Southampton’s business community provides the strength to bounce back from COVID-19

Gareth Miller

Gareth Miller

Managing Director

Published Wednesday 27th May 2020

Port of Southampton container ship on Southampton Water

For our home town of Southampton, facing a global challenge is nothing new. Having been a merchant centre since the 12th century its population and businesses have survived many difficult periods including the French raids 1338, the Great Plague of 1666 and the Blitz in 1940. 

Throughout, it seems, the city’s long-term outlook always remained positive. And why not? With its direct transport links to London, Europe and beyond the south-east’s largest city has steadily maintained its position in the UK as an ideal place to do business. Well-established international companies have made the city their home for decades and now work side-by-side with a community of newcomers drawn to the talent, ambition, infrastructure and investments. COVID-19’s arrival presents an unprecedented crisis but it seems to have brought out additional strength in the spirit Southampton demonstrates. The important fight to support, perhaps even save, Southampton Airport is just one example of this and it’s evident the city’s business community continues to work hard from their homes, resulting in a hive of activity on video conferencing software. Fortuitously, in recent years there’s been a rapid growth in tech companies. This influx has made the city the third best place in the country to live and work (Good Growth for Cities Index 2018), just behind Oxford and Reading. This trend is turning Southampton into a hub for new and existing companies to invest in. There are a number of key factors to Southampton’s growth. Recently, the city succeeded in attracting new investment from tech firms, such as Starling Bank who opened its first office here outside London, creating 150 new jobs.

The city’s port defines it as a major import and export hub for the UK. One business with close links to the port is Meachers Global Logistics. The firm’s Commercial Director, Gary Whittle said: “Being based on the outskirts of the city means our transport and warehousing facilities are ideally located for consolidating and moving goods coming in and out. Indeed, across the UK and beyond. Southampton is a major international port city and therefore a honeypot for commerce. Logistics will be a key success factor in the city's ability to bounce back after COVID-19." Benefex, the employee benefits solutions firm, started in Southampton in 2003. Despite growing from one to over 200 employees, winning investment, outgrowing its offices, and opening a second office in Poland, the company decided to keep its head office in the city. Founder Matt Macri-Waller said: “Southampton is well-connected with a wealth of talent across all levels of experience, making it the perfect place to set up camp. As Southampton has flourished, so has Benefex. Our client portfolio is beating that of our largely London-based competitors”.

Booming business may have much to thank the city’s two universities for. Between 2002 and 2015, the city centre experienced a staggering population growth of 94 per cent, much of which has been made up of students and young professionals. In September 2019, the city council announced there would be a £150 million development for new office blocks, flats, restaurants, cafes, and shops. In 2017, a multi-million-pound extension to the WestQuay shopping centre opened. Southampton was named as a growing high-tech digital destination, coming fifth in the rankings of the world’s "superclusters" above Cambridge, Bristol, and Cologne. The city is now a major player in terms of being a digital hub. Not just nationally, but globally too. Another first outside London is a new type of working space that has shown there is growth in investment in the business community. Old Bond Store, a member-only off-site innovative work club, is set in one of the city’s historic buildings. Founder, Liam Doe, explained why he chose Southampton to launch his new business. “The concept lets members work without the distractions of their office and also gives networking opportunities with like-minded business people,” he said. “We chose Southampton because of the ambitions of the business community and the investments that are being made in the city’s tech infrastructure.”

The city demonstrates collaboration in droves. GO! Southampton, the city’s Business Improvement District, was born in 2017 following 18 months’ freely given work time by a steering group of local businesses, all sharing one vision for the city to continue punching above its weight. This commitment has put Southampton in a great place to respond as new opportunities are created. A key organisation looking to develop the city’s potential as a world-class commercial hub is the Southampton Chamber of Commerce. It is part of the wider Hampshire Chamber of Commerce but has a specific focus on the city’s business community. It exists to provide support to members, listening to their priorities and acting as a collective voice, to lobby, influence and align the focus of public sector policymakers with the city’s business requirements. Gareth Miller, Managing Director of marketing communications agency Carswell Gould and member of the Southampton Chamber Leadership Group said: “Having lived and worked in the Southampton area most of my life, it seems the city has never been so well connected and full of opportunities for ambitious businesses. Covid-19 might be the toughest challenge we have ever faced but if the city’s business community works together we will show how resilient a city Southampton is and how it is best placed to adapt and overcome this current crisis. At Carswell Gould we have found our particular edge is to keep our clients communicating effectively with their customers through targeted digital marketing campaigns and online events. We believe that communication with your customers is even more important when times are tough.”

Of course, it’s not only businesses that are driving the city’s growth. Southampton University, part of the Russell Group, is one of the top 100 in the world. It has always played a vital role in the city and is now investing further with its new multi-million pound National Infrastructure Laboratory. Such developments allow the university to maintain high levels of results which, in turn, provide highly- qualified future employees, many of whom choose to remain in Southampton after graduation. Sarah Stannard, Principal and CEO, City College Southampton said: “Education in the city of Southampton is one of its strongest selling points. City College Southampton is based in the city centre and has some world-class facilities for students to develop their career skills. There’s a big pipeline of very able university and college graduates who want to stay and work in the area with expertise in sectors such as AI, the Internet of Things and Marine and Maritime. These marry well with the businesses and industry sectors in the city. The universities and colleges work collaboratively with thousands of businesses in the city and region all who are very keen to have business input to their courses to prepare students for the workplace. They are, of course, skills that will continue to grow in importance as we emerge from the Corvid-19 crisis.”

A Southampton business with an even longer history in the city is the 186-year-old port. Not only does it contribute hugely to Southampton’s economy with its 15,000 employees, it also helps define what Southampton is - a port city, a destination in itself and a gateway to the rest of the world. Of course, this also makes Southampton a perfect location for businesses looking to import and export. With direct links to London, the continent and beyond via air, sea and land, Southampton is one of the UK’s best-connected cities. £5.7 million has been secured from the Transforming Cities Fund to improve its public transport links, the airport is striving for a runway extension to attract bigger aircraft and the conversion of the M27 into a smart motorway is underway. New broadband provider, Toob has announced hyperspeed broadband is coming to Southampton, giving the city the fastest internet connection in the world. Toob is investing £50 million to deploy a brand new full-fibre network delivering 20x faster download speeds and 145x faster upload speeds than the UK average. It is no surprise travel is a major industry for Southampton both directly, with cruise company Carnival based in the city and others sailing out of Southampton and indirectly with the hospitality industry, now poised to return stronger, when the crisis is over.

Southampton has been settled since prehistoric times. Stone, bronze and iron age settlers made their homes here, to be followed by the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans. It flourished as a merchant centre in medieval times and continued to be an important centre of business in Tudor, Stuart and Regency times, right up to the present day. The business has changed over the years - with a roaring trade in wool being overtaken by innovations in WiFi - but Southampton has continued to be a centre of business, and an important player on the global scene. It will continue to be so with the right support from the business community and membership organisations providing a collective voice for commerce, jobs and progress.

Without a doubt these combined strengths will ensure the city will bounce back higher and with renewed vigour when this crisis is over.

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