Sir Bob Murray may have lost out on his youth but he is thriving now, as Peter Jackson discovers.
REPORTS of Sir Bob Murray’s death were greatly exaggerated. He was understandably surprised to learn of them when it was pointed out to him that the online encyclopedia Wikipedia was reporting his demise. This prompted him to commission an extensive online biography of his own, to set the record straight – and quash any premature mourning.
And it is quite a story he has to tell, of a life of considerable achievement after overcoming great disadvantage.
Not that you would think it to meet him. It would be hard to find a more unassuming man. He is the modern equivalent of Chaucer’s parfit gentil knight – quietly spoken and slow and deliberate in his speech. He is also a courteous and modest man, describing himself as a “not very bright guy”.
“There’s nothing special about me. If I had to study, I’d have to read it five times before it went in. I’m extremely average,” he says.
Not that there’s anything of the Uriah Heep in the way he says this; he is genuinely humble, probably because he has never forgotten his humble background.
Born in Consett, County Durham, in 1946, he was the only child of a fourth-generation Sunderland mining family, although his father had moved from Houghton-le-Spring to get a job in the steel works.
“My dad worked at the steel mills and my mother kept 120 hens and chickens to subsidise the family and give us a few little things extra. I’d go round the streets on a Friday night selling eggs for cash,” he says.
One night, when he was 14, he walked in his sleep and fell down the stairs, resulting in a few months in hospital. Subsequently he did poorly in his exams and left school with just one O-level in maths.
The memory of this drives him to do so much charitable work in the field of education.
He has said: “I think it was the loss of my own schooldays which so inspires me to help others achieve their educational goals. It really upsets me when I hear stories about wasted school years – everyone has a right to the best education.”
Sir Bob was born in the post-war baby boom and when he left school in 1961 he was part of an explosion of youngsters suddenly chasing too few jobs. There was no chance of him joining his father at the steelworks and he was unemployed.
He says: “When I was unemployed I was a burden on the family as there were no benefits then. It changed my life forever, it was the most important period of my life because then I threw myself into education at Consett Technical College. I was desperate for a job.”
He worked hard, attending classes at the technical college on four nights a week, while his friends were out enjoying themselves. I ask him: did he discover a love of learning?
“I hated it. I lost my youth. I started the journey at 15 and I finished it at Leeds Poly when I was 26.”
When he was 16 he got his first job as a junior clerk in the purchase department of an Annfield Plain bearing manufacturer and then joined Consett Iron Company as an office boy, progressing to the wages department and then into accounts. At night school he achieved six O-levels and an A-level in accountancy, then an Ordinary National Certificate (ONC) in business studies before progressing to study accountancy at Newcastle Polytechnic on day release in 1967.
“I didn’t know I wanted to be an accountant when I went to technical college, it just happened to be one of the subjects in the ONC business studies and I got more than 90% in it. Accountancy is a funny subject, you can either do it or not,” says Sir Bob.
He found he could do it. But he could not find a way of furthering his career in the North East. By the age of 22 he was part-qualified and that was something of potential interest to employers but while there were factories and industry in the North East, their head offices and administrative functions such as accountancy tended to be elsewhere in the country.
“Every time I wrote for a job up here I never got a reply, I couldn’t make any progress in the North East. If I wrote for a job in Leeds, which was much bigger and a more diverse economy, I got an interview and if I wrote for a job in London I would be offered it,” he says.
He didn’t want to move too far from the North East so took a job as an assistant financial accountant with a chemicals company in Harrogate. Four years later he qualified as a chartered certified accountant and joined a kitchen manufacturer in Wetherby as financial accountant. He made a big impression being promoted three times in his first nine months.
“The company was struggling and I just put some disciplines in and some accountability and targets,” he says.
He was so successful that aged 27 he was headhunted by Ladyship Industrial Holdings to be general manager of kitchen manufacturer Gower Furniture in Halifax. Two years later he was appointed to the board of the holding company.
In 1978 the owner sold Ladyship and Sir Bob and a few colleagues decided to go into business for themselves. They put some cash in and borrowed ‘a lot more’ from Midland Bank, buying a derelict mill at Sowerby Bridge near Halifax.
Sir Bob recalls with a chuckle showing this to his widowed mother Elsie when she came to visit him one Christmas.
“I took her and showed her with great pride this factory, which had no roof or power and then it snowed and she looked at it and she started to cry and asked me if I knew what I was doing.”
He did. This factory was the base for Spring Ram, a company which served the burgeoning home improvement, kitchens and bathrooms market. Within 11 years it had moved into 3 million sq ft of freehold production and warehouse space, employed 2,000 people and was making annual profits of about £25m. In 1983 the company was floated with a market capitalisation of £10m and at the end of the first day’s trading it was valued at £16m.
When Sir Bob cashed his first cheque for £1m, he realised that he had arrived. This allowed him to indulge a passion he had had since the age of eight when his father took him to his first Sunderland game. Always an avid supporter, even when living and working in Yorkshire, he had followed the bitter boardroom in-fighting of the early 1980s and in 1983 contacted then chairman Sir Tom Cowie with an offer of help.
They met several times and in 1984 Sir Bob was invited on to the Sunderland board. Sir Tom sold him 5% of his shares and Sir Bob signed a £50,000 personal bank guarantee to the club.
The club was relegated to the Second Division and had a mounting overdraft. In 1986 Sir Tom Cowie sold him his shares for £460,000 and Sir Bob took control of Sunderland AFC. He then had to personally guarantee the club’s overdraft and inject a seven- figure sum to pay off borrowings.
In 1989, following deep disagreements over the strategic direction of the company, Sir Bob left Spring Ram. He made a clean break, sold all his shares and went on to found two companies: Omega, another kitchen company; and property development company Sterling Capitol.
In 2000 Omega, based near Doncaster, was named second in manufacturing in the Sunday Times Fast Track 100 awards and 11th in the country.
“The company is very successful,” he says. “For some reasons I have the Midas touch with kitchens.”
Stirling Capitol has developed business parks and manufacturing schemes across Yorkshire, specialising in gateway sites with direct access to the motorway network.
I ask what has driven his business success?
“I get good people around me. I work with very talented people. As I said, I’m not the brightest lad but I’m bright enough to know to work with people who have similar standards, integrity, ambition, desire, drive and enthusiasm. I’ve got some really talented people underneath me.”
Sir Bob’s property expertise was useful when it came to developing and building Sunderland’s Stadium of Light in 1997 and the Academy of Light in 2003. The club was one of the first in the country to float in December 1996, raising £12m for the new stadium, to which Sir Bob added another seven-figure sum.
In 2002 the government asked him to join the board of Wembley, the body running the building of the new Wembley Stadium, and two years later he was invited to sit on the board of the Football Foundation which had £40m a year to invest in stadiums around the country.
In that year Sunderland delisted from the Stock Exchange and in 2006 Sir Bob sold it to Niall Quinn and his consortium Drumaville for £5.7m.
“I’d done enough. I’d set the club up for a century with the Stadium of Light and the Academy of Light and we built the support of the club up from 8,000 to 48,000 and that’s a big-brand build,” he says.
Did he lose money on the club?
“Oh yes, vast amounts of money. But not by today’s standards. When I was a chairman you had to be a millionaire, now you have to be a billionaire.”
This, however, was by no means the end of his connection with the game. He was appointed honorary life president of SAFC and in 2008 he was asked to join the board of the National Football Centre as project director. He steered the £105m project to its completion on time and on budget last year, creating a 330-acre facility, St George’s Park, at Burton-upon-Trent.
He is still a busy man. He is a co-sponsor of Academy 360 in Sunderland, chairman of the trustees of the Foundation of Light, chairman and major shareholder of Omega and Sterling Capitol and chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University, he is president of SAFC and is still project director of St George’s Park.
“In a way things are perfect at the moment,” he says. “After becoming a millionaire I’ve always done more than one thing. It’s about a balance.”
He now lives with his wife Sue and their three adult children on Jersey, an island they fell in love with many years ago after holidaying there. When there, he relaxes by swimming and walking.
He has received many honours during his career. In 1997 Sunderland University awarded him an honorary doctorate and in 2001 it named its largest campus library after him in recognition of his support.
In 2002, he was awarded a CBE for his extensive work in the North East community and in 2008 Leeds Metropolitan University awarded him an honorary doctorate.
Then, two years later, he was knighted for services to football and education. In 2011 he was awarded the freedom of the City of Sunderland.
But perhaps the accolade which makes him proudest came just last month when Leeds Metropolitan University installed him as its new Chancellor.
“I think it was the pinnacle of my life. I’ve achieved many things and some, like becoming chairman of Sunderland or a millionaire, I’ve aimed for and I’ve been fortunate in being recognised with honorary degrees and a knighthood.
“I would never have aspired to be chancellor of a 30,000-strong university. The other things have been stepping stones to that.
“All of Yorkshire turned out for the installation, there were the great and the good, Leeds Council, the Lord Mayor of Leeds and various personalities. I wondered, how have they chosen me?”
He grins: “Not bad for a lad from Consett, eh?”