Home-grown success

May 31, 2018

It was expected that Sir John Hall would follow his father down the pits – and for eight years, he did. But then a desire to work for himself and to improve his position led him into property development. The miner’s son has since become one of the most renowned and successful business people the region has ever seen – delivering American-style living and shopping to the North East, and helping to bring a golden era to the football club he supported as a boy. The 85-year-old talks to Alison Cowie about his incredible journey and reflects on the lessons that have inspired him over the years

Sir John Hall grew up as a miner’s son in North Seaton, a colliery village near Ashington, Northumberland. He describes a very happy childhood where a proud and protective community meant no one was ever left on their own; but it was a community where he was taught to ‘know his place’.

“If you were a miner’s son it was expected that you would become a miner too,” Sir John explains.

This Northumbrian boy, though, had ambitions to better his position – perhaps first demonstrated when, at ten years old, his father gave him a five-yard plot in the family’s garden.

Instead of growing vegetables – like the Coal Board who gave the miners their large strips of land encouraged – Sir John decided to grow the quintessentially English rose – using his pocket money to buy blooms from Anderson’s of Aberdeen, as he was told, “the further north you get your roses, the hardier they were”.

Sir John recalls that he could only afford the cheaper stock and so would spend hours trying to graft his roses – another early indication of an impulse to improve his lot.

Sir John gained a place at Bedlington Grammar School, which gave him “insight into other people and how they lived”. But this idea of knowing your place permeated the school corridors, too.

“I was identified as a ‘B-streamer’,” he says. “The As would go to university and the Bs got jobs and apprenticeships; that’s just how it was.

“Looking back, though, this was probably a good thing. If I’d gone to university, I’d probably not have made the money that I have.”

What Sir John refers to is the millions he’s made through his property development business, Cameron Hall, which led him to be a tea guest of Margaret Thatcher and an icon of North East business.

But Sir John’s property development career was many years off when he left school as a 16-year-old with nine O Levels.

With aspirations to become a municipal engineer, Sir John spent six months searching for a job, to no avail.

“In those days, the Masonic Lodge was very powerful and all those sorts of jobs went to Masons’ sons,” he reveals.

Sir John then received a phone call from his old headmaster informing him that there was a job going at Newbiggin Colliery for a mining surveyor apprentice.

The teen was initially indignant. “I felt I was too good for the pit”, Sir John remembers; but his father told him: “Take a job and you’ll get a job.”

Heeding his father’s advice, Sir John spent eight years working at the coal seams of Newbiggin-by-the-Sea but was moved above ground when the Coal Board recognised he was looking to better himself by attending a night class in chartered surveying.

It was while he was working in the Estates Office for the Coal Board, dealing with land and livestock, that Sir John first became interested in real estate.

He later moved to Killingworth New Town as an assistant estates manager and spent his downtime shadowing the surveyors, engineers, architects and accountants.

“I went around the office learning about all the different disciplines of property,” says Sir John, adding, “you never stop learning”.

A burning ambition to work for himself, however, was ever present. It’s something, Sir John believes, that was ingrained.

You can’t make an entrepreneur. It’s in your genes. That desire to succeed and get on, to improve your conditions in life, it can’t be taught; it’s in you or it’s not.

Sir John, who is married to Mae – a woman he describes as a calming influence – took the decision to buy an estate agency in Sunderland, using his mother and father’s £2000 savings.

But the father-of-two’s attention soon moved to property development and he established Cameron Hall (a combination of his name and Mae’s maiden name).

Sir John started developing houses in the 1970s and 1980s before successfully transitioning to larger land deals, developing commercial properties such as shops and supermarkets.

With a new-found wealth, Sir John made regular family trips abroad, where he would make a point of researching the types of properties available in each country.

“I’ve always been someone who’s thought outside the box and looked for the forward thinkers,” Sir John says. “In property, these ideas weren’t in the North of England or even in England; they were in America.”

On one trip, Sir John visited The Woodlands in Texas, a master-planned community with luxury housing, offices, leisure facilities and parkland.

“I thought it was wonderful and when I came back to England, I said we’ve got to have that for the North East,” he says.

The opportunity to create his vision eventually came when he bought Wynyard Hall in 1987 – the former Marquess of Londonderry’s residence – complete with 3500 acres of land.

The miner’s son who bought the coal mine owner’s home then spent the next two decades creating his grand plan, complete with luxury housing estates, a business park and exclusive leisure facilities.

But it was another idea gleaned from North America for which Sir John is perhaps best known.

Inspired by the large indoor shopping malls in Canada, the property developer made it his mission to bring a similar concept to the North East of England, identifying a power station’s waterlogged ash dump in Dunston as the likely location.

Building a destination dedicated to consumerism in one of the most deprived regions of the UK in the 1980s baffled many – including the local authorities – but Sir John persisted with his vision.

“You must have the confidence in yourself and the strength and the power to keep driving forward,” he says.

When Margaret Thatcher announced the creation of Enterprise Zones (another American concept) which provided incentives to bring depressed areas back into economic use, Sir John seized his opportunity.

However, he struggled to generate interest from prospective retailers in his Dunston site and in a last-ditch attempt hired the local Five Bridges hotel for a three-day exhibition.

I learnt the lesson that if you have something to say, tell the world.

The exhibition worked, and Marks and Spencer agreed to take space in his proposed shopping centre. With such a major brand on board, many more followed.

Sir John raised the £120 million to build the MetroCentre – selling his stake to the Church Commissioners for a reported £70 million. The sprawling indoor centre opened in 1986 and proved an instant hit. In 1991, Sir John was knighted for his part in the North East’s economic regeneration.

Around the time that the MetroCentre was taking shape, another business opportunity arose for its founder, involving the football club he had supported from the terraces from the age of eight.

Initially, Sir John says, he was reluctant to get involved in Newcastle United, which was languishing at the bottom of the second division. But he was persuaded to invest £500,000 and to be a catalyst to allow fans to buy shares in the club.

Despite the impassioned Magpie Group campaign championed by local newspaper, The Chronicle, fans did not take up the opportunity and Sir John was left with a 40 per cent share in the club.

Following a takeover of the club in 1992, Sir John helped navigate Newcastle United towards a golden era when the team came within a whisker of the Premiership title.

Sir John subsequently tried to implement another North American concept of bringing all the local sporting clubs – football, rugby, ice hockey and basketball – under one umbrella brand. Unfortunately, this Stateside idea proved a step too far for Tyneside and the vision ultimately failed.

Then, when the billionaire oligarch Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003, Sir John realised that his ability to shape a truly competitive football club was over.

“Abramovich changed the nature of English football forever. There’s no way millionaires can compete with billionaires who are coming in for reasons other than pure football,” he reflects.

Sir John eventually sold his Newcastle United shares to Mike Ashley in 2007 but 11 years on, the founder of Sports Direct makes no secret of his eagerness to sell.

“Someone coming in has to have the cash to compete with the top five and take Newcastle to where every fan wants them to go,” says the former owner. No more half measures.”

At 85, Sir John has now handed the reins of his business over to his children. Son Douglas heads Cameron Hall Developments while daughter Allison runs Wynyard Hall, which she has transformed into a thriving country hotel and spa.

The proud family man is heartened that his grandchildren are taking their first steps in business, too. His grandsons, John and Greg, are invested in property and retail, while granddaughter Sarah assists her mum at Wynyard Hall.

“It’s the next generation’s turn now,” Sir John says. “I’ve stepped back and it’s up to them now. They’re not me and they’ll have to go their own way but I’m sure they’ll do well.”

One thing that doesn’t seem to abate with age is Sir John’s passion for the North East and over the years, he has used his profile to be an outspoken advocate for the region.

Asked what his current thoughts are on the region, the octogenarian replies with forthright honesty.

“It’s always been a great concern to me where the North East goes in the future.

“The region was very powerful in the Industrial Revolution but, to a large extent, we’ve lost those industries. It’s now a case of where do we go? What’s our raison d’être?

“As a region, we’re strong in terms of SMEs but we must encourage more local companies to take risks, expand and go global.”

Sir John – a regular donor to the Conservative Party – continues: “I strongly believe that the North East has never had the political leadership strong enough to fight for the region. If we’re going to go places, we must have the strength, but the North East is too split up politically. Everyone is fighting among themselves for their own piece of the pot but how stupid are the politicians not to realise that you won’t be listened to if you’re divided?

“For the benefit of the region, we have to have a regional authority [incorporating North East and Teesside] and if the local authorities can’t agree, we need a development corporation that can drive the region forward.”

He adds: “Thing are changing, don’t get me wrong, but I just wonder how fast they are changing.”

As Sir John adjusts to his role of elder statesman for the Hall family and the North East region, it’s time for him to reflect on his legacy and the epic journey this miner’s son has been on.

One thing that has been constant in his life over the years is his love for roses.

Sir John reveals that every house he has owned has had a rose patch – with all plants sourced from Anderson’s of Aberdeen, of course.

His latest project demonstrates his ultimate dedication to his favourite blooms. In 2016, Wynyard Hall opened its £1.6-million walled garden featuring more than 3000 stunning roses, created by multi RHS award-winning landscape architect Alistair Baldwin with input from Sir John and Allison.

“That garden is fundamentally a bit of North Seaton Colliery,” Sir John says, “and that always makes me smile.”

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