As we look to open new markets in the Far East, Peter Jackson speaks to a man who knows that part of the world better than most.
NICHOLAS Craig needs little introduction. Over a long career he has become a well-known and popular figure on the North East business scene.
He has been a senior corporate lawyer, held a number of directorships and is currently Under Sheriff of Northumberland and trustee of Durham County Cricket Club Community Foundation. He is still also active in advising businesses on the Far East.
We meet at his home in Corbridge, where he lives with Victoria and – on their frequent visits – their three sons and grandchildren and their two dogs.
The dogs – Nellie, a border and lakeland terrier cross, and Islay, a black Labrador – are friendly and spend much of the interview with their heads on my knee and tails wagging.
Craig, 66, has the kind of accent you would expect from someone who in the 1950s attended the oldest public school in the country.
But, he is a warm and friendly man whose default facial expression is an engaging grin and whose speech is frequently punctuated with a barking laugh.
The cottage in which we sit was his late mother’s home and is overlooked by a much larger house, which was the original family home. The Craig family line goes back to the founders of the law firm Wilkinson Marshall Clayton and Gibson in 1785 and the oldest law firm in Newcastle, until its merger – as Wilkinson Maughan – with Eversheds in 1998.
His father was a partner in the firm and for young Nicholas, who was educated at Winchester College, the law was the obvious career.
“It was a family firm – full stop,” he says simply. “It was a sort of natural succession.”
In 1966, he was articled to Church Adams Tatham and Co of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London.
“I was only 18 or 19 at that time and all my friends had moved to London,” he says. “There was probably the best nine months of my life when I had one exam to take and, because I wasn’t qualified, I couldn’t get a lawyer’s job, so I drove a minicab in London.”
He had Merle Park in the back of his cab once. He was taking the prima ballerina to Covent Garden for a royal performance in front of the Queen Mother when he had a puncture at Hyde Park Corner.
“I had to drive the whole way on a flat tyre and arrived before all her adoring fans behind crash barriers with a clank, clank, clank of the wheel rim.”
This was during the so-called minicab wars between the drivers of black cabs and the unlicensed minicab operators. On another occasion, he was taking a pregnant woman to hospital to give birth and broke down – again at Hyde Park Corner – and, as she went into labour, he tried in vain to hail a black cab. The story, he assures me, had a happy ending and without him having to act as midwife.
In 1974 his father died, aged only 59, and Craig returned home to join the family firm where, within a few months, he was made partner.
“Wilkinson Marshall Clayton and Gibson were the second largest firm in Newcastle,” he says. “As all firms were then, it was a general practice firm. That’s a big difference that has happened in my personal career, between then and now specialisation has come in. When I joined you were a jack-of-all-trades, you would act for families, you would do matrimonial, you would act for businesses, you would do property, trusts, wills probates and that sort of thing.”
Another difference he finds, looking back on the economically-troubled time and high unemployment of the late 1970s, was that the firm and the profession were relaxed about people not being able to pay their fees.
“We were then a caring profession, whereas now we are more a business selling time,” he says. “Now everything is on chargeable hours with time recording and targets. You do have to have a method of recording hours worked.
“In the old days, we used to weigh the files sometimes to see what the fees were. I lived through that revolution of lawyers becoming more commercially minded. When I entered the law, it was a profession and my worry is that, when I exited, it was a business selling time.”
In the early 1980s there was another profound change with the arrival in the North East of investors from the Far East, a part of the world in which Craig had long had an interest.
In 1964, he had spent a year travelling in the Orient. His father had been born in Bangkok where his father had been legal adviser to the King and Queen of Siam.
At the height of this period of inward investment, there were 75 Japanese companies in the region, the six main Korean companies, and four major Taiwanese companies. Craig made contacts easily. “I found myself totally at ease with them because I’d been out there, I’d been to Malaysia, Hong Kong, Thailand and Japan. I felt at ease with the culture and felt able to act for them. We had five Koreans here for Christmas Day one year.”
He advised on the setting up of the huge Fujitsu plant at Newton Aycliffe, a £104m project, the largest in England at the time apart from the Channel Tunnel.
He accepts that many of these Far Eastern investors later pulled out at the end of the 1990s when it became more cost effective to manufacture in places such as China and Eastern Europe but he insists that their legacy remains in kick-starting the regeneration in North East manufacturing.
Craig also acted for the Northern Development Company, visiting Korea, Japan, Taiwan and then China.
“As a firm, we did very well out of it from the point of view of getting clients, and commercially there were great spin-offs. I became known as someone who knew about the Far East.”
In 1989 he first visited China and he has been 22 times since. He went to visit NDC offices in Shanghai and to speak at seminars, to visit companies and follow up leads.
In 1998, national law firm Eversheds was seeking to expand its Newcastle footprint and entered into talks with Wilkinson Maughan, which led to merger, and Craig became partner in Eversheds Newcastle.
He says: “I was sad to see the end of the family firm, but times move on.”
Three years later he moved on to rival Newcastle law firm Watson Burton where he worked on inward investment until his retirement last year.
Now he has time to indulge his passion for sport. He was a minor counties level amateur cricketer as batsmen wicket-keeper, having played for Northumberland and for the public schools at Lords. He is now a keen golfer and last year he “spent summer glorying in the sport”.
Craig, however, has plans for business and not just pleasure and is advising businesses on trading with the Far East. China and the Far East are going to remain the fastest growing markets in the world and will drive the global economy for many years to come. Craig is convinced that the North East, which has hosted so many Far Eastern investors, is ideally placed to do business over there if only it seizes the opportunity. This is made harder by the demise of One North East and the loss of its offices in Korea, Taiwan, Japan and China but he is keen to help.
“It’s a matter of trying to fill that gap,” he says. “I’ve helped a lot of people with just the concept of China because people are slightly frightened of China.”
About eight years ago he was one of the few Westerners to visit North Korea, and two months ago he had the North Korean ambassador to stay and arranged for him to have a day’s salmon fishing on the Tyne.
Last year Craig went to Burma, which seems to be emerging from military dictatorship and is seen as ripe for renewed trade links.
“There are huge commercial opportunities in Burma, likewise in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
Vietnam is further on than Cambodia and Cambodia is further on than Laos, but there are huge opportunities in that peninsula, so one shouldn’t just think about China and Korea.”
He also advises Far Eastern clients on the North East and has recently been contacted by a lawyer representing Chinese and Japanese clients with a private equity fund who want to buy some UK companies with a revenue of US$100m.
His last trip to China was a couple of years ago and another is due. I ask: does he speak Mandarin or Cantonese?
“No. Not a word. I just shout.” And then he gives that distinctive Craig laugh.