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Unlimited thinking

Do you feel battered and bruised by recent months? And are you concerned about how Bath is coping? Emma Clegg talks to Kevin Peake, director of marketing and business development at Royds Withy King, and the brains behind the Bath Unlimited project, and discovers that the city is firing on all cylinders – 17 of them, in fact

Things have been tough. In Bath, in Britain and in the world. It’s not surprising that we’ve been feeling downcast over the past few months, swept up in a situation over which we have little control. We – as individuals, business owners and employees – are still looking forward, but our buoyancy is weighed down by uncertainty.

We are waiting for some good news, angling to find a chink of light, and the hope of a future that’s positive and full of potential.

So what would you say if we told you that Bath is a superpower, a strong and resilient centre of energy, way up there with the big cities in Europe and beyond? That this a city that we should be proud of and grateful to live in, full of enterprise, talent, business acumen, character and vision? That there are powerful forces behind the headlines that give the city strength and permanence? Would you guffaw, and point at the empty retail units, the closed galleries, the empty theatres, the football and rugby matches playing to empty stands, and the organisations in funding crises?

Bear with us. Being a superpower is all about vision. And nobody knows that better than Kevin Peake, director of marketing and business development at Royds Withy King. At the start of lockdown, he was asked to join the Economic Recovery Board, led by B&NES Council. Including tech, culture, manufacturing, services, tourism and education representatives, they put their heads together to come up with ideas to activate the renewal of our economy, to rebuild confidence in our area as a safe, sustainable and green place in which to visit, study and work.

Bob Mytton, partner and creative director at Mytton Williams and Kevin Peake, director of marketing and business development at Royds Withy King, are the driving energy behind Bath Unlimited

“We had a Zoom meeting at the beginning of March,” explains Kevin, “to develop ideas for a future big vision. I said, ‘I think one of the problems with Bath is that people don’t know about the great companies here, and so when we market ourselves outside to attract other companies, people don’t come’. People come driven by a herd mentality – they go where there are lots of businesses. So that was the genesis of the idea.

“We needed to create a brand. The name ‘Bath Unlimited’ was the idea of Chris Stephens, director of the Holburne, because he had been thinking about an exhibition with that title to do with Bath’s amazing talent. As soon as we said the name, it seemed to be the glue that brought some of these amazing firms together, those that think in a very imaginative, creative way.”

“Earlier in the year I’d gone to a presentation of design agency Mytton Williams’ Made in Bath book attended by a number of Bath businesses. While I was there I asked people questions about the different firms in Bath to see how well all the amazing companies we have are known. As I did this I became more and more convinced that they are not all well known, because nobody I spoke to knew that the aircraft carriers that the country had just invested billions in were designed by BMT.”

Kevin Peake is open about his own learning curve on the stature of businesses in Bath. “Buro Happold put out on social media that they had just designed a new stadium for Everton Football Club, an eco portside development on the edge of the Mersey. I said ‘Wow, I didn’t know you did sports stadiums’, and they said ‘Well we did the Tottenham Stadium’. I said ‘Wow, how did you get the Tottenham Stadium?’, and they said, ‘Well we did the Olympic Park’. I then said in a meeting with the Council, ‘Did you know that the Olympic Park was designed in Bath?’ and they said ‘No’. And someone there from Buro Happold said, ‘Well, we also designed the Millennium Stadium’. Every brilliant new stadium is designed in Bath.”

The University of Bath are ranked as a top 10 UK university in all three national league tables with a reputation for research and teaching excellence. They were listed third for graduate prospects by The Times/Sunday Times’ Good University Guide 2021

Let’s take another example – eyewear company Inspecs supplies over 100 countries, and are stocked in some of the world’s biggest retail chains. Their head office building in Bath used to be the heart of energy supply to the city during Victorian times. And the company handmade all the frames worn by Daniel Radcliffe in the Harry Potter movies, as well as supplying John Lennon’s iconic round eye gold wire specs – the pair were recently sold at auction for £137,000.

These are not just individual success stories within our city, says Kevin: “I wanted to talk about the sectors as much as the companies.” There are five sectors I’ve created which are built and natural environments, meaning architecture; defence and engineering; dynamic consumer businesses; financial services; and tech and innovation. I didn’t include the creative sector in Bath, because this is well known.”

The Bath Unlimited project features 17 businesses that fit the brand. They are Avon Rubber (respiratory and ballistic protection); BMT (aircraft tankers); Buro Happold (engineering); FCBStudios (architecture); Format Engineers (structural engineering); Future Publishing; Grant Associates (landscape architecture); Horstman Group (military suspension); Inspecs (fashion eyewear); L&C Mortgages; Novia (investment technology); Pure Planet (digital energy supplier); Rocketmakers (software development); Rotork (electric, hydraulic and pneumatic valve actuators and gearboxes); Truespeed (broadband provider); The University of Bath; and Zynstra (retail software).

“The idea was not only to profile the individual companies but to get over that Bath is not just a leisure and retail economy, it’s a city with five major sectors. All these companies account for about £1.7 billion of revenue. And they provide around 7,000 jobs. There are around 40,000 jobs in Bath in total. If you take out NHS, council, public service and retail jobs, employment from these stand-out companies accounts for most of our region’s jobs. Knowing that we’re really strong in all these sectors, the people of Bath can feel confident about the economy.”

Format Engineers are engineering designers who devote a defined proportion of their income every year to pure research and to growing links with academia to constantly challenge the norms in the construction industry. They designed this Centrepiece for the Burning Man Festival, Nevada, USA

Why is there such innovative industry going on here that’s not common knowledge? “Because their market isn’t Bath. We have lots of successful small local businesses who appear everywhere locally. But with a company like Rotork, their business is based in the US, so they only have a limited amount of time and money to develop a presence here. L&C Mortgages, too, need to win new customers from all around the country so their resources are not spent on local advertising.

“I also think that some of these companies haven’t got their head round the fact that they are absolute global leaders and are a little humble in talking about their amazing stories. Individually all the CEOs knew that each of their companies were best in breed, but I don’t think any of them appreciated that they are part of this community of really inspiring and forward-thinking Bath-based companies.”

To fulfill the criteria for being ‘Unlimited’ companies have to have a minimum turnover of £2 million and at least 25 employees. They can have offices elsewhere in the world, but the main office has to be in Bath. They all also need to have something about them that supports the Unlimited story. “The project has to be curated so that these firms are global leaders or they are doing something different,” says Kevin. “We want to get more companies over time but we are not prepared to compromise.”

So where does the value of Bath Unlimited lie? It’s simple, really. The vision, industry and achievements of these big local companies give a strong backbone to our city; as a business group they sing of our versatility and our influence. They also reflect the assets we hold – not, for a change, historical ones, but present, active and demonstrable skills, innovative problem solving, mastery of a brand and specialist knowledge that is valued and sought after all over the world. These businesses support regional employment and attract new visitors to the city through employees and their friends and family. The average spend of foreign visitors and day trippers to the city is limited. It makes a difference, but it has nowhere near the impact of VFRs (visitors, friends and relatives), the high spenders in retail and leisure, which is a market that is constantly stimulated by the Bath Unlimited group.

Grant Associates is a pioneering international landscape architecture practice. Their work reconnects people with nature in insightful, delightful and distinctive ways while addressing the global challenges of urbanisation, the climate crisis and biodiversity extinction

“These businesses provide 7,000 jobs in the city and there is an economy spinning out of that. Zynstra, who specialise in intelligent infrastructure in retail, was sold for £100 million last year to an American Tech company and before Covid they were bringing people from all around the world to Bath to see their centre and to learn about how their powerful software optimises store technology and enables digital transformation.”

It’s all a bit overwhelming, to be honest. Surely some of these companies have been slowed down by the pandemic and a less vibrant economy? Or maybe we have become so used to negative news that we’ve stopped seeking out what is working and thriving?

“I talked to Claire Smith from Buro Happold and asked how her business model has been affected by the lack of offices and the increased number of employees working from home,” says Kevin. “She told me that their market has not suffered, but rather changed – it is now getting lots of briefs in for the redesign of offices of the future. And that even once Covid is controlled, the company is never going to go back to the level of office use that they had before. People are interested in the space in front of buildings now, she told me, so they are receiving lots of briefs about how to make those spaces attractive and useful for people to congregate in.”

Many thought that digital experiences would sound the death knoll for publishing. But Future seems to have adapted well: “Future Publishing is the best share performing company in the UK in the last four years. But nobody in Bath would ever talk about it in that way. Magazines were dying off in terms of retail sales, but Future have well-loved and respected brands so they reinstate them and make them more digital. They define themselves as a global platform for specialist media and their offering is broadening and diversifying all the time.” In April this year Future bought TI Media, acquiring magazines such as Country Life, Homes & Gardens and Woman & Home. They have just bought CinemaBlend, a US company, a high-growth digital brand focused on the TV, film and entertainment market that generated revenue of $3.1m in the year to 31 December 2019.

Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (FCBStudios), who designed The South Bank Centre, is an architectural and urban design practice with an international reputation for design quality, for pioneering environmental expertise and a progressive architectural approach

Warming to his theme, Kevin explains that “FCBStudios – who have won more RIBA awards in the UK than any other architectural practice – are working with clients in Rwanda, a country that they identified as part of a strategy to target the huge growth potential of commonwealth countries. That is Unlimited Thinking.”

This is a personal project for Kevin and for Bob Mytton of Mytton Williams, the design agency who have been closely involved with the idea and creating the brand and website. “There is no cost for companies to join and we have no plan to commercialise it – we’re just doing it for the benefit of Bath.

“My primary reason for doing this was to help the people of Bath understand what was on their doorstep as a confidence and pride thing. Particularly as we were going into recession – we wanted to show that things are not as bad as you might think. We also want to encourage more companies to come here.”

So with collective spirits raised, let’s stand tall and remember that post Covid we will bounce back and our city will become animated and active again. In the meantime, recognise that there is a sustained driving energy here, a collection of big-thinking companies that provide significant jobs, a magnet for visitors and massive global influence.

“BMT, who design warships (and are based on Lower Bristol Road), are also focused on the technologies of today and tomorrow,” says Kevin. “Their earliest founder was the inventor of the steam turbine – and they are now involved in cyber security, artificial intelligence and machine learning, and digital transformation. That’s Unlimited in a nutshell.”

Discover more about Bath Unlimited: bathunlimited.org

Main image: Avon Rubber manufacture the world’s most advanced underwater life-support capability for global military divers, capable of supporting an individual for 4-6 hours at extreme work depths