Viewpoint: Geoff Hunton

May 31, 2018

In this inspirational leadership issue of North East Times, Chris Dobson talks with Geoff Hunton, development director at Merchant Anglo, owners of the Merchant Park site, Newton Aycliffe. Geoff is credited with bringing the North East Project of the Year (RICS Awards) Hitachi Rail Europe plant to the North East, securing many jobs both at Newton Aycliffe and in the North East supply chain

Hitachi was a major coup for you, does this one major success make you a leader? 

I don’t think leadership as such can be narrowed down to one deal such as the one we completed at Newton Aycliffe with Hitachi. That said, it was a task that required focus and a dedicated team which I happened to lead. 

What is the background to you successfully landing such a significant inward investment? 

You will remember there was a terrific scramble across the UK to try and attract Hitachi. I think at one stage about 40 locations were said to be of interest to Hitachi. Some were in the North East. Finally, this was narrowed down to two sites – ourselves at Merchant Park and a site in North Wales.   

Did this competition worry you? 

Very much so. It would have been very arrogant to assume it was game, set and match for us before we had even started. This really required pulling together a strong team of professionals and getting the support of Durham County Council, Business Durham and appropriate Members of Parliament. The process was exhaustive and included vital contacts with Hitachi’s HQ in Europe and Japan. We made many presentations to Hitachi, both in London and the North East, before finally securing the deal that brought Hitachi to the North East.  

Tell me more about Merchant Park? 

We bought the 104-acre site in 2007, of which Hitachi would take over 34 acres in due course. Our belief was that Merchant Park represented a large site for large-scale industrial/logistics space given its proximity to the A1(M) and resulting fast access to Wearside/Tyneside to the north and Teesside to the south.  

It also had a rail link down one side of the site which we were able to bring into the site as well as developing a test track. It also provided the vital link to the North East rail network. Equally vital was access to Teesport. The availability of skilled labour was another factor in the development of this site. We are now continuing to develop the last plots on the site.  

What happened next? 

We advised Hitachi of our site after assembling a high-level team that included engineers, architects, quantity surveyors and so on. Taking on board Hitachi’s requirements, we took the project to advanced design which included rail access. For final presentations to Hitachi, we used Redworth Hall hotel. This worked very well. 

What else did you do to gather support for your site? 

We had a continuous marketing process as we were effectively marketing a large undeveloped site within the Newton Aycliffe Industrial zone. It was difficult to visualise simply by looking at a big field so we had presentations for agents, for example using helicopter trips from Redworth Hall, which not only gave an immediate visual of the site but the rail link and Teesport to the East. We also held an open day at the Xcel Centre which was attended by over 1500 delegates 

What about the politicians, both national and local? 

I don’t want to overstate the importance of this project to the economy of Newton Aycliffe or the wider County Durham, but we were looking at a very significant inward investment and a great deal for the North East as a whole. We had Cabinet ministerial visits, superb support from the local MP and of course County councillors. Media support was massive, notably from the Northern Echo, as it realised the benefits of landing Hitachi to the wider economy. Business Durham’s then-managing director, Stewart Watkins, was a very safe pair of hands and invaluable to making this a successful project. 

What was the final presentation to Hitachi like? 

The day before, we ran through the final pitch several times to get it right. Some may say this was exhaustive but, faced with a large team from Hitachi the next day, we saw this as the final opportunity. After all the effort, it was a seamless process for which I thank the team time and time again. 

So does this make you a leader? 

Possibly. I am proud of what has been achieved in bringing this project to the North East and securing opportunities for all for the future. 


Merchant Park