Business and Industry in Birmingham

Up until the late 20th century Birmingham was not only geographically the heart of the nation, it was also the industrial heart and engine of the nation with an output centred on its numerous engineering works. As with all other cities in the country, that industrial base has now diminished as automation reduces the number of jobs available and company re-locations to other, low economy countries sees jobs exported out of the UK. However, manufacturing and engineering companies do continue to thrive in Birmingham along with its tradition for being a major centre for commerce.

A trade inextricably associated with Birmingham is the motor industry. The one time giant of the motor industry, Rover – previously known as Leyland, BMC and originally Austin, has virtually disappeared from the old Longbridge plant to the west of the city. At its peak in the 1960s the plant was producing 200,000 cars a year and employed tens of thousands of workers. After many years of problems the company collapsed in 2005, most of the plant is now demolished and converted to a business park. One small factory remains employing about 250 people producing around 3000 MG cars a year under licence for the new Chinese owners of the brand. Land-Rover is another motor vehicle manufacturer in Birmingham, its production facility is on the other side of Birmingham in Solihull. Employing 11,000, it sells models under the Land Rover and Range Rover marques. Jaguar, the luxury car maker, still has a manufacturing site in Birmingham. The site, originally built in 1932, at Castle Vale to the north of the city employs about 3000 people and is a body assembly and paint plant. The only other significant manufacturer of motor vehicles left in Birmingham is LDV, who produce commercial vehicles and are best known for their medium sized vans and mini-buses. Their plant is at Washwood Heath to the east of the city, where they produce around 13,000 vehicles a year and employs just under 1000 people.

There are still many other companies in Birmingham that have worked in the vehicle component supply industry. Whilst they were once dependent on Rover, many have now diversified and supply other manufacturers and industries. An example of the motor vehicle component suppliers in Birmingham is Pilkington Automotive, which is part of the Pilkington group that manufactures glass. Their plant at Kings Norton is a specialist one within the group producing motor vehicle windscreens. GKN is another company which supplies components to the motor industry. With its Driveline plant at Erdington, to the north of the city, it supplies drive mechanisms to vehicle manufacturers world-wide. The electrical giant Lucas has been associated with Birmingham since the company was founded in 1872 in its original factory in Carver Street by Joseph Lucas. With a new “state of the art” plant at Coleshill, to the east of the city, Lucas manufactures a range of electrical components for the motor industry.

In 1879 the suburb of Bournville became the home of Cadbury, the largest chocolate manufacturer in the country. The company was originally founded by John Cadbury, working in small premises in Bull Street, Birmingham. A philanthropic family, the Cadbury’s were responsible for the development of the Bournville village “ … a pleasant and green environment.” to house their workers, at a time during the Victorian era when most workers lived in over-crowded slums. Today, despite the impact of automation, the factory still employs 3000 people locally and produces 1800 tonnes of chocolate a day, so every day they produce 1 million Crème eggs, over 1 million bars of chocolate and 50 million individual chocolates for boxing.

Birmingham has the largest finance centre outside of London employing over 60,000 people. It is the home of over twenty of the country’s top accounting firms. For example, Price Waterhouse Coopers, who employ 1500 people in their offices on Cornwall Street in the city centre, have worked in assurance and taxation advice in Birmingham since 1928. The growth and development of the many manufacturing companies in Birmingham during the industrial revolution inevitably led to more banking facilities being needed. The Lloyds-TSB group owes its origins to John Taylor and Samuel Lloyd in 1765, when they started a private bank. The first Lloyds commercial bank was established in 1865 when it became a joint-stock company. Now part of the HSBC group, the Midland Bank was one of the “big four” banks in the UK. The Midland Bank was founded by Charles Greach, who opened the commercial banks first branch in the city centre at Union Street, in 1836. Birmingham also has its own branch of the London Stock Exchange and until quite recently had a branch of the Bank of England.

Birmingham has a long and successful history in the jewellery trade. Indeed an area of the city around St Paul’s is also known as the Jewellery Quarter. Of the 4000 or so people who work here there are some of the world’s most skilled jewellery makers and goldsmiths. The combination of volume jewellery production and the creation of individual items to order, brings in business worth some £150 million a year to the city. The Jewellery Quarter was also the area in which the Birmingham Mint was situated and in the 1780s this was the first steam powered mint in the country. It ceased production 200 years later. Although Baker and Finnemore are one of the few surviving companies, Birmingham was also famous for making steel pen-nibs. It also had a thriving pin making industry, which now only survives as a tourist attraction.

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