North East Times Impact Award Winners 2018

December 7, 2018

This autumn, North East Times launched its inaugural Impact Awards. Our five categories (finance, global, regional, profile and innovation) were specially chosen to celebrate those North East-based individuals who have made an indelible mark this year in a variety of ways. Here are our winners…

Outstanding Impact Award
Regional Impact Award

Lesley Spuhler
CEO, SAFC Foundation of Light

Lesley Spuhler has worked in the charitable sector for most of her life. After time spent at the Prince’s Trust and the Tyne & Wear Community Foundation, she was asked if she would join a team to establish a charitable foundation for Sunderland AFC.

“Sir Bob Murray, who was the club’s chairman at the time [and remains chairman of the foundation], gave us a blank piece of paper and said, ‘we have this fabulous stadium and football club, we now have to do more for the community,” Lesley recalls.

Lesley, who joined the foundation in 2001 as a development manager, threw herself into the project and her dedication and hard work paid off when she was swiftly promoted to managing director and then chief executive officer.

The foundation has since become one of the most pioneering sports charities in the world, winning multiple awards for its ground-breaking sports, health, community and education programmes, delivered by professional teachers, health workers, coaches, family learning officers and youth workers.

The foundation was part of Sunderland’s bid to co-host the World Cup 2018. As part of this, it conceived the idea to construct a cutting-edge, multi-use facility that would benefit the local and wider community. While the bid was ultimately unsuccessful, the foundation remained committed to its dream and for the past five years, Lesley and her team have worked tirelessly to turn it into a reality.

Raising the required £20 million for the facility, Lesley admits, has given her “a few sleepless nights” but an unwavering faith
has driven her and her colleagues to raise the total from a range of trusts, foundations, public sector and the business community.

The Beacon of Light – which officially opened in September 2018 – now sits proudly adjacent to Sunderland AFC’s Stadium of Light and has quickly become one of the most impressive buildings on Wearside thanks to its striking contemporary design.

The innovative facility houses a rooftop 4G football barn, six outdoor five-a-side pitches, a versatile indoor arena, which can also host national sporting competitions, corporate exhibitions and events, a suite of classrooms, offices and informal learning spaces.

Through four distinct zones: Education, Health and Wellbeing, Sport and Play, and World of Work, the Beacon of Light will provide a vast range of activities to 6000 people from all backgrounds and ages each week.

Lesley, whose office overlooks the new building, is rightly proud of what she, her team, the trustees and the investors have achieved.

“I look out my window and I’ll see little ones, families and veterans visiting the Beacon. You can see this community growing.”

It is projected that the Foundation of Light and the Beacon of Light will deliver a social return on investment of £73 million over the next 20 years. And while Lesley recognises the importance of such figures, she is keen to focus on the impact made to the 300,000 people who have already visited the new venue, reflecting:

“The Beacon and the foundation are about individuals’ stories and these stories are being created right now.”

Global Impact

Steve Parkin
CEO, Mayborn Group

Derbyshire-born Steve Parkin arrived in the North East to study a degree in geography, after which he completed a post-grad in marketing.

He joined Dewhurst Group Ltd and spent time in Bedford and London before the sales and marketing specialist decided to return to the North East.

Steve attended several interviews before he met Michael Samuel of Mayborn Group that owned, among other brands, Tommee Tippee, which had first come to prominence when it launched the first non-spill sippy cup.

Steve joined Mayborn Group to head its sales and marketing department and has been with the company for the past 20 years. In that time, the business has gone through several acquisitions. In 2006, it was sold to 3i Private Equity, after which Steve – who had worked in several senior management positions – was appointed CEO in 2010. The company was then acquired by Shanghai Jahwa in 2016, which is owned by Ping An Trust Co, a multi-billion dollar Chinese insurance, banking and investment conglomerate.

As head of Mayborn Group and Tommee Tippee – which recently moved its headquarters to a state-of-the-art facility on Balliol Business Park, North Tyneside – Steve has overseen impressive company growth.

“Our market share in the UK has gone from 22 per cent in the early 2000s to 40 per cent share now,” the CEO reveals.

But it’s the international results of Mayborn Group that sets the company apart.

This started in 2010, when the company launched into America, entering into an exclusive deal with what was then the number one baby retailer, BabiesRUs. Mayborn Group now operates in 27 countries across the globe.

Steve explains that in 2018, there have been three main drivers for international growth. The first has been the launch into the world’s largest juvenile market: China.

“The main challenge with China is that it’s a very fragmented market, Steve says. “But, with our ownership structure change [Shangahi Jahwa], we now have 3000 distribution points in China – which has more than 18 million births a year.

“China will be about 20 per cent of our total growth over the next five years,” the CEO adds.

The second driver has been the acquisition of Australian baby sleep brand, Gro.

“Historically, Tommee Tippee has been famous for feeding, comforting and changing but we wanted to expand into the sleep category, which is the biggest unmet need when it comes to parents not getting enough sleep,” says Steve.

“Gro had created a great brand which had built a strong foothold in the Australian and UK markets. We’re looking to internationalise the brand and have already launched it in America and France.”

The final driver for 2018, Steve reveals, has been “putting new routes down in Europe,” and the company has recently acquired an Italian distribution company in Milan.

Asked if this is in direct response to Brexit, Steve replies that Mayborn Group “doesn’t want to be reliant on any one market.”

The growth strategy of Mayborn Group – which now has 13 offices in eight countries – will continue to have a global focus and the CEO has set the ambitious target to double international growth over the next three years, adding: “There’s still a huge amount of untapped potential in the European, Asian and American markets for Tommee Tippee.”

Financial Impact Award

John Savage
Managing director, Flame Heating Group

John Savage knew it was a risk starting a business in 2011. He was leaving a secure job in the heating and plumbing industry, had a young family to support, and it was not long after the business community had weathered one of the worst global economic crashes in history.

“The country had just gone through a recession and everything was doom and gloom,” John recalls, “but it had always been my ambition to run my own business so I decided to take the plunge.” John – who started in the industry as a warehouse apprentice – established heating and plumbing merchant Flame Heating Group, offering essential products and spares to tradespeople.

While the owner and managing director admits that the first year was “all about survival”, the company managed to achieve an impressive £500K sales and £100K profit.

Since then, the business has continued to thrive, achieving double-digit growth year-on-year. This has allowed John to secure lucrative deals with manufacturers and expand Flame’s network of branches.

John has worked hard to make his business stand out and has implemented an investor director model to allow the directors of each of Flame Heating Group’s branches to take a percentage of the profits of their outlet.

“It makes them feel more part of Flame so they are more passionate about the business and will work a little bit harder for our customers,” says John. “That’s the bit of magic – there are no other merchants like it.”

In Flame Heating Group’s last financial year (July 2017-June 2018), John has led his business to a record £16,492,000 turnover (£474,000 operating profit). This represents an increase on the previous financial year of £14,384,972 turnover (£393,173 operating profit).

John attributes this year’s £2.1 million growth to several strategic decisions. Firstly, Flame Heating Group invested in six new branches, including three in Scotland – the first outside the North East. The total number of Flame Heating Group’s branches is now 12, employing more than 60 people.

The company has also invested in a bathroom showroom in Durham to extend its product offering and target non-trade customers, boasting innovative services such as a 4D virtual reality design hub.

Furthermore, John has secured a £4 million investment from HSBC. This funding, he says, will allow him to accelerate Flame Group’s ambitious expansion plans.

It seems that North East Times’ first Financial Impact Award winner’s success looks set to continue.

Profile Impact Award

Jim Mawdsley
CEO, Generator and Digital Union

Jim Mawdsley started his career in live music in 1984, booking the likes of the Ramones, the Pixies and Deacon Blue as entertainment officer for Newcastle Polytechnic (Northumbria University).

Liverpudlian Jim then became involved in Generator, the North East’s music development agency, which is charged with supporting and raising the profile of musicians and bands from the North East and Cumbria. He helped secure funding from One NorthEast to launch a music support programme to help musicians and the local industry manage the massive period of flux as people shifted from buying CDs to streaming music online.

While at Generator, Jim became involved in large-scale outdoor events and was part of a group that set up Evolution Festival – a major outdoor urban festival on Newcastle and Gateshead Quaysides – and sister event, Evolution Emerging, which showcased new talent in the region.

After the 2010 General Election, Jim, who was now CEO of Generator, was mindful of possible arts funding cuts and looked at ways to diversify Generator’s remit towards the creative and digital sector.

“Because of changes in music distribution, we had built up extensive knowledge and a solid network around digital retail platforms, digital IP, distribution and content,” says Jim.

Generator began working with Digital Union, and in 2016 it acquired the tech sector networking organisation.

In January this year, Generator asked businesses and sector specialists to attend an open business event from which the organisation compiled a 12-point manifesto to unify, promote and campaign for the enterprises Digital Union represent.

Digital Union also committed to ‘collaboration over competition’, bringing together organisations such as the North East LEP. Gateshead Council, RTC, NEPIC, NEAA, Dynamo and Sunderland Software City.

2018 has also seen Generator continue to promote and support local music talent through its Tipping Point masterclasses and label, and it hosted a 10th-anniversary Evolution Emerging Conference to discuss the future of the music industry in the region.

Jim is board member of DCMS (Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) Cultural Development Fund – one of two creative industry advisors from the UK – the BPI (British Recorded Music Industry) and the DiT Export Scheme. He’s also chaired the Association of Independent Festivals and campaigned to secure lower live music licencing rates this year.

In addition, Jim has also been working with the Institute of Apprenticeships to develop a level six creative digital professional apprenticeship.

When asked why he thinks he’s won the North East Times Profile Award, Jim replies, “it must be because I’ve got a big gob!”, before giving the question more thought.

“I’ve always had this golden rule that if I commit to something, I see it through.

“I was once part of a DCMS Live Music Forum and [The Undertones’] Feargal Sharkey asked me to write a report for Government on what was needed to make sure the live music industry was expanded upon.

“I said to him, ‘why me? There are much more qualified people in the room who could do it’. Feargal replied, ‘yeah I know, but you’ll get it done!”

Innovation Impact Award

Neil Herron
Founder and CEO, Grid Smarter Cities

Former market trader Neil Herron is leading the charge for smarter cities around the world thanks to his company’s innovative digital platforms.

This remarkable journey began when Neil became involved in a campaign to address the problem of delivery drivers receiving multiple parking tickets.

“It became apparent that there needed to be a more pragmatic, common sense solution to how we manage the kerb space in our congested cities,” Neil explains.

The born-and-bred North Easterner came up with the idea of creating a virtual loading bay system that effectively turned kerb space into a flexible piece of real estate. Commercial freight operators could digitally book a space for an allotted period to deliver goods, without the threat of being fined.

Neil began working with software developers, supply chain optimisation specialists and local authorities to develop his digital idea. He soon found that his platform had additional benefits for managing traffic flow and congestion, air quality, waste management, urban construction, and the movement of people by incorporating the latest geofencing technology.

After receiving investment in 2014, Neil established Grid Smarter Cities to “create an ecosystem of smart, complementary inter- operational solutions.”

While the company initially used external software developers, it has since brought this capability in-house to its base at The Core in Newcastle.

Neil reveals that successful proof-of-concept trials of the Kerbside Management System have taken place in the London Borough of Wandsworth and Westminster this year, and Grid Smarter Cities is on the verge of delivering live trials in Dublin and Sunderland.

The team are now talking to multiple councils across the UK that are interested in the wide-ranging benefits of the platform.

The potential for Grid Smarter Cities is also being recognised around the world and Neil has delivered demonstrations of the Kerbside Management System in Singapore, the US, Australia and China.

With momentum building, the team continue to look at ways to enhance and improve the digital solutions.

One such addition – which will soon go live in Sunderland – is a direct nod to Neil’s past career.

“We’ve created a digital platform that allows market traders to advertise their daily specials online,” he reveals. “It’ll allow customers to buy locally more efficiently and reduce the reliance on supermarket produce, which is often flown in from thousands of miles away.”

Despite the innovative and technical nature of Grid Smarter Cities’ work – not to mention its potential impact on global cities and their residents’ quality of life – Neil maintains that the key to his company’s success is rooted in simplicity.

“Rather than taking technology and finding a problem, we look at the problem – whether it’s the movement of goods, people or making a more efficient urban environment – and find a solution that people can accept and absorb. It’s all about how you simply address our cities’ problems.”


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