Charlie Hoult returned to his native North East in 2009 after spending most of his adult life in London where he established and ran successful businesses and helped market blue chip technology companies such as Hewlett Packard, IBM and Microsoft.
He arrived back in Newcastle to take over the family business, Hoult’s Yard – a former pottery factory in the industrious Ouseburn area that had grown into a popular workspace for local creative businesses – an offshoot of his father’s successful global removals business.
Keen to make a mark in the North East and inspired by the growth of shared working space he had witnessed in the capital, Charlie set about augmenting the Hoult’s Yard offering and marketing it as the ultimate work and social hub for a new generation of creative, digital and other knowledge-based companies.
“My father, who had a background in furniture removal and storage, was never comfortable pushing the yard’s USP as a creative hub. But I thought there was a lot of opportunity having a sector specialisation push that was geared around modern, knowledge-sharing businesses with two, six, eight, ten or 20 members of staff but still wanted all the basics like meeting rooms, parking, 24-hour access and security – all provided within one invoice.”
Hoult’s Yard is now home to more than 100 businesses and boasts a range of flexible two to 50-person offices, a modern concierge-serviced reception (housed in RICS award-winning The Maling Exchange), meeting rooms, a café and a vast co-working and events space.
“We call Hoult’s Yard a business village rather than a business park because we recognise that work and social life are more intermingled now, and so as well as offering modern, design-led workspace we hold regular social events for residents.”
In addition to running Hoult’s Yard, Charlie has set up Opencast Software (with Mike O’Brien), Futureheads Recruitment, specialising in the digital media industry, and Cheviot Insured (with Joel Marks and John Baty).
Collectively, Charlie reports, these businesses turnover around £20 million and support 125 local jobs.
Running a business village and a portfolio of companies would be more than enough for most people, but a lesson that was instilled in Charlie by his father from a young age was the importance of ‘Mittelstand’.
A German concept, it roughly translates as the idea that small and medium-sized companies – particularly family-run enterprises – form the backbone of a local economy and that owners should instil values and an ethos that revolve around strong regional ties and having a positive and long-term impact on the local community.
Rather than supporting the local tennis club or raising money for charity, though, Charlie’s own brand of Mittelstand has manifested itself in creating an industry-led initiative focused on growing the tech sector in the North East.
The first seeds of Dynamo were sown in back in 2013 when, in search of networking opportunities among the local tech community, Charlie began running informal meet-ups for entrepreneurs at Hoult’s Yard. He was soon approached by Bob Paton, who was then the managing director of IT company Accenture and had been running similar events for larger companies and corporates.
The pair joined forces and began gathering a crack team of tech professionals who, under the Dynamo brand, developed a mission to grow the North East IT economy by being a focal point for the regional industry, by promoting the sector regionally, nationally and internationally, developing skills and education, and supporting regional research and development.
“We also recognised that an IT sector federation model would be able to lobby the public sector to recognise the opportunities of the local tech sector far more effectively than individuals could,” Charlie adds.
One of the first activities for Dynamo was to define what the tech sector in the North East was and measure impact it was making on the local economy.
The resulting research showed that the sector supported 25,000 jobs (later increased to 35,000) and had around 2000 high quality vacancies available.
“At the time, people didn’t talk about the importance of having a digital sector in the way we do now. I would speak to people in the public sector who had no idea that Hewlett Packard employed 4000 people in the North East. But our research showed the importance of the tech sector in our region as a sustainable source of good quality jobs,” Charlie explains.
Dynamo held its inaugural annual conference in May 2014, where one speaker’s words struck a chord with Charlie and would help shape the future direction of Dynamo.
“Our keynote speak was BBC technology reporter Rory Cellan Jones, who told the audience that the question he was asked the most was how somewhere could become the next Silicon Valley.
“He said that his answer was that nowhere else could become the next Silicon Valley because Silicon Valley has its own DNA.
“Instead, an area had to look at what was in its own DNA and use that as a springboard.”
Inspired by these words, Charlie and the Dynamo team began focusing on what the DNA of the North East’s tech industry was, and developed workstreams that would help build the region’s reputation nationally and internationally.
Currently, Dynamo has several specialist workstreams, led by the Dynamo board, including in cyber resilience, data, intelligence, professional, automotive and advanced manufacturing.
Most recently, the organisation has developed Dynamo Build to provide a unified voice for region’s growing BIM (building information modelling) enabled construction sector.
“In total, we’ve identified seven key clusters with international potential and are working to foster those, hitching our wagon to some very fast-moving activity,” Charlie reveals.
This activity is in addition to Dynamo’s on-going programme of networking events and conferences.
Charlie is also proud to reveal that Dynamo has played a part in securing £42 million of investment for the North East.
The majority of this has been via the £30 million National Institute for Smart Data Innovation (NISDI).
Dynamo worked with Newcastle City Council and Newcastle University on the bid that was named a success in March 2016 by the then chancellor, George Osborne, who dedicated £15 million of public funding (matched by Newcastle University) for the institute – which is set to create 1000 jobs.
Charlie also reveals that Dynamo has helped to secure a further £12 million for the Northern Futures UTC (university technical college) that has been earmarked to be built at Newcastle’s Stephenson Quarter and will support between 400 and 600 14-16 year olds in STEM-focused studies.
Despite impressive outputs, Charlie remains frustrated at the lack of “joined-up thinking” when it comes to the tech sector in the region. He and the Dynamo team’s recent efforts have been around developing a Northern Institute for Technology and Business Exchange (NIT) to boost the region’s standing in the Northern Powerhouse agenda, and a Digital Alliance that would combine and focus the North East tech community across multiple sectors.
“I’m all for ‘big tent thinking’,” says Charlie. “The North East needs a shared agenda that tech professionals in all sectors – from creative and professional to advanced manufacturing and automotive – can buy into.
“We also need to stop downplaying the region, not pleading for grants. We need to lead where we are strong. The North East tech sector is booming and that’s set for several years ahead – as long as we create a sustainable skills pipeline.
“We need a big vision that transcends boundaries. We can get bogged down in ‘are you a Geordie or a Mackem?’. That’s fine for a cheeky football joke but it’s not going to elevate us on the world stage.”
Charlie hopes that, one day, Dynamo can become more of a commercial venture, with the support of private and public business.
“Dynamo has some great people – Bob [Paton], Stuart Lynn [executive vice-president at Sage], Neil Henning [global managing partner at SAP], Paul Watson [professor of computer science and director of the Digital Institute at Newcastle University and Giselle Stewart [director of UK corporate affair at Ubisoft] and what we’ve achieved as a bunch of volunteers is pretty amazing.
“The problem is that we all have day jobs and we’re all getting very busy. Just think what Dynamo could achieve if we had more of a commercial footing and benefited from more resources – whether they were provided by corporates or by the public sector.”
Until that point, though, Charlie will continue to manage the interests of Dynamo with those of his own businesses.
How else could he deliver Mittelstand for the North East?