A new tomorrow with the spirit of yesterday

May 1, 2020

Sunderland is undergoing a major renaissance as multi-million-pound work to rejuvenate the former Vaux Breweries site into a striking new business district is complemented by large-scale commercial and cultural projects across the city. A significant component in the transformation is the arrival of online grocer Ocado Group, which has opened a potential 300-job customer contact centre where Vaux once stood. Steven Hugill speaks to Chris Roberts, the company’s head of customer contact centres, to find out more about its expansion into Sunderland as the city enters a new era

It was as emotionally stirring as it was succinct. Bordering a circular Vaux Breweries’ Double Maxim beer mat ran a strapline urging drinkers to ‘Get the Strength of the North Inside You’.

The might of the city’s world-class shipbuilders, the muscle of its coal miners and the skills of its trailblazing glass makers – all encapsulated in one local ale.

Vaux, founded in 1806 by Cuthbert Vaux, was once a totemic employer in the city, its beers quenching drinkers’ thirsts as its name became synonymous with Sunderland AFC thanks to a long-running sponsorship deal.

The brewer’s sprawling plant may now have been erased from Sunderland’s landscape, but the city’s reputation as an industrial hub – as highlighted by Vaux’s passionate marketing campaigns – remains just as permanent.

It’s a legacy that certainly struck a chord with national grocer Ocado Group.

The online supermarket – known for using robots developed by Blyth-based Tharsus to pick customer deliveries – was the first tenant in The Beam, a flagship office development set at the heart of the Riverside Sunderland regeneration project.

Built on land where lines of Vaux brewers once toiled, Riverside Sunderland is providing fresh opportunity for future generations.

The project received significant impetus earlier this year when investment manager Legal & General agreed a milestone deal with the city’s council to deliver new office space on former Vaux land.

Described as the “single most significant investment story to come out of Sunderland for
decades”, the plans include a trio of Grade A office buildings that hold the potential to house hundreds of workers.

For Ocado – which announced a new
online joint venture with Marks & Spencer in February – Riverside Sunderland affords an opportunity to catalyse expansion plans while benefiting from some of that northern strength championed by Vaux.

Its customer contact centre – which could eventually employ 300 staff – supports shoppers across the grocer’s entire ordering spectrum, from initial item selection to changes, cancellations and delivery.

It is, says Chris Roberts, head of customer contact centres, a crucially important element in the business’ growth objectives, which, he adds, is being augmented by a high standard of workforce.

“The contact centre industry is booming in the North East and there is a lot of talent in the region,” says Chris, revealing the company’s Wearside base is presently providing work for around 100 people.

“Ocado has a real ambition to grow in the sector and the Sunderland centre will help that.

“We were convinced before our move into The Beam that Sunderland could offer much as a place to do business,” he continues.

“But we could not have anticipated just how many great people we would find to help drive the company’s development.”

Ocado’s role in the renaissance of land left idle by Vaux’s closure in the summer of 1999 forms one part of a broader redevelopment programme to spur Sunderland’s social and professional standing.

Work to build a new City Hall opposite The Beam is now underway, with plans for housing and a car park also mooted for the site.

Beyond the former Vaux footprint, the blueprint includes a 120-room Holiday Inn hotel at Keel Square, a 450-seater auditorium in the city’s Minster Quarter, a new business centre in the former River Wear Commissioners Building and the revitalisation of Seaburn’s seafront with a new pub and leisure village.

The additions will complement £120 million work already carried out on the Northern Spire road bridge, which provides scope for further regeneration along the River Wear by linking the suburbs of Castletown and Pallion.

For Chris, who is originally from Durham but now resides in Sunderland, the plans represent an appealing future.

“I live in Roker, so I’m literally a stone’s throw from the office,” he says.

“One of the things that attracted me to work for Ocado was that it was creating jobs in my local community by committing to such an investment.

“But it is also absolutely fantastic to see the investment across the city centre and really exciting to see the development of the area down by the riverside.

“There is no doubt this is a great region to do business.”

Ocado Group

The Beam

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