The lockdown is having a profound effect on the economy, but wide-ranging support is available to businesses across the county. PETER BARRON talks to Sarah Slaven about how Business Durham can help

As County Durham businesses look towards the recovery phase after the peak of the coronavirus crisis, there are fears that they could find themselves lost in a maze of information.

And, for Sarah Slaven and her team of expert advisers at Business Durham, a key priority is to guide them through the confusion and help them find the solutions they need in the wake of the biggest economic disruption in living memory.

“When we first went into lockdown, there was understandably an immediate crisis response from businesses,” says Sarah, Business Durham’s interim managing director. “Now, as we move into getting back to some kind of normality, there is almost too much information, with businesses being bombarded, and it’s really important that we help them through that.”

Business Durham, the economic development arm of Durham County Council, aims to be the trusted point of contact for companies, with advice on business growth opportunities, funding sources to create jobs, support and information, premises, innovation, new markets, and networking.

Sarah brings a wealth of experience to her position, having been part of the management team that established Business Durham as a separate entity in 2012. In her previous role as Operations Director, she led business engagement, inward investment, and enterprise activities.

Her achievements included setting up the £20m Finance Durham Fund with Maven Capital Partners, which has helped business to grow and created thousands of jobs; and being responsible for securing more than £10m ERDF funding for projects such as Durham Business Opportunities Programme (DBOP), Digital Drive County Durham, and the County Durham Growth Fund.

In addition, she was also instrumental in establishing the Durham City Incubator, a unique partnership between Business Durham, Durham University, and New College Durham, aimed at retaining graduate talent and supporting fresh enterprise in the county.

Businessiq: The third cohort at Durham City Incubator (DCI)The third cohort at Durham City Incubator (DCI)

A core part of Business Durham’s success has been its commitment to develop positive relationships with County Durham businesses, so it understands their objectives, is well placed to help identify growth opportunities, and can help resolve problems.

“It can be very lonely running a business in a crisis situation, but we can use our relationships and knowledge of the business community to cut through the noise,” says Sarah. “We can put them on the right track to find the most relevant information for them and help deal with specific challenges.”

The Business Durham team members have geographical as well as sector-specific areas of expertise, so they can bring a depth of knowledge about what is happening across the county and how companies might be able to link together.

Sarah cites the way a number of County Durham companies have responded to the shortage of personal protection equipment (PPE) during the COVID-19 crisis, and adapted manufacturing processes to not just generate revenue but make a welcome contribution to the national effort.

“Business Durham has the reach across the county, and the knowledge of what’s happening, so we have been able to help companies to seize the opportunities that have emerged as a result of the pandemic,” she says.

“It’s sometimes very easy to focus on what’s immediately in front of you, and grasp at emergency support, while forgetting that there other programmes in place to help in all kinds of ways.”

Digital Drive is an example of a programme that was in place well before the pandemic but has proved invaluable during the lockdown. A £4m initiative, financed by the European Development Fund, it aims to help SMEs in County Durham to maximise growth potential and sustainability through the most effective use of digital technology.

It includes one to one business support on how to make the most of digital technology; masterclasses on subjects such as search engine optimisation; digital health checks; and grants of up to 40 per cent to help fund equipment, website software, app development, or broadband infrastructure.

“Digital Drive was already there but it fitted the moment perfectly, with businesses having to concentrate much more on what they can do online,” says Sarah. “There is a danger of what’s happening being seen only in negative terms, but the pandemic has also created some positive changes and opportunities for businesses.”

As well as supporting digital advancements, Business Durham has also been playing a key role in helping companies that have found themselves needing extra space to be able to respond to those opportunities.

There’s no hiding from the fact that coronavirus has been a huge economic shock, and jobs will inevitably be lost in County Durham, just as they will be around the world. But Sarah stresses the importance of the North-East not talking itself down, and instead looking to what the future holds.

“It’s been likened to having a foot on a hosepipe – when the foot comes off, there’s initially a bit of a splutter, but the flow will return, and we have to be ready when it does,” she says.

“There’s a risk that people will assume that the North-East will be the worst hit region when we come out of this, but it’s our job at Business Durham to build confidence that there is a strong economic future for the county. There will be a period of pain, but we also have to keep positive.

“Before the pandemic, County Durham was in a really exciting phase in its history, with a huge number of developments, creating all kinds of opportunities. There may have been a slight pause during the lockdown period, but work is now continuing, and these developments will forge an important part of the business landscape in County Durham for years to come”

It is also entirely possible that there may also be some opportunities that would not have come along without the crisis, because it has given companies the impetus they needed to forge ahead with changes in direction that may have been under consideration for a while.

Meanwhile, Sarah is hugely encouraged by the momentum behind the Durham City Incubator, a fully-funded accelerator programme for start-up businesses, or companies trading for less than 12-months.

“I think it has been a great success story and we are delighted by the quality of applicants coming through,” she says.

The programme is still in its early stages, with its third cohort of fledgling businesses, and the decision not to make it sector-specific has led to an interesting mix of companies. Four of the businesses that came through the last cohort have already taken spaces at Salvus House, in Durham.

“The aim of the partnership with Durham University and New College Durham was to keep graduate entrepreneurs in Durham, and it is clearly working,” says Sarah. “Of course, we have to deal with the present, but we can’t stop looking to the future. For example, there’s huge potential in the space sector, and we can’t afford to take our eyes off the ball for a second.”

Business Durham is built around an experienced team and Sarah is “extremely proud” of the way they have adapted to new working conditions during the lockdown.

“It’s been fantastic to see how quickly they have settled into working from home and maintained the quality of the services we offer,” she adds. “The people we have are really committed and, in many ways, they’ve been energised by the challenges. They love nothing more than helping businesses and seeing positive outcomes and, when the lockdown came, they just rolled up their sleeves and got on with it,” she says.

Despite the economic uncertainty, around 250 business enquiries were made through Business Durham during the first few weeks of the lockdown, and the team has gone the extra mile from home to root out answers.

And, with some tenants needing to continue working, especially at NETPark, it is another testament to the resilience and dedication of staff in Business Durham’s property team that they have been able to keep all properties have open throughout the lockdown.

“It’s all about the people at Business Durham and we have a great team with real passion for finding the answers that companies need – now and in the future,” says Sarah.

Teamwork helping to guide County Durham businesses through the crisis

Business Durham prides itself on having a team of experts, working closely with companies across the county to pursue opportunities. PETER BARRON talks to three of its key advisers

Businessiq: Caroline Taukulis has a key role in helping businesses make the most of the opportunities resulting from the changes that have been forced on them by the lockdown.Caroline Taukulis has a key role in helping businesses make the most of the opportunities resulting from the changes that have been forced on them by the lockdown.

“CHANGE always brings opportunity,” says Caroline Taukulis as she reflects on the enormous challenges of the past few months since the coronavirus pandemic sent shockwaves around the world.

It has been painful, there is no doubt about that, and there is inevitably more pain to come, but Caroline firmly believes the biggest economic disruption in a generation will also produce positive outcomes in County Durham.

“We have seen businesses adapt surprisingly quickly, and the current environment – as difficult as it is – might just be the push that’s needed to persuade entrepreneurs to try their ideas and for companies to accelerate digitalization,” she says.

As team manager business engagement for Business Durham, the economic development arm of Durham County Council, Caroline has a key role in helping businesses to not only survive the crisis, but to make the most of the opportunities resulting from the changes that have been forced on them by the lockdown.

For Caroline and her colleagues in Business Durham, it is all about retaining as many jobs as possible in the present, while helping to guide businesses towards opportunities that will give County Durham a positive economic future.

And Caroline, who has been with the organisation for 13 years, believes passionately that Business Durham is well equipped to help the business community through these unprecedented times.

A broad range of support programmes were already in place before the pandemic, and they are being adapted in the light of the new challenges. But the success of Business Durham is also down to the proactive approach taken by its team of experts to build long-term relationships, and the fact that Durham County Council has made sure its economic development arm has the resources to deliver that dedicated, in-depth business support.

Caroline sums it up by saying: “It’s one thing to have all these programmes in place but what’s crucial is that we’ve been given what we need to do the job properly.”

County Durham covers 862 square miles, with a rich variety of businesses based in very different locations, so effective business support is dependent on teamwork. Business Durham’s four key account managers, therefore, not only have their own geographic focus but sectoral specialisms, giving them strengths that can be shared across the organisation.

“We are there to help our businesses navigate through the information and to find solutions,” says Caroline. “It’s our job to get under the skin of companies so we understand them. That way, we can help them pursue opportunities to expand or sustain their market positions and stay competitive.”

Despite the obvious difficulties brought by the pandemic, Caroline insists that it is not all negative. “Businesses are still investing in County Durham and we are seeing some diversify to produce PPE, for example. And because of our knowledge of the business community, we are able to compile a PPE directory and put them in touch with each other.”

Durham Gin, set up by former NHS health trust chief executive Jon Chadwick six years ago, is just one example of a business that has risen to the coronavirus challenge by using a waste product from its distillery to produce vital supplies of hand sanitiser for health trusts, care homes and charities.

Just as businesses are still investing in County Durham, Business Durham is continuing to secure new funding for local companies. For example, it was recently announced that the County Durham Growth Fund has been awarded an additional £4m to continue supporting businesses across the county until 2023.

The fund was established in April 2019, initially as a £4.9m capital grant scheme, helping small and medium enterprises to accelerate their growth. In its first year, £2.7m was invested in 11 County Durham businesses, creating 310 jobs between them over the next two years.

The financial support is being delivered by Business Durham in partnership with UMi, and the new funding will now support 22 additional companies and create more jobs.

“The County Durham Growth Fund filled a gap in the market that was left after the Regional Growth Fund finished in 2016, and the additional funding we’ve secured is a real vote of confidence because we have an established track record,” says Caroline. “The fund been an undoubted success when you see the calibre of the companies involved, and how some of the work those businesses are carrying out is future-proofing County Durham.”

The businesses, which have benefited from the fund so far, include: battery maker Alexander Technologies: manufacturers BTS Fabrications and Durham Box;  biotechnology firm Kromek Group; staircase and stair parts specialist Theresa Spinks; leading plastic injection moulding company IVM; B2B energy broker Great Annual Savings; engineering firms Bignall Group Ltd and Dyer Engineering; large format print supplier Design X-Press Ltd; and radio frequency engineering business Filtronic.

Durham Ambitious Business Start-ups (DABS) is another innovative programme, set up by Business Durham, to encourage ambitious new businesses across the county. The initiative is a three-year programme delivered by three sub-contractors – TEDCO, Candle Digital and UMi.

“It’s about creating high value jobs to boost the local economy and giving entrepreneurs the encouragement to test their ideas,” says Caroline.

Businessiq: The launch of DABS - Durham's Ambitious Business Start-upsThe launch of DABS - Durham's Ambitious Business Start-ups

Meanwhile, Digital Drive – launched in January 2018 – to help companies maximise their digital potential is proving more invaluable than ever, with the lockdown requiring all kinds of businesses to accelerate their online activities.

The £4m programme set a target to support more than 400 companies, with diagnostic health checks, capital grants to buy equipment and software, and training workshops.

“We are on track to hit that target and, despite working from home, there has been no slippage on delivery, with webinars replacing workshops,” says Caroline.

“The more forward-thinking companies had been working in this direction anyway, but others are having to change too and Digital Drive is really proving its worth. Durham County Council was one of the first local authorities in the country to run this kind of programme and it’s been enormously successful.”

Following on from Digital Drive’s success, a programme has now been developed – in partnership with the Durham BID, the County Council, and UMi – to support retail businesses with small capital grants, and help them to be less reliant on physical footfall.

Making the most of the opportunities – from County Durham to outer space

Businessiq: Peter Rippingale is focusing on what can be donePeter Rippingale is focusing on what can be done

As team manager for Inward Investment and Opportunities, Peter Rippingale has a very straightforward approach to the challenges brought by COVID-19.

“Let’s not worry about what we can’t do but concentrate on what we can do. We have a duty to be upbeat because we really are all in it together,” he says.

Peter looks back to the local government review of 2009 – when the unitary authority of Durham County Council replaced seven district councils – as being of critical importance to the layers of support that are in place for businesses 11 years on.

“Talking to colleagues in inward investment, we are generally better resourced in County Durham, so we can do things that others can’t. That was one of the benefits of the local government review – it removed the ‘us and them’ that led to people pulling in different directions,” he says.

“Critical mass has proved to be helpful, and Durham County Council is very business friendly, and fleet of foot. We can talk to companies about their particular needs and facilitate interaction. It stops people chasing things that are a waste of time.”

He also stresses the importance of taking a keen interest in what companies are doing, gauging what they want to achieve, and striving to make it as simple as possible for them.

“It’s all about developing relationships and, if you help them out in the first place, they are more likely to pick up the phone next time they need support.”

The Durham Business Opportunities Programme (DBOP) is another successful example of the support on offer through Business Durham. The European Regional Development Fund initiative focuses on County Durham businesses that have not taken up business support previously, and links them with growth opportunities, such as finding new premises, fresh suppliers, or investment.

County Durham has a rich heritage in engineering and manufacturing, and DBOP works closely with the Engineering and Manufacturing Network (EMN), an organisation tasked with supporting continued growth in that sector.

The key statistic during DBOP’s first three years is that for every £1 of ERDF invested, it generates £2.28 of net Gross Value Added (GVA). Other highlights include:

  • 71 per cent of businesses describing DBOP as a good fit with their needs
  • 63 per cent of businesses had never accessed business support before
  • The cumulative forecast growth in turnover equates to £3.2m

In the construction sector alone, there are opportunities in County Durham totalling £2 billion, and Peter says: “It’s massively important to make sure that as many of those opportunities as possible are taken by County Durham companies as we come out of lockdown.”

Peter describes Finance Durham as “another important part of the package of support” and it is continuing to invest in business opportunities in County Durham despite the COVID-19 crisis.

A £20m fund from Durham County Council, managed by Business Durham and administered by Maven Capital Partners, it will invest in up to 70 companies in its first ten years, with sums ranging from £150,000 to £2million.

Finance Durham is aimed at high-growth, slightly high-risk projects, backed by strong management teams, that mainstream banks won’t consider because they are risk averse. So far, the fund has made 17 investments in 11 companies – including six follow-on investments – totalling £5m.

“Although we are looking to fund good, viable businesses, Business Durham and Maven are well aware that COVID will hit company finances,” says Peter. “Therefore, we’ll be looking at the balance sheet of the applicant and asking if they are capable of delivering that plan. Maven is aware that businesses will have been adversely affected by the COVID crisis and will not be drawing any conclusions from trading results during the crisis as being exceptional and beyond everyone’s control

“We also think there will be working capital opportunities that won’t be covered by Government loan schemes, and Maven will look at those on their merits.

“We don’t have any fears for the existing portfolio, and we are confident that new investment will be signed off. There is a good pipeline of future investments.”

Indeed, while the pandemic has clearly had a profound effect on the economy, there is plenty of evidence of how County Durham has continued to lay the foundations for the future.

For example, Peter describes it as “pretty amazing” that Sumitomo Electric Wiring Systems Europe Ltd will become the first tenant of Jade Business Park, Seaham, only six weeks later than originally planned, despite the lockdown.

Businessiq: Jade Business ParkJade Business Park

The Japanese corporation, which has a base at Rainton Bridge, Houghton-le-Spring, produces and distributes automotive wiring harnesses, fuse boxes, connectors and cables throughout Europe, and is taking a third of the occupier space at Jade.

Jade business park, delivered in partnership with Highbridge Developments, is a 55-acre site, with seven new industrial units, totalling 155,000 square feet of new space for distribution, technology and advanced manufacturing. It is located in a designated Enterprise Zone, with a rates benefit of up to £275,000 for occupiers.

Peter paid tribute to the resilience of principal contractor Bowmer and Kirkland in handing over the site to Sumitomo despite the challenges of coronavirus, saying: “It’s a great achievement and a milestone that is, hopefully, symbolic of how the world is starting to return to some kind of normality.

“Jade fills a real gap in the market. These units are built to modern specifications, with more height for businesses wanting to expand, so we are keen to hear from companies that are restricted for space and have special requirements for anything from 11,000 to 30,000 square feet.”

And as Durham County Council and Business Durham continue to invest in the future, there is no better example than the vision behind the North East Satellite Applications Centre of Excellence, based at NETPark, near Sedgefield.

The centre is funded by the Satellite Applications Catapult and the UK Space Agency, working closely with the European Space Agency. It is there to help businesses navigate the commercial and innovation opportunities in the space sector, grow the community in the North East and raise its profile beyond the region.

Over the last six years, around 600 companies have been engaged at the centre, with 90 collaborations facilitated, and £8.65m of funding sourced in the sector. Over the next two years, the focus will be on growing the space sector in the county by consolidating areas of strength and raising the profile of the North-East within the global space network.

“A crucial part of the work we do at Business Durham is looking to the future and adding value to what we already have by developing trends and sectors. Satellite technology was identified as a key opportunity a number of years ago and it is booming,” says Peter.

“The role of the centres of excellence is to act as regional outposts and the one at NETPark is particularly good at looking at the region’s strengths in manufacturing and engineering.”

A sign of the confidence behind the centre is that it was awarded an extra two years of funding from the beginning of this year, and there are hopes it will be extended even further.

“These are difficult times, but we have to keep looking ahead – we can’t afford to stand still,” Peter adds.

And he stresses that it will always be done in partnership with companies, with an advisory board meeting regularly to take soundings from the business community.

“What I love about my job is working with companies that are looking to do something a bit different and add value. We don’t pretend to have all the answers but by working together we can, hopefully, help as many businesses as possible spring back from these difficult times more quickly.”

Staying open for business throughout the lockdown

Businessiq: Peter McDowell - 'We are all about building long-term relationships and showing flexibility'Peter McDowell - 'We are all about building long-term relationships and showing flexibility'

WE may have spent three months in lockdown but it is a fact that every business centre managed by Business Durham has remained open.

And that is a testament to the dedication of the organisation’s property director, Peter McDowell, and his team of managers who have continued coming into work and maintaining a dialogue with businesses.

It has been a challenging time for business across the UK, but the flexibility shown in Durham is typical of the business-friendly approach in the county.

Business Durham manages more than 300 properties in a £5m operation and, as soon as the lockdown was announced, rents were deferred for April, May and June.

“We are all about building long-term relationships and showing flexibility and understanding during hard times,” says Peter.

At the start of June, only a third of tenants had returned to Business Durham properties, and the priority has been to give the rest the confidence that it is safe to come back, with all health and safety guidelines being strictly followed.

“With so many tenants not returning, we are yet to see the full impact of COVID-19, and we fully anticipate there will be businesses in difficulty, so we’ll be as flexible as possible, with every business treated individually,” says Peter.

However, where possible, Business Durham is looking for companies to resume operations, and starting to pay rent again, so everyone can get back to some kind of normality.

Up to June, occupancy levels have not dipped significantly but the expectation is that some tenants will leave, others will need further deferrals, and a proportion will require bigger offices so their staff can operate amid social distancing.

One example of Business Durham’s flexible approach is that when a well-run company gave notice on a unit, the three-month notice period was waived to avoid adding a further financial burden.

For the remaining tenants, the emphasis is on giving them the reassurance they need to return to the workplace, with measures including: increased general hygiene; the provision of hand sanitiser; one-way systems; strict social distancing; and limited hot-desking.

Not only has Business Durham retained a solid portfolio of tenants, but advanced talks are underway on creating the capacity for more as the organisation looks beyond the pandemic.

A shining light in that portfolio has been the way NETPark – the region’s only science park – has bucked the trend, with occupier levels increasing since the lockdown.

Opened in 2004, NETPark, covering 90 hectares, has become one of the fastest-growing science, engineering, and technology parks in the UK. It is home to 37 companies and 550 employees, with plans for accommodation to double over the next decade.

It offers:

  • Premises and facilities designed for innovative high technology businesses, including 4,000 square metres of incubator space from 15 square metres upwards
  • Development plots from 0.5 to 10 hectares
  • Access to cutting edge innovation at the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) and National Printable Electronics Centre
  • Access to world-renowned research teams, including Durham University’s specialism in instrumentation and semiconductors
  • Ideal location to the North-East and major business centres in the UK and Europe
  • Access to research focused financial backing

“There is something special about a science park that’s global in its outlook and forward-thinking,” says Peter.

“The majority of companies have remained at NETPark in the last three months and in fact we have seen the number of businesses increasing during lockdown, investing lots of money, and taking on new staff.

“That’s a really strong message and it’s down to attracting key staff, providing key areas of support, and building lasting relationships. Buildings are important but it’s people who make the real difference.”

As we face the biggest economic disruption in our lifetimes, the team at Business Durham are determined to make a difference – now and long into the future.

Business Durham’s key areas of support

  • DURHAM CITY INCUBATOR: A fully-funded accelerator programme aimed at graduates and entrepreneurs looking to launch an ambitious, potentially high growth start-up in Durham. www.dcincubator.co.uk
  • DURHAM AMBITIOUS BUSINESS START-UPS: A three-year project to test pioneering new approaches to supporting ambitious start-up businesses. www.durhamstartups.co.uk
  • FINANCE DURHAM: A £20m investment fund to help businesses grow with investments ranging from £150,000 to £2million for businesses in, or looking to relocate to, County Durham www.businessdurham.co.uk/business-engagement-county-durham/sources-of-finance
  • COUNTY DURHAM GROWTH FUND: An £8.9m capital grant scheme for small and medium sized businesses looking to expand or establish new operations in County Durham, designed to accelerate growth and lead to new jobs. https://www.countydurhamgrowthfund.co.uk/
  • DURHAM BUSINESS OPPORTUNITIES PROGRAMME: Focused on reaching companies that have not taken up business support previously. Aims to help businesses by linking them with opportunities for growth, such as new contracts, finding premises, suppliers, or investment.   https://www.businessdurham.co.uk/dbop
  • NORTH EAST SATELLITE APPLICATIONS CENTRE OF EXCELLENCE: Stimulates market and innovation opportunities in the fast-growing space sector and enabling businesses to use satellite data and technologies to develop new products and services. www.northeasttechnologypark.com/north-east-satellite-applications-centre-of-excellence/
  • NETPARK: One of the UK’s fastest-growing science, engineering and technology parks, offering incubator space, development plots, access to cutting edge innovation, world-class research teams, and funding. www.northeasttechnologypark.com
  • DIGITAL DRIVE: A £4m initiative that aims to help SMEs in County Durham to maximise their growth potential and sustainability through digital technology. It offers one to one business support to help with strategic planning, digital marketing, technology guidance, masterclasses, digital health checks, and grants of up to 40 per cent to support projects, and help pay for equipment, websites, software or app development. www.digitaldrivedurham.co.uk
  • PROPERTY PORTFOLIO: As well as NETPark, Business Durham offers a range of business accommodation solutions across the county to suit a variety of needs.  Office space at seven business centres including Salvus House in Durham City and sixteen sites offering industrial units including Jade at Seaham. https://www.businessdurham.co.uk/property