10 Questions: Paul Butler

March 31, 2020

Paul Butler became CEO of the North East Automotive Alliance (NEAA) – which supports the growth and competitiveness of the sector in the region – in March 2015 and has established it as the largest automotive cluster in the UK. Paul is also the only UK based Cluster Benchmarking Expert for the European Secretariat for Cluster Analysis (ESCA), who are mandated by the EU to support the creation of more world-class clusters across the EU

What was your first break in business?

Not my first but probably my biggest break was in 2006 when I put forward a proposal to the CEO of NEPIC, Dr Stan Higgins, to create my own position within the organisation. NEPIC provided me with the opportunity and freedom to really expand my knowledge of clusters, to obtain my Exec MBA at Durham University and become a Cluster Benchmarking Expert for the European Secretariat for Cluster Analysis. To date, I’m the only benchmarking expert based in the UK.

What did you want to be growing up?

I was always a very keen and competitive sportsperson and envisaged I would go into leisure centre management. That didn’t quite work out but I did go into management.

What attracted you to your current role?

During my time at NEPIC I led an ERDF funded programme to support trade through clusters as part of a wider regional UKTI trade services activity. I worked with the automotive sector to explore the appetite of setting up a new cluster in the region. Tony Sarginson [sector engagement executive for UKTI North East] gathered the automotive sector together to explore their appetite of setting up a new automotive cluster
in the region. I then started to work with them to ensure they looked to set the cluster up against European best practice. I was then asked if I would be interested in the CEO position. Having the opportunity to set something up from scratch was too good an opportunity to turn down.

What is your organisation’s mission?

Our collective vision is that the North East Automotive Alliance will be the catalyst through which the North East becomes the location of choice for automotive investment in Europe. The region will be recognised as a true automotive powerhouse with a very dynamic, forward-looking and competitive supply chain; that incorporates strengths research, development and innovation in new automotive technologies and manufacturing processes.

How do you get the best out of your team?

We have a small but highly effective team who were recruited for their particular skills set. At
the outset, I was clear that I needed individuals with experience, self-motivation and a desire to make a difference. My task is simply to provide the framework and freedom for them to manage their particular areas of the business. As an industry-led cluster, we have to be agile to meet the ever- changing needs of industry.

What has been your career highlight?

Undoubtedly, setting up the North East Automotive Alliance (NEAA). As a not-for- profit, industry-led cluster group we are here to support the sustainable economic growth and competitiveness of the North East automotive sector. Today, with over 270 members, we are the largest automotive cluster in the UK and seen as the exemplar. Our members range from world-renowned OEMs, to world-class Tier 1 companies, through to innovative SMEs and sole traders, as well as professional associate members. The NEAA provides an unparallel collaborative network where companies find benefit from leadership and coordination of activities of mutual benefit.

What has been your biggest challenge?

I’m putting the finishing touches to this article as we face our biggest challenge of a generation. The impact of the coronavirus will be felt for many years to come and it’s unclear how bad the situation will get and for how long it will last. All I can say is that the NEAA is working hard with other partners and stakeholder to support businesses as best we can during these unprecedented times.

Who or what inspires you?

My wife, I wouldn’t be where I am today without her. In terms of my position, I get a great sense of pride that our work positively impacts the lives and prosperity of the people who live in this fantastic region – a region I’m proud to call home.

What are the NEAA’s short and long-term goals?

To continue to play a leading role in the growth and expansion of the regions automotive sector. To achieve this, we need to support and grow our incumbent automotive companies, support them through the change to electrification; and to grow our regional R&D activities in battery technologies, power electronics and electric machines and manufacturing innovation. This will help transform the region into a true automotive powerhouse.

How do you achieve a good work-life balance?

Having a demanding job and a young family (a daughter aged eight and a son aged four), it’s difficult. However, my wife ensures I maintain a fairly good work-life balance spending quality time as a family. My relaxation is a round of golf – it’s an opportunity to unwind and relax.

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