13 June, 2020 - 10:30 By Tony Quested

From recession to pandemic and back to recession?

Launched in May 1990 in the teeth of a UK recession, Business Weekly now marks its 30th anniversary in the middle of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic with the Chancellor warning of an even more dire recession ahead.

Broker in that the 1990 recession spilled over into 1991 and 1992, the stock market crashed in 2002, the 2008 recession dragged over five quarters and the 2010s era saw four separate periods of quarter on quarter fall in growth and one might expect a postbag bulging with letters of admiration from masochists. 

Just as we aren’t about to bake a cake, let alone apply icing or cover it with candles, so no-one at Business Weekly is lamenting the tough conditions that book-end our history to date.

The vision today is exactly as it was on foundation: to promote credible  businesses; to link them with potential customers, investors and collaborators locally, nationally and globally; to inspire and encourage generations of entrepreneurs; to build a bridge between academia & research and wider industry; to raise this region’s reputational capital on a world stage to encourage further growth of the cluster. 

What we have engendered, in conjunction with partners, is a joined up community boasting the largest ever cohort of serial entrepreneurs. We call them torchbearers. These men and women are committed not only to starting new enterprises of their own but also to mentoring and financially supporting new generations of entrepreneurial startups that spin out of academia or splinter from big businesses.

In the last couple of months, life science and technology innovators have led the UK’s fightback against COVID-19 in a number of ways, working with contemporaries and academia on vaccines, antibodies and even ventilators. When Business Weekly opened its doors there WAS no life science sector and precious little cutting edge technology.

In fact, before the establishment of Cambridge Science Park in 1960 – get out the candles for the 50th anniversary when the lockdown lifts – and St John’s Innovation Park in 1987 Cambridge was by many contemporaries’ admissions, a cabbage patch.

Now it is billionaire’s row boasting 18 unicorns (private companies with billion dollar valuations before IPO) who owe their birth to Cambridge IP.

Big industrial players and technology consultancies were the type of companies that thrived in the ‘old’ Cambridge. Electronics was another strong suit. Pye Ltd, which had been founded in 1896 and made scientific instruments and comms devices, was defunct by 1988.

Johnson Matthey, born in London in 1817 but by 1990 well established locally, and Marshall of Cambridge – which had started life in 1909 – were already global players by the time we hit the presses.

So, too, was Domino – an inkjet printing pioneer spun out of tech consultancy Cambridge Consultants in 1978 – which fought for cash and kudos as a private enterprise up against a battery of big-money US giants and became a world leader in its own right.

Cambridge Consultants itself was the founder of the Cambridge Phenomenon; launched in 1960, it had shrugged off a near fatal financial crisis which Robert Maxwell and Clive Sinclair tried to sort out – yes, it was THAT bad – and by 1990 had a stream of world-class clients beating a path to its door. 

Clive’s own consumer electronics company Sinclair Research had been influential from launch in 1961.

The Technology Partnership (TTP) was a relative newcomer having been founded in 1987 and is now Europe’s largest independent player in the market.

CADCentre, founded in 1967, formed the origins of industrial software innovator AVEVA which now has a market cap of £6.2 billion. Laser Scan had bedded in at the Science Park from 1967, founded by three academics from the university’s physics department and was still going strong by the time Business Weekly launched.

It could be argued that new tech came to the fore with Tony Purnell’s launch of Pi Research and then Pi Technology, developing futuristic vehicle telematics – for example for the cockpits of Formula One racing cars.
Pi Research won our inaugural business awards in 1990 and the group also won the 1994 competition. Purnell made millions when Ford came calling and told a recent Business Weekly Awards dinner that winning the competition had been influential.

While Napp Pharmaceuticals had been formed in 1923, there was no recognisable biotechnology sector in Cambridge when we launched. Sir Christopher Evans decided to change all that by fighting myopic City financiers to win cash for a sector he was sure would blossom. 

Since then, of course, life sciences has arguably become the ace in a Cambridge technology hand rammed with face cards.

In 1990 engaging with Cambridge University was not easy. It seems to have thought that Outreach must have been a town in the old Wild West. It would be six years before electrical engineer Alec Broers started a seven year reign of enlightenment as vice-chancellor (effectively chief executive) which saw him co-found Cambridge Network and open up dialogue between the university and business. Alison Richard picked up the torch in 2003 and others have since built on the foundations.

The Judge Institute for Management Studies launched in 1990 and has since blossomed into Cambridge Judge Business School with a globally renowned MBA and a whole host of imaginative entrepreneur and leadership programmes. 

Christoph Loch’s appointment as director in September 2011 was to prove an inspired move; he has transformed the School’s agenda and ensured it leverages its world-class reputation.

Early days

There is much talk in technology these days about disruption; a lot of it hype. But few would dispute that Business Weekly was disruptive in a number of ways from Day One. 

The offices were initially at St John’s Innovation Centre because the chairman, Walter Herriot, was managing director there. It wasn’t an uncommon sight to see people from other companies in the building wander into the office to contribute skills and material; here a would-be writer or sub-editor who had never worked in newspapers; there an outlier from elsewhere who had volunteered to moonlight and set advertisements.

Seeing the carpet was occasionally an even harder task as the late night takeaway meals and liquid sustenance arrived and the detritus was added to a welter of discarded paper strewn across the floor. But deadlines were always hit and there was huge appetite for the title across Cambridge and the wider region.

When I left Fleet Street to form a PR company, working with the likes of technology entrepreneur Steve Ives, Business Weekly’s executives identified that growth capital was urgently required, realising that would mean finding a more enlightened funding model.

Through an association the founders had made with highly respected financial expert John Lee – now CFO at transatlantic technology company DisplayLink – it was decided he would offer the soundest advice. 
More disruption: I recall his startled response when I called him. “But Tony; I’m on honeymoon.”

John graciously set up a call with Hermann Hauser who rang early one morning from the US to pledge cash and allegiance. We pulled all the regional titles covering Peterborough, Milton Keynes & Bedford, Norfolk and Suffolk into one Business Weekly East of England edition with Cambridge the focal point. All the companies in the surrounding hinterland by this time wanted to get at Cambridge anyway because the tech sector had started to bloom by the late ’90s.

Tony Blair had coined and presided over the birth of New Labour and a party stalwart called us to say that they felt Cambridge was now the unofficial capital of East Anglia rather than the finance-centric Norwich because New Labour believed the economic future for Britain would be driven by science & hi-tech. 

Business Weekly had moved into Hermann’s Active Book/EO Europe offices in Great Shelford. Excited by a clear upshift in footfall to the door and anticipating floods of new advertisers, staff were often greeted by farmers saying they had brought their pig urine samples or had bought a set of golf clubs that were not fit for purpose. 

They were all directed with courtesy and good humour to Trading Standards next door – and advertisers did arrive a-plenty through other routes.
We were helped enormously at that time by new chairman Bruce Matthews, a highly experienced Australian businessman who had guided Rupert Murdoch’s publishing empire through battles with the print unions that led to barbed wire at Wapping and a new-age industrial revolution.

Bruce took no pleasure in crushing the unions but, in common with many senior Murdoch executives, his pleas for a more enlightened approach to a new era at News International fell on stony ground.

It was Bruce who took us aside and said: “Don’t sell advertising per se; build partnerships and relationships. The advertising and sponsorship will follow if you are at the heart of major networks, executives regard you as an indispensable influencer and you consistently demonstrate that you are a force for positive change.” The advice has stood the test of time.

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