Yesterday I was lucky enough to attend the Wellington Business Forum 2014, it was an event arranged by the Wellington City Council in partnership with the Wellington Employers Chamber of Commerce. The attendees were a high powered group of business owners, managers, elected officials and council employees with a smattering of regional council representatives thrown in.

The basic format was a bunch of speeches up front from the mayor, council CEO and President of the Wellington Employers Chamber of Commerce followed by breaking up the group into 4 workshops – Film & Tech, Education & cultural, Big Projects and Events.

I have found one write up on scoop you can read here. This blog from me does ramble on – a topic I am passionate about!

Film and Tech Workshop

Our facilitator advised the Council had identified 8 projects they intend to focus on for our sector(s) and asked us as a group to rank them, they only gave us 1 sentence, which was backed up by 1 further sentence when we sought clarification. The projects were to establish :

  • Film School
  • Film Incubator
  • Film Enterprise Zone
  • Technology Hub (qualified as for Startups)
  • Technology Incubator (qualified as providing access to R&D via Callaghan)
  • Technology Enterprise Zone (qualified as Rate Relief for International Companies to bring them to the Capital)
  • Partnerships – Commercial (qualified as public/private partnerships, trial inbound broker of investment to commercialise products. Kevin Lavery was in the room when we sought qualification and elaborated with providing reference sites for products, red-rag to a bull that one given current government procurement practises).

We had 20 minutes to prioritise this list ie: they laid out this list (note 7 not 8 as indicated) to a bunch of business owners, CEO’s of globals, partners in the Big 4 Consulting firms (and did the same in each of the other workshops of their respective topics). As the Centreport CEO Blair O’Keeffe summarised later on, we are all commercial people we need more information than one sentence.

We couldn’t prioritise the list, we didn’t even agree they were the Film / Tech sector’s priorities for stimulating business in Wellington, instead we pushed back – quite hard – and tried to explain our real challenges as Wellington Businesses.

The Film people advised we are over subscribed on Film Schools, quality is an issue and graduates with the right skills for the jobs. They also described some of the funding distribution challenges in the industry.

The Tech people advised the council is already funding and supporting Startups with a Hub and Incubator – I asked why we need more? Nick Rowney observed we don’t all need to be co-located to do business (if that is what they mean by a Hub) pointing out that many of us in the room all meet often both formally and informally while distributed throughout the city.

We did agree on two aspects of this list – the need for improved access to R&D funding and the opportunity for inbound investment namely capital. Connections to assist with commercialising product was also popular. Rate relief for new international companies was not.

Collectively the group agreed in both Film or Tech that Talent is our major challenge right now, none of the Council initiatives addressed talent. There is one talent initiative in place – the Dev academy – this could be replicated or expanded. We collectively agreed that many other talent / education initiatives are not graduating people with the skills needed to grow our economy. Surely the Education people should have been talking to the Film and Tech people at this stage not silo’d into different workshops?

We also explained the disconnection between government procurement policies and enabling / supporting NZ businesses generally. We live in a government town and Tech companies here are experiencing a government who has a preference for outsourcing risk, only buying locally off the biggest companies (if at all) providing no test bed or reference opportunities for most NZ Tech companies. We asked whether the Council had scope to redress this especially in light of their suggestion for reference customers via the Partnership project?

Reporting back from the Workshops

Mike Riversdale kindly reported back to the wider group on our Film and Tech collective thoughts.

We then had delegates from the other 3 workshops do the same, consistently reporting they had no ranked or prioritised the suggested initiatives.

There was a consistent theme surrounding the need for a good convention centre – possibly linked to the airport – and the importance of the airport itself. The need to consider a broader regional portfolio of assets and events was drawn out of the other three workshop groups. Sweating existing assets eg: The council suggested building a Film Museum – it was asked whether another existing facility could be repurposed or expanded to accommodate this vs build new?

It became painfully obvious throughout the reporting back phase the need for interconnection between Events, Big Projects, Film / Tech and Education – taking a holistic view across these interdependent aspects of re-booting Wellington’s economy vs the silo’d approach via these workshops.

My conclusion from the event

Bringing this group together was a fantastic stimulating exercise.

The format was disappointing – and the resistance to rank initiatives we had no context or details for was a bi-product of the approach. The initiatives themselves not reflecting the needs of growth companies was also frustrating. Splitting the groups based on silo’s wasn’t taking a holistic view of the economic challenge.

The council seemed focused on “building new” rather than taking a holistic view of what we are collectively trying to achieve as businesses and the support and framework a council could provide. They also seemed to be copying Auckland.

Tech sector wise adding facilities and investment in startups is important but short sighted, to invigorate real economic growth in the region they should be investing in supporting growth companies – we are the ones who employ people, export products and services, buy buildings (ie pay rates) and attract events. Startups are important but they are easy too, stimulating real growth is hard and will keep businesses in Wellington. Statistically the conversion from startup to growth company is low – there will be 1 in 10 years that explodes so investing in startups is still important but more investment doesn’t make economic sense without support for growth companies.

Offering rate rebates to bring competing globals into the market when not offering the same to those  already here and contributing also seems flawed to me. How about offering rate rebates if we create more jobs in Wellington and don’t move to Auckland?

Kevin Lavery claimed only 5% of businesses are moving to Auckland, he might be technically correct we are not all moving we are however growing in Auckland – in my circle of friends alone 3 have already made the move and 2 more are doing so in the next quarter, these are $5M+ businesses revenue wise taking their expansion and growth into the Auckland economy – not investing in Wellington based jobs.

WCC seem to be ignoring the need for a regional plan and there was a distinct sentiment from the group that consolidation of cost – I interpreted that as consolidation of councils and council functions – was a favoured option.

On reflection

Wellington is an awesome wee city, our current reality is we are a government town, most businesses are here for that reason to a great extent. Government tightening their belts has had an impact on many, consolidation of government expenditure on infrastructure in Auckland is sensible for the country but has a converse impact on the regions. Right now growing a business in Auckland is easier to do than it is in Wellington so we need to act fast to attract new investment and stem the flow north growth wise.

To kick start the Wellington economy we need a cohesive approach – events, education, infrastructure, tech sector and the film industry are all interdependent. Council had a unique opportunity to tap into a wealth of experience and ideas from entrepreneurs and administrators – for FREE – yesterday and in my mind they squandered that via distracting us with ill formed, disjointed and unqualified projects.

That said, I am very pleased to have been invited and applaud the attempt to engage. Should a follow on session be run WCC need to learn something about running a workshop and consulting with commercial sector before doing this again. Lots to think about, Vic.