Rising to the top

October 8, 2021



John McCabe nearly perished on the steep streets of North Shields. Family legend has it, that as a baby in his Silver Cross pram, his two older sisters hauled him up the steep steps of one of the alleys near the Fish Quay and then accidentally let the brake off. John somehow survived the ordeal to begin a journey which has taken him from an area once blighted by civil unrest, unemployment and industrial decline to Downing Street – where he fought for North East jobs. Now he has accepted a very different role of engagement for the region, and its very different and divergent businesses and their workers, as the successor to James Ramsbotham in the role of chief executive at the North East England Chamber of Commerce. North Shields is, of course, unrecognisable from where one of the North East’s business leaders spent his formative years. John knows every business’ story around the streets, alleys and river edges near the Fish Quay – and on the other side of the river too – his knowledge and interest stretching back to the whiff of Welch’s toffee-making factory when he was a child. And, as he prepares to take over at the Chamber, John looks back on his life and tells Colin Young how he arrived at one of the most important jobs in North East business.

John McCabe was one of the first men in his family to wear a suit to work.

He wore the first one in 1989, on the day he left his terraced home in North Shields at the age of 17, to start an apprenticeship at Northumbrian Water.

And he wore his best one 15 years later, on the day he walked into Number Ten Downing Street for the first of many times in a desperate 12-year fight to keep a major North East employer from closure.

We have such incredible talent in the region, and we have to harness it and look at everything from the educational opportunities in the region, to housing opportunities, to career prospects.

His father, also John, was a woodcutter by trade, and after National Service in Egypt, spent most of his life working for Northumbrian Water from its Howdon headquarters.

His mother, Georgina, worked at Elmwood Sensors, making kettles and irons until she retired.

Having given up on the dream of becoming a professional footballer or golfer, John was considering a career in the police force when his father encouraged him to join the company’s apprenticeship scheme.

“We had a very safe and secure childhood,” says John, sitting in North Shields’ 31 The Quay restaurant.

“My mam and dad didn’t have much but gave us everything. We were a very happy, tight-knit family; aspirations were not high but growing up in this neck of the woods in the early 1980s, that was probably true of the majority of young people and that’s a regret now.

“I didn’t feel the need to break out of that earlier than I did. I have friends I went to school with who did go to university and have gone on to achieve fantastic things in their careers, so it would be a cop out to say it wasn’t available.

“I’m sure my first career choice was the police because of a really poor quality conversation with a career adviser at school, who probably wasn’t a qualified career adviser but just a teacher who had a free period.

“One of the things I’m encouraged by is that we seem to be getting a lot better at that so young people, irrespective of background, are getting more opportunities and they’re more accessible to them.

“Whether you’re from the North East originally, or have migrated here, I think people can increasingly see this is a great place to live, to start and run a business, develop your career, bring children up and enjoy lifelong experiences.

“Opportunity is really important to me.

“We have such incredible talent in the region, and we have to harness it and look at everything from the educational opportunities in the region, to housing opportunities, to career prospects.

“It’s one of the things that really attracts me to the Chamber role.”

The next generation in the McCabe family has attended university; Emily, 24, is a teacher in South

Tyneside and Harry, 22, now works as commercial executive at the Port of Tyne, having graduated this summer. Josephine, 15, is about to enter her GCSE year.

The offices the North East England Chamber of Commerce’s new chief executive first entered as a nervous teenager were very different to their modern equivalent.

His apprenticeship was a two-year fixed-term trainee scheme with a day release course at Newcastle College, and the idea was to work in different departments across the company. He started in the revenue department, filling in the enormous leather-bound ledgers with the minutiae of every customer’s water bill.

“It wasn’t for me,” he says. “Numbers aren’t my thing.”

John found his niche in the public relations department – a mysterious world at the end of the corridor on the second floor and shrouded in the smoke and the distinct smell of its master, George House.

“Even now, I remember thinking, ‘you have an opportunity here, you come to work in a suit, which not everybody did then in my family, so you better suck this up, take in as much as you can, good, bad and indifferent and learn while you’re here.’

“I’d just turned 17 and I absolutely absorbed it and took in as much as I could. I threw myself at it, always put my hand up.

“My second stint was in what was called the public relations department, which changed its name to corporate affairs and became a bit posher.

“George House was a bit of a local celebrity who did the comedy circuit with his partner Mike Neville, the local news anchor, and did a lot of TV and local radio himself.

“They wrote a few Geordie books together; he was such a character.

“He just stayed in his office, with the green and brown furniture, smoking his pipe; you could see the smoke coming out over the top of the door when you went to the loo.

“I remember thinking, ‘what’s this about?’ and, ‘what do they do?’

“But I found my place and they let me find my place.

“I understood good communication and could hopefully articulate a message, absorb it and do something with it.

“I went to other parts of the company but eventually PR persuaded HR to let me finish the apprenticeship there and I started very much in the office junior role.

“One of my twice-daily routines was to go through all the national and local papers, cut out any water industry or stories of interest, Pritt Stick them to a sheet of A4, take them to the print room, get 100 copies and walk around the building handing them out to managers.

“And I’d do that in the morning and afternoon every day and it was unbelievable.

“And it meant I got in front of those managers every day.”

John’s talent for writing brought him to the attention of Northumbrian Water chief executive David Cranston, who tasked him with the responsibility of penning the monthly team brief for senior managers and directors of the newly-listed Stock Exchange company.

He was 19.

“What a fantastic opportunity at a ridiculously
young age to be exposed to the most senior guy in the organisation who was sitting talking to me about strategy and vision,” says John.

“The dynamic of the department changed. We were principally a press office and now we were also dealing with aspects of financial PR in the city, with major shareholders and pension firms etc, and I did that for five years.”

He then moved to Robson Brown, a Newcastle-based PR company, whose extensive client list spanned a range of businesses in the region including Metro FM.

The turning point in John’s career is all down to the Hairy Cornflake.

Dave Lee Travis, by now a former Radio One DJ, was the voice of an amalgamation of stations including Metro FM, and it was John’s job to sell this new vision of evening listening with a broadcasting legend to local audiences.

The phone call to the Evening Chronicle’s entertainment correspondent Gordon Barr was the wake- up call.

“He wasn’t convinced by the story, and I cringe now, but I said to him, ‘but Gordon, this is the biggest name in radio,’ and I was just thinking, “I need to do a proper job’.

“It was really interesting because invariably they got celebrities in when they were in the North East, so I’d be talking to these people and we had some really interesting conversations.

“And one week you’d be doing something about listenership announcements, which were massive because of advertising revenues, but then the next week you’d be doing the proverbial DJ in a bath of custard. It was… diverse.”

John moved back in-house with Transco, the gas emergency service, and then on to Newcastle Building Society as head of communications.

In 2002, he joined Alcan as corporate affairs director and spent the next 12 years leading the effort to influence the Government and European institutions to adopt a legislative framework that would keep the Ashington plant functioning and secure its workforce.

“When I got the job a friend said, ‘they’re going to close next year’, and every year The Journal ran a story saying Alcan was closing.

“I told him, ‘my job is to make sure that doesn’t happen’, and we eventually kept it going another 12 years.

“It was really tough because so much of the job was campaigning and dissecting bits of legislation that were make-or-break for the business.

“We were an energy-intensive manufacturing company with a coal-fired power station employing 700 people and in the early 2000s environmental legislation and taxation were coming to the fore, so they were looking for a director to help shape that legislation with Government.

“A lot of my lobbying and public affairs work was taking me to the highest levels, into Downing Street, meeting secretaries of state, ministers and senior political advisers.

“Increasingly, I met people from across the institutes of Europe and was basically fighting for the company across the European Parliament, the European Commission and its different departments, talking to senior people in energy, environmental and industrial departments.

“A civil servant, in what was then the Department of Trade and Industry, told me that of all the businesses they worked with, none were impacted by as much legislation.

“Because we were an energy-intensive business, a big employer with a coal-fired power station, we had it from all sides, and we were impacted by a lot of legislation.

“It opened doors and took me to places I could never have imagined.

“I don’t want to paint a picture of a kind of Hovis kid, but looking back you think, ‘how did I end up in Number Ten talking to Prime Ministers and industry advisors?’ “I remember sitting in a meeting in Downing Street,

in the room looking out on the back of Horse Guards, talking to Geoffrey Norris, Tony Blair’s industry advisor at the time – nothing happened in Whitehall without Geoffrey Norris signing off on it – and the two of us in this incredibly historic room, just thinking ‘how did this happen?’

He worked first with Blair’s Labour Government and his successor Gordon Brown before Alcan was sold to an Anglo-Australian company under David Cameron and the plant was ultimately closed.

“We found a single line in the legislation which created an opportunity for the Government to exempt us. The European Commission didn’t like that and took the Government to the European Court of Justice, where they fought our case, which led to the closure.

“That was six or seven years of work and if we had not found that clause it would have closed six years earlier.”

John, now 49, can still recall the first time he walked into Number Ten.

“It was a great experience, and really exciting walking in for the first time through the front door with senior officials from the Department of Trade and Industry.

“I was with Simon Edmonds, who became my go-to- guy and a really good friend.

“We worked really well together, and he knew I would never contact him unless it was a really burning issue. We have remained in contact ever since.

“At that time, my parents were still alive, and they were very proud.

“They used to keep all the cuttings if I was ever quoted in the Evening Chronicle and show them to me when I went to the house.

“I don’t think they ever really understood what I did, which was a source of amusement over the years.

“My parents were going to babysit for us one night but when I got into work on the Friday morning, we had a ‘black site’, which meant we had lost power and we were on generator power, and we had four-and-a-half hours to get the power back on or the site was dead and

A lot of my lobbying and public affairs work was taking me to the highest levels, into Downing Street, meeting secretaries of state, ministers and senior political advisers

we would have had 700 people out of work.
“So, I rang my wife and told her to contact my parents and tell them to stand down for the night, saying, ‘this is going to be serious, TV crews are on the way, I am going to be here all night.’

“When Kate called, my dad said, ‘it’s not something John did is it?’

“I mean, what did he think I’d done!?”

With the plant closure imminent, John was made redundant, but continued to do some work for the company on a consultancy basis before setting up Fusion eight years ago.

Fusion’s clients include Northumbria University, Nuffield Hospitals, Newcastle Hospitals NHS Trust,
The North East Fund and AkzoNobel, and it has worked with the National Grid, on the North Sea Link project, a subsea energy pipeline being built between Cambois, near Blyth, and Norway, plus a mental health charity and local schools.

He says: “It was a wrench to leave.

“Despite the challenges of the pandemic, the business has gone from strength-to-strength, thanks to an outstanding team effort and the support of many fantastic clients.

“I’m very confident the business has a bright future under new ownership.”

So, what else is there to tell about John?

Well, he’s a James Bond fanatic, “weirdly obsessed” by JFK – the Kennedy family and American politics is his podcast preference – and he did the Great North Run for the seventh time last month, wearing the number seven in honour of his footballing hero King Kenny Dalglish.

The number was gifted to John by Sir Brendan Foster.

Sadly, his once favourite pub in North Shields, the Wolsington Arms, is in a sorry state, but the memories are as fresh as the smell of Welch’s toffee factory.

And, as he settles into his new role as North East England Chamber of Commerce chief executive, John is focused on making plenty of new, positive, memories for the region’s business community.