A city famed for its history, architecture and culture, Bath has also emerged in recent years as a hotbed of creative and tech talent and a thriving professional services hub.
In the latest in our series of city spotlight features, BLM speaks to some of the city’s business success stories to learn more about Bath’s strengths, weaknesses and future ambitions…
What’s unique about Bath as a place to do business?
Stephen Rangecroft, Director of Corporate Services at the University of Bath, said: “Bath is a historic and beautiful city and is recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. It has great connections to the rest of the South West but also to London, making it a very popular commuter hub and location for business events. It has a very supportive and engaged business community with many networking events and opportunities to collaborate, plus access to a graduate talent base from a top 10 UK university.”
Arif Butt, co-founder and CEO at SelectScience, said: “Bath is unique simply because it’s Bath – it has so much to offer, not only in terms of the buildings and history but also with events such as Bath Festival, the Jane Austen Festival and the renowned Christmas Market. With a name that resonates on the global stage, people just love coming here, whether to visit or to work and live.
“Bath’s global brand gives any business instant recognition, especially for our members and customers in the US and across the globe.”
Ian Bell, Executive Director, Bath Chamber of Commerce and the Initiative in B&NES, said: “The city’s historic architecture provides a beautiful backdrop for commerce which is much admired. There is a strong tradition of creativity and members tell us that staff enjoy a walkable and vibrant city in which to work.”
Ann Hiatt, international business consultant and speaker, said: “My experiences in Bath have been centred around the thriving entrepreneur community.
“I have been amazed by the talent assembled at incubators and accelerators like Rocketmakers.
“Coming from Silicon Valley, where I worked at Google and Amazon for the last 15 years, I feel right at home in these environments and thrive off of that energy.”
Sammy Mansourpour, Managing Director of AgencyUK, said: “Being in Bath has some lovely quirks to it. It’s a good place to get your head out of the hustle and bustle and for teams to be able to really think creatively.
“Building a creative culture in Bath, I would say, is relatively straightforward. If you have access to talent, as we have, it’s not an issue to be in Bath. It’s a great city, and it’s culturally a very nourishing city, with a lot of exceptional people.”
Hayley Blacker, Director at Interaction, said: “The business community in Bath is next to none. There are endless options and opportunities to attend networking events, workshops, seminars, socials and awards to celebrate the variety of businesses that Bath has to offer and how the city has grown in the last couple of decades.
“The business community allows small businesses to thrive, but also large businesses to continue to grow and succeed. It really does feel like being part of something truly unique.”
Mike Roe, CEO at Footdown, said: “Nothing; it’s all about the people, ideas, teamwork, execution, determination and kindness.”
What are the strengths of the city from a business perspective?
Bell: “A major strength is the quality of the workforce, assisted by the presence of two leading universities, a highly-regarded college and some top-class schools. Young people are keen to take on the creative traditions of Bath and apply themselves to modern technologies.
“Another advantage is the proximity to Bristol; its airport and excellent rail links make London readily accessible.”
Hiatt: “Bath offers a unique combination of the wisdom from its rich history, a pride and appreciation for beauty from its streets and daily life, while remaining agile to new technologies and trends reflected in its forward-thinking population.
“This region of the UK has surprised me with rapid adoption of technology and naturally innovative spirit.”
Roe: “I have had the privilege of being involved in the Bath Footdown Fifteen for over 15 years; a group of local business leaders and entrepreneurs who demonstrate the passion, talent and spirit that resides within our part of the country. The Bath Fifteen is a very small example of the extraordinary people who live, work and care in Bath… find them and connect.”
Butt: “For an online innovator such as SelectScience, Bath offers bright local talent. It’s blessed with two excellent universities offering strong science and media courses, one of which – Bath Spa – is across the road from our HQ. It also has a large pool of digital start-ups, so we’re able to recruit good people with all the right skills on our doorstep. Many of our top employees were educated here and then stayed to build careers with us.
“It’s a great location for a global business. Transport links are good to London and while we work hard to minimise our environmental footprint through virtual meetings and conference calls, we do have Heathrow, Bristol and Cardiff airports should we need to travel internationally.”
Blacker: “Being in a central city location means being at the heart of the city life. As a business we are easily accessible, have a beautiful city from which to work and we are able to attend, with ease, any number of training workshops, events and meetings. As a whole, the business community is one of Bath’s greatest assets.”
Mansourpour: “Bath is still vibrant from a multicultural perspective, largely driven by tourism, and also by the fact so many people live here and commute to London. There are a lot of high net worth, well-connected individuals in Bath. Over the years, that has led to financial services companies, law firms, professional services companies, and with them comes prestige and people of influence, and in turn, business opportunities.”
And what are its weaknesses?
Rangecroft: “Bath’s compact nature is both a strength and a weakness. Making connections and meeting with other like-minded businesspeople is very easy but there is limited space for expansion as businesses grow. Like many old cities, traffic congestion is currently a real issue but the excellent train connection does mitigate against this.”
Bell: “As a result of the popularity of the place and the lifestyle it offers, house prices are high, which means some people who work in Bath can’t afford to live here, contributing to road congestion.
“There is a shortage of modern office space, but this is being helped by the development of the Bath Quays site, which will galvanise the city centre.”
Butt: “City centre access is a problem – the pollution and lack of office space and parking with electrical charge points is a concern.
“At SelectScience, we’re lucky to be based where we are — a little further out, just off the Bath-Bristol cycle path and surrounded by green space. We have free parking for anyone who drives, regular bus services thanks to the nearby university and an on-site shower for the cyclists. It couldn’t be much more different from the challenges of central Bath.”
Mansourpour: “I think that access is improving by rail, but access by car is just a pig. And that is a problem – we can’t get in or out of the city fast enough during busy periods.
“The other challenge is around infrastructure. There is not adequate office buildings in Bath for modern ways of working. There just isn’t enough. We’ve looked for years for bigger premises and it just doesn’t exist on the scale that we need. It’s also exponentially expensive given the lack of infrastructure. General technology like superfast broadband is not available in every corner of the city and it’s unworkable for many.
“The other thing is that most of the buildings in Bath are Georgian buildings. They are not conducive to modern ways of working. They are not open plan. They are made of incredibly thick stone walls. Wireless does not travel between the different rooms, and if you’re on the ground floor you’ll have no mobile reception. That’s just the reality of the architecture of Bath – it was built for Romans, it was not built for cars or tech businesses and open-plan working.”
Blacker: “Of course, Bath is not the largest city and at times struggles to attract larger companies to its community. For some this can be viewed as a weakness, but its great location and infrastructure allows us to work all across the UK. We operate predominantly in the South West, but with many clients across the UK Bath’s transport links allow for comfortable expansion. It is no doubt that Bath’s location has played a major role in our success.”
Which are Bath’s strength sectors?
Rangecroft: “Bath is fast becoming a real creative hub and is home to everything from software developers to digital agencies to professional services and consultancies. There is a real growth in high-tech focused start-ups which is expected to grow.”
Bell: “Bath is home to a large number of professional services companies and to a wide range of technical and creative businesses. I would anticipate these to remain as the key economic drivers for Bath and it is likely their numbers will grow in the years to come. One important element which supports that optimism is the number of graduates who stay to live and work in the area after studying in Bath.
“The visitor economy will continue to be an important element which supports a strong retail offering from both major national chains and popular independent shops.”
Blacker: “Bath is home to a huge variety of businesses, from legal to property and small start-ups to globally-recognised brands. You only have to look at some of the top 100 companies lists to see the breadth and depth Bath has to offer. That’s why it is such a great place to do business.
“There is definitely a rise in the tech sector within Bath which we see continuing to grow. Rocketmakers is a great example of this. We moved Rocketmakers into the new Manvers Street offices in 2017 and it has continued to grow, thrive and act as a great advocate for other tech companies who might be considering Bath as a home. It is certainly a sector we see as a future powerhouse for the city.”
Butt: “As mentioned previously, the digital community is flourishing in Bath and long may it continue. It’s the future and Bath is right at the heart of it.”
What are the main challenges and opportunities when it comes to evolving Bath?
Bell: “World Heritage status is both a blessing and a curse. It brings in visitors and adds a lustre to the background within which commercial activity takes place. However, it can sometimes be used as a brake on advancement and there can be tension with the inclusion of modern design, even when it is of high quality.”
Rangecroft: “Bath’s historic past can be restrictive when it comes to planning large-scale infrastructure and building projects but there are several developments which are helping the city to create new opportunities.
“There is a shortage of good quality office space for larger organisations and housing remains expensive, which can be a factor in attracting a skilled workforce.
“Enabling the city to grow while providing affordable housing, good transportation and reducing its carbon footprint are real challenges which can bring together the local authority, businesses and academic researchers.”
Butt: “As well as the pollution problem, the lack of office space in and around Bath with sufficient environmentally-friendly parking is a rate-limiting step for growth. If these small digital companies keep growing, they may struggle to find anywhere suitable locally. We could lose talent from the area if more space isn’t created, and nobody wants that. It’s vital that the city plans better for business expansion.
“As for the traffic, with no sign of any improvement for decades, perhaps it’s time for something radical, maybe even revisiting the Buchanan Tunnel idea from 50 years ago – building a dual carriageway tunnel right under the city. Investment in charge points for electric vehicles would be helpful too.”
Roe: “The increasing challenges, complexity and opportunity for business leaders will require vision, entrepreneurship and a resilience to make things happen.
“Bath may be a city of outstanding cultural heritage and beauty (a great starting point), but we have to create an environment and atmosphere that allows everyone to succeed, where the mindset is that nothing is impossible. We need politics and the community to take a much longer world view. ‘None of us are smarter than all of us’ – collaboration and partnership is key.”
Blacker: “One of the main challenges Bath faces is attracting large and established businesses to setup headquarters or regional head offices here. Although we have direct transport links within the South West and to the Midlands and London, Bath still needs to offer that grade A modern office space that these larger corporations require to thrive.”
“It is a positive sign however to see the continued push and desire for developments such as Bath Quays and the Stadium for Bath. These two projects in particular have the potential to have a real positive economic impact through employment opportunities and sector-specific growth.”
Mansourpour: “We’re already seeing more Paintworks-style proposals being put forward by planners on the riverfront. The university has both helped and hindered; helped construction and development in the city, but also hindered it, because by building lots of student accommodation it has upped the price of land, which has reduced the amount of developers putting in office space.
“I think the automotive issue is always going to be an issue – cars are big, roads are small. I think it is a transport solution, and that will get solved by car sharing or electric cars. It’s not something planners are going to solve because it is unsolvable. Innovation will change that.”
What does the future hold for the city?
Blacker: “Bath is a city built on history and culture, so it is no wonder we describe it as a quirky, unique and picturesque place to work. Around every corner you can see juxtaposing landscapes of modern architecture embedded with old fashioned quirks. We are very proud to be a part of this culture and community. Bath’s identity is no doubt a major attraction for many businesses, including ourselves.
“It is important, however, that we don’t shy away from modernising elements of the city. It will of course always be a priority to hold onto Bath’s unique history, whether that be through architecture, attractions or social networks, but there is also an economic need to expand and modernise. A fantastic example of this is the Bath Quays development. This will look to house a number of new businesses from small to large and will act as an epicentre from which to do business.”
Bell: “The trick is to respect the past while embracing the future with enthusiasm. If that can be pulled off there is every prospect Bath can look forward to years of sustainable economic growth.
“We have high hopes the development of the Bath Quays site will provide the modern office we need to retain successful companies and attract fresh inward investment.
“Bath Rugby Club has, for many years, been seeking to re-develop its stadium in the centre of the city. After a long process of consultation it looks as though their exciting plans are coming close to fruition. This will not only provide a first-class place to watch rugby, it will be a place for community activity, create a large underground car park and conference and event space.”
Mansourpour: “The city will evolve, and it will adapt. I think the biggest change will be what happens in the retail district. We’re seeing a decline in retail in the high street, and how that is repurposed – not just in Bath, but other city centres too – will determine how city centres are used. We’re going to see far more of a community feel around the high street again rather than a shopping and retail feel. Bath will be absolutely primed for that.”
Rangecroft: “There is a real sense of opportunity and a desire to create genuine civic pride in the city and for the business community and universities to collaborate to make Bath an even better place to live and work.”
Hiatt: “I hope that Bath continues to invest in entrepreneurs through university funding, small business-friendly incentives and regulations as well as cultural celebration of this innovative spirit. These investments will ensure Bath’s place on the global map.”