has been relatively unusual in the South East of England. The political machine unified and moved at lightning speed to help find a strategy for future progress and build a structure fit for the task.
David Willets, the U.K. government minister responsible for industrial policy, called on the leader of Kent's top level of local government, Paul Carter, to lead a task force charged with finding ways of creating a commercially viable future for Pfizer's huge Sandwich site, which also housed some of the world's most advanced and specialized pharmaceutical R&D labs and equipment.
Finding a future for the site was critical, but equally important was giving hope to all those world-class scientists, specialist engineers, IT managers and other experts with skills the world was hungry to buy. If there was no hope of work in the immediate area, most people would move away. So quickly finding ways of keeping significant numbers of commercially oriented life scientists living locally was central to creating a new cutting-edge life sciences hub at Sandwich.
Carter and local Member of Parliament Laura Sandys were in no doubt that what appeared to be a desperate situation of closure — in the eye of a global financial storm, with most of the world's economies flat-lining and businesses contracting and dying at every turn — was in fact a great opportunity to remodel the local economy, recover from the loss of Pfizer and establish the conditions for successful new businesses.
A strategy was developed that focused on life sciences; environmental and alternative energy technologies; tourism and leisure; upgrading rail infrastructure to deliver high-speed real connections with London of an hour and under; and finding a blue-chip buyer for the Pfizer facility. The buyer had to have the credentials to revitalize the site and attract a large number of new businesses and inward investors.
There were many skeptics, but last week the doubters had to applaud the task force's efforts, because what it has achieved in a year is quite remarkable.
It had one singularly important stroke of good fortune. Pfizer decided that it needed to keep certain work at Sandwich, so 350 jobs were saved. This move by Pfizer assured that commercial life science activity would continue on the site, thus giving potential site buyers a blue-chip anchor tenant and giving added confidence to other science and advanced technology businesses that opting for a presence on the site would be a good decision.
Things began to look up; the Pfizer site of 3 million sq. ft. (278,700 sq. m.) of facilities was renamed Discovery Park, agents were appointed to find a buyer, and the task force began to put serious flesh on the bones of its strategy.
Its members talked to financial, technology, scientific, engineering, academic, marketing and numerous other commercially driven people and organizations. They tested ideas, found new ones, opened doors, lobbied ministers, bid for rare and precious tax breaks for the site and for equally rare central government funding to help kick start the local economy. If it sounds like a breathless journey, then that's an accurate reflection of what happened.
So, just a year after being set up, the task force can tally the following accomplishments:
Clear political leadership
The achievements above give a flavor of the successes achieved in a very short time. Other important programs and initiatives have also been put in place. Why did the task force work so well? It has identified seven fundamental reasons.
I will add one other reason: enthusiasm. Paul Carter and Laura Sandys won support from central government, other local government partners and the private sector because of the commercial and intellectual robustness of their case, but also because their conviction and dedication captured the imagination of numerous others.
When you add solid foundations, energy, focus and drive to realistic enthusiasm to unlock great potential, you can model the future. That's what's starting to happen at Sandwich on the Kent coast. The Kent Phoenix is flying.
Martin Roche is a partner at the geopolitical and communications strategy consultancy, Etoile Partners (www.etoilepartners.com). He advised Kent County Council and the Sandwich Economic Development Taskforce on the structure and content of the bids for Enterprise Zone status for Discovery Park and on the bid for £35 million of funding from the Regional Growth Fund. He also drafted key parts of the successful bids.