18th July 2018
Businessman and philanthropist Andy Preston describes having a “normal Catholic upbringing” in the suburbs of Middlesbrough, where he spent his days building dams and catching fish in the network of local becks.
School, however, was not his forté and letters were regularly sent home for bad attendance and answering back to teachers.
“It wasn’t that I found school particularly hard, I just didn’t like people telling me what to do,” Andy remembers.
He left school at 15 in 1982 with no qualifications, just as a massive industrial recession hit Teesside. Unable to find work, Andy joined the Air Force.
For a 17-year-old who didn’t like being told what to do, the Air Force should have spelt disaster, but Andy fondly remembers learning how to parachute jump, mountaineer and survive the Cairngorms in the middle of winter.
“It was an adventure and it felt like the beginning of something exciting,” Andy reflects. “I met people from all over the country and it broadened my horizons. It also gave me time to think about what I really wanted to do.”
Andy decided that he wanted to return to education and after buying himself out of the Air Force, attended night school and enrolled at Edinburgh University to study philosophy. It was an experience that was to have a profound effect on him.
“I met people who talked posh and had been to certain schools such as Eton and Harrow,” Andy says. “I could see the extraordinary confidence these young men had. It wasn’t arrogance; they just had a certain self-belief. I realised I wanted to be like that.
“I don’t mean I wanted to pretend to be posh; I just wanted that gift of confidence.”
He continues: “Before, I was a bit chippy and cross with the world, but as I started acting more confident, people responded to that. They treated me better, which made me feel more confident; it was a virtuous circle. I retained my ambition but became more level headed and reasonable.”
Leaving university in the late 1980s, it was the height of ‘yuppiedom’ and Andy saw only two worthy careers: working in the financial markets or in advertising.
He explored both but eventually ended up successfully applying to become a graduate trainee at a stockbroker firm in the City.
“I was always the first one in the office and the last one to leave. In quieter moments, I would ask the more experienced people if I could get them their lunch. I always made sure I had the smartest clothes and that my shoes were shiny – I did anything to make myself stand out,” Andy reflects.
His efforts paid off and he was taken off the graduate programme early and given a permanent job.
Andy shone in the world of finance and rose the ladder throughout the 1990s. He recognised the impact of emerging technology and new mathematical ways of analysing financial data and the boy from Middlesbrough who had failed his maths GCSE became known as an innovator in the industry.
Andy was eventually asked to build and run a hedge fund with an initial investment of $50 million.
He travelled the world asking for money from global companies and organisations such as the World Bank and Goldman Sachs Asset Management.
Andy believes it was his sincerity that helped him succeed.
He recalls: “I was once being interviewed by a mathematician at a company that wanted to give us a huge amount of money – over $100m. He was asking me questions relating to our finance idea. I was getting way out of my depth. I was then asked a mathematical question that I didn’t know the answer to. I thought ‘do I say what I think he wants to hear?’
“Instead I decided not to bullshit and told him I didn’t know.
“The mathematician leaned back in his chair, laughed and said, ‘I’m glad you said that because there is no answer to that question’. It was basically a riddle.
“I wasn’t clever enough to know it was a riddle, but I was clever enough to know I didn’t know the answer.”
Within a few years, Andy and his team – who were based in London and New York – built the hedge fund to $5.1 billion.
During this time, Andy was asked to be a patron of a London-based international children’s charity, Ark.
“Being brought up as a Catholic, my experience was that giving was something that you did discreetly and quietly; you didn’t talk about it,” he reflects. “The type of philanthropy associated with Ark was the opposite. It shouted about giving; it had a bit of showbiz to it.
“At the beginning it didn’t feel right, but then I saw how it was used to raise monstrous amounts of money from people who had lots of cash and pushed it towards people who really needed it.
“I thought to myself that if I moved back to Teesside I would try and do something similar – albeit probably with less glamour and with smaller sums of money.”
In 2003, Andy bought a house in North Yorkshire with his wife-to-be and spent the next five years splitting his time between the North and London. He relocated permanently to North Yorkshire in 2008.
Andy, who by this time had become involved in Teesside charity The Fairbridge Programme (now part of the Prince’s Trust), established the Middlesbrough & Teesside Philanthropic Foundation in 2011.
He initially spoke to 35 local high earners and 31 agreed to give £5000 a year to channel into causes that tackled poverty in Middlesbrough and the surrounding area.
The foundation has continued to grow momentum and to date, Andy reveals, it has raised around £3m.
One such fundraising initiative the foundation held saw business people spend a night sleeping rough at Newcastle United’s St James’ Park.
The success of the sponsored event gave Andy the idea to establish CEO Sleepout as a stand-alone charity, that would hold similar events around the country. The vast majority of the money raised would be used to help prevent homelessness and poverty in the local areas.
“It’s been a fantastic success and this year there’s going to be 13 sleep outs the length of the UK – from Portsmouth to Alnwick,” Andy says.
Another project for Andy has been involved in is establishing a dry bar in Middlesbrough.
“Addiction can be a big driver of poverty and homelessness, as well as a whole range of other issues,” he says. “We applied for a grant from Public Health and opened Bar Zero on Linthorpe Road in the town.”
But Andy discovered that dry bars tend to lose money and he didn’t want the bar to become “a millstone around the neck” of CEO Sleepout, which was funding the project.
He therefore came up with the idea of opening a not-for-profit restaurant in the same building that would provide work experience for recovering addicts, ex-offenders and the long-term unemployed, while sharing the expenses with the adjacent bar.
The Fork in the Road opened in December 2016 and has since become a popular eatery in the city.
“We get fantastic reviews on TripAdvisor and Facebook talking about the food and the atmosphere,” Andy says. “Most don’t even mention our social mission, which is good because we want people to come to Fork in the Road because it’s great. It’s what will make the restaurant sustainable.”
In addition to his charity work, Andy has been invested in commercial property buildings since 1998.
One project he is currently involved in is Level Q, a £1.4m new generation workspace offering co-working and offices, as well as a concierge service, a café, gym, yoga and pilates classes and a cinema room.
“This concept has been a phenomenal success in global cities such as Sydney, Paris, London and Hong Kong and we’re bringing it to Teesside now so we don’t have to wait 20 years for someone else to do it.”
Andy is a passionate advocate for positioning Teesside as a place where people and businesses can thrive and, despite being a loyal Labour Party supporter, is pleased with the work Conservative mayor Ben Houchen is doing as part of the region’s Devolution deal.
Devolution was crucial for Teesside. Having local powers and local accountability is helping to change the mindset of local politicians and local people.
“Ben [Houchen] is a party politician, literally and legally, but he’s about creating jobs, which transcends partisan politics and is great news for the region.”
Andy, however, doesn’t shy away from the uphill battle Middlesbrough has to bring itself in line with other UK cities.
“I’m fortunate that my work takes me all over the country and, for example in the hospitality industry, pretty much every town or city with any vibrancy has seen a colossal boom in new hotel openings.
“Newcastle over the past 10 to 12 years has had about 15 new hotels open. Middlesbrough – which is almost exactly half the size of Newcastle in terms of area and population – has had two.
He continues: “Newcastle has been on this astonishing trajectory but I don’t think it’s outperformed its peers. It’s done what the rest of the country has and Middlesbrough and Teesside have been left behind because it’s been fed a diet of low ambition and low achievement.
“There have been some bright spots and I’m not knocking those. They should be celebrated but not used to say how well we’re doing, because people aren’t comparing it to the growth in other cities.
Andy continues: “My critics will say I’m negative but I’m not. I’m being positive. We should applaud any good things that happen but we shouldn’t see a minuscule deviation as a colossal success.”
While remaining dedicated to helping the lives of those from his hometown and beyond, the businessman and philanthropist is always on the lookout for a new challenge.
“I want the charities to be self-sustaining but I also want to do new things,” says Andy.
I’m not certain what these will be yet but I thrive on excitement and a challenge; I love a bit of a fight to make things happen.