Professionals sector could transform Southport’s economy
Professionals in Southport welcome push by Southport BID chief executive Rachel Fitzgerald to transform the town’s economy by widening its business base. Tony McDonough reports
Southport needs to diversify its business base if it is to future-proof its economy against future economic shocks such as the COVID-19 crisis.
Rachel Fitzgerald, chief executive of Southport BID, is looking to start a conversation around transforming the town. With tourism and leisure its number one economic driver, Southport has taken a big hit from the pandemic. Rachel believes diversity is the key to future prosperity.
Her view is shared by business leaders and professionals in the town who say a change in the local demographic and a big focus on skills and investment are critical to the town’s future economic growth.
In early November it was revealed Southport was applying for £50m from the Government’s Town Deal Fund. If successful, this could unlock new investment of up to £400m. As well as new leisure projects there is a plan to build a new business conference centre and create new hubs for small businesses.
Rachel’s view is backed by two of the town’s leading professionals, Alex Hatchman, chief executive of law firm Fletchers and commercial property lawyer Tony Coates, a partner at another practice, Napthens.
Alex is relatively new to the town, having grown up in Wirral, while Tony is Southport born and bred but has spent time working in other locations, including several years in the centre of Manchester.
Although not a lawyer herself, Alex runs Fletchers Solicitors which employs around 500 people at its head office in Southport and another branch in Manchester. The firm was started by Rob Fletcher in 1987 as a traditional high street full-service practice.
Mr Fletcher began to specialise in personal injury claims arising from motorcycle accidents and later added medical negligence to the firm’ specialisms. The latter now accounts for an equal share of the practice’s caseload.
Alex’s background is in business consulting and she spent 15 years working at an executive level in the retail sector. She worked for high street giants such as Marks & Spencer and Tesco in the UK, and also Coles in Australia.
“I was appointed to the board of Fletchers as a non-executive director in 2016,” Alex said. “But it wasn’t long before I moved into an executive role at the firm. I became the chief executive in September. There was something about Fletchers I just fell in love with. I felt that it had a noble mission to help people rebuild their lives.”
“I’m not a lawyer – I am a business person running a business. But I have a genuine love for the law and I want to help change the experience that people have when they come to us for help.
“The law is such an important foundation of society and we have to make sure it is accessible to people when they need it. But the law is antiquated in many ways and doesn’t always serve people as it should.”
Similar to many people in Merseyside, Alex has happy memories of visiting Southport as a child. She added: “It was flourishing then but it is sad to see how that has changed over the years. That is why I am excited about the Town Deal Fund bid and think that could be a game-changer for Southport.”
Alex believes real change is well within Southport’s grasp, but that hard work may lay ahead. She explained: “A place such as Southport can transform itself and diversify its offer, growing sectors such as professional services or creative and digital sectors.
“However, there is also a big challenge in doing that. You need to aspire to really high standards and earn the right to offer those new services. The services economy is now so competitive and, in a digital world, businesses do not have to be around the corner. Geographical barriers have diminished, so you are now competing on a much larger scale.
“Demographics is another area where we need to see change. Southport is traditionally a place where many people come to retire. And it is a beautiful place to do that but we also need to persuade younger people to stay and relocate to the town to change the mix.
“And that leads on to skills. Companies need a steady supply of people with the right skills to grow. That will inevitably lead to people coming here from other areas and we also need to offer training to our young people so they can take full advantage of the opportunities economic growth will offer.”
She said that Fletchers aims to be at the centre of that growth story, adding: “We have felt the impact of COVID as all businesses have, But, as a business, we are very resilient and while some firms have had to cut back on employees we are cautiously recruiting.
“We have a really diverse team here and we complement each other. We want to grow but we are not driven by size, we are driven by a mission … to provide outstanding service to all of our customers. If we look after our customers and our employees the business will look after itself.”
Commercial property lawyer Tony Coates believes the fundamental shifts in working culture taking place as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic offer a huge opportunity for Southport.
Tony is a partner at North West law firm Napthens, which opened its office in Southport four years ago. It started with just four staff and has since increased this number to 15.
In the last few weeks it has recruited an associate solicitor specialising in family law and a solicitor and experienced legal assistant in the commercial property department. The firm has also seen three additions to it residential conveyancing department.
Tony grew up in the town and has spent a considerable time working in other parts of the North West, including several years in Manchester centre. COVID-19, and the enforced homeworking revolution, has sparked discussions in large firms about how much space they really need in city centres.
“I think a lot of things will change following COVID-19. Many companies are looking at their fixed costs and asking questions such as ‘how will remote working work on a long-term basis?’ and ‘do we still need so much office space?’,” said Tony.
“They asking whether they still need big offices in city centres. They may be looking at operating further out or maybe closer to where their staff are living.
“The work/life balance has never been so important. During the last few months I have worked from home a lot and this has given me the opportunity to see my two young sons a lot more than I did previously.
“I worked in Manchester for a few years and it is not something I would want to go back to. There comes a point when the commute and the hustle and bustle starts to get on top of you. If you look around Southport, it is a pretty good place to be. Maybe we need to see this big change in culture as an opportunity for the town.
“Leisure and tourism are so important to Southport but much of that business is seasonal. Given the shock to the economy we have seen in the last few months now seems as good a time as ever to think about broadening Southport’s economy and looking to grow new business sectors in the town.”
Tony says expanding the number and type of businesses in Southport would benefit everyone and could lead to more larger professional firms, such as Napthens, establishing a base in the town.
He explained: “Napthens offers a very different proposition to a number of law firms in and around the Southport area. We fill a gap in the market that exists between high street general practitioners and the top tier law firms that operate in large cities.
“We spend a lot of time with our clients understanding the challenges that they face and their legal need. In turn, we provide a solution that offers our local businesses access to specialist legal knowledge in respect of a broad range of commercial issues.
“Southport does now have a much more clearly defined professional community but it is still playing catch-up. Up until about three or four years ago there was not a lot of engagement. Now we have networking groups with the aim of bringing people together on a regular basis.
“Of course an important aspect of networking for all of us is to get ourselves in front of other businesses so we can promote our services. But I think it is about much more than that. Building relationships in business is so important. I grew up in Southport and it is something I feel passionate about.”