Jo Barnes chats to one of the leading lights in the Welsh business community, Professor Simon Gibson, CEO of investment management firm Wesley Clover, who was awarded the CBE in the New Year’s Honours...

Simon Gibson has been promoting what Newport and South East Wales has to offer for a long time. 

As we sit in Merlin’s Bar at the Celtic Manor Resort, where the UK arm of Wesley Clover is based, just talking to him about the city you understand why he thinks we should all be shouting about the area to make more people sit up and notice everything it has to offer.

“Newport has so much potential,” he said. “It’s disadvantaged to some extent because it sits between two wonderful cities in Cardiff and Bristol, which are always voted among the best cities in the UK to live in.

“But it has lots of advantages. It is the nearest city to the M4, it’s a city with direct access to London by train, and there’s affordable housing here still. 

“Bristol is not affordable anymore and when you are trying to develop young companies, particularly in the knowledge economy and/or in tech the youngsters need somewhere to live. In London they would never be able to own a property. It is just unaffordable. 

“If they come down here they can do that. And for older executives who want a bit more of a rural lifestyle, it is a hop, skip and a jump into Monmouthshire.

“We find we have people coming here to visit on a business level who have pretty poor perceptions of Newport and Wales, but who leave here quite stunned at what is going on in this city.”

Simon is also involved with the Alacrity Foundation, a Newport-based charitable organisation which aims to create more home-grown technology companies by providing graduates with practical business training, software skills, mentorship from industry experts and access to start-up capital.

Since it was set up nine businesses were created in Alacrity One and Alacrity Two saw 15 being set up and all of them, except one, are based in Newport. 

Alacrity has been rolled out across the world. There are now nine but soon that number will rise to 15. 

He was also chairman of ReNewport, a taskforce set up by the Welsh Government to develop a short-to-medium term economic regeneration strategy for Newport city centre. 

He said: “ReNewport wanted to see an enlarged Alacrity – and we’ve done that. 

“Another thing it recommended was the setting up of a software academy, which we brought into Newport, working with Cardiff University. We’re also home to the National Cyber Academy, which the University of South Wales has set up and the Executive Hospitality School, which is a joint venture between the Celtic Manor and USW. The International Convention Centre Wales was also an idea to come out of ReNewport and it is now being built.

“ICCW will produce 28,000 room nights per year. The Celtic Manor runs full most of the time, so the opportunities for hotels outside of the Celtic Manor are great. 

“We’ve bought the Hilton Hotel at the Coldra (now the Coldra Court) and have got permission for another hotel on a nearby site, but we’ll never be able to accommodate all the room nights ICCW will generate.

“The biggest problem in hospitality is getting your beds full and this convention centre will be like a machine pumping out bed bookings all day long. 

“So if you are going to open a hotel locally, it’s a whole different proposition once that convention centre is up and running.

“This happens wherever they build these conference centres – Liverpool, Dublin, Edinburgh – they have an enormous economic impact. 

“Innovation Point was also set up as part of the ReNewport taskforce. 

“It is now really getting some wind in its sails and is acting as a really important conduit between not just SME communities and the Welsh Government, but more and more are acting as a conduit to things like Innovate UK in Swindon and the departments in London. 

“Increasingly we are being approached by companies saying if we can produce more of the quality of graduates that we are producing, they will move here.”

He said news that the former Royal Mail sorting office and Chartist Tower in Newport city centre had been sold was good news, but added: “They are not available now for businesses to move straight in to. The reason I think the Knowledge Quarter is important is that you need to be able to attract employers into the city which can produce really quality jobs. But you’ve got have the right type of accommodation for them to move into.

“There are a lot of things set to happen over the next five years, which will have the opportunity to massively transform the city, but we need people in the city to be positive advocates for the city. 

“There are a lot of naysayers all the time who are always moaning and complaining about things and it doesn’t help.”

Simon says involving people and listening to what they have to say is a great way to make them feel part of the changes. 

“If I had a magic wand right now I’d look at Newport and upskill a lot of the population and give the young people who need it employable skills, as some don’t have the right skills to get quality employment, so we need to work on that.

“We need existing businesses to employ more people and I think the way we could do that is to help them with things like export. We can do that. We can help them with access to finance, with innovation and for those who want to be business people we could help them with their entrepreneurship ambitions.”

Another string to Simon’s bow is being involved with the Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Programme, which is a programme with MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He said: “It looks at two things which drive an economy – innovation and entrepreneurship. The most successful places on earth have those two things tightly bound together. 

“To do that you need to mobilise five stakeholders – entrepreneurs, university, government, companies and risk capital or money. 

“Look at the most successful regions in the world and all those five stakeholders are tightly linked together. But we’re not, enough. 

“Universities and business will always claim they are brilliantly aligned, but they are not because there would be more happening if they were. 

“Government and unis do seem quite tightly aligned, but I’m not sure government is well-aligned with business. What about unis and government being aligned with risk capital? It’s not really, although we do have the new Development Bank of Wales which is going to help.

“By getting those five to start talking to each other, stuff will happen and we’ve got a conference this month at the university campus in town when 300 people will gather to talk about how the universities and FE colleges in Wales can connect with the other four stakeholders to get this innovation and entrepreneurship together.

“Our universities should be producing graduates which people want to hire and who will contribute to a business from the first day they walk into their job, not have to wait for another nine months of training before they become useful. The mandate for the National Software Academy in Newport is to produce just those sort of people.”

At the start of the New Year the price of crossing the Severn bridges was cut and the tolls are due to be abolished by the end of the year. Simon said it is good news for the area but will bring with it new pressures on infrastructure.

“If there is a 20 per cent increase in traffic, which is projected, house prices in the area are going to go up, but in terms of mobility they need to crack on with the M4 relief road. 

“If there is 20 per cent more traffic heading to the Brynglas Tunnels, that is not going to be good for Newport. It will be perceived as a place you don’t want to go because it is a pinch point and you’ll sit in traffic for 40 minutes – we don’t want that, do we!”

And what would he like to see in the future for Newport?

“I would also like to see a little bit more of what is happening in Canada. The Celtic Manor is a very, very small percentage of Sir Terry Matthew’s interests in terms of property. 

“We have now got four million square feet of real estate in Canada, which is like a tech city with 80,000 people working there and 40,000 of them are engineers.

“Those people earn three times the national wage of any Canadian. They are really high quality good jobs and great opportunities for young people so they don’t have to disappear to America.

“It would be nice – and Terry and I are completely aligned on this – to see some of that for the UK. But to do that we have to get those five stakeholder groups working together because in Ottawa that is happening.”

Simon was awarded the CBE in the New Year’s Honours to add to his OBE. 

He said: “No man is an island and I’m not deluded to think that award is just about me. I’ve been fortunate to work with some very good people and motivated people and collectively we have got stuff done and that is what the award is about. 

“It’s a recognition of a lot of effort from a lot of teams to get things done whether it was ReNewport, Alacrity or what we have done here at this resort.

“When I got an OBE it was awarded by the Queen. My children were sitting next to John Major. My son said to him ‘my dad is going to make the Queen laugh’ and he said ‘probably not’. 

“But if you watch the video you can see she laughed, so I did get her to laugh! She asked me what I did for a living and I told her I was a nerd. I was at Ubiquity at the time and internet protocols for multi-media was what I was working on. It was nerdy off the chart then, but now that protocol we were working on drives every single voice phone call, fixed and mobile, in the world and most video conference calls as well.”

So, we all need to shout about this area and what it can offer.

As Simon said: “I’ve got children and I don’t necessarily want to need to go elsewhere to maximise their potential.”