Relocate to Cornwall

Millions are being invested in Cornwall’s infrastructure and business facilities in a bid to attract more entrepreneurs to the county. Nick Britton talks to businesses which have taken the plunge

Millions are being invested in Cornwall’s infrastructure and business facilities in a bid to attract more entrepreneurs to the county. Nick Britton talks to businesses which have taken the plunge

Millions are being invested in Cornwall’s infrastructure and business facilities in a bid to attract more entrepreneurs to the county. Nick Britton talks to businesses which have taken the plunge

Medical device specialist Research Instruments exemplifies the benefits, as well as some of the problems, of doing business in Cornwall. Assisted by a relocation grant, the founders moved from London in 1975 seeking a ‘lifestyle change’, according to current MD Bill Brown. In 2000, Brown and two other directors bought the company out and before long it had outgrown its premises in Penryn, near Falmouth.

‘We had expanded so much that we were bursting at the seams,’ says Brown. ‘Part of the problem down here is that there’s a shortage of premises [for medium-sized companies]. You either build somewhere or move.’

Reluctant to quit Cornwall, which Brown says is ‘a great part of the country to live in’, he secured a grant of £490,000 from the South West Regional Development Agency (SWRDA) towards a new purpose-built headquarters in Falmouth. The condition was that Research Instruments upped its head count from 12 to 35, a target it has overshot
as sales have grown from £500,000 in 2000 to £3.8 million.

Without the grant, Brown concedes it would have been difficult to remain in Cornwall. ‘Even if we had moved 30 miles away, we’d have lost half our staff because of the cost of commuting. It might as well have been 500 miles.’

Tony Murtagh made his fortune in Cornwall when he sold his business, The Mortgage Group, to GE Money for more than £30 million. He concedes he had ‘a stroke of luck’ when the opportunity arose in 1996 to buy a large former British Gas building in Cornwall’s business capital Truro, where he built up an American-style call centre with more than 800 staff.
County gent

Murtagh’s association with the county is no superficial one: he moved to Cornwall in the mid-1970s when his parents separated and has raised his family there.

‘I owe a debt of gratitude to the county, so it hurts me to say this,’ says Murtagh. ‘But if I wanted to produce a bigger business I couldn’t do it in Cornwall again.’

He cites the lack of suitable premises (finding the ex-British Gas building is ‘not a story that repeats itself’), a shortage of trained staff and a road and rail infrastructure that makes commuting difficult. These are the reasons Murtagh’s next business is likely to be in his home city of Manchester.

‘Here, you have to force people to take an opportunity,’ he adds. ‘Manchester creates people who are ambitious and hungry, and that’s what I need – 400 to 500 ambitious, hungry people.’

Cornwall is in a difficult position: it wants to attract more entrepreneurs, but must also preserve the backbone of its economy, the tourist industry. Marian Bond, inward investment manager for Cornwall Pure Business, an arm of the county council, has been fighting what she says are outdated perceptions of the county.

‘People who came here on holiday as children have memories of [Cornwall] as it was then,’ Bond maintains. ‘The reality is very different: we have huge strengths in renewable energy and environmental industries, both in research and on the product side, and a thriving culture of entrepreneurship.’

Bond points out there has been significant investment into infrastructure, including a host of new business parks, an expansion of broadband access to cover 99 per cent of the county, and a package of funding for the universities of Cornwall, which has resulted in a net gain in 19 to 24 year olds over the past few years and helped address a skills shortage.

There’s also a big pot of ‘soft money’ for relocators. This year Cornwall has attracted £445 million of funding from the EU to ‘transition the region into a knowledge economy’, and there is more cash available from the SWRDA, a £20 million venture capital fund called Finance Cornwall, and debt provider South West Investment Group. Renewable energy company Microgeneration has benefited from some of this largesse. The company, which is approaching sales of £1 million this year, helps consumers and businesses install renewable energy devices such as solar panels. It was established in Manchester in 2005 and moved to Cornwall in late 2006, attracting ‘a lot of support and funding’, according to CEO Andy Honey.

‘Devon and Cornwall are both incredible areas to live and work,’ says Honey, a Plymouth native. ‘There’s a tighter community feel, and for our business, the natural resources are all here – there’s plenty of sun and wind.’

Honey says that while the monetary value of the assistance he received was between £20,000 and £30,000 (‘we didn’t come down hunting for the grants’), it included support such as advice on his business plan and putting the company in touch with useful contacts. Another draw was the lower cost of Cornwall as a business location: ‘You get more value for your money, both in terms of people and premises’ (see table).

Patchy infrastructure is a drawback, however. ‘Getting from Plymouth to London is okay, but from Cornwall it’s still a challenge,’ says Honey. ‘In the business I’m in, I’m not going to be pushing hard for an airport extension, but rail infrastructure is key. It’s a big ask to keep your carbon footprint down when you have to get in the car to go and see clients.’

Another challenge is simply that everything you need is further away – a point echoed by Murtagh. ‘In Truro you’ve got all the high street banks but there’s no PricewaterhouseCoopers, no KPMG. You have to go to Plymouth or Exeter.’

Knocking on Devon’s door

Moving east from Cornwall, Plymouth and Exeter are the most obvious business locations in neighbouring Devon. They have populations of 246,100 and 118,600 respectively, while Cornwall’s biggest conurbation (Camborne and Redruth) houses less than 50,000. The Met Office’s move from the Thames Valley to Exeter, involving 900 staff and costing £150 million, was triumphantly hailed as proof that the South West was ready for large, complex organisations.

For growing businesses, too, Devon has plenty to offer. Alex Craven, founder of leisure-focused communications agency Coffin on Cake, set up her business in Plymouth at the age of 25 and now employs six staff. She lives just over the border in Cornwall.

‘I realised that so much of the work I was doing in London was on the computer or over the phone,’ says Craven. ‘It didn’t make sense to start an agency there, both because of the competition and because for the board sports and action sports industry, the capital is the South West.’

A keen surfer, Craven had always wanted to return to her childhood home of Cornwall. ‘You can own your own home, you don’t have a two-hour commute every day, and you can go surfing in the morning before work,’ she enthuses.

Like Honey, Craven clearly has a deep emotional affinity with the area, which was more crucial to her decision to relocate than any other factor.

But Cornwall’s gentle appeal rubs off on outsiders, too. According to Brown of Research Instruments, ‘When our distributors come to see us, they immediately understand why we’re based here rather than on a trading estate on the outskirts of London.’

Cornwall Pure Business advises and assists businesses considering a move to the county. Its website is

Marc Barber

Marc Barber

Marc was editor of GrowthBusiness from 2006 to 2010. He specialised in writing about entrepreneurs, private equity and venture capital, mid-market M&A, small caps and high-growth businesses.

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