Business Profile: Tempting Americans to Come to the Region; Catharine Arnston Is Spearheading a Campaign to Tempt US Firms to the Midlands. Ian Halstead Caught Up with Her in Boston

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Byline: Ian Halstead

Oscar Wilde's jibe that Britain and the United States had everything in common bar their language was typically both acerbic and accurate.

More than 120 years on though, the widespread desire to ape all things American puzzles everyone from politicians to parents.

However, at the corporate level the long-term relationship between the two countries has been of significant benefit to the UK -and particularly the West Midlands.

The strength of manufacturing industry in both the US and this region has been the catalyst for a series of major inward investment projects during the past 30 years.

Today the West Midlands remains the favoured UK location for North American companies looking to establish a toe-hold in Europe.

Under the ever-growing threat of globalisation though, simply relying on a historic rapport to maintain that prized position would be fatal.

Advantage West Midlands -and its East Midland counterpart, EMDA -see the answer in an overseas promotional campaign under a joint The British Midlands banner.

Its North American network now spans Boston, Chicago, San Jose, Toronto and Washington DC. Heading TBM's operations in the New England-New York corridor is Catharine Arnston - a long-time fixture on Boston's corporate scene.

Dynamic and self-assured, she certainly didn't waste time following her appointment to revamp the organisation's strategy.

First to go was the way in which the telemarketeers hired by TBM approached US-based companies.

'They had been told to start by asking firms if they planned to expand in the British Midlands, but that was far too specific, because very few US companies really know where the Midlands are,' said Arnston.

Now, the tele-marketeers calling North American companies initially focus on overseas expansion, then on Europe, and finally on the UK.

If a business is willing to hear about the attractions of a base in the Midlands, Arnston visits them.

The change in approach seems to be working, with the percentage of calls leading to successful meetings increasing steadily.

Arnston has also introduced a further refinement to reflect the differing attitudes to distance between Americans and Europeans.

'People who live in Birmingham seem to think it's quite a journey to London, but by US standards it's almost next door.

'We are now describing the Midlands as just north of London because that's how Americans will regard it.'

Finally, Arnston all-but abandoned the traditional inward investment marketing strategy of attending trade shows. You can spend days at events and exhibitions and not meet a single one of what we call the C-level executives; the chief operating officer, the chief executive or the chief financial officer,' she says.

'If you do manage to get near one of them, they're almost certainly there just for an event or launch by their company and haven't the time or desire to listen to a pitch from another organisation.'

Instead, Arnston persuaded TBM to sponsor the Ernst & Young 2003 New England Entrepreneur of the Year awards. 'It isn't cheap, but we have to focus on quality not quantity. In America, supporting such an event gets you on to the top table and into the orbit of the CEOs.' TBM has also sponsored the Boston chapter of TiE, a forum for entrepreneurs from South-east Asia.

'It was set up in the early 1990s and now has around 6,000 members in 29 chapters,' says Arnston.

TiE -which was christened The Indus Enterprises by its founders -contains a significant number of America's fastest-growing companies.

'There is a degree of crossover between it and the other sponsorship programme. For example the chief executive of Netezza Corp, Jit Saxena, is the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of 2003,' says Arnston. 'Most of the TiE Boston members are ones I would never have met if we hadn't sponsored their chapter though, and Asian entrepreneurs control a very large portion of the US technology industry. …