Blog: "It's about partnership": Q&A with Mersey Maritime CEO, Chris Shirling-Rooke

Chris Shirling-Rooke, the CEO of Mersey Maritime, tells us how his successful cluster is now helping maritime businesses in Liverpool to connect with others all over the world.

What prompted the formation of Mersey Maritime in 2003?

“I think Mersey Maritime was a reaction by the industry on Merseyside, as it was then – Liverpool city region as it is now – to coordinate and communicate with each other far better. The key drivers in this were the likes of Atlantic Container Line and Sir Michael Bibby [managing director of Bibby Line Group], who got together to form a working group called Mersey Maritime. The idea was to have a forum where they could get together and just talk – talk about the common issues, talk about the challenges and then begin to try and resolve them. 

How has the region benefited from Mersey Maritime over the years?

We’ve consistently supported business growth and helped build strong local supply chains and we’re now considered one of the best examples of a maritime cluster in Europe – and this isn’t coming from us, this is coming from DG MARE [the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries]. 

Because of the way we’ve been funded over the years, we’re very heavily audited. We are commercially funded in the main but there’s also an element of public sector funding, and as part of that public sector funding we have to deliver certain outcomes, one of which is job creation. We’ve created hundreds of jobs over the past few years and they’re fully auditable. 

The profile of the Liverpool city region and the maritime sector within that region is far higher than it was when we first started. And our ability to have our members’ voices heard, whether in Westminster or Brussels, is more amplified than ever. We now sit on the board of Maritime UK; we have regular meetings with the UK shipping minister and we’re often in Brussels, so we’re not just reacting to the development of the industry, we’re having direct input into its direction of travel.

Where are jobs being created right now?

We’ve already helped create around 40 jobs since October through our New Markets 2 programme, which provides support for SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises] with funding from the European Regional Development Fund [a programme set to run until 2018]. This is helping local SMEs to grow – that’s what we’re very very good at. 

In developing this cluster concept, what has worked and what hasn’t worked?

The biggest step change we have made has been to reduce our reliance on public sector funding. We had a lot of funding in the early days but decided, four years ago, to move away from that dependency. We should probably have done it sooner but, to be brutally honest with you, if there’s money out there to support sectoral growth, you take it. 

Why did you choose to create a more commercial funding structure?

It allows us to do more things – when you take on public sector funding, it does come with strings attached, like most contracts, so [being more commercial] allows us a bit more flexibility; it also makes us more resilient. There isn’t as much public sector funding around as there used to be, but that’s ok because our reliance on funding is reduced. Having said that, because of the good work we’ve done during the past decade, securing new contracts still isn’t easy but it’s certainly become easier. When I talk about contracts, I don’t mean that it’s free money, on the contrary, public sector funding contracts can be some of the most complicated contracts you could ever dream of, but it allows us to directly support businesses in a way that we think they need to be supported. So while we use some of the membership income to match funds from the public sector, the onus isn’t actually on our members to pay for that business support.

What’s your vision for how you see Mersey Maritime evolving? What do you hope to achieve this year and in the coming years?

One of our biggest projects to date has been the Maritime Knowledge Hub, this multi-million-pound maritime centre of excellence that has been designed to give UK businesses the tools they need to trade and to grow. We’ve moved into Phase I of the Hub now. It’s bricks and mortar, but more than that, the Maritime Knowledge Hub is a partnership between education, industry and government, with clear goals and targets. It’s based around “How do we deal with the skills issue?”, which is a ticking time bomb in the maritime sector. How do we make sure that the UK maritime sector – certainly the sector in Liverpool – has the right skills while also backfilling the skills gaps created by people retiring from the industry? What will those skills look like in the next 10 to 20 years? What innovative products and industries can we predict will be essential for these skills to be utilised? Liverpool John Moores University, numerous other large industry partners – you have the likes of Peel [Ports] who are involved – local governments, and of course all of our members, all these SMEs who want to be part of this. 

It’s also about growth. Industry apprenticeships are one thing; innovation and R&D [research and development] is the other. We have incredibly innovative businesses in this country but are we giving them as much support as they need to flourish? Businesses are often innovative without even realising it – so what if we get the best minds in academia together with some of the best business minds and mix it all up? That will produce products and services that we can’t even comprehend yet, but which will allow us to compete effectively with the rest of the world.

How are you helping Merseyside businesses connect with the rest of the world?

We’ve gone from creating growth in regional businesses to getting international companies to invest in and be based in the Liverpool city region – so that’s evolved. We’ll be making a big announcement in the next few weeks about our newest inward investor – which will create another 25 well paid jobs. We’ve been one of the architects in getting them to move to Liverpool.

We now host numerous international delegations. We had the Nigerian Shipping Cluster here this morning. We had the Port of Rotterdam here with their mayor. We’ve had Hamburg and Canada here too. Mersey Maritime is seen as the touch point for trade, certainly in the North West and in the wider UK when you’re talking Atlantic-facing [business]. 

What do these delegations hope to achieve?

It’s about partnership. It’s “Ok, what does it look like for Liverpool to reignite those historical links?” [The Nigerian delegation] had 15 sub-sectors who came over with them, and we had our numerous sub-sectors represented in the same room. Next, there’ll be a reciprocal visit to Lagos, led by Mersey Maritime, with probably 20 or 30 businesses, seeing what we can do, how we can help open up Liverpool’s trade links with Africa again.

What plans are there to roll out the Mersey Maritime concept at regional hubs around the UK? 

The Mersey Maritime model is not just regional, it could be global. We’re speaking to a number of countries at the moment who, in the next 18 months, would like to learn from our maritime cluster concept. The cluster concept isn’t unusual in Europe, but the way we’ve done it probably is - it’s certainly more free market and it’s a blend. So we operate as a not-for-profit organisation but we are still commercial. The public-sector funding we do get keeps us really focused on the job in hand yet it allows us to take risks that other organisations couldn’t – such as investing in skills and R&D and supporting numerous businesses each year where the businesses don’t have to pay for it themselves.

As you know, we’re working closely with Team Humber Marine Alliance. I chair Maritime UK’s cluster group, and Mark O’Reilly [CEO of Team Humber] is the vice-chair. The challenge we’ve had is defining what a good cluster is and what a good cluster looks like. Hull and Liverpool are really similar – we have the same benchmarking, similar targets and the same direction. So it’s about working up an agreed structure and then supporting upcoming clusters in becoming part of that framework. 

How has the maritime industry in the UK’s North West benefited from the Northern Powerhouse initiative?

The Northern Ports Strategy is a very real example of how the maritime sector in the North has benefited from this coming together. You have four northern port authorities, committed to working more closely together. There are effectively two doors to the Northern Powerhouse and, for me, it’s Hull and it’s Liverpool. It puts the emphasis back on how important maritime is – it gets people thinking. From the Liverpool point of view, our biggest asset is the port and our links to trade. 

The maritime sector in the Liverpool city region employs 22,000 people and generates £3.5 billion every year, which we often forget or take for granted. What the Northern Powerhouse initiative has done is to emphasise this and remind people just how important to our economy the maritime sector is.