Minister hails 'brilliant' Black Country Business Festival - PICTURES and VIDEO
The biggest business event in Black Country history is up and running with the backing of the nation's Small Business Minister.
Scores of leading figures from the worlds of business, education and politics attended the launch event at the Black Country Living Museum, marking the start of 122 events over the next two weeks aimed at celebrating the culture, commerce and innovation of the local area.
Corin Crane, the chief executive of Black Country Chamber of Commerce who launched the idea of the festival, said: "It's brilliant. Genuinely, I couldn't be more chuffed.
"We have a story to tell in the Black Country," he said, pointing out that the boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell and Walsall and city of Wolverhampton are home to 36,000 businesses employing around half a million people.
Small Business Minister and Black Country boy Andrew Griffiths added his support: "This is a truly brilliant initiative on behalf of the Black Country."
Born in Coseley to a family that ran an engineering business, Mr Griffiths, now MP for Burton upon Trent, said: "You can take the lad out of the Black Country, but you can't take the Black Country out of the lad.
"As somebody who has been in business, somebody from this region, I know what a brilliant place this is, not just to live and work in but to do business. To have an initiative like this, that showcases the best of Black Country business, that brings entrepreneurs – business men and women – together from across the region and shouts about what is great about this area is hugely important."
He joked about have had just two hours sleep the night before – his daughter Alice was born just 13 days ago – and said: "I'm on paternity leave, but I had to be here."
And he recalled how he had been pictured, aged just 12, pulling pints at the Bottle & Glass pub at the museum back in 1981 when it was first opened by his father, then Mayor of Dudley.
Mr Griffiths also hailed the £20billion contribution the growing Black Country made to the UK economy, and spoke of the importance of businesses getting together at events throughout the festival to share best practice and improve productivity.
West Midlands Metro Mayor Andy Street also spoke of the Black Country's contribution to the wide regional economy, which was growing two and a half times faster than the rest of the country.
And he reminded the audience at the museum that recently announced investments would see millions spent on expanding the Metro tram system to Dudley and Brierley Hill, and one cleaning up former industrial land for new homes to create the Black Country Garden Village.
Liz Blakemore, community affairs officer at AF Blakemore & Son, said after 100 years the company remained based in the Black Country largely because of the quality of the local workforce, and she urged other businesses to do more to engage with the younger generation, pointing out that out of 1.17m people in the area 300,000 were under 18.
Trevor Leeks, operations director at the Jaguar Land Rover engine factory on the i54 site in Wolverhampton, spoke of how the original plan in 2012 for a £350m plant had grown into a £1bn investment making hundreds of thousands of engines a year and now employing around 1,800 people. And he said 5,500 more people were working in the factory's supply chain – many of them local.
Jatinder Sharma, principal and CEO of Walsall College, spoke of the importance of improving skills among young people and the wider workforce, and revealed that the Black Country was training more apprentices than the rest of the West Midlands put together.
The launch also heard from the new boss of the M6 Toll. Andy Cliffe was appointed chief executive of the toll road operator Midlands Expressway just seven days ago. The son of a Walsall firefighter and a midwife, he said of returning to the area after a career in Manchester and the East Midlands: "It is absolutely fabulous to see how much change there has been."
The Black Country Business Festival aims to showcase the best that businesses in Wolverhampton, Sandwell, Dudley and Walsall have to offer. A packed programme of inspiring business events will be taking place right across the region between now and May 3.
Most events are completely free and anyone can attend.
Tickets must be reserved in advance and they are available on a first come, first served basis via the website www.blackcountrybusinessfestival.com