As the North East LEP emerges from the long One North East shadow, Peter Jackson talks to its chairman Paul Woolston about his role and his plans for the future.
FOR a man who, figuratively, wears two big hats – as chairman of the North East LEP and senior partner at PwC – Paul Woolston is something of a surprise.
He is an influential – even powerful – man, and yet seemingly free of conceit or self importance. In fact, at first impression, he seems almost diffident and an easy man to be in the company of.
But, as we chat in the Newcastle offices of accountants PwC, it soon becomes evident that he has a clear idea of what he wants and a steely, albeit polite, determination to get it.
Perhaps this shouldn’t come as any particular surprise. Woolston has, after all, reached the position of senior partner of PwC in the North East and held it for 10 years and he has managed, with characteristic equanimity, to steer the North East LEP through some of its turbulent early months.
The local enterprise partnership was set up later than many would have wished, with Tees Valley choosing to go its own way, and then there was controversy over the new Enterprise Zone, with strong arguments that it should have been centred around an urban core concept rather than the low-carbon economy.
He points out that he took over, in July 2011, from interim chairman Paul Walker once the LEP’s boundaries had been fixed.
He says: “When I talk about the North East I include Tees Valley. The LEP team in Tees Valley have been incredibly helpful to me personally and they believe that they have a sub-regional economy that merits its own enterprise partnership and I think that’s fine.
“The LEP that we have in the North East is the fourth largest so we have a regional identity that we can look to. My preference would be that we can always retain a North Eastern brand which includes Tees Valley and there will be more than a few occasions where the two LEPs will have to work together.”
Woolston is a North Easterner through and through, having been born and bred in Sunderland. Being “archetypal of my generation” he was the first of his family to go to university, graduating in politics at Warwick University.
After university he wanted a secure occupation and a professional qualification so joined the Inland Revenue. This set him on some reluctant travels around the UK.
“When you finish your training in the Revenue they ask you where you wanted to be posted and on my form I put as my preference of offices: Sunderland, Durham and then Newcastle. So they sent me to Glasgow.”
I put it to him that, even among accountants, tax specialists are regarded as a peculiar breed. He cheerfully admits it.
“I really enjoy working in PwC working with my tax colleagues because they can come up with such elegant solutions. I think it’s the way their brains work.”
After three years he left the Inland Revenue and Glasgow to join the Audit Commission in Newcastle where he trained as an accountant. Married to Janice – whom he had met at school – who was pregnant with their first child, he decided to move house and sought and got confirmation that, after qualifying, he would be staying in the region.
“I qualified and they immediately moved me to Manchester. In those days it was required; you were just told and off you went. In our first 10 years of marriage we had nine different houses,” he says.
At various times they lived in London, Darlington, Glasgow, Newcastle, Sunderland, Cheadle Hulme, Glossop, and back to Sunderland.
While with the Audit Commission in Manchester he studied part-time for an MBA and then, in 1988, joined PwC in Newcastle where he built up a public service department of 50 people, became partner in 1992 and senior partner in 2002.
I suggest to him that PwC, a global brand, has, in common with other big accountancy firms, lost interest in smaller businesses in the region.
“That’s way wide of the mark. If you take The Journal Top 200, we have the biggest market share in any segment of that list, so if you took the top 10 and then dropped down to the bottom 10, we’d still have a big market share there. If you look at our client base more generally we have strong positions in large businesses, medium size businesses, wealthy individuals, the public sector, charities, right across all sectors.
“I am absolutely adamant that we are interested in all businesses and the way I always reply to this is to say that our question, when we look at a client, is: is this a client we would like to work with, not how big are they? We worked with Sage when there were four people in the company and we are still there and we are very proud of that relationship. We did the same with Eaga when they were about four or five people. You want to be with clients as they grow.”
He also points out that the firm is working with the government on its ‘Exporting for Growth’ initiative based around SMEs, visiting SMEs who have put together proposals with a view to working with PwC in their chosen market. “That’s another indication that we are absolutely interested in all elements of business in the North East.”
In fact, he is fiercely proud of PwC’s Newcastle office and what he has achieved there.
“Within PwC this office is described as being one of the iconic offices. What I’m most proud of is not the fact that we have a great market share position in the North East, but it’s more about how we operate as a team. The office is almost like a family. We are still 330 people but we do work together really well.”
He enjoys his job as senior partner of the firm and was not looking for further responsibilities, so when the offer of the LEP chairmanship first came up he turned it down.
“I wasn’t really thinking about doing anything like that at the time. My job in PwC is still my number one priority and I didn’t want that to be threatened in any way, so I said no,” he explains.
“Then I had another tap on the shoulder and I said I would think about it and a big influence on me was talking to Paul Walker who was the interim chair who didn’t want to continue and was stepping down. He talked to me about what he was trying to achieve and I felt that I ought to give it a go. I felt the LEP was going to be so important and the prize was so big so I thought I would try.”
When he took the chair, the debate about a LEP for the whole region versus a separate Tees Valley arrangement had been settled.
His view is diplomatically put: “I’m committed to the North East brand but I accept there are merits in having two LEPs.”
A strong criticism at the time was that, because of the argument over how many LEPs, the region was late in getting its act together at critical time. That, he concedes was just a matter of fact.
On July 1, he was faced with a new board, a brand new organisation and a pressing need to decide on the location of the Enterprise Zone. It didn’t help that this was right at the beginning of the holiday season.
“So we had this big decision to make, with people on holiday and the business board members had business commitments. It would not be the ideal way I would set up a new organisation.”
This new organisation then had to decide on the preferred choice for the new Enterprise Zone, whether that be the urban core or the low carbon option which was eventually decided upon. It was reported at the time that there was ferocious infighting over that decision.
“I never saw it that way at all. We had a difficult choice of two quite different propositions and it was going to be a really big decision that would set the agenda for the LEP for its first term of three years and beyond.
“It was portrayed a bit as though the political leaders were divided, I never saw it as that. They had a view and I would expect them to have a view. I always put it to the political leaders that the LEP is business led so it will be the business view that prevails and that’s what happened in this case.
“But, as the business people who had to make this decision, we came into this cold in July and we had to collect a lot of information, we asked for further information. It was only when we felt able that we could make the decision that we then decided to go for an Enterprise Zone around the low-carbon economy.
“On a big decision with difficult choices you would expect to have a bit of debate, but I think it’s very wrong to portray the board as being divided, it never has been.
“The board has worked really hard, we are meeting monthly when we said initially we would meet every two months. In the board meetings everybody is very positive and supportive of each other and the political leaders are incredibly supportive of the business members.”
He is confident the right decision was made.
“During that process it was very clear to me and if you look at how the Enterprise Zones around the country were defined and awarded, there was absolutely no way, if we had gone for the urban core, that we would have got everything we had asked for. We wouldn’t have got Newcastle, Gateshead and Sunderland.
“We might have got Newcastle, we wouldn’t have got Sunderland in there. We wouldn’t have got everything that we bid for within Newcastle. Even the Enterprise Zone that we got we had to take elements out of low carbon and that happened to every Enterprise Zone bid around the country.”
He pays tribute to the board’s hard work and the “huge amount of stakeholder engagement” it has done and its early success in extending the Enterprise Zone to Blyth.
“We’ve achieved quite a bit already and the extension of the Enterprise Zone to the Blyth estuary was an amazing achievement. We did that after the EZ maps had been drawn up and it was done in recognition of the fact we had a very good business case for that area,” he said.
“Within the North East we are starting to make some real progress and we will see more and more of the LEP’s impact.”
His view would not seem to be shared by senior academics who have questioned the value of LEPs in a Smith Institute report. Professor John Tomaney, director of the centre for urban and regional studies at Newcastle University has argued that the LEPs will have nothing like the clout of the regional development agencies. So, how does Woolston react to the charge that his LEP will be nothing like One North East?
“I think that’s great. We are not going to be anything compared to One North East. That was my New Year’s resolution, not to use those words any more. We are completely different.
“One of the things I discovered very early on in this role was what a fantastic reputation One North East had in the North East. In a way a lot of people were mourning the loss of the RDA because it did a great job, but in a way the pain those people felt was being transferred into this new thing [the LEP] that they thought was replacing it. We are not just like that.”
He points out that, at its peak, One North East had more than 300 people whereas the LEP will be “small and lean”.
“We want to always be strategic, we can’t get involved in delivery and we want a small team to harness a concept of partnership.
“We want to be an influence and advocate and bring together different elements of the business community and wider community to be able to deliver projects. I would be a bit disappointed if we ever had more than 10 people.”
The next task for the LEP is to bring out a business plan which, Woolston assures me, will contain more substance and detail than the region is accustomed to seeing in such documents.
It will satisfy government’s desire to see specific business plans for proposals which are as rigorous as something that might be submitted to an investment bank.
The publication of the plan will roughly coincide with the appointment if the LEP’s new director Edward Twiddy, a senior Treasury official.
It is an appointment which Woolston hopes will give him more time to devote to the day job at PwC.
“I have had to spend a lot more time doing this than I had originally anticipated, so I think my competitors are going to be very disappointed by Edward’s appointment.”