A welcome in the hillsides

Having absorbed or rejected last week's lessons from Malaysia, we can now turn to ask: Can the Welsh teach us anything?

Having absorbed or rejected last week’s lessons from Malaysia, we can now turn to ask: Can the Welsh teach us anything?

The Welsh Development Agency (WDA) was in New Zealand earlier this month touting for business. Andrew Davis, WDA’s Hong Kong-based Asia-Pacific executive, claimed some success, with Tauranga digital time management system provider Panztel opening an office in Caldicott — the first New Zealand firm to open up in the principality (yes, the Prince of Wales’ title does mean something).

Davis says the aim of his trip was to meet Kiwi high-tech firms who might need a European presence to add to their domestic operations, rather than lure them toward a total relocation. This way, the WDA has also been drumming up interest from firms as far afield as Australia, the US and India.

Wales, he says, offers access to Europe, a market of 400 million consumers, larger and more sophisticated than that of the US and Japan combined. We share the same language (not to mention a love of rugby) and he says the Welsh labour and other markets are less regulated than on the European mainland. Davis also promotes the country’s broadband availability, saying even small Welsh towns have ADSL and that the capital Cardiff has more fibre cabling than San Francisco.

Gone are the traditional images of Wales, with steel a shadow of its former self and the valleys now having just one coal mine between them. In contrast, aerospace employs 25,000, with the European Airbus consortium constructing its aeroplane wings in South Wales and British Airways having a maintenance base in Cardiff.

In IT, Cardiff contains about 230 software companies, with around 500 firms in software and new media in South Wales. This includes “Yes Television”, which Davis brands a success in the field of interactive TV and video-on-demand.

He says Wales is in its third industrial revolution, first moving from iron, steel and coal to manufacturing and now into “value added technology”. To help make it happen, the WDA has an annual $500 million budget and 500 staff, who also work on training and urban regeneration projects.

The WDA can offer incoming firms help in finding property, training for staff, grants and access to venture capital, depending on the size of the would-be investment. Davis says Wales offers lower costs than London, which is two hours away by train or motorway, and is already home to large telcos like Alcatel.

The WDA works closely with business and universities, which includes the $170m “Technium” initiative. Technium involves creating state-of-the-art R&D and incubator facilities linking academic research centres to commercial operations. Some 20 business clusters are to be created, linked by a broadband fibre optic network, with business support, marketing advice and intellectual property advice available through the WDA.

Overall, the agency aims to boost Wales’ output by $3.5 billion by next year and create 50,000 jobs over 10 years in “knowledge-based” industries, which already employ an eighth of the Welsh workforce.

The WDA has operated for 25 years, claiming success in helping to attract total capital investment of $50 billion from 32 countries, creating or safeguarding more than 200,000 jobs. However, because New Zealand — which is only now taking a more active role in attracting IT industries and overseas investment — Davis is a little less forthcoming in offering advice.

He says he likes to think the WDA’s success came from “the buy-in” of Welsh residents and businesses, because people wanted something to happen. The WDA also discussed with other similar organisations worldwide to see what worked in terms of best practice and experience.

Producing a “one-stop-shop” for businesses to seek help in accommodation, investment and the like, was vital. Keeping an arms length relationship from government and working with the business and education sectors was another factor.

Cagey about its failures, Davis only owns up to the WDA maybe being a little slow in attracting call centres, but says as a late adapter his agency can learn from the mistakes other people has made. “Look at what other people are doing, see what selling points you have. There’s a lot of competition out there,” he says.

So what are New Zealand’s selling points? A high skills base, good technology, good communications, cost-efficiency and being a dynamic, connected country.

Just as Wales has a message to sell, so does New Zealand. Says Davis: “It’s [about] how we portray ourselves.

Darren Greenwood is Computerworld’s human resources reporter. Send email to Darren Greenwood. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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