If you want to assess a city’s prosperity, simply count the cranes on the skyline.
Since 2005, Simon J French has been an informed observer of the changing face of England’s Northern cities. He watched as the deep freeze of the financial crash forced workers to down tools and also witnessed the stunning rebirth of Leeds which reached its peak when Channel 4 arrived in the city.
He was the natural choice to lead Panmure Gordon’s new office in Leeds, a development which is a further signal that Yorkshire’s economy is in robust health. From his base in Leeds, Mr French, who has more than 15 years’ capital markets experience, will provide investment banking services to high-growth potential companies and institutional clients across the North of England.
Mr French said the office opening was part of a wider trend as Panmure Gordon engages with the North.
“There was a sense we were not quite capitalising on all the potential that’s evident in the North of England,” he said.
“I’ve been coming to Leeds for best part of 17 years and in that time the city has changed beyond recognition, not just in terms of the skyline but the type and quality of businesses basing themselves in the city.
“Sky Bet has grown into one of the biggest tech companies in its sector and this has led to job creation and investment in other tech-led businesses in the city.
“There is a huge amount of potential in the financial services and legal sector, particularly in relation to the growing use of technology. These areas are of great interest to us along with medtech. There is also huge potential in leisure and ecommerce.”
The University of Manchester graduate, who started his career in the corporate division at Whitbread, spent five years as an equity research analyst at Panmure Gordon. He then opened and led the Cenkos Securities’ north west office based in Liverpool from 2014-18 and subsequently co-founded the advisory business Bixteth Partners, which focused on raising capital for privately-owned companies.
He believes the corporate world is still waiting to see how the post-Covid world will settle down.
He added: “Hybrid working has proved popular with many employees and employers in some sectors may have to adapt and align themselves with this in order to retain staff.
“In the leisure sector, the biggest change has been the rise in the experiential economy. Once people were happy to go out to the pub and have a couple of pints and go home.
“With the rise in home entertainment, you need to give people a reason to get out of their homes. Yorkshire companies such as Roxy Leisure and Arc Inspirations are doing a fantastic job with their brands.”
He spent more than a decade as a non-executive director at Chop’d – the ready-to-go salads company – which gave him a window into the operational side of the business.
“You can look through a business through the prism of Excel spreadsheets,” he recalled. “Chop’d went from four sites to 17 at its peak. Being a non-executive director gave me an insight into the importance of retaining and recruiting the best staff in a buoyant sector.
“Between 2010 and 2019 there was a fierce battle for good sites and good people.”
All the big cities of the world are constantly reinventing themselves and it will be no different post pandemic, according to Mr French.
He believes measures such as lower parking charges and an efficient transport system would help people dip in and out of the city centre.
“Levelling up won’t be achieved by flicking a switch,” he said. “It’s more about collaboration and the focusing of capital. When you step out of the station in Leeds and Liverpool, you are struck by the hustle and bustle and friendliness of local people, although each city has unique qualities.
“You have got to improve connectivity between the cities. HS2 should have been built from North to South and not the other way round.”
Mr French is being supported by newly appointed senior adviser Stuart Watson, formerly a managing partner at accountancy firm EY and head of its Entrepreneur of the Year programme in the UK.
“I was delighted when Stuart accepted the invitation to join us because he is so well respected and well connected,” said Mr French. “There is no substitute for getting out into the market place. We are keen, for example, to corral capital into the clean energy sector and there is a thriving hospitality sector in the city centre.
“We are always looking to hire good people who can add value to our business. We’ve seen government-backed bodies such as the Infrastructure Bank have committed to Leeds. This makes Leeds a real hub for capital and will lead to success.”
With political debate focused on the Government’s commitment to “levelling up” the economic progress of Leeds will remain in the spotlight.
“To talk of the need for more ‘levelling up’, is a little bit of a disservice to the progress that has been made in Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds over the last 17 years,” he said.
“When you see the skyscrapers lit up at night in any of these cities you could believe you were in a capital city.”
Simon J French rejoined Panmure Gordon in September 2021 as a managing director in its investment banking division.
He has more than 15 years’ capital markets experience initially as an equity research analyst including stints at Panmure Gordon (2009-14) where he was a consistently top-three rated analyst in the UK leisure and gaming sector.
He opened and led the Cenkos Securities north west office based in Liverpool from 2014-18 and subsequently co-founded the advisory business Bixteth Partners, focused on raising capital for privately-owned companies.
As part of Panmure Gordon’s renewed commitment to the north of England he opened the Leeds office at the beginning of 2022.