Chicago-based businessman looks beyond London scene and moves his operations to Sunderland
By Mike Cowley
If you wish to find an evangelist for what the UK’s North East cluster has to offer US companies then look no further than Chicago.
There you will find Socka Suppiah, co-founder and Chief Operating officer of Saggezza Inc, a global corporation which successfully operates on three continents who has willingly become the unofficial ambassador for a booming tech cluster some 3,750 miles away.
When Saggezza first arrived in the UK back in 2010, it was decided it should take the well-trodden path followed by US companies and put its roots down in London as yet another base to deliver innovative software technology solutions its international clients. However, it soon became apparent they had made a mistake in that conditions in the capital made it “difficult to operate there”.
Like most incoming US companies, Saggezza was prepared for the high cost of living in London, with the price of office space comparable, if not higher, than property hotspots back home. It was access to talent – and holding on to it – that proved to be the main issue.
Not that there isn’t a pool of talent in London but it has become increasingly difficult to trawl the same pond as acquisitive corporate sharks such as Google and Amazon with their infinitely deep pockets.
London talent is also drying up in that it is no longer fed by a wave of fresh graduates from regions like the North East looking for opportunities as they are increasingly staying closer to home as tech clusters spring up in their own areas.
The suggestion that eventually saw Saggezza looking outside the overheated London scene was provided by two early recruits who had originally hailed from the North East.
“They told me about the tech sector in the North East region and in particular what was happening in Sunderland,” recalls the Saggezza COO. “So I thought I’d better go and see what it was all about.
“I got on a train and made a three hour trip and met the guys from Sunderland Software City (see the related article on the tech world’s trailblazers). They told me about the low cost of living, the quality of life and the flow of talent that come out of the wonderful universities up there. I thought here is something that is doable.
“The end result is that today we have a sales office in London and have gradually moved all our operations to Sunderland.”
The decision to leave London for the North East has had no downside for Saggezza, with the UK posting improved year-on-year results. Ever increasing demand for the company’s services in fact has seen it recently moving into larger premises in Sunderland to increase its current payroll from approaching 45 to 65.
“In my opinion, access to talent is the most important thing for a tech company,” says the Saggezza COO. “Tech is growing at a rapid pace world-wide and so is the need for talent. And that’s why the North East offers a huge plus.
“Up here we have access to five first class universities – Durham, Sunderland, Northumbria Newcastle and Teesside – who have all recognized the importance of tech and are producing the talent we need. The reason for being in the North East is now the same as why we are headquartered in Chicago – access to talent.”
Yet another US company which is more than happy with its move to the North East is Red Hat, an American multinational software company providing open-source software products for 90% of the Fortune 500 companies.
With its corporate headquarters in Raleigh, North Carolina, Red Hat has satellite offices worldwide including Newcastle.
The reason Red Hat can be found in the North East is because of a corporate decision to “partly acquire” the expertise to be found in a spin-out company from Newcastle University. Since then it has grown from a staff of two to 30, making it the second largest pure software engineering base for Red Hat in Europe after the Czech Republic.
Once again, this is due to the talent available in the area thanks to the local universities which have a core competency in software engineering which goes back some 40 years. This is recognized as the primary reason for the ongoing success of the Red Hat Newcastle operation which is forecast to grow by 50% this year.
“The North East is fortunate in that it has a number of universities who specialize in software engineering,” says Mark Little, who is VP Engineering and heads up the local operation. He is also well versed in the subject as he himself is a graduate of Newcastle University and today is also a Visiting Professor.
“What makes it even better for Red Hat is that a lot of graduates come out of local universities and simply don’t want to leave Newcastle and head for places where the cost of living is so much higher and arguably the quality of life isn’t.”
Meanwhile Socka Suppiah of Saggezza is taking his role as unofficial ambassador for the North East very seriously, delivering the message as far afield as Australia.
“I was over there recently looking for a suitable location and when they asked what I wanted I said ‘find me somewhere like the North East of England’”
British technical talent returns from US to transform local scene
Most Americans in the US may not have heard about the North East of England as a tech cluster but the region and the rest of the North of England has arguably made a significant contribution in the past to establishing the States as a global leader in technology.
This is because for many years the leading universities in what had been the home of the industrial revolution in the UK had been producing first class tech graduates only for them to find there were few opportunities for them in their home region.
So most headed for London often to work for US companies and inevitably this became a staging post for a career across the pond.
However in recent years the changes have been rung and what had been a flood of talent has now been reduced at times to in comparison little more than a trickle.
In fact, in some instances Brit techies who made it big in the States have now returned to their home regions where new tech clusters have transformed the local scene.
One such expatriate Brit is Paul Dinning who ended a 15-year career in the US based in New York as head of technology for a leading bank on Wall Street. He has since returned to his home city of Newcastle at the heart of the North east tech cluster where he is now VP Engineering for Bede, a gaming platform company which is gaining traction internationally.
Graduating with a degree in Applied Computing from Northumbria University back in 1990, like many of his peers at the time he eventually ended up working in London for a US company where he jumped at the opportunity when someone asked if anyone wanted to spend “a couple of years” in the States. The rest is history.
“I know a lot of people from Northern Universities who ended up going down south at that time because the opportunities were so limited in the region,” he recalls. “And many ended up in the States.
“But there is so much tech going on up here now that we even have companies moving here from down south and even America. And if you combine the new job opportunities with the quality of life you find here there is little reason to move away – and incentives for those of who did to come back.”