He's just settling into his new role as director of business investment at Sunderland City Council after years as a One North East high-flyer but, already, Ian Williams has big ideas for the city and its surrounding areas, as Ruth Lognonne finds out.
AFTER almost 30 years of helping strengthen the region’s economy through enterprise, investment and innovation, there’s few more qualified than Ian Williams to take Sunderland’s business offering to the next level.
Born and bred in County Durham, Williams took charge of business investment at the city council in April following an illustrious career as deputy chief executive of North East regional development agency, One North East.
But it wasn’t just his lifelong passion for Sunderland Football Club that tempted Williams into taking his latest role.
“Sunderland interested me for a number of reasons,” he says. “If I wanted to continue to do economic development, which is a real passion of mine, I quickly realised that this was the place to do it.
“In terms of its inward investment activity, the city has a very good track record, and it already has a very sound economic master plan that offers growth opportunities for the future.
“I’d already worked with the likes of Nissan for 20 years so I had an affinity with those companies. However, I’d worked for a regional development agency, which doesn’t have the same hold of the locality like a local authority does.
“I’m working a lot more closely with businesses specific to Sunderland and for a lot longer. I’m now in a position where I have to take a project forward and continuously support it, which is a change for me, but something I’m hugely excited about.”
After a year at Teesside Polytechnic, Williams left university for the civil service when he was 19 years old. He joined the regional grants office at the Department of Trade in Billingham and worked there for five years before moving to the now defunct Northern Development Company (NDC).
For 10 years he worked in various offices for the NDC, including the inward investment team, as well as working on supply chains and European funding programmes.
Then, in 2001, Williams was unexpectedly called on to help manage one of the biggest crises to hit British agriculture in recent times.
During the foot and mouth outbreak, Williams was brought in as assistant director, first at Carlisle, then Kenton Bar. He was tasked with an emergency response role, acting as the interface between the Army, farmers, public and vets as well as briefing residents at Tow Law and Widdrington about the mass livestock burial sites.
With very little experience in the agricultural sector, 2001 proved a challenging year for Williams.
“The disease very quickly got a stranglehold in the region,” he says. “I worked with the team who diagnosed the disease and then I had the sad role of having to ring up farmers and ask if their livestock had been in contact with Joe Bloggs’ farm, which was infected.
“It was dreadful for farmers whose livestock had the disease, but also for those who couldn’t move or sell their animals for a year.
“They needed people to manage the crisis and the Government called upon senior civil servants from outside the farming industry to administer these centres. I began working with seven vets and, within three months, I was heading a 600-strong team.
“I’d never worked with Defra before so it was a huge learning experience for me. Not everything was done well, I admit, but we had to make decisions quickly and do everything we could to stop the disease from spreading.”