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CEO interview: Sarah Danson, Gloucestershire Growth Hub

PUBLISHED: 17:04 05 July 2017

Sarah Danson from the Growth Hub (c) Antony Thompson/TWM

Sarah Danson from the Growth Hub (c) Antony Thompson/TWM

© Thousand Word Media

A yes culture is central to Gloucestershire’s innovative Growth Hub, driving business success across the county through mentoring, resources and funding. Tanya Gledhill meets Sarah Danson, the Senior Project Manager who makes the magic happen at Oxstalls

Sarah Danson talks about facilitating multi-million pound investments into Gloucestershire with infectious enthusiasm and incredible clarity. She’s the kind of woman who makes European contracts and team transitioning sound gripping.

Sarah has been based at The Growth Hub since it opened its doors in October 2014. Seconded there from Gfirst LEP, Sarah splits her time balancing managing capital investment for the local enterprise partnership with overseeing the operational aspects of The Growth Hub and the broader network.

“It’s a role which I really enjoy; challenging and diverse,” she says.

“I’m witness to the fantastic work that all our partners do; the LEP, the University of Gloucestershire and The Growth Hub itself.

“Since 2014 we have made a real and measurable difference to business throughout the county and have seen more than 2500 businesses receive direct support. This is something that I and the wider team are immensely proud of.”

But there’s still plenty of work to do and a lot of opportunity for Gloucestershire businesses to take advantage of the facilities, expertise and funding that The Growth Hub can offer.

As it now embarks on its next phase funded by four European funding contracts, Sarah and her team are gearing up to welcome new colleagues to help the Hub deliver wide-ranging support services to an even greater number of businesses.

“This is a hugely exciting time to be part of The Growth Hub” she says.

“We’re transitioning the team as we enter into a new way of working and for my part, I will be focusing on the development of our people; getting the right people into the right roles, taking stock, stopping, evaluating and ultimately making the right decisions so we can all push forward.

The Growth Hub (c) Antony Thompson/TWMThe Growth Hub (c) Antony Thompson/TWM

“It’s then down to the team of business experts that we have on board to connect with business and shaping growth.

“I feel incredibly positive and optimistic about the service we can all deliver over the next three years and the opportunities this will provide for our own teams and the wider business community.”

There’s no doubt that staff development is at the heart of everything she does.

When she joined GFirst in 2008, one of 39 LEPs in England, she spent her first six years in employer engagement before being promoted to Business Engagement Manager, forging links between businesses and education and driving growth.

As if the former Dean Close pupil didn’t have enough going on, she enrolled on a strategic management degree course at Gloucestershire College, and graduated with flying colours.

This drive for personal as well as professional growth is typical of Sarah, whose path to the LEP and Growth Hub isn’t the one you might expect.

Born in Lichfield, she moved to Cheltenham as a baby when her father landed a job at the then Dowty Rotol.

A classically-trained ballerina, she spent her youth dancing professionally while she decided where life would take her.

In her 20s, she returned to Gloucestershire - a county for which she clearly has enormous affection.

Sarah Danson from the Growth Hub (c) Antony Thompson/TWMSarah Danson from the Growth Hub (c) Antony Thompson/TWM

When she’s not working, you’ll find her playing golf at Lilleybrook or walking her three German Shepherd Husky crosses in the Cotswolds.

“I pretty much had to restart at the age of 28,” says Sarah. “I got a job in sales and was out on the road repping for quite a while - wholesale to retail for a giftware company.

“This gave me a great grounding in sales, targets and customer engagement and from this I went on to enjoy 15 years in the business development, sales and marketing arena.”

Funding champion

From there, GFirst beckoned. Founded in 1994, the GFirst LEP partnership has already secured more than £106m for Gloucestershire.

The third round of Growth Deal funding announced in February was worth £29m to the organisation, and the board, chaired by Dr Diane Savory OBE, announced it could, as a result, deliver its top three priorities.

They were the £4.53m Longford Housing project, to include a new roundabout and link road at Elmbridge, set out in the Joint Core Strategy (JCS); the £22m cyber business park up at GCHQ and Gloucestershire College’s new £2.6m Forest of Dean Campus in Cinderford - which will, it has just been announced, welcome its first students in 2018.

The Growth Hub (c) Antony Thompson/TWMThe Growth Hub (c) Antony Thompson/TWM

“Current funding means we’ll be here until at least December 2019,” she says. “And I’m hopeful we’ll get an extension of at least another couple of years.

“We are committed to proving that the impacts that we make as a Growth Hub have a real and measurable effect on the wider regional economy through the creation of new jobs, business growth and opportunity.

“It’s our intention that, in future, we can have proven to have delivered so much value to Gloucestershire businesses that they will want to get more involved.”

Though the long term isn’t clear, the Growth Hub’s goals are, and the stats so far are undeniably impressive.

More than 2,500 businesses are on the books. Eight hundred high-growth companies are receiving accelerated support. And more than 200 expert support providers offer advice to businesses from small concerns to multi-million pound global companies.

The hub’s light and airy spaces up at the university’s Oxstalls campus, with their brightly coloured chairs and funky break-out spaces, are undoubtedly welcoming. It’s a place where businesses can step out of their usual confines and enjoy some thinking space.

And then there’s the new website, with more than 1,700 targeted resources designed to give the hub an important new digital presence, as well as a physical one.

“Our advice is free and impartial,” Sarah says. “We’re often the first point of contact for businesses, and our spaces are free. People can hold meetings here and drink coffee.

“But we can only do so much with a business here. We’re not here to displace the services other business can offer, service providers in the county.

Sarah Danson from the Growth Hub (c) Antony Thompson/TWMSarah Danson from the Growth Hub (c) Antony Thompson/TWM

“We want to be able to signpost them so they can get advice, and ultimately make growth happen faster.

“Essentially, we’re here to simplify the business landscape.”

Skills shortages

But there are challenges.

“The skills issue is massive,” she says. “Particularly in the engineering and manufacturing sectors and we’ve got to continue to look at how we build that skills base.

“Companies want to grow their workforce, while still meeting the needs for their existing ageing workforce, and that’s not easy.

“The LEP is all about creating jobs and ensuring we have the skills to match those jobs.” The hub’s partnership with the university is crucial to that, and ensuring we have a network of hubs across the county will widen the reach of The Growth Hub.

In the next 12 months, there will be 31 active points in the county.

So who is it that walks through The Growth Hub’s doors, or logs on to take advantage of its myriad web resources, including case studies and a vast directory?

“We’ve been able to help some really fantastic businesses,” says Sarah - at pains to point out with trademark modesty that it’s “my advisors, not me”.

“There’s some real potential here in Gloucestershire. Our emphasis as we move towards the future will be on creating a robust and regional supply chain for the larger companies.

“Gloucestershire wouldn’t be Gloucestershire without aerospace, for example, and we have to be very clear that we can support such sector ambitions through the supply chain.”

Going forward, The Growth Hub will expand at Oxstalls, strengthening its links with the university’s renowned business school.

Sarah is determined to make it as “diverse and attractive” as possible, to not only attract business students to come here, but to retain the talent in Gloucestershire once degrees are awarded.

It’s that link between business and education that’s so unique - that, and the fact that Sarah insists her team employs common sense when it comes to which companies to mentor.

“We are an intuitive team trained to spot potential, and to say yes wherever possible. Common sense has to be employed,” she says, emphatically.

“We of course have to check that the businesses, the SMEs, are eligible for our help, in terms of EU regulations, but we look at everyone who comes through our doors.

“We do have targets that we have to hit over the next few years, yes, and there are checks and balances.

“But we do try to look pragmatically at what’s in front of us.

“Often, one of my team will say, ‘we need to look at this one again’ and we do, because we want to help businesses scale up, improve growth and create jobs.

“Our mantra is growth - it’s what we’re all about.”

And, thankfully for the business community here in Gloucestershire, there’s nothing that’s going to dissuade her from that.

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