Interview: Frank McKenna, Downtown Liverpool

Once described by the Financial Times as ‘the most powerful politician in the North West’, a former campaign manager to Tony Blair, and now chairman of successful North West business club Downtown Liverpool, Frank McKenna has come a long way from his humble roots in Bootle. 

Downtown Liverpool in Business has been described as the most dynamic business club in the north-west. It was established by the equally dynamic Frank McKenna two-years-ago, but interestingly it all developed from a modest group of friends who would regularly get together to chat about issues regarding their beloved Liverpool. The club has now grown in stature and offers a variety of services; networking events, a Business Oscars, and the Livercool Awards, as well as political lobbying on behalf of the private sector. Not surprisingly it now has an impressive membership of over 300 companies. I met Mr McKenna in his unexpectedly modest offices close to the centre of the city and the famous Liver Building.

“Initially it was the politics which dominated our thinking,” he says. “But if you look at where we were two-years-ago, I think the public sector viewed us with a lot of suspicion. They thought ‘these guys are just moaning about everything’. I think they now see that what we do is criticise quite constructively.”

“One of our main successes is that we have enabled the private and public sectors to understand one another better, and I think the fact we’ve managed to make business networking interesting is something we can be proud of.”

Sexy Networking events are something DLiB is famous for but, according to Frank, they have been accused of sexism.

“I find this strange as both men and women can be sexy. For us, the term means fun and different.” Do you have to be sexy to get in? “I don’t think anybody who is a member of DLiB can be described as un-sexy. The very fact that you identify us as the business club to join tells me that you have something about you.”

Before he started his business, Frank was a politician, and also worked as Tony Blair’s campaign manager in the north-west. With his successful career path, it’s not surprising to learn of Frank’s background. “I was always interested in politics, and I suppose it was from my Dad who was a trade union official. Through him, my interest grew, and when I was at college I was involved in the political scene there.” 

“In fact, the experience of college did me more good than the actual examinations. In terms of my staff I never ask if they have any formal qualifications. People’s abilities are far more important, and what you often find with over-educated people, is that they have great intelligence and academic ability but not a lot of common-sense. In our business common-sense is more important.”

Frank became an elected politician at twenty-six, and his political background has obviously been a valuable asset for DLiB. “We are a very political organisation, with a small p. Our main objective is to make Liverpool a city where economic and business activity can be undertaken in the most effective way possible. That means influencing policy-makers so you make sure that the plethora of quangos that govern our city are actually aware what’s important to the private sector. My politics have had a big impact on how DLiB was established, and how it’s been directed since.”

The 4th Livercool Awards are to take place at The Crowne Plaza Hotel on the 2nd November with the usual mix of business and pleasure. This year it’s a Brits theme, and at 69-247 we are happy to be sponsoring the Best Dressed Man and Best Dressed Woman categories.

It promises to be fabulous. There will be Pans People dancers, a couple of cool DJs, a Manchester comedian, surprisingly, and music will be from Liverpool bands…

“The importance of that is to demonstrate that Liverpool is not just about The Beatles. The Beatles will feature, obviously, but we also have The Zootons, Echo and the Bunnymen, Teardrop Explodes, China Crisis, and more… Don’t know whether we will have Atomic Kitten though, we will have to wait and see.”

“There are serious awards, but equally we try and make it fun. When we started, Liverpool as a business community didn’t celebrate its own success. I think it's always important to identify who is doing well and reward that. The other thing I would say is, as the awards become more and more established, they get more credibility. Perhaps at the start, they were seen as a bit tongue-in-cheek, now people take them seriously.”

Frank is incredibly passionate about Liverpool and its people. “I know this is an old cliché, that everyone in Liverpool has a great sense of humour, I don’t think everyone does have a great sense of humour, but I do think that the majority of scousers tend to be very friendly. You can go to any bar or pub in the city and end up chatting to somebody.”

“There has also been an awful lot of adversity to face in Liverpool post-war, and the city has come through with flying colours. I think if you look at what was happening here in the eighties, we had mass unemployment, the riots, the militant control council, whether you agreed with that or not, on a national scale it certainly wasn’t seen as a positive thing. And you look at the city now, it’s starting to regenerate itself, and has gone through a major renaissance in the last few years.”

And, as it approaches its 800th birthday next year, Liverpool has much to look forward to. Once known as the ugly sister of Manchester it has been awarded the coveted prize of European Capital of Culture 2008. It has also been granted World Heritage Status by Unesco. 

Although Frank says he is looking forward to welcoming thousands of new visitors into the city in 2008, there is also a little trepidation. “I think it’s vitally important if 2008 is successful, that we get return visits. Our concern as a business community is that the public sector agencies responsible for the delivery of the programmes and projects have never given us the absolute confidence that they’ve got the ability to do that.”

“But there are still a lot of positive things happening. The Grosvenor Development is going to be a fantastic retail offering, the Kings Dock is going to be regenerated with a new conference centre and arena, and if you look at some of the new commercial and residential properties that are being developed, they’re positive as well.”

But, Frank believes that World Heritage Status has been more of a hindrance than a help to the city.

“I think most people assumed that it would stop development on the waterfront that wasn’t fitting with the Three Graces. I think we would probably all sign-up and support that. But, what its criteria has actually done, is impacted on the wider city of Liverpool, so there are significant chunks of the city centre that are in absolute decay, that can’t be developed upon because they fall within the World Heritage Status footprint.”

“I think when Unesco visit between now and the end of the month to look at the new museum that’s proposed for the waterfront, we should actually take that opportunity of renegotiating the criteria which has been applied because. in the wider sense of the word, World Heritage Status is a negative for the region of Liverpool. It has not just cost us investment but more importantly, it has actually cost the physical environment.”

Frank is quite clear in what he believes has led to his success and that of Downtown Liverpool, and that is to know his strengths, weaknesses, and to surround himself with the right people.

“I don’t like the day to day drudgery of looking after the business”, he says, “and I was lucky in identifying a business partner who does like all that. He hates interviews, he would hate having to stand up in front of 300 people to give a speech. The split between us is complementary. People say, ‘oh we get on well so let’s start our own business’. Then they find they are both good at doing the same thing, disaster!”

Frank’s motto is work hard, play hard. “If you talk to the most successful business people they are the people who find time to enjoy themselves as well.”

“I’m very fortunate that my job is very interesting to me so I don’t often feel that the activity that I am undertaking is work. If I am out at a networking party that we have organised, then it’s enjoyable as well.”

As 2006 draws to a close, and 2007 approaches, DLiB already have a number of issues on the horizon. “We’ve made progress on the business agenda in Liverpool, but there is still a long way to go. We’ve had a long-running campaign now called Liverpool 1, which is looking to streamline the number of government agencies that exist in the city. That’s something that we will turn our attention to in the New Year.” 

“I think that if 2008 is to be a success, then the biggest legacy that Liverpool can have is high levels of employment. Next year we are going to run a campaign called Liverpool Local which will encourage companies to employ Liverpool people. Equally importantly, we need to encourage the people who have the investment for training to invest in skills people in Liverpool are going to need. We need plumbers and bricklayers, people who can get involved in the physical regeneration of the city. I want to see this workforce come from Liverpool.”

“Also, as the city develops we need to ensure the services and the facilities match expectations. People should be able to park, feel safe, shop, have decent schools, and decent health services. The Downtown Living agenda is something else that we are going to look at quite seriously next year.”

“We will have the usual dinners, Oscars, and the Livercool Awards. Plus, as its Liverpool’s 800th birthday, 2007 will see us organising a whole range of networking events that will be full of surprises and very edgy. One of the things that we are trying to do next year is to work in partnership with some of our members to make sure the events are different and distinctive. You have always to keep evolving.”

As well as the campaigns and events for 2007, Downtown also have plans to expand. “We are hoping to go to Preston next year. We’ve also been invited to go and have a look at Newcastle and Sheffield. People are impressed by what we have done here, so why not share the benefits.”

As far as the long-term future is concerned, perhaps nothing short of global domination?

“I think it would be nice if we had a business club that represented the whole of the north of England. If we could make a series of Downtowns for the northern cities then I would have fulfilled one of my ambitions.”