In 2001, Norwegian businessman Cato Syversen was based in London, struggling to find people to fill telesales positions at Creditsafe, then a four-year-old start-up specialising in providing credit information. “We were in the largest city in Europe and yet there was no way for us to fill a handful of openings. It was a real nightmare,” says Mr Syversen, the company's CEO.
So, in 2002, the company relocated to Cardiff. “Jobs in telesales are not necessarily seen as something to boast about. But, over here [in Cardiff], we found that there is a completely different appetite for this kind of job and people take a great deal of pride in what they do,” says Mr Syversen.
More than a decade on, Creditsafe employs 330 people across its two south-east Wales offices and the company has expanded into other fields such as IT support and marketing. The company has also expanded internationally, with offices in Roubaix in France, Turin in Italy and Allentown in the US.
“Choosing [Cardiff] became a foundation for everything at Creditsafe," says Mr Syversen. "Now, when we expand abroad, we look for other Cardiffs around the world.”
Creditsafe is just one of a growing number of companies that have invested in Cardiff in recent years. Between 2003 and 2012, Cardiff attracted 63 new projects and $304.5m in greenfield FDI, according to data from crossborder investment monitor fDi Markets. Sectors such as advanced manufacturing, information and communications technology and creative industries proved popular among investors, but the most attractive sector was business and financial services, which accounted for one-third of all investments, with contact centres ranking as one of the most popular business activities.
One of the draws for many investors in the city is Cardiff's workforce, with more than 100,000 students currently enrolled in higher education institutions across south-east Wales. And it is not just their education that makes them appealing. Many companies, including Creditsafe, have been motivated by the reliability and dedication of the local workforce to diversify and expand their operations in the city.
“We have been present here for decades, serving our clients in the region and, in 2006, we launched a small shared services operation here,” says Ross Flanigan, director of global risk operations at Deloitte. “Based on the success of that team, in the past two years we have grown our team and the number of functions we perform here.”
The decision to establish Deloitte's new risk management centre in Cardiff, creating some 100 new jobs, was announced in December 2011. The company's current headcount in the city is 250 and, while Mr Flanigan does not disclose exact figures, he says that there is “potential for significant growth in 2014”.
Deloitte's internal estimates show that the same sort of operation based in eastern Europe would cost the same as its office in Cardiff, while basing itself in Bristol – an English city just a 40-minute drive from Cardiff – would cost between 15% and 20% more. According to the Office for National Statistics, wages in Cardiff in the financial and professional sector were 33% lower than the UK average in 2012.
Staff costs are just one way in which Deloitte has saved money through its Cardiff operation. “Training new hires is costly and Deloitte's training is valued by other companies. That is why candidates with Deloitte's training on their curriculum vitae can earn a premium in other companies. However, there is a very high loyalty backdrop here, which means that our employee turnover is very low,” says Mr Flanigan.
The Welsh government is offering a further financial incentive for companies such as Deloitte to expand their operations in the country by providing financial support for the training of new employees. “The fact that the government partially financed the training really helped to soften the blow of our expansion,” says Mr Flanigan.
Apart from the funding available for training, the Welsh government also offers other incentives, such as research and development grants and capital funding, which are individually negotiated with potential investors.
Financial support is precisely what brought GMAC Finance, an automotive financial services company, to Wales 13 years ago. “At that time, very few people realised the potential of Wales as a place for business, but we got in touch with the local government and learned about the financial support it provides,” says Erhard Paulat, vice-president at GM Finance, the company that recently acquired GMAC.
The fact that GMAC has not only stayed in south-east Wales, but also more than doubled its workforce in the region to 200 people, is down to other factors besides the government's financial incentives.
“Initially it was about financial assistance. But we very quickly realised it is a very good place for us to be and we generated a lot of organic growth from here,” says Mr Paulat. “We also appreciate the fact that the government is still in touch with us, simply checking how things are going with us and pointing in the right direction, when needed."
Offering such assistance to the city's investors is not the only way that the Welsh government is contributing to Cardiff's economic growth. Between 2007 and 2012, Cardiff Airport saw its passenger traffic plummet, with a 50% decrease over the period. So, in March 2013, the Welsh government stepped in. Keen to see passenger numbers restored, it acquired the airport from Spanish conglomerate Abertis for $79.7m.
In the three months following the acquisition, the airport was given a makeover, and was furnished with new art and multimedia installations celebrating Welsh history and culture. Apart from stucco imitations of castle walls and elevators styled as mine shaft cages, passengers travelling to the airport can also see a billboard showcasing success stories of local companies.
This is not the only investment that the government has made in Cardiff's aviation sector. In 2012, Bruce Dickinson, the lead singer of legendary heavy metal group Iron Maiden and a fully trained commercial pilot, co-founded Cardiff Aviation, an aircraft maintenance and training company based in St Athan-Cardiff Airport Enterprise Zone. In June 2013, the Welsh government announced it would invest $2.5m in the venture, giving the region yet another boost as it looks to soar even higher.