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Home / Latest News / Wales in London chairman looks to Swedish model for creating export-led technology businesses

Wales in London chairman looks to Swedish model for creating export-led technology businesses

Living in tomorrow’s world today is an experience given to few.

Huw Hampson-Jones, chief executive of Oxis Energy, a battery technology company based at Abingdon in Oxfordshire, is one of those few.

He leads a team of scientists perfecting rechargeable lithium sulfur battery technology which has the potential to extend the range of electric cars using a lighter battery.

This is not science fiction but a driverless, robotised, eight passenger vehicle which he proudly displays at a workshop laboratory in a maximum security environment.

“When I joined this company three years ago it was bankrupt, employing just seven,” he said.

“Now we are a vibrant and successful company, on the threshold of a revolutionary breakthrough in vehicle transportation, employing 50 people in high grade jobs from cost accountants to PhDs in electro- chemistry.”

When not engaged on perfecting the petrol-less car Mr Hampson-Jones is drawing up a strategy to place before the board of Wales in London, having been appointed its new chairman some months ago.

The Maesteg-born Swansea University graduate has returned from a 10-year European exile which has seen him work in Germany and Sweden.

This European dimension is something he hopes to bring to his Wales in London role.

He explained: “Before I left for Stockholm I had worked with a similar organisation to Wales in London, where I hosted dinners for leading UK and European politicians who came to talk to prominent members of the business community and MPs.”

Now reconnected with Wales in London, he feels it important this influential body addresses what its board sees as the key  issues of the day.

He said: “I have travelled extensively over the last 20 years and one of the ideas I have is that we ought to engage at the highest level with both diplomats and politicians from other nations.

“This will give a perspective on what they do and discuss its relevance to the Welsh community in London and Wales.”

He added: “Our members are prominent in fields such as industry, politics, health and education. The intention is to promote and stimulate discussions on these key topics and hopefully, when people attend the dinners, they come away with something that broadens their minds.

“Sometimes I find discussions in the press or in certain quarters of the Welsh community in London introspective, even myopic.”

Whether a person runs a cafe in Cardiff or a multi-million- pound solar business, the entrepreneurialism required is not dissimilar, he points out.

“It takes guts, courage, resilience and determination, and we should recognise that just as we recognise the importance of the role played by lawyers, doctors and teachers.

“So I’m now seeking to lay the ground rules for what I hope will be a series of stimulating, radical discussions on the key issues of the day,” he said.

The world of science, as exemplified at the Culham Science Centre where Oxis Energy is based, would seem to have little room for radicalism yet it has an important part to play in Mr Hampson-Jones’ philosophy, shaped by his degree in political theory and government.

After a moment’s reflection he said: “I notice today that if you compare it with the politics of the 1970s and early 1980s, where you had radical thinking in various quarters, I don’t think you have that now. It’s very much down to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism.”

Even, he suggests, the collapse of socialism as we saw it in the years between 1920 and 1950. He said: “There is a need for a more radical approach to discussing issues in the worlds of politics and business.”

Turning his attention to Wales the focus now should be on promoting what he calls “the distinctive Welsh culture.”

He said: “I think we should be proud of the way we promote cultural activities from a young age. The social activities the Urdd encourages have had a marked influence in the way we promote Welsh culture at home and abroad.”

Then there are those issues that affect industry, and as an industrialist who worked for the German industrial giant Siemens, where he was vice president of global telecommunications with a £400m turnover employing 1,000 people, Mr Hampson-Jones’ emphasis is again on the word radical.

He said: “I think there is a need for a radical shake up in the way we view industry and how we encourage people to understand what it can and should be.

“Professions are important and the public sector plays an important part, but the economic vitality of a region is dependent on the business activity created.”

He added: “Some businesses will go on to grow like Oxis has, and these are themes I should like to build on by drawing into Wales in London prominent experts in their field. People who can create a stimulating environment where members leave thinking they have a better understanding of issues to be addressed.”

Recalling his own career with both Siemens in Munich and Ikivo AB in Stockholm, he adds that: “Technology is fine but for its own sake it is of no use. The crucial point is that the technology is valued to such an extent where a person is prepared to pay for it.”

Now, he said, everyone has a mobile phone and most have moved on to a smart phone.

He said: “When I was at Siemens laptops had only just come on the scene, and I sold the first ones into the UK at £7,000 each. Of course the initial technology bore no resemblance to today’s.

“In my last job in Sweden I worked on the digitalisation of images that allows smart phones to carry sophisticated camera techniques.”

Technology, then, is the best way for a small company to thrive and be export-led. But it must also be capable of partnering blue-chip companies.

The experience gained in driving Scandinavian high technology companies in export-led initiatives has helped overcome the problems faced at Oxis.

He said: “Now we are collaborating on the world stage in China, Taiwan, North America and Europe with some leading companies. At the moment we are working on a North American initiative using our technology which is due to be launched in 2014.

“So I hope the issues we raise with Wales in London will stir the community and address provocative issues that apply to both Wales and London.”

Having left Wales after graduation to take up a personnel management trainee placement with Unilever, he has viewed his native land from outside its borders and come to the conclusion that Wales lacks confidence.

“It’s constantly seeing itself as a victim of the economic implementation of Thatcherite policies in the 1980s,” he said.

“This caused a degree of devastation in the social infrastructure but the reality is, in my opinion, it would have happened anyway.

“I’m not pro-Thatcher but what took place – the denationalisation – I think was good for the UK and Europe as a whole because Europe followed, and you can see that if you look at the history of telecommunications and mobile telecoms in particular.”

Wales now needs to think through the ways of promoting industrial activity, especially when it comes to its training policy for graduates and apprentices which, he believes, needs a radical overhaul.

“Government in Wales has to be more crisp in defining what its attributes are to attract inward investment. We have to lessen our dependence on public sector work and encourage small companies with incentives such as a tax free status for their first seven years.”

Then referring to his own childhood experience in a small family business, he added: “Look at the high street – you have to think radically as to how we can recover and get individualism back to shopping centres and help create a vibrant community.

“We have shopkeepers paying tax on their earnings and yet they compete with internet shopping that doesn’t make a visible contribution to the community.”

His radicalism becomes more intense as he says: “Go to the internet companies and say, we are going to see you pay tax for the business you do in a particular region. In my opinion those internet companies will not withdraw their services, but this is where Wales needs to be more forthright and promote itself.”

His final thoughts are on the education system and praise for a government that has refused to impose levies on university education.

He said: “Having worked in Sweden where they have a high tax system . . . their GDP is four times higher than the UK. Yet its children are educated free to university age and beyond.

“The benefit of this is a well-educated labour force. Access to university education will in the long term play a major role in creating the right labour force in Wales.”

This praise, however, is qualified by his next statement: “I don’t see a cohesive industrial policy.”

Broadband, he insists, is a side issue; infrastructure the same. For him the crucial issue is how do you generate SMEs that can play a greater part in the nation’s economy and be export led?

The answer, it seems, lies somewhere in his Scandinavian experiences.

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