In the lesser-known 2009 George Clooney movie “Up in the Air”, the star’s character tells employees he is making redundant that “everyone who has ever changed the world has sat where you are today” before handing over a “packet” containing more corporate platitudes and severance information.
The story might be a long way geographically from the true tale of ICI deciding to shut down its chemicals headquarters at The Heath in Runcorn in 1999, a long-standing major employment centre in the region threatening the future employment prospects for thousands of people both on the Heath and supporting the centre itself. The idea of turning the darkest of employment news into an inspiring opportunity was a key driver for John Lewis, co-founder and now managing director of SOG, who has transformed the location into one of the UK’s leading and award-winning business and science parks.
He may not have changed the world exactly, but arguably he saved a community almost solely reliant on the jobs provided by the chemical giant, through an entrepreneurial approach to regenerating 54 acres of commercial land with real estate comprising of chemical laboratories, office, conference/lecture theatre facilities, restaurant and some warehousing and simultaneously taking on scores of highly skilled ICI employees under TUPE, creating the thriving business and technical park it is today. Clooney, or his character in the movie at least, would be proud.
Praised by former prime minister Tony Blair, mayor of London Boris Johnson and former foreign secretary William Hague, among others, The Heath Business and Technical Park is now home to some 160 separate companies employing around 1,750 people (more than in the heyday of ICI) and has become a blueprint for regeneration of sites where large organisations have either closed down or down-sized – and it has achieved its current status without any public funding or subsidy.
That is no mean feat when you consider it involved a £6m bank loan to fund the original land acquisition and a deal which involved taking over the pension plan commitments for employees who worked on the site for ICI within its facilities management division, not to mention convincing those same workers contemplating accepting their redundancy “packets” to take up new roles with the newly formed SOG or as startup companies, in a visionary entrepreneurial ecosystem.
But within a few minutes in the company of John Lewis, who probably has just as much right to claim the legend “never knowingly undersold” as his retail namesake, you understand very quickly how it came to be a reality.
“My definition of an entrepreneur is somebody who makes it possible for other people to be better than them,” he said, as if delivering the punch line of a joke.
That makes much more sense when you realise that Lewis is the nephew of the King of Knotty Ash, entertainer and comedian Ken Dodd. And humour is not the only family trait; Lewis has an unwavering work ethic, not unlike his 87 year-old uncle, who still tours the stand-up circuit with as much vigour and enthusiasm as ever.
“The man is a legend and deserves a knighthood,” which is a helpful interjection in our interview, because I had just written “Sir Ken Dodd” in my notebook, assuming that to be the case already.
For Lewis, family is important, and family values are an obvious feature of his management style and the vision he has for developing and consulting on business locations that really play a useful role in the community.
Apart from encouraging company owners and employees located on the site to mingle and network at lunchtimes in the communal catering facilities, he also freely supports a range of community activities in The Heath’s facilities when they are not being used for business purposes.
These include working with schools, colleges and universities to encourage students to engage with businesses and explore career pathways, and providing a base for the region’s scout groups for camping and other events, as well as training facilities for high-profile athletes, including 400m hurdler Abigayle Fitzpatrick who is aiming to represent GB at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics next year.
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Catalyst for growth
He explained: “It wasn’t just about buying a piece of land, I wanted to retain the people and their skills that existed on the site, and use that as a catalyst to attract new businesses to invest in the location and help regenerate it for the benefit of their own businesses and the local community.
“I helped to form a consortium with the ex-ICI senior management team and we put forward a proposal as part of a tendering process for taking over the site and ours was one of 20 bids that were being considered at the time.
“The difference in our vision wasn’t just for making best use of the land and facilities, however, we wanted to take over ICI’s facilities management team, the site operations group as it was called, because I knew from my previous involvement with the site that highly valuable skills would potentially be lost forever in the area if somebody didn’t step in and do something about it.”
Lewis added: “I believed that with the right support and infrastructure and a clear message about the need to adapt and change in difficult times, we could turn the skilled workforce on the site into a group with the expertise and ability to support other new businesses moving on to the site as we redeveloped the facilities – and in some cases to form their own startup businesses.”
Skills are the very core of the SOG business model which is the ethos of our culture. The specialist technical support that SOG offers its customers is the main USP setting it apart from competitor locations – many of which have received generous public grants or subsidies.
The Heath is uniquely placed not only to provide startup or growing firms with immediate access to high quality laboratory space but also the support of its technical specialist team, offering scientific glass blowing, precision engineering, engineering and laboratory technician support, design and build of purpose-built scientific grade facilities and health and safety services.
One of the skills now preserved at The Heath thanks to SOG is scientific glassblowing and award-winning glassblower Paul Le Pinnet was recently commissioned by Imperial College Press (ICP) to write a specialist technical book on the subject.
Le Pinnet, one of around just 150 scientific glassblowers in the UK, stumbled into the profession by accident while training as a chemist. After breaking glass vessels in experiments, he was told by a glassblower that he should learn how to fix them.
While operations at The Heath continue to expand, Lewis’ model is breaking new ground in Dagenham with the Londoneast-UK Business and Technical Park, where SOG has embarked upon another ambitious regeneration project with the purchase of specialist science buildings from the pharmaceutical company, Sanofi.
The location signed its first business customer after just two months in April this year and has announced a deal to create a university college campus on site offering facilities and services for up to 600 students. The site has also become a favoured location with television and film producers, with ITV’s prime-time drama “Code of a Killer” having been filmed there and the movie Avengers: Age of Ultron, generating more filming requests from other production companies.
Lewis went on to say: “After months of work, when we presented our plans for the Londoneast site at a public meeting we received a standing ovation from members of the community. What sets us apart is that you can’t just build something and expect people to come – you need to put the secondary skills support infrastructure on the site and create a supply chain on the doorstep; that’s what creates new jobs, allows businesses to move in and hit the ground running and thrive and – ultimately – underpins real regeneration.”