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Monday, 25 June, 2001, 12:34 GMT 13:34 UK
UK entrepreneurs lose launch pad
Consul generals residence San Francisco
Business people say the house is symbol of British stature
By the BBC's Maggie Shields in San Francisco

UK entrepreneurs hoping to make their fortunes in Silicon Valley have been shocked by Foreign Office plans to sell the consul general's residence in San Francisco.

At present the residence, based in one of the city's most fashionable districts, is a magnet for British companies trying to gain a foothold in Silicon Valley and make vital contacts.

It is also a big draw for chief executives, who are invited to rub shoulders with heads of state, politicians, dignitaries and other executives.

But a proposal by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to move somewhere smaller has caused outrage and anger among the business community in San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

"Silicon Valley is all about image and reputation," explains Scotsman Bill Elder, the CEO of Genus, a semiconductor company in Silicon Valley.

"And the minute you see somebody downsizing, getting smaller and thinking provincial, it sends a signal.

"The house is a symbol of British stature and how seriously it wants to do business in this Valley," says Mr Elder.

This view is also echoed by the British America Chamber of Commerce, which works closely with the Consul General Mike Frost at bringing British and American companies together .

"The house tells you something about continuity of commitment," says the Chamber's American president John Biestman.

There has been criticism in past Foreign Office reports that the building harked back to a bygone era and invoked a Home Counties atmosphere that is perhaps wrong in the brave new world of high tech.

In Silicon Valley you can go to a modern structure any time you want, but to go to a Home Counties atmosphere is a draw that is unique

John Beistman
Chairman British-America Chamber of Commerce
But John Beistman says it's that very atmosphere that is part of the cachet of the place.

"In Silicon Valley you can go to a modern structure any time you want, but to go to a Home Counties atmosphere is a draw that is unique. It's different and people out here, as they say at Apple Computers, think different."

Janis MacKenzie, principal director of Brandfusion, a public relations company, says selling the residence would be a PR disaster.

"For 50 years the house has been a British symbol of strength. It provides an historical touchstone. It is one of the city's outstanding homes for entertaining and for business connections.

"Last week I met the former head of the Bank of America and the CEO of Gap there. Its loss would be monumental from a civic standpoint and a business one."

Officials at the residence say no final decision has been made and the proposal is part of an ongoing review of diplomatic properties.

It has already warranted an early day motion from the Labour MP Derrick Wyatt .

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