David Parkin on a shining light in business

I ALWAYS knew I was destined for great things.

And this week I became a Mayor.

OK, it was only for an hour and I was in charge of a fictional town called Farefield, but I think I was born to lead.

I was drafted into my role at a Young Managers’ Network conference I helped organise and host for bus company Stagecoach in Glasgow.

One of the activities was a workshop where the audience was split into groups to bid for potential bus franchises.

Two Stagecoach regional managing directors played my fellow councillors and we were given ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ style to give our scores.

I think it all probably went to my head as, rather than focusing on securing a regular, reasonably priced bus service in my town, I asked the bidders if they would be prepared to put my name on a bus in the town.

The deal clincher for me was when one of the bidders agreed to put a photo of me on the side of a bus.

OK, it was all roleplay in a workshop. But a man can dream…

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FOR someone who I don’t know very well and I’ve only met a handful of times in my life, Sir Bob Murray has had quite an influence on my career.

The former chairman of Sunderland AFC and serial entrepreneur was one of the first significant business figures I interviewed after becoming business editor of the Yorkshire Post in 2000.

He was honest, open, funny and insightful and it did my reputation no harm to have secured an interview with a man who has done so much for the place of his birth but who has made Yorkshire his home and launched businesses including kitchen manufacturers Spring RAM and Omega and property group Sterling Capitol.

Then when I left the Yorkshire Post to start TheBusinessDesk.com Sir Bob and his former Sterling Capitol colleague Martin Croxen called in to see Ian Briggs and I a few weeks after the launch.

We were only a tiny start-up, but he took the time to listen to what we had to say and wished us well.

His visit felt like we’d been endowed with a bit of much-need credibility and in the challenging days, weeks and months after you start a business you cling on to support like that; it keeps you going.

And then when I was, rather surprisingly, awarded an honorary degree by Leeds Beckett University (back when it was known as Leeds Metropolitan University) in 2013, it was Sir Bob, as Chancellor of the institution, who presented me with the award, which remains a very proud memory.

I reminded Sir Bob of these occasions when I met him last week at the launch of his autobiography, ‘I’d Do It All Again’.

The 77-year-old, who now splits his time between his homes in Jersey and Crayke in North Yorkshire, has taken the time to reflect on his extraordinary life and career which has taken in football, business and a great deal of work for charity and communities.

His book is searingly honest, entertaining, funny and poignant and he says he has put down his memories on paper for his three children and five grandchildren.

But there will be plenty more than just his family keen to read the book, from which all the proceeds will go to the charity the Foundation of Light.

It tells the story of Sir Bob’s life from the terraced and dust-choked streets of 1950s’ Consett where he left school with just one ‘O’ level, took his first steps on the career ladder and then risked it all to start his own kitchen and bathroom business in Yorkshire.

It chronicles boardroom battles at Roker Park on to the building of the Stadium of Light, Wembley Stadium and St George’s Park.

He recounts interactions with a wide cast of characters ranging from Len Shackleton, Brian Clough, Lawrie McMenemy, Peter Reid, Niall Quinn and even a former Prime Minister for whom he had to act as a human shield.

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Some of Sir Bob’s comments on people he has met in football and business have had lawyers twitching pre-publication.

For a man whose business empire thrived during the years of the Thatcher government in the 1980s, he has little time for Britain’s first female Prime Minister.

“I call her evil, and that’s being polite,” he says.

“When we were at Spring RAM, back in the day, we were massively successful and Calderdale [where the company was based] was marginal and she asked to come to the factory where we made the baths.

“There had been a murder in Leeds the day before, I think by the IRA, and I was asked to shield her, to walk in front of her when she was outside the factory. But it is a bullet I would have dodged.

 “She closed the Sunderland shipyards and the steel town of Consett and of course the mines. I think she was heartless.

“I think Liz Truss would make a good number two for Mrs Thatcher! I think they would have made a dynamic duo!”

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Sir Bob on Sunderland AFC and The Stadium of Light:

“We’ve had two bad owners but the current owner we are very supportive of and he’s very supportive of my charity.

“The club is on its way back. It has been at a really low point but these things take time, I know that. But they are getting a lot right, that’s all I can say.”

Sir Bob is the man behind the iconic stadium but is quick to point out that its name “has nothing to do with the Stadium of Light in Porto which is an area of the city.

“The stadium is [built] on the last pit in County Durham. The club was founded by Durham miners and the Davy lamp [used by miners] was invented in Sunderland – out of darkness into the light you see.

“When Princess Di died the government rang me up and asked if I’d rename the stadium after her. I said no.

“I met her and I loved her and I love her son and her grandson. But I didn’t want it to be remembered out of sadness.

His decision didn’t go down well with those in government. “I got a call and it was quite a strong call,” says Sir Bob.

Sir Bob says that the decision to choose Dance of the Knights by Prokofiev was made the day before the stadium opened.

“They played us three songs, Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark and the one that made the hairs stand up on the back of our neck was Prokofiev.”

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GIVEN his many achievements, I asked Sir Bob what  ambitions he still has in life.

I’d like to stay Chancellor at Leeds Beckett [University].
“I’ve been there 10 years. I don’t have a contract or a letter of appointment but I would like to stay there. I don’t get paid, I don’t get expenses, but I feel it is the greatest honour I’ve had in many ways because we’ve got 30,000 students and staff and I don’t run the university but it’s amazingly successful.

“We’ve shot up the league table about 40 places this year, it’s financially sound and we haven’t had a strike day, not one. It’s very vocational. It’s very moving, we have the graduation ceremonies at Leeds Arena and this year we’ve had 50,000 people in there.

“I find it really rewarding, I trained in accountancy at the original Leeds Polytechnic. For a lad from Consett who got one O level and was unemployed for a year, being chancellor of a university. Education changes lives.

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I ASKED Sir Bob about what he is looking forward to.
“Sunderland getting back to the Premier League” is top of Sir Bob Murray’s list, but he also adds, with perhaps the hint of a smile, “Leeds getting an airport and Leeds United fulfilling their potential and getting a new stadium”.

And what is the one message he’d want people to take away from his book?

“Anything’s possible with hard work.”

Sir Bob Murray’s book is available for £20 from the publisher at www.sirbobmurraybook.com
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WHEN I first interviewed Sir Bob Murray 20 years ago he said to me: “There’s two things that shouldn’t have left Southampton, Lawrie McMenemy and the Titanic. His public relations guy then, and now, was the charming North Yorkshire-based former journalist Robert Beaumont, who jumped in to suggest the comment was off the record.

Bob Murray said no, he was happy for it to be on the record.

Later in the conversation I asked him about Sunderland’s highly rated Danish goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen and wondered whether he would be sold.

“I’d rather lose my wife than him,” prompting Robert to splutter urgently: “That’s definitely off the record!”.

Sir Bob looked up calmly and in his whispered tones, said: “No it’s not.”

When I reminded him of this at our recent meeting, he said: “It’s true! My wife’s not very good at stopping shots…”

Have a great weekend.

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