UK: Pearl moves with the times.

UK: Pearl moves with the times. - Bt Wendy Smith.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Bt Wendy Smith.

Pearl Assurance will tell you that it has moved a long way from its penny-a-week funeral services of the 1860s. Now they have also moved a long way from central London. Peterborough is, after all, north of Watford and 80 miles away from the ancestral Holborn home of Britain's third largest life assurance company. As with any domestic move, corporate relocation scores high on the Richter scale of grief.

It is also expensive. The Confederation of British Industry recently calculated that it costs an average of £10,000 per employee to relocate satisfactorily. It involves protracted planning, usually running over years rather than months, excessive executive hours and exhaustive attention to detail.

So why did Pearl do it? It belongs to a group of companies large and small which have shown an almost lemming-like desperation to leave London. Their reasons are many, and a good summary of them is outlined in a report by property consultant Debenham Tewson and Chinnocks - "The Shifting Pattern of Office Decentralisation".

During the 1980s, says the report, companies were initially attracted to the idea of decentralisation because they needed new types of space to meet the requirements of changing patterns of working, and less inflationary accommodation costs.

By 1990 a 10,000-job exodus from London was predicted for that year by chartered surveyor Jones Lang Wootton. Companies which have already left the capital include British Petroleum (which sent 700 staff to Hemel Hempstead), Lloyds Bank (which moved 1,400 to Bristol) and Colgate-Palmolive (from Oxford Street to a Guildford business park). Now Pearl Assurance joins the list. The man orchestrating the Pearl move is facilities manager David Levy.

As with all relocation exercises, Pearl's move has been expensive. It will have taken more than four years from its conception in 1987 by the time that all staff are at work inside the new complex. But Levy maintains: "It has all been worth it." Without so much as raising an eyebrow, he reveals that the total cost of the exercise will be £30 million. Pearl's annual report reveals more: the progression of spending in the late 1980s - £11.85 million in 1987 and £7.54 million in 1988.

By the mid-1980s Pearl's Holborn HQ was more or less defunct. There was no infrastructure for either air conditioning or computer cabling, and no room for more staff. Furthermore, with 70% of the workforce made up of clerical staff, Pearl was finding recruitment tough and costs rising.

"Big Bang affected us badly," admits Levy, "because companies were coming into the City and buying up resources at all levels. They forced up staff costs for the established firms. Also, commuting was getting much worse for our staff and housing costs were escalating." At the same time the company was re-evaluating its corporate direction. Levy explains: "We were a well established, traditional and stable company. But we wanted to be dynamic and increase our market share. We were quite prepared for a sea change."

The opportunity arose when Pearl moved most of its staff out of the Holborn building for refurbishment. "If we were going to move out, we wanted to see tangible results," says Levy. "We wanted to cut costs, improve the quality of accommodation and increase our data centre capacity. Just to move back in would not have solved the London problem."

Only 450 people actually moved to Peterborough from the Holborn and regional offices. The rest took redundancy. There then followed a major recruitment drive at local level.

Pearl now has 2,500 staff in Peterborough and is the largest clerical employer in the area. This month (June) will see the last employee moving into place, completing a major relocation exercise. But further expansion is not ruled out in Peterborough, which was chosen in part because of the positive attitude of its development corporation.

"When we first phoned them up, they were ecstatic. They regarded Pearl as a coup," says Levy. Pearl did look at other locations and compared them with London and Peterborough. He points to the enormous cost differential between London and Peterborough. "Today's rent and business rates in London can work out at £40 to £60 per sq ft. In Peterborough you get the best accommodation at £15 per sq ft."

Pearl offered staff a relocation package covering estate agent fees, survey, stamp duty and removal costs. Says Levy: "The most flexible movers are those with pre-school children who leap at the opportunity to improve their quality of life. They can end up with the sort of house they would never even dream of getting in London."

The exit of such a high-profile company is alarming for institutions like the London Chamber of Commerce, which has done much research into why companies find it so hard to do business in London. The problems and costs of people, property and particularly transport will not go away.

This is underlined by the Pearl experience. David Levy explains why Peterborough works for him and his colleagues: "It is all about lifestyle. If you ask people why they like it here, they talk about the ease and speed of of getting to work and therefore the additional time they have to spend with their families or to pursue hobbies. Our staff are generally fresher, more relaxed and better tempered. The time I would have been commuting I now spend walking the dog. Anyway, the theatre in London is still accessible when I want to go."

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