Steven Morris: Stirling scaling the heights in corporate Scotland

THE founder and chief executive of ESM Investments, argues the case for the city as a perfect location in which to establish and nurture a business.

View of Stirling and the castle with snow cover hills in distance. Picture: Ian Rutherford
View of Stirling and the castle with snow cover hills in distance. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Where’s Stirling? A question I invariably encountered as international small talk took over from focused business chatter. My answer honed to be “near Edinburgh” or “just along from Glasgow”, using our two great Scottish cities as a convenient recognisable get-out “measure” (only occasionally did I revert to “up from London”).

It makes me smile now as in 2017 I think of Stirling as a hidden business gem in corporate Scotland and to have amazing potential over the next few years. Why not Stirling?

First a brief plotted personal history. I’m a Falkirk bairn (let’s not even attempt to put that on the international language menu) and located my first technology start-up on the campus at Stirling University in 2002. There I developed the start of ETV Interactive Ltd which attracted a lot of investor interest and I eventually sold to iBAHN Inc in 2007. I invested further in another company called TS3 Services Ltd and in similar vein sold my shares in this business in 2011. Both ventures yielded healthy capital returns for the founders and investors. I have worked in North America, the Middle East and in the Far East and Australasia in concluding my interests in these businesses but returned home to the family base in Stirling when the opportunity arose.

I established ESM Investments in 2012, headquartered in Stirling with global representation in the US, Hong Kong & Singapore. We attract interest from individual and grouped investors based in Scotland, other parts of the UK and from many ex-pats throughout the world. We are currently active capital supporters and consultants to 20 predominantly Scottish technology start-ups.

We are committed to Stirling as a great place to do business and we are not alone. The globally renowned Prudential group through its acquisition of Scottish Amicable in the 1990s is a major employer in the region and Codebase, the largest technology incubator in the UK, chose Stirling as its first development outside of Edinburgh for its fast growing business, already the largest of its type in Europe.

Stewart Carruth, chief executive of Stirling Council told me recently of his confidence in Stirling’s future. Its bold and ambitious £600 million City Region Deal is positioning Stirling as an economic and cultural powerhouse, creating over 3,000 additional jobs and increasing the region’s GVA by 6-7 per cent over the next ten years.

Stirling was recently voted the best place in Scotland to start a business (eighth in the UK). It is also Scotland’s most entrepreneurial city, boasting 100 more businesses per 10,000 population than the Scottish average. Its close proximity to Glasgow and Edinburgh allows companies to enjoy all the benefits of a central belt location without the high commercial property price tag.

There’s no doubting Stewart’s bullishness: “The true appeal of Stirling goes beyond geography. It delivers unrivalled global connectivity at a highly competitive cost. With direct access to international markets, it is a place for growth. Our world class innovation in aquaculture, big data, financial technologies, sport, digital health, dairy and construction demonstrates the value of Stirling’s collaborative approach to business, its talented workforce and entrepreneurial culture.”

Stirling University, celebrating 50 this year continues to make giant strides. The International Student Barometer (ISB) positioned it as top in Scotland for welcoming international students, (20 per cent of the 14,000 strong student body). The ISB survey showed more than 92 per cent of surveyed overseas students were satisfied with their overall experience, placing Stirling above Scottish, UK and international averages. The university was also named in a global list of top universities aged 50 or less.

Council leader Scott Farmer added: “We have strong links between businesses, the third sector, University of Stirling; Forth Valley College and the Council; all of which makes our area an attractive proposition for businesses and investors.”

Opening the 3rd European Conference on Curriculum Studies at University of Stirling, John Swinney said: “Our universities undertake world-leading research using some of the most advanced facilities in Europe. They attract incredibly talented individuals from across the EU and beyond and enable them to take part in ground breaking innovative research and productive collaborations across Europe. This is why we continue to invest in research, innovation and technology so that Scotland remains a productive and competitive country”.

So corporately, politically, academically and strategically Stirling makes a quite compelling statement. A growing young vibrant and diverse population that have chosen Stirling as a place of learning enriches that quite powerfully. That’s where Stirling really is.

• Steven Morris is the founder and chief executive of ESM Investments.