Many of the UK's largest banks, including Lloyds Banking Group and HSBC, run their mid- and back-office operations from Cardiff Capital Region, taking advantage of access to the area’s young and educated labour pool and the lower average wages than in many of the UK's biggest cities. But while the financial and business services sector already employs 95,000 people across Wales, other emerging sectors are putting Cardiff and its surrounding areas on the investment map.
“The past 10 years saw strong growth in the legal services sector in Cardiff and the city has a really significant legal cluster now,” says Kathryn Roberts, senior partner at the Cardiff office of international law firm Eversheds. She says that though her company is serving business clients in the region and employs 480 people in the Welsh capital, the core business and a rationale behind keeping such a big team in the city comes from catering to clients outside Wales.
“When you look at our client base you might think: 'Why on earth would you work on projects in Oman or Denmark from a Cardiff office?’. Well, we have great experts here, from construction lawyers, through to real estate and corporate lawyers,” adds Ms Roberts.
And, as with financial services professionals, salaries for the legal sector in Cardiff are lower than they are in London. A lawyer with one year’s experience working in Cardiff makes on average £34,000 ($55,000) a year, and a partner £70,000. In both cases the figure is about 30% less than the London average, according to a survey compiled by UK recruitment firm Michael Page.
Legal services offshoring in Cardiff is not only the domain of large corporate players though. “Cardiff is our base and a location we see as a centrepiece of our operations,” says Nigel Greenaway, corporate director of Greenaway Scott, a boutique law firm focusing on life sciences and IT.
Cardiff's inside track
Despite the rapid growth of emerging sectors such as legal services and financial services technology, contact centres remain one of the main enterprises launched by foreign companies coming to Wales. According to greenfield investment monitor fDi Markets, between 2003 and 2013, crossborder investments into this type of activity were the second largest source of FDI-related jobs after manufacturing.
Businesses coming to or considering expanding in the region can do so by getting in touch with industry body Welsh Contact Centre Forum (WCCF). “We give the inside track on everything from premises, the supply chain, salary levels or the competition,” says Sandra Busby, managing director of WCCF.
Apart from sharing the official data and benchmarking exercises, as well as running contact centre-oriented training programmes, WCCF also aims to be the place for informal exchange between contact centre professionals.
Ms Busby says: “It is often said that the best way to discover a new city is by speaking to the locals. That is in essence what we do.”
The company was established at the beginning of 2013 and customers outside Wales currently account for 40% of its business. Mr Greenaway says that it plans to further grow its non-Welsh client base. “We can do that, as our location is not restrictive geographically, given we are only two hours away from London and even closer to other big legal services centres such as Bristol and Birmingham,” he says.
However, Mr Greenaway admits it can be restrictive in other ways, as operating out of Cardiff does not have the same clout as London. “We act for a couple of companies listed on the AIM [Alternative Investment Market, a submarket of the London Stock Exchange] and there is always pressure on them to hire London advisors. That is why we recently opened a London office,” he says.
Legal firms based in Cardiff must also be willing to step out of the area when recruiting, says Mr Greenaway, especially when their focus is as niche as his company's. “Yet, despite the hurdles," he says, "the fact that salaries and overheads are lower here [than in London], and it is a good place to live, make Cardiff a good place for us to be.”
Financial services technology is another sector that is attracting a growing number of companies to Cardiff Capital Region. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that on top of having a sizeable financial services cluster, Welsh universities produce 4600 graduates in IT-related disciplines every year. The region is also a home to institutions such as the Centre of Excellence in Mobile Applications and Services, a University of South Wales-led entity focusing on mobile and telecoms research, and High Performance Computing Wales, a collaboration between the Welsh government, private companies and universities enabling businesses access to superpower computers.
Among the companies that have tested the region’s fintech capabilities in recent years is Monitise, a London-headquartered mobile transactions firm. In 2011, Monitise opened a development and testing centre in Nantgarw, a village on the outskirts of Cardiff. Two years later, the company made a decision to double its Welsh headcount and currently employs 80 people in the region.
“I happen to be Welsh, but our decision to invest and expand here was purely a business one. If we did not see potential in Wales, we would not be here,” says Will Jones, Monitise’s managing director for Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia-Pacific regions.
With the fintech sector, as with legal services, the business case for operating from South Wales lies, apart from access to talent and infrastructure, in lower operating costs. “We win contracts with clients who are based in London where operating costs are much higher and then we bring the work here,” says James Snow, sales and marketing director at Target Group, a financial services software and back-office operations provider.
“Importantly, thanks to the people and infrastructure that we have here, we are able to provide high-quality customer management and a high level of security around IT and payment processing services for our clients,” he adds.
Established in 1979 in Cardiff, Target Group is a pioneer among local fintech companies. However, it is not the only one to make a successful move into that field in South Wales. Admiral Group, the company that started out in Cardiff as a car insurance provider, is probably the most spectacular example of success made in Wales.
Admiral's director of human resources, Ceri Assiratti, says: “In 1992, we started with five employees and zero customers, now we have 7000 staff worldwide, 5000 of whom are based in South Wales.” And although most of the company’s operations revolve around traditional insurance services, the company made a move into fintech with the launch of Confused.com, the UK's first car insurance comparison site, in 2001. The move turned out to be a lucrative one, as in 2013 alone Confused.com made £21.7m in pre-tax profits.
“Over time we expanded not only in terms of headcount, but also the scope of operations,” says Mr Assiratti. “Even though operating out of Cardiff might not seem as glamorous as being based in New York, London or Paris, we are an example that success can be found here.”