Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Manufacturing proves that we can be “all in this together”

Another cracking set of manufacturing output numbers yesterday from the CBI, a report on which can be read HERE on the Guardian’s website.

The CBI has reported that the orders balance has jumped to 5% in March from -8% in February, well above expectations of a reading of -6%. Manufacturing firms are expecting to increase output in coming months, with that measure rising to 27% from 23%, the highest level since February 2007.

All of which begs the question, how is manufacturing doing it when another one of my clients more aligned to the current vagaries of the consumer sector says he is feeling a definite slackening in demand?

Previously, I have put this down to a more favourable exchange rate environment which is making UK manufactured goods more competitive than we historically have been, but the CBI figures are beginning to show that there may be more to this than meets the eye. Apparently, the export orders balance fell back 11% to 5% during the period. This is still high by historical standards but does point that there more to this than just exchange rates.

A conversation with a manufacturing client a few weeks ago may offer a clue. He believes that manufacturing’s response to the downturn has been far more flexible than other sectors. Instead of laying people off, short time working, pay freezes and cuts, were used to drive cost out of businesses without, crucially, losing the skills necessary to take advantage of any upturn.

All of this demonstrates a rare maturity from both management and workforce and is truly a case of “we are all in this together”. It is certainly a far cry from the days of Red Robbo when a previous client told me he wasn’t sure if he was in the business of manufacturing or just providing jobs.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

No Minister!

I’ve neglected you. I apologise, holidays, email backlogs and children have led to a near month’s hiatus between my rants. Time to put this right!

I couldn’t help but notice a fascinating little article by James Forsyth in this week’s Spectator which can be read HERE. The article describes near panic in the Tory party over their inability to deliver on many of the promises made, in large part due to Civil Service intransigence.

There is a particularly juicy little anecdote in paragraph six which goes like this: “It is difficult to understate the depth of ministerial frustration. One secretary of state is so fed up with his department’s refusal to answer his questions that he has asked a friend of his, an MP, to put in a Freedom of Information request.”

I mean honestly, you can’t write comedy like this, it’s like something out of Yes Minister. It would appear that Project Cameron is falling foul of the one cast iron laws of British politics, namely that the Civil Service will only do what it wants to do and has every trick in the book to bring things to a grinding halt.

As Sir Humphrey Appleby of Yes Minister fame might have said: “There are five ways of delaying doing anything Bernard. First, publish a consultation document. Second, hold a full department inquiry. Three, commission some academic research. Four, announce we are going to do something but only when the time is right. Five, as a last resort, hold a full public inquiry, that will take years!”

My guess is the secretaries of state in question are either Chris Huhne at DECC or William Hague at the Foreign Office who will undoubtedly come in for ever more flack as this term of Parliament goes on. Hague is clearly struggling with the FO brief and Huhne is tackling the big issues (and big targets) that this country faces in terms of climate change which need big decisions. The Civil Service will meanwhile remains protected by the doctrine of Ministerial responsibility ie. the Minister takes all the blame.

Now it’s not often I’m right, but I questioned before the General Election whether Cameron would be able to do half of what he wanted due to Civil Service foot-dragging. If this report is true and Project Cameron is to succeed he needs to get a grip quick.

Monday, 21 March 2011

To show or not to show?

I made a trip to London’s ExCeL centre last week for IFE2011, the UK’s largest food and drink trade event. It’s not my first time to a show of this kind - a huge event, attended by some of the biggest buyers in the business - but speaking to exhibitors there seemed to be a real mix of opinions about its worth.

I was surprised to hear one supplier tell me it was his “biggest waste of money in the last three years” and another weary exhibitor hoping for more from day three than his first two days which were “full of students looking for samples and PRs trying to sell their services” (ahem). A sad reflection on an otherwise impressive show packed with products, demonstrations and seminars.

Fortunately it wasn’t all doom and gloom as one soft drinks manufacturer told me that 70% of his 40 biggest clients had visited the stand in two days. He’d struggle to speak to that many in a month without events like IFE. And there can be no doubt though that for smaller producers and manufacturers, particularly those in the speciality and regional food section, shows like this are a godsend.

IFE offers a sales platform like no other and judging by the sheer quantity of local products on show it seems the Grocer was right to say local is the new organic. I tried some fantastic local products including ice cream with no added sugar from moocluck, tasty fruit liqueurs from Simply Liqueurs and some great new bars from Ashbourne Foods.

I for one can’t wait for the next show. Even if it’s just to try more moocluck!

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

High Speed Rail: Are We On The Right Track?

Last week saw trains hit the headlines. Should we rip up great swathes of our pleasant pastures to make way for a new super fast train that would get people from Birmingham to London in less time it takes the man on the other end of the phone to calculate the cheapest rail fair from Birmingham to Biggleswade based on a long list of complex route and time of day permeations that I would challenge anyone but Stephen Hawking to understand?

Now, like most things commonly associated with rail travel in Britain, this blog is late. But I have an excuse. I was actually on a train for most of the working week. And, unless I was willing to pay the equivalent of a return flight to Dubai, I couldn't write a blog as the man sitting half on top of me / half next to me would have dropped his pasty crumbs onto my laptop and set it on fire.

And herein lies the problem. However fast the new train goes, there will still be other people on it. For most of us, sitting at spaghetti junction for a week or two in an overheated Ford KA is infinitely more bearable than sitting underneath the arm pit of Bob from Brighton who has a penchant for Wotsits for breakfast.

As I see it, Britain is so poor that we all have to have full time jobs to enable us to pay enough taxes to keep the bankers in Bollinger and in our spare time we need to volunteer to clean park benches to save the country money in the name of The Big Society.

Unlike some, I'm not anti the high speed rail link. There's a good chance it will be good for my business but I do wonder whether, given the fact that we appear to be more debt ridden than Kerry Katona we should revert to the old principle of make do and mend.

For example, on most trains things have got so bad that seats have become an actual luxury. I am not sure why but us Brits don't feel the need to complain that we have given Richard Branson £120 to stand up all the way from New Street to Euston.

And if you think getting a seat is bad - you should try going to the toilet. On every carriage there is at least one person who only goes on the train to experience a mobile bathroom. I am not sure what unspeakable act they are performing in there - I just know that the occupied light stays on for 20 mins at a time and I am always the one to follow them in.

I have thought long and hard about this and I think I have cracked it. How about we make the trains bigger? Call me mad but I think this could work. Not sure what a couple of carriages cost but I am thinking it must be less than £17billion.

Seriously, if the Government wants to get more of us on the train, seating us would be a start and the further away from Bob's armpits the better. Which is why the quiet carriage should also be shelved. Ditch that for a section where no cheese and / or onion products are permitted and the loo doors open after 5 minutes - and we won't care how long we are on the train.

If I am right I will have saved both the Chilterns and the country's coffers and might yet be the most influential PR person in British politics since Mr Campbell himself. First stop Birmingham - final destination number 10?

Monday, 7 March 2011

Property Should Carry Olympic Torch

As the great and good of Birmingham’s property world pack their cases to escape to Cannes and MIPIM, I am left wondering whether we have missed a trick.

With next year’s Olympic focus, now is the opportunity to promote to our international counterparts the world class facilities currently available and more importantly being developed across the city and surrounding area.

At no time has it looked better – the New Street plans are on track the NIA has announced plans to extend, Warwickshire Cricket Ground and Priory Tennis Club have ambitious expansion plans and many of our world class facilities are looking great.

There is so much going on – from the world’s best library being built down to top quality hotels emerging (Wylam Investments and Calthorpe Estates at Edgbaston Mill). This week WPR has been working with clients to announce some exceptional schemes lining up for future investment and visitors. So much so I am hoping the Birmingham stand at MIPIM is carrying the biggest Olympic torch in the middle of its model.

If you are one of the lucky ones packing a case, please let me know whether this is the case and we are getting our world class facilities and opportunities riding high as the Olympics comes our way.