PRIDE IN Bradford shines out of Mark Cowgill. So much so that, when his booming nationwide business needed to find new premises to expand into, there was only ever going to be one location: Bradford city centre.
“To be honest, I had to do a real marketing job on some of my colleagues,” says Mark (pictured). “But, for me, this was the ideal choice. I’m a Bradford lad; I couldn’t go anywhere else!”
It helps, of course, that his office on the top floor of the company’s HQ, in Bolton Road, has a brilliant view of his beloved Bradford City’s stadium. But for Mark, co-founder and director of Exa Networks, one of the district’s most exciting technology businesses, being at the heart of the city was also a way of giving something back to the community which helped make him.
“I am Bradford born and bred,” says Mark. “I was born at St Luke’s, back when we had a city centre maternity unit, and my heart’s in the heart of the city.”
His view of Bradford, though, is not painted through rose-tinted spectacles.
“Bradford has not lived up to its potential for a long time,” he says. “I think it’s essential we raise our game.”
His determination to help Bradford move on prompted him to make an extraordinary pledge when he heard about plans for a Business Improvement District (BID) in Bradford city centre.
Even though Exa Networks’ offices originally fell outside the BID “demise area” – within which all businesses and organisations will pay a levy on their business rates and benefit from five years of improvement projects if the BID goes ahead – Mark was so convinced of its potential to make the city centre better, that he promised to fork out £25,000 to back it, no strings attached.
“I think it’s absolutely vital to Bradford,” he says. “A lot of stuff that’s happened here over the last few years, with The Broadway and developments like Sunbridge Wells, has been great but it just needs that little bit more. I believe the BID is how we’re going to do it. It has the ability to give us that final nudge over the line we need.”
He’s not a man you’d like to bet against. His company has grown from a team of just six into one of the most innovative internet service providers in the UK, recently introducing the fastest internet technology in the world (DarkLight), to businesses across Yorkshire.
The technology is a pure fibre connection which is not restricted by having to use third-party infrastructure or limited bandwidth. It means businesses will not only enjoy ultra-fast connections but will only ever need the one line because it can be scaled up in minutes to meet their needs, no matter how much they expand.
Founded in 2003 by Mark, Thomas Mangin and Michael Syree, it is now one of the leading internet connectivity providers for schools and businesses across the UK. On the way, this multi-award-winning, home-grown success story’s achievements have included the development of a network tool (ExaBGP) used by some of the world’s biggest companies, including Microsoft, Twitter and Facebook.
From Mark’s point of view, the BID can only be good for business: “Any business that says it’s supporting it for completely unselfish reasons is lying; we all have reasons why we want to see Bradford succeed.
“For us, we’re a growing business, we have staff coming in to work for us but people get their eyes turned like magpies: if there’s something shiny over at Manchester or Leeds, it’s more attractive to go work there. And that’s generally about what it’s like in the city centre, rather than what the job is.
“We support Northern Powerhouse Rail and a city centre station wholeheartedly and the BID is part of working towards that. If we can make Bradford an attractive place to come and hang out and to work in, it’s going to be easier to find staff – and retain them.”
More than 600 businesses in the demise area – which now includes Exa Networks – will be asked to vote on the five-year project later this year, with the result announced in October. So what does Mark hope it will achieve?
“I want the perception of Bradford – as being second rate to some of the other cities around, such as for Leeds and Manchester, to improve,” he says. “I think as Bradfordians we’ve been our own worst enemies sometimes. Some people say it’s not a safe place because it has a diverse culture but every town and city in Britain has a diverse culture; Bradford’s no different, no better, no worse – it’s just a perception.
“It’s in all of our interests that Bradford is successful and safe and clean and it’s got a night time entertainment area and that it’s a proper, buzzing city.
“And if businesses are thinking about whether they should or shouldn’t support the BID, I’d ask them: Do you want the city to be successful and, therefore, your company to be successful as well?
“Who’s going to say ‘No’ to that? And if you do, why are you in business?”