In the UK, the county of Essex, which borders London to the east, has a vivid, unshakeable image as a land of flashy dressers, witty, working-class wheeler-dealers and reality-TV stars.
But these characteristics – minus the reality-TV infamy – look very different when viewed through the eyes of executives at foreign companies. The entrepreneurial moxie and desire to earn money through hard graft and quick-thinking savvy make for a highly attractive workforce.
Essex officials are finding that while their fellow countrymen may have preconceived ideas about the county, internationally it is a blank slate, which plays to their advantage. They are working the China angle hard and have long since cultivated links with a Chinese province, Jiangsu, that also borders the financial and business capital of the country (Shanghai) and therefore needs to capitalise on this positioning while not being overshadowed.
“National-level Chinese companies always want to go to London but for provincial-level companies, it is not necessary for them to choose London. For businesses, location is one thing but another thing is business partners and sometimes that is more important,” says Fan Zhigang, representative for economic and trade affairs in the UK for Jiangsu, who has lived in Essex for nearly a decade.
Partly as a reaction to ribbing from compatriots, people from Essex also tend to love their home county and choose to build careers locally rather than in London when given the chance.
“There are 70,000 businesses in Essex – it is a very entrepreneurial culture, so we get a lot of small, high-value businesses set up by people from Essex who used to work in London but would now like to be closer to home,” says Richard Bailey, inward investment manager for Invest Essex. “The quality-of-life factor makes it magnetic.”
Meanwhile, 180,000 people still commute from Essex to London each day, many of them working in banks, insurance firms and brokerages in the City – providing a pool of specialised finance talent that can be tapped by setting up back office or business process outsourcing operations in Essex and giving locals an option to ditch the commute. The proximity to London makes cross-fertilisation easy.
In the wake of the 2012 Olympic Games and the massive redevelopment of the eastern fringes of London, the energy of the capital is shifting eastward – putting Essex closer to the action. One of the county’s three core cities, Chelmsford, is only half an hour by train from Stratford, site of the Olympic park, and only a bit further from Liverpool Street station at the heart of London’s financial district.
Glasswall, a content security firm based in Chelmsford, recently moved into new digs in the town centre after expanding its number of technical staff from six to 22 in recent months. The company has a sales office in London but its hub remains in Chelmsford, where it has stumbled across a skills base of developers of C-programming language; a legacy of the large presence of E2V, a maker of technology systems and components that has been headquartered in Chelmsford since the 1940s and the city’s largest employer.
“Here, we are close to London but it is cheaper. There are good rail links [with the capital] and a nice town centre,” says John Hartwell, Glasswall’s engineering manager.