John McCabe took on the prestigious position of North East England Chamber of Commerce (Chamber) president six months ago, replacing the outgoing incumbent Mike Matthews, MD of NIFCO.
He will spend the next two years balancing his work as the figurehead of one of the region’s most influential business membership organisations with his day job running Fusion PR, a full-service PR and marketing agency based in Blyth.
John has become president amid uncertain times for the North East business community as it contends with Brexit, regional devolution and a minority Government; but it’s a challenge that John relishes.
He explains: “The board approached me earlier this year and asked if I would consider allowing myself to be nominated as president after Mike Matthews’ tenure ended. I wasn’t expecting it at all and it came as a surprise. I thought it was a great opportunity to work with the fantastic business community, at an exciting time , and so I grabbed the opportunity with both hands.”
John has worked in public relations for the past 28 years. He began his career at Northumbrian Water (shortly before the water industry was privatised) as a clerical traineeship and soon found his home in the PR department where he cut his teeth writing documents and briefing documents for the organisation’s senior team.
After five years, John left to join a large Newcastle-based marketing agency, before moving to the Midlands to work at National Grid Transco.
Two years later, John moved his young family back to the North East and joined Newcastle Building Society as its head of media and communications. In 2002, John was approached by mining company Alcan to be its corporate affairs director. He spent 12 years at the company – which was bought by Rio Tinto in 2008 – where he was heavily involved in government lobbying, media relations and internal and external communications.
Following a strategic review in 2013, Rio Tinto Alcan asked John to relocate away from the North East. Instead of uprooting his family for a second time, he decided to take voluntary redundancy.
John intended to do 12 months of consultancy work before seeking another in-house position but almost five years later, his company grows from strength to strength.
Initially branded Round Table Solutions, John spend two-and-a-half years consulting from a home office before moving into the modern Blyth Workplace and taking on his first employee.
His company – which rebranded to Fusion PR earlier this year – recently took on its eighth member of staff and offers everything from media relations to strategic marketing and creative design, for clients including Northumberland National Park, National Grid, Northumbria University and chemical company AkzoNobel.
Throughout his career, John has been an active member of the North East England Chamber of Commerce.
“While at Alcan, I was on the Chamber council and when I started my own company, one of the first things I did was become a member as I knew how good a network it was to be in,” he reveals.
“A few months after, the Chamber asked if I would be interested in taking over as chair of its Northumberland committee. This not only gave me a seat back on the council but on the board as well.”
John was appointed president of the Chamber at the organisation’s AGM in June this year. In his first speech, he set out his three key aims for his two-year presidency.
His first focuses on collaboration and encouraging more North East businesses to work smarter together.
“We need to look at procurement procedures as too much money is spent outside the region on skills, expertise and resources that are available right here on our doorstep,” John says.
His second aim targets skills and the need to build better relationships between companies and educational establishments in producing the next generation of workers.
“The business community puts an onus on schools and colleges to deliver work-ready young people with the right technical and academic skills, as well as the right personal characteristics for the workplace, but businesses must also do more to provide people with a better standard and more consistent levels of work experience and career guidance.”
While these build on the existing work of the Chamber, John’s third, highly personal, aim focused on mental health in the workplace.
He explains: “It’s estimated that one in four of us will experience a mental health issue in the next year. None of us are immune, regardless of what your job title is or how wealthy you are.
“It has become a business-critical issue and means that some of our best, most capable and brightest people aren’t developing the careers that they should because they can’t feel they can speak to their employer, that they can put themselves forward for a promotion or apply for another job.”
John, who has experienced a mental health issue in the past, was heartened by the Chamber’s support in putting mental health on its agenda. He reveals that not only has the organisation joined the Time to Change campaign to reduce mental health-related stigma and discrimination, but the team is working on practical support measures to increase discussion and help its members break down the stigma of mental health issues within their organisations.
Unsurprisingly, John also sees Brexit as dominating his presidency.
He describes the UK departure of the EU as “the single biggest challenge that any government, of any colour, in the UK has faced since World War II,” but maintains that “Brexit can be successful.”
He says: “What impresses me with the North East business community is how resolute it is, but I think we’re reaching a point with Brexit now where enough is enough and so we’re calling on the government to urgently start finding more certainty and clarity on issues such as customs, immigration and the movement of people.”
John reveals that the Chamber recently met with HMRC to talk about trading agreements and the organisation also invited the permanent secretary to the Treasury to the region to hear directly from the Chamber’s members about their concerns at a meeting at Gateshead College.
John, a strong supporter of devolution, is also closely monitoring its impact in the region and hopes that the existing Tees Valley devolution and the new North of the Tyne deal will eventually lead to the whole of the North East embracing more local decision making.
“The more decisions that are made at a local level by people who are aware of local circumstances and opportunities, the better,” John says, “but it’s important that the business community is plugged into this and works closely with politicians to make sure it’s meaningful and the public has confidence in the process.”
When asked what he hopes to achieve by the end of his two-year presidency, John says that: “Whatever the post Brexit world looks like, I hope that the North East economy is still thriving, still innovating and still able to create and sustain fantastic opportunities for our brightest and best people to live and work in the region.”
John is also keen that his work continues past June 2019.
“I want to remain involved in the debate and discussion around some of the social, economic and political issues that the region faces. I feel I have a contribution to make and I hope I’ll be able to make that beyond my two-year presidency.”