The Mersey Cluster – A Round Table Debate

Merseyside is a vibrant maritime cluster which boasts a variety of port, freight and maritime services-related industries. But as SMI found out in its latest round table debate, harnessing the true potential of the region could be possible and could generate even more benefits for a region that has maritime at the heart of its heritage. Chaired by Sean Moloney, the panellists included Dr Dimitrios Paraskevadakis, Lecturer in Maritime Transport and Logistics, Maritime and Mechanical Engineering at Liverpool John Moores University; Gareth Gilbert, Technical Sales at Birkenhead-based Stone Marine Shipcare; Adam Whittle, Marketing Manager, Brookes Bell; Steven Jones, Maritime Consultant; Sue Henney, Head of Marketing at KVH Industries; Mike Williams, Managing Director, MIRIS International

Sean Moloney
How strong a cluster is the Maritime Mersey cluster, and what are its strengths and what are its weaknesses?

Gareth Gilbert

There are many strengths to being here in Liverpool. There is a strong business and social element to the networking, which is excellent. This is an area where perhaps the maritime sector in Merseyside is very much a leader when compared with some events in other regions. Lunches and meetings can be very formal but there is also a more social side to networking in and around Liverpool. That is a good thing – we get to know each other. People who I have met for example in London have visited Liverpool and really responded positively to what we do up here. It is perhaps the Liverpool way. In terms of the Mersey cluster it is growing in strength because investment is coming in. It is a growing area and there is a lot going on with regards to logistics. My company, Stone Marine Shipcare, is part of a service industry and we repair and maintain propellers and thruster units, so we’re focused on ensuring that some of that investment trickles down to the services that Merseyside and the Liverpool cluster can offer. It is great having more ships in port, that is fantastic, but that is not necessarily going to be of benefit to us if these ships come in to load and discharge containers and then leave. So, pushing the services that Liverpool in the Merseyside cluster can offer is a key area of interest and focus for us.

Adam Whittle

There is a huge opportunity in Liverpool in terms of freight, and certainly containerised freight with the addition of Liverpool2. Statistics say that 70% of the cargo handled by Peel Ports arrives via Southern Ports but 95% of that cargo is for destinations north of Stoke. And that is the most expensive part of the freight journey from Southampton to wherever the freight is going to in the UK. Also, it just makes sense to me for the operators to use Liverpool; it is less congested than Southampton and other southern ports, it is cheaper to come alongside here than in Southampton and you have very good rail links here if you want to move containers rather by other means than road haulage. The northern powerhouse will certainly drive awareness that it is not just the south that has the ports that can accommodate the ships. Especially for goods destined for the North.

Dimitrios Paraskevadakis

We have seen investment in the region over the last few years, and growth is expected to pick up in the coming years. There has also been a very good response to expansion of the Panama Canal with the way freight is distributed. And I think the model that Mersey Maritime is following is very good; we have these monthly meetings that are attracting new members as well, but I think we need to look into governance of all of this. Who is the governing body of the cluster? Is it Mersey Maritime or is it the Liverpool City Region (LEP)? Could the Port of Liverpool maybe have a central role in the governance of the regional maritime cluster? Maritime UK and the Transport of the North are also very supportive in this respect. So, what is clear is that there are many entities involved in the coordination process of the region’s maritime cluster’s future strategy and policy framework.

Gareth Gilbert

Is it really a governance issue or is it all about a clear organisation to see who’s doing what? There are entities here in the maritime industry and there are leaders within those entities. Do we need a figurehead or do we need clearer direction and clearer synergy between those major players?

Sue Henney

I think that Mersey Maritime is the best positioned entity to lead and it is working with Maritime UK and others through the Government to achieve growth. Now with Maritime UK involved and working closer with Mersey Maritime, Merseyside is getting more prominence. We are very proud of what we do up here and where we come from -and always have been – but more structure means it is a little bit more joined up now.

Adam Whittle

Also worth remembering that all of the publicity we had over the Boatey McBoatface across the river at Cammell Laird has done nothing but boost our profile up here.

Sean Moloney

When you talk to Government as I do, they talk about the Mersey cluster doing a very good job. Whether that’s down to Chris and his team at Mersey Maritime, this region has been set up as an example to other clusters around the United Kingdom. It can be advocated that this feeling should  move across Europe as well as more onto the international stage.

Sue Henney

I think we are very good at making our presence felt and I go back to Gareth’s point earlier that we do things the Liverpool way. We do make a presence felt both individually and through individual companies and with Mersey Maritime promoting the region nationally along with entities like the Propeller Club. There are two entities that are very different in how they function, but we are very proud of what we’re doing. I think that is naturally conveyed when we are out and about talking to people.

Steven Jones

I get uncomfortable whenever the word entity is mentioned because then suddenly everything becomes nebulous and what is an entity? For that reason, I don’t really like the word cluster because for me this is all about community. And it is a strength of the community and those people in it that are the foundations of whether it’s going to work or it isn’t. It can be too easy for people in the businesses in the region to hide behind this all and not push themselves forward and get involved in areas that they should be getting involved in. What we have been very successful in here in Liverpool is stripping past that, because it is people who do the business with people and that is the strength of the community that then feeds upwards to create what we can term a cluster. But it is this that makes Liverpool successful; the people within it and the relationships they have. I believe there is a golden generation in Liverpool of people of similar age, similar experiences and knowledge, who are coming back here. That is why it is now starting to feel like there really is a sense of something maritime in Liverpool in the Mersey region, and that is built on community and people.

Sean Moloney

If you talk about community rather than cluster do you then need to have governance that Dimitrios is talking about – that everybody in the community all know the role they have to play.

Steven Jones

if you get the foundations right then you then have a chance. We have many opportunities for success here because there are lots of people who know each other and feel they can do business together or go through each other to get business done. This gives it a strength. From that, governance will become an issue because the whole process can become clouded especially when you ask who is actually responsible. The danger in having membership organisations that are seen as the lead because only the members will get the benefits. Which is understandable and it is the membership model that funds many of these clusters; it brings in money but the danger is if there are too many on the outside that we perhaps are losing contact with.

Sean Moloney

So there needs to be more of a trade association than a members’ association? Is that what you are saying?

Steven Jones

I think that is the model that the industry is worthy of, but still the electricity needs to be paid for and the bills need to be paid for. So, whatever model there is, I still get worried that there are lots of companies who maybe don’t get the information they need, or the support they could have because they are outside of that membership structure.

Mike Williams

One of the strengths of the City is that it is based on a lot of historical experience from hundreds of years ago. And in the old days, Princes Road – and you can still see it today – was where all the Captains of the boats used to live and work. If one was ill he would just knock on the door of his mate next door and say I can’t take the shift today, can you take it? And one of the strengths we have up here is we tend to be people who can get things done. Not by hook or by crook, but in a professional way, but we try to make the best of what we can do. Even today when we get business opportunities, they are still tackled in an old school way where you know the people face-to-face and you are told ‘I’m going to trust you for this job and don’t let me down’. All based on a handshake. Yes, governance can follow from that but that’s one of the strengths of us up here. We maintain that old honest integrity which sometimes is lost in the modern day.

Adam Whittle

Going back to Steven’s point, person-to-person contact is important. It is a business-to-business situation but it is the personal relationship within that, that really matters. Maybe we have more time than London to do this, but I do think there is more of a community vibe up here. In our building alone, there are already a number of maritime related businesses and with Bibby moving here in a couple of months it is becoming a maritime community in itself.

Sean Moloney

We are talking about people and the whole point about a maritime cluster and its strength is that it circulates around the availability of people within the cluster; skills you can draw on and you can attract in. What is a challenge here in Liverpool, is in attracting the young and the talented people into maritime because things are changing; we are in the smart technology world and there is a lot of competition for this young talent.

Gareth Gilbert

Looking at it from a technical perspective, a key issue is development of the actual people who can repair propellers; we have to think of them as craftsmen not as technicians. One is the actual people who can do the work for us; we have to think of them as craftsmen not as technicians. We can’t go to any technical college around the world and just pick up a propeller technician. They just don’t exist. You need a long time to develop these skills within these people. I’ve heard people talk simply of propellers as tonnes of bronze but a propeller or propeller blade is complex and three-dimensional. It is not a flat surface. Our personnel need an understanding of metallurgy, welding, hydrodynamics and propeller design. So, there are an awful lot of skills to master in our particular area but there are many skills that are required in any particular aspect of the work we do here in the maritime industry.

Adam Whittle

It is difficult in our line of business here at Brookes Bell because we do need former master mariners or former chief engineers etc but we are recruiting graduate employees into other disciplines such as Naval Architecture. We also work closely with the local universities, for example we currently have an intern from LJMU with us. We also meet and network with students at social events such as the Propeller Club.

Sue Henney

We use Liverpool John Moores University a lot when we are recruiting because it is a great international institution and there is a wealth of skills and a diversity of talent. It all depends on what skills you are looking for. Now, there is plenty of talent out there down in the Baltic triangle where there is whole regeneration going on around technology, creativity and digital; skills are changing and I work in a more tech based industry but the skills are there. Sometimes people don’t really understand the maritime industry, even here with the river on our doorstep. A whole range of skills feed into this industry and we need to be attracting the best young and experienced talent from a range of backgrounds.

Steven Jones

I was working with Wirral Council and they were coming up with a real issue that every time they mention the word ‘maritime’ when talking to people about careers, those people got scared of the industry. So, they started using the term port city as a concept and were pushing all the joined up opportunities like digital and technology. All of a sudden the mindset changed; what a great opportunity there is. It just so happens it is a maritime industry but as long as that bit is whispered then there is massive potential. And for us having such an important and influential university as LJMU that focuses attention on the maritime industry is also a great thing. Some months we will meet 15 students who will interact with the industry through events such as the Propeller Club. They start to grow their own network and learn from the experiences of others. And from that we normally get four or five of the students who are successful in getting jobs in the maritime sector here.

Dimitrios Paraskevadakis

Well, we do focus on the maritime side of things at the University, through our undergraduate and postgraduate Maritime degrees. We do this by providing both soft and hard skills and we try as much as possible to expose the students out into the industry. So, we can either invite guest speakers in, or we do field trips or situations where the students can produce consulting reports for local companies.

Sean Moloney

Mike let me bring you in on this, are there any elements that are missing from this cluster and let’s carry on calling it a cluster.

Mike Williams

Because the industry is so wide and varied and there is a huge number of different services being offered across all the related sectors, I don’t think you’ll get one cluster that will provide all the solutions for everyone to tap into. So, we need to go back to Steven’s point where you have to be careful we don’t have an entity that has control over things. Maybe have one central cluster that the other sub clusters can tap into. I attended an event last year at LJMU and it was a UK/US cross Atlantic conference and the theme was drone technology but it was absolutely fascinating. You had industries represented from everywhere: military, fisheries, oil and gas, legal super yacht and cyber security people. To have that as one main theme and attract all those people was excellent. So, it is trying to find something that is important to all of us, which we will all get something from. It was an amazing conference and I was surprised at how little people know about the subject.

Adam Whittle

It is about making ourselves heard and we could do more to make ourselves heard. On a good day you are two hours away by train from London so it is easy for people to get here.

Sue Henney

And it is a compact city that is easy to get around. So, it is maybe about selling the city as a business destination venue.

Steven Jones

One of the issues that has never been addressed was the impact on the City when Liverpool lost its P&I Club. This affected its footprint because a P&I Club has its own ecosystem. All the lawyers and consultants that feed the Club and there’s a real sense that business is being done around it. Losing that has taken Liverpool a while to re-steady itself. But now we have a different identity and we are growing that influence again.

Sean Moloney

Scotland has developed its Scottish Maritime cluster which is growing. This part of the world you have Hull and Humber and the whole shipping industry is quite fragmented. Is there maybe an opportunity for this broader region, ie the North, to come together?

Steven Jones

Well yes; you either fix the broader issue or you fix the smaller elements and the issues we have been talking about such as the cost of working here, lower rents, lower salaries, and the efficiencies of being based here. But unfortunately, what the cluster model tends to look for is the lowest hanging fruit; to attract those companies located around it who can come in and boost its membership model. But there is very little emphasis on attracting new companies in that would then become new members. I think that is the weakness.

Gareth Gilbert

For me, one of the things we’re not doing at the moment is searching out and promoting existing excellence. There are people and companies operating at an excellent level, world-class level and that is not being shouted about enough. At the moment, some membership structures and their benefits are costly and therefore the membership of some organisations do not necessarily reflect the full scope of excellence in the region. It is a function of finance. But excellence in the region exists now and it needs to be promoted more because that is the strength of the region.

Mike Williams

People have got to come to give, they just can’t come to take: you have to contribute to make things better. Going back to the point that I made before, the maritime industry is the oldest industry that we have, and it is still old school. Yes, we make mistakes but we learn from them if you have a community where people can’t learn from it and that’s not good.

Adam Whittle

I think as an industry we do share experiences well. More so than other industries.

Sean Moloney

But how can we do this better?

Sue Henney

It has to be about promoting the skill and the excellence that is here in the North West or North and try and attract and give incentives to some of the other people outside the regions to come and see what there is here so we can now work more with them and do business with them.

Sean Moloney

Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you.