Lobby and networking group was launched in 2003 and despite being told it ‘wouldn’t last five minutes’ it has prospered in Liverpool and has expanded to other areas of the UK. Tony McDonough reports
In the late 1990s Liverpool emerged from decades of industrial and economic decline with renewed confidence, underpinned by a multi-billion pound EU cash injection.
But as its modernisation programme picked up pace, the city’s core business community perhaps remained in a more conservative-with-a-small-c mindset – and then along came Downtown in Business (DiB).
This week more than 100 business people will gather at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel in Liverpool city centre to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the launch of the business lobbying and networking group.
Back in 2003, with its ‘Sexy Networking’ brand, it was seen as the brash new kid on the block and not everyone was impressed. Downtown founder and chief executive Frank McKenna tells how one city council official remarked to him that “it wouldn’t last five minutes”.
Now, 15 years later, it has not just prospered in Liverpool but has successfully expanded its membership model into Lancashire, Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, and Cheshire – as well as opening an office in London.
At this week’s celebration, Mr McKenna will reflect on the past decade-and-a-half in conversation with one of the North West’s best-known journalists and broadcasters, Jim Hancock.
“It has been an interesting journey, for me and the company,” said Mr McKenna.
“From a business in the early days that was seen by some simply as a vehicle to get me elected as Liverpool Mayor, Downtown is now a genuine private sector voice in the places where we operate and is seen as a credible network of business-leaders that engages effectively with decision-makers.
“We have played a major role in developing devolution policy over the years; we have maintained our independence and reputation as a ‘critical friend’ to public sector partners; and we deliver business connections and business support that contributes to the growth of many of our ambitious member companies.
“From an organisation that may have been identified simply as a lobby group- a thorn in the side of council’s and officialdom – Downtown in Business has added much more to its armoury over the years.”
Attitude and influence
As Liverpool’s economy recovered back in the early 2000s a new generation of entrepreneurs began to emerge – confident, forward-looking and tech-savvy – and DiB met that demand for a new way of networking.
Mr McKenna explained: “Back in 2005 we were described by the then chief executive of the Northwest Development Agency, Steve Broomhead, as ‘the business club with attitude’. Five years later, the chief executive of Manchester City Council, Sir Howard Bernstein ,said we were ‘the business club with influence’.”
Sexy Networking has been left behind as DiB has evolved into a more serious lobbying organisation and it is now a leading voice in the economic development and ongoing regeneration of the North West.
Voice for business
Changing political dynamics in the UK have put business, and its role in society, firmly in the spotlight and Mr McKenna believes that it has never been so important for businesses large and small to have a platform to demonstrate the overwhelmingly positive contribution the private sector makes to society.
He added: “We champion and celebrate enterprise and entrepreneurship. We facilitate deal-making and win investment for members. We have media platforms that promote and market business in a positive way – and we host the best events in the business.
“It has been an interesting journey, at times a turbulent one… and always, always fun”