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Let’s Work Together

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The rewards that arose from encouraging tenants to invest in a community ethic turned out to be a Kent business park’s greatest discovery

“Where’s Sandwich?”

That was the initial reaction of Anna Stone when asked if she’d like to take over as leasing director of the soon-to-be-launched Discovery Park. Previously occupied by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, the site in East Kent boasted 1.5million sq ft of laboratory and office space – most of which was empty. The task Anna faced was to leave the 700-acre business park in Teeside on which she’d worked for the last five years and take on the mammoth task of filling her company’s vast new acquisition, somewhere down south that she’d never even heard of.

“It was a bit of a tumbleweed moment,” Anna confessed. “When we bought the park, it had just five tenants. Because the site is so big, I didn’t know my way around for the first three months or so. I had to keep ringing the security guard and describing the building I was in, so he could work out where I was!”

That was three years ago. After five decades on the site Pfizer had decided to sell up and although the company still remains as a tenant, it was the beginning of a brand new era for the site. Whether it had a future as a multi-tenant business hub, in the face of some local skepticism, would stand or fall on the strength of the new owners’ strategy, but they had a plan…

With so much of the space standing empty, owners Discovery Park Ltd urgently needed to address the spiraling costs of maintaining such a huge site, which they achieved by bringing all the facilities management services in-house. Now, everyone from the cleaners to the security team is employed by Park Serve, which is owned by the company, rather than using subcontractors.

Then there was the challenge of filling all that empty space. Working closely with Locate in Kent, Anna began to overcome her initial lack of local knowledge and the momentum gradually started to build. But despite the desire to generate revenue, Anna was determined to fulfill the directors’ vision of what Discovery Park could become.

“I started slowly getting inquiries from the support sector and from day one, I could have had about 200 virtual tenants,” Anna said. “Everyone wanted a piece of the pie and to know what was happening with this fantastic site, but I made people actually move in. I’d say, ‘you’ve got to be in it to win it’ – people wanted an address here without actually being here, but I told them that if you want to be a part of Discovery Park, you’ve got to move in. So we started bringing in lots of different business support sectors and that attracted other scientific tenants as well.”

In just three years the park has attracted 117 businesses, employing around 2,500 people. Although Discovery Park is specifically designed for science and technology businesses – here is a place where companies can enjoy world-class laboratories that were originally installed by Pfizer at lower rates than might be expected – it now boasts tenants from just about every sector. And it appears that this diversity might be the key to the site’s continuing success.

“All of our tenants know exactly who the others are and we network them up as much as possible, with regular meetings and even speed-networking,” Anna explained. “People don’t just move in, shut their front doors and think ‘that’s it’; they almost buy into the fact that they’re part of a community and I like to think that every one of our tenants has been an ambassador for Discovery Park. They’ve all bought into making the park a success by having their business here.”

The idea was not just to build a happy family atmosphere, but to encourage the tenants to help others succeed, thereby creating a circular effect of continuing support and growth. As an example, Anna cited an Australian IVF specialist that came to the park after choosing Kent over Oxford and Cambridge. Setting up a new base in a foreign country meant the company needed just about every business support service going and their new neighbours were only too keen to help.

“I introduced them to a recruitment company, because they were looking to staff their new facility, and to an IT company to ensure they had good connectivity back to Australia,” Anna said. “They needed business cards and headed paper etc, so a branding company took care of that, while a marketing company told their story and an accountant helped them with their R&D tax credits. And so on through all the sectors. We’re a science and technology park, that’s our main objective, but it’s all about making sure the tenants are within the right environment to help them grow.”

Every quarter there are meetings to update the tenants about developments on site and new arrivals. Socialising is also high on the agenda, whether that’s attending the fortnightly barbecues or facing each other down in a table tennis tournament in the park’s “Google-esque” playroom. With amenities that include an artisan baker, a gym, a dry cleaner and even a beauty salon, Discovery Park is a pretty convenient place to do business.

Even with the support of the park and their fellow tenants, though, no business can flourish in premises that aren’t right, either in terms of expenditure or facilities. From the start, Anna decided that flexibility would be essential for getting businesses to embrace Discovery Park. Tenants can rent space to accommodate anything from two to 2,000 staff, but Anna also has one eye on the future in order to retain businesses as they thrive. Having a virtually empty site in the early days meant that she could place tenants in labs or offices that would enable them to expand into surrounding space, rather than having to eventually abandon Discovery Park for larger premises.

“Of the 117 tenants here, nine are currently expanding and it’s like a constant game of musical chairs,” Anna said. “I’m always thinking ‘that company could move here and this company could move there’ etc.”

Her next big task, however, is to fill Building 500 – a 500,000 sq ft space that is the only building as yet unoccupied. This will provide more opportunities for burgeoning businesses of various sizes to expand over years to come, although Anna would like to see one or two major tenants there too. “There’s a large office suite of 18,000 sq ft and if someone came to Kent wanting that sort of space, it would be either us or King’s Hill,” she said. “We’ve had companies relocate here from America, Australia and even Oxford and Cambridge, which used to be seen as the be all and end all of science. I think people relocate here from local areas of East Kent too, because they see that they’re in the right environment to grow their business.”

Having moved down to Kent from the North East to work at Discovery Park, Anna is well-placed to comment on what draws people to Sandwich and keeps them there.

“I like to think that part of the reason is because it’s very pretty here, with the golf courses and the beaches. Also it’s very accessible to London and we have good links with Europe. When I moved here, people up north said that I wouldn’t like it down here because the people don’t speak to each other – but I’ve found it to be the opposite way around actually! Certainly people are very friendly at Discovery Park, which might be something to do with the culture we’ve instilled here. But there must be lots of plus points because, three years later, I’m still here!”

Author: Jane Connolly, SouthEast Business