In November 2021, I had just published a post on LinkedIn that I was stepping down as Director of the Cambridge Science Park when Nicholas Bewes contacted me and invited me to have a chat with him about a new campus Howard Group was developing in South Cambridgeshire.
Having spent six years at the Biomedical Campus and five years at the Science Park, I thought I had probably exhausted my career in science park development. In fact, science parks didn’t feature high on my list of ambitions at that stage especially as I had aspirations to buy and renovate a chateau in France as a social enterprise. All I needed was to find a clone of Dick Strawbridge, a small army of volunteers and 2 million euros!
I had heard of Howard Group and knew they were a family-owned commercial property development company with a “good” reputation, but that was it. When I first talked to Nicholas, I sheepishly confessed that I hadn’t actually heard of Unity Campus. It was only when I arrived at the site in Pampisford to meet him that I realised it was an extension to what I had known as Iconix Park. That, explained Nicholas, was precisely why he wanted to meet me. The Group needed someone like me to help put Unity Campus on “the map”. Might I be interested in a short-term assignment whilst I went hunting for Dick’s clone and a multi-millionaire, he asked?
We agreed to meet for coffee at the Campus just before Christmas. I parked in the new multi-storey car park, and as I walked towards our meeting place in The Works, I was instantly struck, in a positive way, by two things. Firstly, the fact that Nicholas, the Group’s CEO, was carrying bags full of Christmas gifts that he was about to deliver, in person, to the tenants at the Campus; and secondly the unique character of The Works. Although it housed wet labs, it was unlike any other science building I had visited, not just in Cambridge, but anywhere in the world (and when you get to my age in this sector, you’ve seen a lot of laboratory buildings). Located next to a long red brick building with a tall chimney stack which was one of the buildings that had housed a tannery called Eastern Counties Leather, The Works had an edgy industrial vibe in both its external and internal appearance.
To be honest, I was never that keen on history until I read a book about the first 100 years of Eastern Counties Leather. In summary, it was about a man called Evans who was the owner of another tannery in Sawston. Despite being a man of considerable talent, not to mention a romantic, Evans was, it seems, an outrageous tyrant who was insanely jealous of other people’s success. He also had an unrivalled track record in dismissing skilled workers for bizarre reasons including the fact they had attended church against his orders (and this, at a time when he was the very church warden!) or refused to buy beer in one of the several pubs he owned in Sawston. This prompted a group of local businessmen to establish a rival tannery to provide employment for the workers Evans had sacked. The rival tannery, Eastern Counties Leather, was incorporated in 1879 on the site that is now Unity Campus. In fact, The Works had been the tannery’s Hide Market i.e. the place where buyers and sellers traded hides and skins.
In reading the story, I remarked with interest that many of the issues that the various owners of the tannery faced are similar to those facing the entrepreneurs at Unity Campus today - driving shareholder value, adapting to changing market needs, attracting and retaining staff, controlling costs, and exploiting new markets.
Anyway, back to my meeting with Nicholas. He talked me through the Group’s plans for the 11-acre site which included the development of 6 new buildings. They were about to push the button on the first three of these – the buildings were to be marketed as wet laboratories and not as offices as had originally been planned. I was intrigued.
After a convivial follow-up meeting with Katherine Friend, Director – Investment & Asset Management (we got on like a house on fire as we both love fashion) and Group Property Director - the energetic Werner Baumker - I joined the Group in February 2022 on an initial 6-month contract.
My initial task was to come up with a description of Unity Campus that would differentiate it from nearby parks such as Babraham, Chesterford, the Genome Campus and the Biomedical Campus, as well as the parks to the north of Cambridge including the Science Park.
The masterplan for Unity Campus described a site that is intimate, compact and collegiate, with buildings clustered around a central green courtyard in the same way buildings face onto squares in London.
I could picture myself as a research scientist working in one of the new buildings in the future - stepping out into the early evening sunshine after a challenging day in the lab, meeting up with friends in the Campus clubhouse for a cold beer whilst listening to a jazz band playing in the background, and then enjoying a curry from one of Cambridge’s famous artisan food trucks before heading home.
Unity Campus was undoubtedly different. Some people would love it. Others less so. But this was a good thing, I reckoned, as it opened up a wider choice of location for technology and life science companies seeking laboratories or offices in the county.
Once that was agreed, we devised a marketing brochure. I posted copies to over 200 biomedical companies. This went some way to achieving Nicholas’ objective of putting Unity Campus on “the map”. It also generated significant interest in our new buildings from prospective tenants.
I was also tasked with creating a greater sense of community than had previously existed. One of the highlights for me was the appointment of Jess Harvey Bowman in April as our Community Engagement Manager. Jess is one of those people whom you like the second you meet her – hard working, thoughtful, funny and loyal. I think every science park deserves a Jess. If I had cloning technology, I would make lots of Jesses and share them round all the other parks via the United Kingdom Science Park Association.
Our efforts to create a community were initially based on getting to know our “members”. We hosted a wide range of events and activities on site. I also arranged for a small group of members to go clay pigeon shooting one weekend – what a brilliant way to spend a Saturday morning. Our efforts were rewarded when Domainex, one of our “member companies”, told me one of the reasons they wanted to expand at Unity Campus was because their staff didn’t want to leave the site. Domainex have just signed a lease for one of our new buildings.
Another highlight was the topping out ceremony we held in March when we celebrated the highest point of building A1. The weather was ghastly, so we are grateful to everyone who came to celebrate this major milestone with us. Jess had ordered exceedingly tasty toasted sandwiches in large quantities which may have helped boost attendance though!
It has also been interesting working for a small family business with a strong sense of purpose. Trying to balance “People, Profit and Planet” is not that easy to achieve in the current economic climate, but I admire Nicholas for having this as the Group’s central purpose.
My initial six-month assignment lasted 18 months (!) during which time I also developed a 126-page Vision for the Campus to coincide with the Group’s centenary in 2035. The more onerous task of delivering the Vision now falls to Jon Green who was appointed full time Director of the Campus in June.
As a small team of 14 people, Howard Group certainly punches above its weight when it comes to property development. I particularly admire Katherine for her ability to stay calm under considerable pressure and for trusting me to “get on with it”.
As I close this season in my varied career, I would like to thank Nicholas, the board and the team for the opportunity to contribute, in a small way, to the ongoing success of Unity Campus. I wish them, and all the inspirational companies on the site, every success in the future.
By the way, I wisely decided against the chateau and have now bought a medieval house in one of the most beautiful villages in France. It is also a renovation project so I’m still on the hunt for the elusive Strawbridge clone!
To keep me out of trouble during the conveyancing process, which I am told, can take months in France, I am planning another short, but very interesting Cambridge Biomedical Cluster project in collaboration with Tony Quested at Business Weekly. Knowing TQ, that should be a lot of fun. Watch this space!