Leader interview: Simon Pitkeathley, CEO of Camden Town Unlimited, winners of the ASDA Enterprise Growth Award 2014

December 9, 2014 Ann Kelly

Simon Pitkeathley, CEO of Camden Town Unlimited, in front of his ASDA Enterprise Growth Award trophy

Business Improvement District Camden Town Unlimited won the ASDA Enterprise Growth Responsible Business Award (Small Company) 2014 for its Collective project. Their CEO Simon Pitkeathley spoke to us about high streets, leading through influence, and why aggregation is key to a vibrant urban economy.

Tell me about the motivation behind Collective, Camden Town Unlimited’s Award winning project.

The interesting question is, what do we mean by community? Because generally when we use the word, we don’t think it includes enterprise or business. Community is residents. But in fact, if you want to make the most of your community, you’ve got to include business.

We started back in 2009 with our first pop-up shop, partly a response to the recession, but more broadly [thinking] about the idea that when you look at Camden Town the thing that you don’t see, yet is a very dominant economic feature, is the creative industry businesses that are here. 

Could your business be the next winner of the ASDA Enterprise Award?  The Responsible Business Awards 2015 are open for entries now. 

We thought we’d use vacant space as a way of highlighting that, so we took on a shop and gave people free space for two weeks. It could have been an artist, or someone trying out a retail idea.  We used it to generate life and try to highlight this creative media sector.

One shop had some space upstairs, so we gave it to a little internet start-up TV business.  They used it in a different way but still highlighted the creative industries.  Then we found this space here - a very flexible space that we give to people who are doing creative start-ups.

What do you expect of your Collective businesses?

They [have to] abide by our three key golden rules. 

The first one is, don’t be an arse.  And it sounds like a joke but it’s not.  It’s about understanding that you’re part of something. 

Secondly, you’ve got to give us two hours a month of your time, which we can spend how we like. Ideally, it’ll be peer mentoring, helping other businesses develop and grow. 

The third thing is that you commit to a quarterly review.  We work out your numbers, and that helps us get additional funding but also helps us understand where the gaps in your business might be, and how we might be able to fill them with mentoring from one of our bigger businesses, from someone we can outreach to, or one of the other businesses here.  

It’s from that peer mentoring, that sense of creating community and aggregation that things like our Coder Academy, and the Accelerator, and Retail Academy have grown.

Can you tell me a bit about the career development side of Collective?

We’re trying to help people who want to work in the creative industries find an outlet.  That might just be a straightforward job opportunity down at [BID member] ASOS, but more and more we’re finding the job opportunities are coming from the businesses that we’re incubating here.

The other, education, side is that we recognised that both our CTU and Collective member businesses don’t have enough coding in their lives. No one does.  So we went out and found someone who could do some coder training, to help people learn those skills so they could become potential employees of some of our coder businesses. 

Again it’s about aggregation.  The more you bring stuff together, the more you notice where the gaps are, the more those opportunities appear. 

Why does Camden Town Unlimited take such a different approach to other Business Improvement Districts (BIDs)?

There are other BIDS that see themselves as tools for economic regeneration, but the majority see themselves as [doing] cleaning greening stuff.  I think BIDs have the potential to do so much more. 

It’s about understanding where something like a BID, a quasi public/private sector [organisation] can make an intervention that fits market failure.   For example, running hub spaces is not something you’d do with a building if you wanted a return on your investment. But the value of this to the broader local economy is quite great.  If one hundred of my little businesses employ one more person, the impact locally is great, but of course an individual landowner isn’t going to see the value in it. 

It’s in spotting those opportunities for intervention that BIDs could do an awful lot more, with a bit of vision, imagination, and ultimately, decent leadership.

What effect did winning the Award have on Camden Town Unlimited?

We’re very lucky in the sense that we’ve won a lot of Awards.  But what’s really nice about the Big Tick is that it’s outside our sector. It’s taken the BID idea into areas, the bigger business sector, the charity sector, that have never thought of it before. It’s given us that profile outside our normal sphere of influence.  Plus it was a pretty nice evening.  Three princes is not a bad hit rate.

Tell me a bit about the place of responsible business in Camden Town Unlimited.

Businesses that volunteer to tax themselves, which is what they’re effectively doing by voting to have a Business Improvement District in order to enhance and do things in their area, are already demonstrating responsibility. 

I think the interesting question is, what do we mean by community?  Because generally when we use the word, we don’t think it includes enterprise or business.  Community is residents. But in fact, if you want to make the most of your community, you’ve got to include business.

Business is quite shy of being included in that because generally people go to businesses when they want something.  They might want cash or they might be the local authority wanting them to deal better with their rubbish.  A BID allows that conversation to happen across the business mix, without picking out individual ones.  That gradually brings businesses out of their shells, so it encourages greater responsibility.

What are the emerging issues around the high street and urban regeneration?

We have three main priorities. Crime and antisocial behaviour, physical environment and creative industry promotion.  But actually, the more I do this job the more I feel that the missing plank is the commercial landlords.

Where you’ve got an area like Camden Town, with fractured, disparate ownership, and absentee landlords, then it becomes incredibly difficult to make an impact.  With the [empty] retail units, we were making them great, doing a fantastic job for an estate agent, and then the owner would put a bookmakers in there.   If the landowners don’t get it, it’s really hard to make meaningful change.

Businesses can help by engaging with things like BIDs, in challenging BIDs to not be about hanging baskets and a bit of litter picking, to use their acumen and experience to challenge the people who run them to be more adventurous, more visionary, take greater leadership.

What do you think are the key characteristics of effective responsible leaders?

The key thing about leadership in this sector is being able to articulate a vision and bring people with you.  Being able to sell it to the board, to the local authority, to the police, to whoever the key players are that you have to activate in order to bring change about.  You’ve got to be able to have meaningful conversations with these people and get them to buy into your vision. 

My job ad said, you will have influence but no power, and that’s bang on.  You’ve got to somehow make yourself influential, and that’s about making yourself a nuisance in the landscape, about having something worthwhile to say, not always taking no for an answer, and proving by example that you can achieve things, and you’re worth listening to next time even if they didn’t listen to you this time.

The difficulty with the BID movement is, because no one really understands our skillset, there aren’t many opportunities to move on.  So there is a bit of a blockage at the top of a lot of these organisations.

What’s the next challenge for Camden Town Unlimited?

The next challenge is about how we break through this concrete ceiling of the landowners.  We’re trying to use grants, and social capital and commercial loans to buy an asset, something that will anchor the Collective activity and ethos permanently in the high street.  Also, once we pay down the debt, that will create a funding stream that will allow us either to do that again, or to do other things.  

Issues: 

Simon Pitkeathley, CEO of Camden Town Unlimited, in front of his ASDA Enterprise Growth Award trophy

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