15 May, 2019 - 11:47 By Tony Quested

Time to put Marshall move into perspective

2019 is the 110th anniversary of the Marshall Group, a private, family-owned enterprise which for well over a century – and long before the advent of the life science and hi-tech boom that has propelled the city to global fame – has been the predominant industrial employer and exporter in Cambridge.

Year after year the company has been a mainstay of the Cambridge economy, scaling to a turnover of £2.5 billion with more than 5,700 employees.

For at least the last decade or so, to my certain knowledge, this private, family-owned business has been badgered by the city council to move its vast workforce to Suffolk or elsewhere to make way for much-needed housing development: Regardless of cost in terms of revenue or reputation.

The feeling shared by the family on many occasions with yours truly has been that the intentions of the city gatekeepers had been to build a sink estate on the airfield site.

Sir Michael Marshall and his family felt they had an obligation to ensure that the company’s legacy to Cambridge was an enduring and worthy one. If they did decide to move then any development on the site would need to be of the highest quality.

They were not prepared to let anyone steal in the back door and make away with the family silver, more than a century in the making, only to watch them melt it down and see a rich resource wasted.

The sheer audacity of this private, family-owned business! It has built its Aerospace & Defence Group into a world-leading player, independent of the kind of pressures quoted companies are under.

It has safeguarded thousands of local jobs in the process. It has flown the export flag for the UK with lucrative contract wins stacking into billions of pounds over the years with global OEMs which have brought cash and kudos into Britain ahead of competing nations across the planet.

So what do these ingrates at this private, family-owned business now have the cheek to do? Only invest many more millions of pounds into moving the Aerospace & Defence Group off the Newmarket Road site that it has been under such pressure to sell for a decade or more.

And what’s more to take the ADG business into a veritable wilderness: OK - Duxford, St Ives or Cranfield!

Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner expresses concern about the impact of the move on existing staff and jobs. Ask the Labour Party leader about the impact of Brexit on jobs the length and breadth of the UK. (See recent local council election results to determine how well connected Labour’s finger is with the pulse of the nation).

He wants guarantees that homes will be affordable and built to high environmental standards, with genuinely sustainable transport solutions in place up-front. Of course, Britain has such an enviable track record for providing affordable housing!

Transport spend is in the hands of politicians so there would appear to be an identifiable platform to address this particular concern.

Companies that have grown locally – such as this private, family-owned concern – have had to put up with the dog’s breakfast of Cambridge’s infrastructure for decades but didn’t let the handicap wreck their progress or their unstinting efforts on behalf of the local and national economies – piling cash into the Treasury year after year after year.

The union Unite is concerned that it was not consulted by the private, family-owned firm about the intention to move and seeks assurances on job security. Marshall would be daft – and they are not – were they to tarnish their biggest asset in the fight to win fresh and bigger orders – ie their talented engineers and loyal staff.

Former Mayoral candidate Peter Dawe tweets: “Only Cambridge would celebrate the loss of its largest private, the most considerate, best training, patriotic, world leading company! (And up to now loyal). Shame on you!”

Dawe built a terrific company in Unipalm which was sold to UUNET for £150 million in 1995. The American buyer promised all kinds of expansion in Cambridge but soon started eyeing Thames Valley and was sold a year later to WorldCom, its plans for Cambridge expansion a distant memory. Unipalm executives had the sense to slip the PIPEX business out from under the American-engineered carnage.

Marshall of Cambridge is not being disloyal by bidding to secure the long-term growth and security of the business. It is not abandoning Cambridge because apart from ADG (1500 out of 5,700 employees) the rest of the group stays anchored in Cambridge.

And, of course, Cambridge – which Dawe once said should consider putting up the ‘Full’ signs because it had run out of capacity for growth – could not possibly benefit from 12,000 additional homes and 5m sq ft of business and industrial space with many hundreds of extra jobs when Marshall makes the airfield site available in the new Local Plan.

Disloyal? We don’t believe so. Heaven forfend that we reach the day when a private, family-owned business has to shred its strategic ambitions and the welfare of ALL its stakeholders to bow to narrow public opinion.

Then, there are executives and business observers locally who tell us that because Arm and Domino were acquired by Japanese companies they are now Japanese and not Cambridge. Utter piffle!

We live in dynamic, fluid, fast-moving times when international investors view Cambridge as a honeypot. They do so because of ambitious companies like Marshall of Cambridge who enrich the infrastructure and reputational capital of Cambridge on the world stage.

Would we rather ask these global investors to put their money into France or Germany instead? Would we prefer Marshall not to invest in a stronger long-term future and risk withering on the vine?

Startups are spinning out of Cambridge University on a regular basis and setting up in London, America or China. Disloyal or sensible? It would appear to be a good time to show a tad more perspective.

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