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Exclusive Interview with David Thomas, Manager of Bridge Innovation Centre

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As part of our ongoing series of interviews, Business News Wales had the chance to speak to David Thomas, Manager of Bridge Innovation Centre.

Tell us about your business?

I am the manager of The Bridge Innovation Centre in Pembroke Dock. The Bridge Innovation Centre is owned and governed by Pembrokeshire County Council and it is the council’s interface to the business community.  We work hard to provide an environment that fosters innovation and business growth and provides opportunities for knowledge sharing, collaboration and networking. We have 24 offices (all full at the time of writing) and a further 13 annexed units.  We provide a supportive environment and possibly the fasted Internet in the County!  We also partner with Indycube and have a co-working office that allows entrepreneurs to come out of their bedrooms/home studies into a professional working environment, with a first class business address!  The Bridge Innovation Centre represents all that is positive for business, innovation and enterprise in Pembrokeshire.  If you have an idea for a business but don’t know where to start, then the Bridge Innovation Centre is a good conduit to a whole host of help and business advice.

 What are your plans for the next five years, and where do you see your challenges and opportunities?

Pembrokeshire has always faced a unique set of challenges particularly in recent years. However, Pembrokeshire’s workforce has also shown resilience.  I think further investment in skills transfer is a key factor for the area.  The closure of the Murco refinery in 2014, resulting in the loss of more than 350 jobs presented a huge challenge for the economy as skilled labour sought new opportunities; however, it also presented an opportunity for investment in supporting skills transfer to renewable energy. Pembrokeshire’s longer-term goal is to stimulate organic growth through investment in skills, research and innovation, to support that we are planning an Inter-regional project across the Irish Sea Border to help with achieving that objective.  The project is called BUCANIER, which is an acronym for Building Clusters and Networks in Innovation Enterprise and Research.   It is a six partner innovation project that will work with SMEs in 3 sectors: Renewable Energy, Life Science and Food and Drink. In Wales the partners include Pembrokeshire County Council, Carmarthenshire County Council and Swansea University Institute of Life Science, and in Ireland the partners are the Irish Sea Fishery Board, Wexford County Council and the Institute of Technology Carlow. BUCANIER is all about inculcating an innovation ethos in organisations and providing a toolkit for organisations to use to do that, it’s also about building or enhancing new networks. We aim to increase the innovation dividend across the regions both intra- and inter-regionally as a result.

 What do you wish you had known when you started out in business?

It is important to know your own strengths and weaknesses and not being afraid to get help.  You don’t have to do it all yourself, rather play to your strengths and outsource the jobs that either.  One man bands are commonplace in Pembrokeshire but with workforce changes, outsourcing work is easier than ever and will allow you to focus on your strengths and developing your business.

What are your top three tips for success in Pembrokeshire as a small/medium business?

Know your market and monitor it, businesses need to anticipate changes and be able to react to them, also despite the advent of ecommerce and social media business is still about relationships,  consequently, get out there and meet your buyers, listen to what they have to say

What would your advice be for someone wanting to start up a business or service in Pembrokeshire?

Always, always, always know what your market is – do your market research.  Starting up a business where there is no market is, to coin a cliché, a recipe for disaster. If you start making widgets, when people want wangles and you don’t know this, means you may be very good at what you do, but if no-one is buying, then you won’t be making widgets for very long!  It may seem basic, but it is so often overlooked.  So most definitely, do your market research.

What do you think are Pembrokeshire’s strengths in business?

The Pembrokeshire population as a whole is highly entrepreneurial with more self employed people than the rest of Wales.  Pembrokeshire also has easy access to Ireland’s business markets and business costs of locating here are significant lower than many other counties. The quality of the Natural and heritage tourism is international brand recognition and the extent and quality of the natural and heritage tourism offer. Pembrokeshire is internationally recognised as one of the ecologically rich and most diverse parts of Wales Pembrokeshire’s National Park and beaches are routinely recognised as being of the highest quality, and accommodation services are similarly strong. The most significant of these is Milford Haven Waterway, a deep natural harbour, one of the biggest ports in Europe by traffic volume17 and also Wales’s busiest fishing port. While wave and tidal energy has taken longer than hoped to develop, there was recognition among strategic stakeholders that of the renewable energy options available to Pembrokeshire marine energy is now a real opportunity.

In terms of industry what does Pembrokeshire have to offer that is a particular strength

Pembrokeshire’s economy is quite varied.  The Port of Milford Haven is a key strategic asset for the county, and the Haven Waterway is home to the Valero Oil Refinery, South Hook and Dragon LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas), and RWE’s 2000MW CCGT (combined cycle gas turbine) Power Station.  Pembrokeshire is the only Coastal National Park, and is an area of special scientific interest (SSI).

Wave and tidal energy are considered key growth sectors and strategic priorities. The Welsh Government is working with Marine Energy Pembrokeshire to support enterprise and labour market development through the Jobs Growth and Skills Growth Wales initiatives. Pembrokeshire’s natural environment is a significant strength and of course Tourism is strong, it has over twice as large a share of employment in accommodation and food services than as Great Britain as a whole. Agriculture features significantly, and Pembrokeshire has a significantly larger population of small and micro enterprises.

 Looking back at your career, are there things you would have done differently? 

My career has been diverse and I have been fortunate to be able to try a number of different hats on before becoming an Economic Development Officer and the Bridge Innovation Centre Manager with Pembrokeshire County Council.  All of these from my time in engineering in the Royal Air Force, to teaching and running my own IT business have been invaluable and provided me with a diverse skill set that has helped in shaping my understanding of business, people and Pembrokeshire.  Of course there may have been some odd missed opportunities along the way but there have also been phenomenal experiences and as a consequence I don’t regret anything that I have done or been involved with.

 What do you think are the most important qualities for success in business?

Key personal qualities would be tenacity combined with flexibility.  Flexibility to be able to alter strategies,  to be able to deviate from the original plan but in a way that allows your business to thrive – it’s ok to take your eyes off one particular ball, but only if the other ball is going to net you an overall gain. Tenacity and being robust when the pressure is on to keep going and produce results.

 What advice would you give to anyone thinking of starting a business?

Take as much free advice as is available as possible, there is always more to learn and there are great networks in Wales that provide this.

 What are your top three tips for success?

1.Keep the big vision in sight.
A big vision will take you far. I put this tip first because when things go wrong on the path to your success, and they will, keeping the big vision in mind will enable you to steer your way back to a successful course.

2.Make a plan, but be flexible.
You need a few sets of plans, even if each is only a few pages. A business plan, with an accompanying marketing outline, is an important blueprints for success. They help you map out the major landmarks of the road ahead, define your success and break the journey into important milestones that you can track your progress against. I wouldn’t recommend having a giant plan that nobody will access, but I would say have a modest go-to plan that acts as your basic instruction manual and holds you accountable to specific numbers. The reason I don’t support highly detailed plans is that I believe you need the flexibility to alter the course of your business as necessary. One thing that I carry from my service in the armed forces is the saying that all plans stand up to scrutiny until contact with the enemy.  You need to be flexible, especially if an unplanned for opportunity comes along – but if one does, then do plan out how you are going to take the opportunity – remember the 5 p’s – prior planning prevents poor performance (we used 6 p’s in the military, I’ll leave you to figure out what the 6th p was and where it fits in the acronym!).

3.Don’t burn out.
This isn’t just a stale piece of advice: Your health is literally the most important thing in your life. When your body gives out, you’re done. Your heart doesn’t care how good a business you have; your circulatory system isn’t all that impressed with your money or your accomplishments! You get the point? Personally, I try to eat really good food, get good sleep and take as much time as I can manage day by day to laugh with my kids and see my wife.  You will burn out if you sacrifice your physical and mental health on the altar of your business. So, take care of yourself.

What do you think Wales’ strengths and weaknesses are as a place to do business?

I think that one of the main strengths of Wales as a place to do business is the open, responsive and supportive Government.  The Welsh Government recognises that Wales needs a strong and vibrant economy to be successful and to be able to provide quality jobs for the people that live in Wales.  On the negative side, at this time the uncertainty of the so called Brexit after the referendum on whether we remain or leave the EU leaves us with a lot of worry and concern.  It is going to take a long time before business has confidence and the ability to trade in a certain environment, as it currently does in the single market.

What can Wales do to attract more inward investment?

Infrastructure investment is key to securing stronger and more sustainable economic growth in Wales.  For businesses to invest and grow, businesses that are considering moving to Wales, need confidence that they will have access to the infrastructure that will support that growth – transport, energy and telecommunications. This infrastructure must be secure and resilient, located in the right place and accessible at the right time. I also think that it is essential to remove barriers, both financial and in terms of disproportionate regulation, to encourage more infrastructure investment in Wales – harnessing all sources of investment to ensure Wales has the right infrastructure investment in a timely way.  However, like England I think we are in danger of a divide, in England it is the so called North South divide, but in Wales where we have city populations in the East, then the West becomes the poorer cousin and it is obvious in simple things such as Internet capability and mobile communication ‘not spots’ that clearly point to the need to invest if we are going to attract quality business to Wales.