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Britain and Boston: Economic partners in the past, present and the future

Posted by Devin Cole  December 21, 2011 11:35 AM

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Phil.Budden.jpgBritain has long had business links with Massachusetts, and they are growing even stronger: such business is the key focus of the British Consulate in Boston.

In a sense, the strength of the business links should not be a surprise. Massachusetts was in part founded as a commercial enterprise almost 400 years ago, by British Puritans who created the Massachusetts Bay Company. The signs of those early links remain, such as the name of the governing body for any English chartered company of that time – the ‘General Court’ – which has come to signify the state’s legislature. More importantly, the shared heritage of an English-speaking, legally-grounded entrepreneurial culture has underpinned the links between Massachusetts and Britain ever since, despite the constitutional separation that resulted from the late unpleasantness known locally as the ‘War of Independence’.

Turning to today, the business links between Britain and Massachusetts are still strong. British investment in the state means that over 40,000 Massachusetts residents go to work each day for British-owned companies – large and small, from RBS’s investment in Citizens Bank, through National Grid and AstraZeneca, to Hotel Chocolat, Ted Baker and Jack Wills. In the other direction, Britain is the largest export market for Massachusetts companies which sell over $3.2 billion worth of their products and services there each year. Over 250 Massachusetts companies – ranging from State Street to Zipcar – have expanded and strengthened their businesses by setting up operations in the UK, using Britain as a gateway into Europe, reaching the 500 million consumers of the single European market.

We brought these commercial ties into focus last March, when Governor Patrick visited the UK for a three-day trade mission, focused on promoting Massachusetts business interests into the UK, and attracting further British investment back into this state. In the City of London financial district, Governor Patrick co-hosted an event which looked at the opportunities to deepen the business ties between Boston’s financial services community and its British counterpart.

The whirlwind visit continues to produce positive outcomes: three British companies - Shire Pharmaceuticals, Cambridge Consultants and Sagentia – all announced plans to expand their operations in Massachusetts, adding jobs for local residents. Cambridge-based Zipcar acquired a UK company called Streetcar last year, and it continues to expand in the UK. PatientsLikeMe, another Boston-area company, launched its UK office a few months ago, after winning a spot on a trade mission organized by the Consulate with help from Virgin Atlantic airways.

The mission also created links which can build the companies of the future: an agreement signed during the Governor’s visit by the University of Massachusetts’ Stem Cell Bank and its UK counterpart is already promoting excellence in research and scientific collaboration in the field which promises so much. As follow-up to the Governor’s mission, the Consulate led a delegation of Boston-area venture capitalists to look at London’s innovation economy in October. They found opportunities for partnership and collaboration, and ways in which Boston and London can work together to finance innovation. In November, my team then took a delegation of Massachusetts’ start-ups to look at opportunities in east London – home of Tech City, the largest start up community in Europe. Some of the Boston-based businesses on the mission are looking at opening an office in Tech City, which they hope to use as a springboard to the wider European market.

Sporting links also help business. When the owners of the Boston RedSox purchased the Liverpool Football (ie ‘soccer’) Club, this sparked renewed interest between these two great port cities. First, we took a delegation of Massachusetts firms to explore the opportunities in Liverpool last April. Then in September, we hosted a return trip by the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce and some of its member companies which were interested in building links with Boston: one of them – The Translation People – opened an office in Boston during that trip, which Mayor Menino welcomed. As a Connector for Boston World Partnerships, I’ve been especially pleased in connecting Boston with this corner of the world.

Looking to the new year, we think 2012 could be a great opportunity for Massachusetts businesses to connect more closely with Britain. With the Olympics and Paralympics in London next year, there are plenty of reasons to visit Britain: those events – and the Queen’s Jubilee – also mean that the world’s eyes will be on the UK, and on those companies doing business there. As a Consulate, we look forward to showcasing the best that Britain has to offer – and demonstrating how Boston companies can join in.

Massachusetts and Britain are also important partners in economic recovery. The outcome of the recent European summit demonstrated the challenge of finding a way back to prosperity. Within Europe’s single market, Britain is still the easiest place to set up and run a business, with one of the worlds’ most flexible and highly skilled labour markets. It also has one of the lowest main corporate tax rates in the European Union, and among the fewest barriers to trade and investment in the world. These factors are all the more reason why Massachusetts – with a similarly open, flexible and innovative economy – is a great partner for Britain. As this year has demonstrated, Britain is open for business, especially with Massachusetts.

We already enjoy a relationship built on a solid historical foundation, and one that has evolved into mutual prosperity and a shared goal of promoting innovation. I’m excited about what is on offer for 2012, and look forward to sharing it with you. The Consulate has 10 staff dedicated to helping companies set up in the UK, including specialists in life sciences, technology, cleantech, and financial services. You can learn more of our plans for 2012 from our website, our LinkedIn group, or our Twitter feed.

Phil Budden is British Consul General to New England, and a Boston World Partnerships connector.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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