STRONG, successful businesses are the foundation stones of any ambitious modern economy.
And what’s important for different regions within an economy to flourish is a high number of new business start-ups and a good survival rate among those businesses.
Here in Moray, where the closure of RAF Kinloss in 2012 after more than 70 years as a major employer in the area was a significant blow, these indices have been monitored very closely along with the population figures.
Moray Economic Partnership (MEP), which evolved from the task force established to try to save Kinloss and its sister base, RAF Lossiemouth, is charged with creating more high-quality jobs, increasing the population and raising average earnings.
A key element in this has been to diversify the Moray economy beyond its traditional three pillars of defence, whisky and food. And the success of the MEP, a public-private partnership comprising Moray Council, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Moray Chamber of Commerce and many other organisations*, is underlined by the latest figures for new business start-ups.
In the first nine months of the current financial year, 92 start-ups were supported by the excellent Business Gateway team in Elgin, while in 2013-14 the figure was 132. In 2012-13 it was 123 and in 2011-12 it was 120.
Just as importantly, these are businesses that last for the most part. Some 84 per cent of businesses established in Moray 12 months ago continue to trade successfully, while 78 per cent of businesses set up three years ago are also still gaining customers.
As a general rule, economic growth brings with it an expanding population, and Moray has the fastest growing population in Scotland, with the number of people living in the area increasing by more than five times the national average between mid-2012 and mid-2013 (and much more rapidly than neighbouring Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire and the Highlands).
There are now almost 95,000 people living here, so we are well on course to our target population of 97,000 by 2023, and wages have also been growing in Moray.
In delivering such a positive economic climate in Moray despite the odds, support from the MEP and the Scottish Government has undoubtedly been vital. Yet the underlying condition of the economy and the appeal of the area have made a big difference.
Many of those who left the RAF when Kinloss closed down remained in the area and set up new businesses because the quality of life here is quite simply fantastic.
Moray is blessed with beautiful scenery, small and attractive towns and villages to live in, a good climate and pleasant people to have as neighbours.
The skills coming out of the RAF also attracted new businesses to the area, including the oil and gas company EFC Group and global IT company Atos, which have set up operations in the last two years and now employ over 100 staff between them.
Home to these companies is the Enterprise Park, Forres, which houses a range of technology-led companies at one of Scotland’s premier business locations.
I believe there is a powerful entrepreneurial spirit in the area, which helps to explain why there are so many well-known family businesses here – Baxters, William Grant & Sons, Gordon & MacPhail and Walkers spring to mind. These businesses have passed down through generations of the same family and continue to be successful today.
Such household names have their 21st century equivalents, such as the computer games creator Hunted Cow, formed by Andrew Mulholland and now located in the heart of Elgin because he comes from Moray, likes it and wants to live here. He could have set up his business anywhere in the world, but the fact that he moved home speaks volumes.
Moray is also in the running to be the site of the UK’s first spaceport, with Kinloss and Lossiemouth on the government’s shortlist. Given our location, weather, facilities and skilled workforce, Moray would be the logical choice.
Of course, complacency is dangerous when your number one priority is economic growth. As the financial crisis demonstrated, you never know what is round the corner.
The MEP will continue to work hard to build on these achievements to ensure that we succeed in meeting our aims by creating a resilient local economy. • John Cowe is chairman of Moray Economic Partnership. *The full list of MEP members is: Moray Council, Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), Moray College UHI, Skills Development Scotland (SDS), Moray Chamber of Commerce, Moray Strategic Business Forum, NHS Grampian, Highlands and Islands Transportation Partnership (Hitrans), Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA) and TSiMoray.