Metrocentre’s new general manager, Gavin Prior, doesn’t let hard knocks hold him back, as Peter Jackson discovers.
HIS father died when Gavin Prior was only seven. For the surviving family of four living in County Waterford, Ireland, it was a devastating blow. To escape the painful memories they uprooted and moved to England, to St Albans in Hertfordshire, which was more or less chosen by sticking a pin in a map.
“We moved from a seven-bedroom house in Ireland where mum used to do B&B to a one-bedroom apartment in England,” he says.
Prior, however, now 35, hardly seems like a young man scarred by early tragedy. Beaming at me across a meeting room desk in the Metrocentre’s management centre, he is clearly, as he describes himself – “a glass-half-full kind of person”.
He explains in a voice which retains no trace of brogue but is instead rather generic South East that his early loss helped form his optimism.
“We quickly got out of the one-bedroom apartment. Mum got a decent job and we worked our way up to a five-bedroom house again. She worked hard. It was a massive learning curve and one thing I certainly took from it was a lot of admiration for my mum and she always taught us that you can do anything in this life and, in effect, we rebuilt out lives. I’ve got massive admiration for her.”
Prior left school when he was 16 and joined Marks & Spencer’s management training programme which brought him an A-level and then, in 1996, he joined Capital Shopping Centres, CSC, as an accounts administrator, being promoted to office manager in 1998 in CSC’s Harlequin Centre in Watford. In 2000 he became service manager for car parks and two years later, service manager operations for the whole centre.
“At the back of 2005 I was sent on a six-month secondment to Metrocentre as operations manager. The guy here was retiring so they were looking for someone to have a handover. It had interested me and it was to see if I would like the North East and the role.”
He was soon smitten. “Within that six months I can honestly say I fell in love with the North East and the Metrocentre. I always recall that within that six months how different the ops job here was in relation to Watford. A lot of my role within Watford was checking the checkers, whereas up here you get so much passion from the team that everything you are issuing as an instruction is just delivered to a fantastic level. There’s a lot of pride in the people.”
While at The Harlequin he met his wife Jo who stayed in Watford during his six-month secondment at the Metrocentre while he lived in a company flat in Ponteland. When he took the job permanently she moved up and they bought a house in Dinnington.
“She loves the North East as much as I do. It’s just an amazing place as soon as you start looking around. I don’t think there’s anywhere in the UK that could be closer to Ireland in terms of the people, the countryside, the seaside. It’s just a wonderful, wonderful place.
“In my previous life in England we moved around every couple of years and knew my mum would move back to Ireland, which she did when I was 18, but for me this is home.”
These years in the North East were particularly happy because he got on so well with his predecessor as general manager Tim Lamb. Tragically, Lamb, 50, died suddenly in March after suffering a heart attack while playing five-a-side football.
“I worked very closely with Tim Lamb, I was in the office next to him. It was very sad. Tim, myself and Karen Carr-Hedley [the marketing manager] always said we felt so lucky to have the three of us working together leading this brilliant centre. We never knew how long it would last, but for Tim to be taken away like that was absolutely devastating for all of us. To me, he was not just a leader, he was probably one of my best friends.
“It was very sad, he was a beautiful man. But, if there’s one element of good that has come out of it, he has left us a great legacy.” Part of that legacy is MetrOasis, an external £12m restaurant and leisure development on the site of the old Esso garage facing the retail park. Due to complete on September 5, the project, which will create more than 100 jobs, includes the region’s first Krispy Kreme, a Toby Carvery, Harvester and a drive-thru Starbucks.