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.
The following year, Williams joined One North East as manager of the business finance team, moving on to become inward investment manager.
Within three years he was promoted to director of business and was finally made deputy chief executive of One North East in 2011.
During his time with the regional development agency, Williams was instrumental in bringing about major initiatives, including the creation of the five Centres of Excellence, which were established in specific fields to make sure the North East is at the forefront of global economic trends and to help knowledge and technology-driven businesses.
He also saw the introduction of the North East Productivity Alliance (NEPA), whose aim is to improve the performance of the region’s manufacturing industry, in particular by boosting the skills, productivity and competitiveness of companies.
“I’ve always had a public role that engages with businesses,” he said. “Almost 30 years in this game means I know a lot of people both in the private and public sector as we’re a pretty small region when it comes to that.”
Despite being made redundant last year following the abolition of the country’s regional development agencies by the coalition Government, Williams insists there is no bitterness felt.
“Business support has changed under the coalition Government,” he says. “Personally, it was sad to see the demise and closure of One North East because I felt it did a lot for the region and I believe it made a real difference.
“However, it’s Government policy and you’ve got to roll with the punches. But we are poised for great things as a region with the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) on our side.
“It’s no use dwelling on the past. I’m a great believer in moving forward and looking to the future.” In his new role as director of business investment with Sunderland City Council, Williams is focusing on enterprise and innovation to capture interest and convert it into investment in the city in automotive, software, offshore energy and subsea sectors.
He is also looking to boost urban revival by supporting start-up and young local businesses, and major new development schemes. By working with the North East LEP as a partner, Williams wants to take advantage of funding opportunities to strengthen Sunderland’s economy.
The city’s unrivalled position in the region’s automotive industry is unsurprisingly thanks to car manufacturer Nissan’s hugely successful year.
“Nissan has had quite a remarkable year,” says Williams. “To make 600,000 vehicles from one plant and then create 1,700 jobs in this city is absolutely fantastic.
“Yes, there are issues in the economy at the moment, but here’s a company, managed by local people with local people working on the line, holding up incredibly well and gearing themselves up for growth. Supporting Nissan has got to be a high priority for the city council.
“The offshore energy and subsea sectors are also going to create opportunities for the city as the Port of Sunderland has 255 acres of land available for re-development which would lend itself perfectly to these growing industries.
“We’re talking to a number of companies at the moment who will not just utilise the port but also have a permanent presence there.
“There’s also the £10m Software Centre for Sunderland’s growing software industry, which will open this autumn. The centre will bring 140 jobs to the city and continue cementing Sunderland as a centre for hi-tech businesses. It will have state-of-the-art accommodation for 60 software businesses, as well as exhibition space.
“I’d like to think that, in 15 years’ time, we’ll be talking about Sunderland as the home of software.
“We’ve been successful in replacing lost jobs in mining and ship building, so why can’t we develop the software industry up here?
“I think we’ve got as good a chance as anywhere in the UK.”
Williams gets a real kick out of winning investment for a North East company and seeing it perform well. He believes this drive stems from a deep-rooted competitive nature that saw him hold the record for the most runs scored for Crook Town Cricket Club.
“I scored 20,000 runs for Crook Town and that record still stands today,” he says. “When I gave up cricket a few years ago I took up golf, and I now play off a handicap of 10.6, which I hope to get to single figures this year. I think it’s safe to say I like to see results!”