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Firms will 'die' unless optimistic about future in lead up to Brexit, hears Kent Business Summit

By Chris Price

Kent firms will “die” unless they are optimistic about the prospect of growth in the run up to Brexit, a conference heard.

The county faces a range of challenges including increasing skills in its workforce, improving transport links and creating more commercial space, the first Kent Business Summit was told.

More than 150 people, including a handful of MPs, came to Kent Business School at the University of Kent in Canterbury to hear four speakers talking about the theme of Shaping Kent’s Future in a Global Economy.

Kent Business Summit was attended by more than 150 people

Vagelis Gizelis, managing director of Greek machinery manufacturer Gizelis, was among those tasked with inspiring attendees.

He told how his firm invested €15 million in new equipment in 2008 only to lose 60% of its turnover after the collapse of the Greek economy in 2009.

Despite the drop off in income, it was able to recover by developing overseas markets and now sells to more than 55 countries.

He said: “A crisis is like being a patient in a hospital. If you say you’re going to survive you probably will but if you say it is doom and gloom you will probably die.

Kent County Council economic development director David Smith addresses the summit

“You have to take advantage of this moment. There’s an issue in front of you which is Brexit and you have brought together different people from society to discuss how to face this issue.

“In Greece we didn’t have this luxury. It was like an earthquake happened overnight. Nothing worked the next day.

“This discussion is really healthy and I wish you all the best.”

The summit started with an, at times sobering, analysis from David Smith, the director of economic development at Kent County Council, who spoke about growing Kent’s £38 billion economic contribution, known as its gross value added (GVA).

He said: “The shock is that the GVA of Kent is lower than the South East average and lower than the UK average.

Kent Business Summit was held at Kent Business School in Canterbury

“While others think we live in a prosperous part of the country, we have challenges already in front of us of producing wealth.

“Jobs in Kent are less knowledge intensive than the South East and the UK average. Fewer workers in Kent have NVQ level 4 qualifications than the rest of the country.

“We need to do something about the skills of our workforce. There is a link between that and earnings.”

The summit then heard from Jane Ollis, chairman of the IoD’s Kent branch, who said attitude was a key part of firms staying ahead of game.

She said: “We have to be optimistic about the future.

“The quality of hope and optimism are really huge and it’s how we can constructively approach problem solving.

“We want everyone to be optimistic in creating a stronger future for Kent businesses.”

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