“I never had a grand career plan”: Ex- Chamber president’s path to a high regional profile

John McCabe

Mark Lane met with Gateshead College chairman and Fusion PR owner John McCabe to discuss his long association with public relations, his time as Chamber president and his recent shot at becoming mayor of the North of Tyne Combined Authority

Fusion PR

Gateshead College

Former North East England Chamber of Commerce president John McCabe has spent his working life in public relations and has seen first-hand the radical changes in his industry since he started out.

Not only that, he has also been a key influencer and observer – in and out of the Chamber – of some important events in the region’s recent history. In the process, this year he broke a cardinal PR rule and became the story himself, when he fought an election to be mayor of the new North of Tyne Combined Authority.

But, his first job was with Northumbrian Water, which he joined in 1989 as an apprentice. This involved working in various departments, the second being PR.

He recalls: “I had no idea what PR was on the day I started, but I loved it. I stayed for five years and it was a great experience.”

The work was largely in-house communications with some media relations and stakeholder engagement. After five years, to broaden his experience, he joined the PR team of Robson Brown in Newcastle, then the fifth largest full-service agency outside of London, where he worked from 1994 to 1999.

“It was a good time to be doing that sort of work in the region and there was probably no better place to do it than Robson Brown,’’ he says. “I left Robson Brown after five really good and enjoyable years.

I wanted to go back in-house, so I joined Transco, which was then the gas emergency service. I’d already worked in one utility, so it seemed an obvious fit to go and work in another.

“That was much more media relations and a lot of crisis management. You could get called in the middle of the night to be told there had been a serious health and safety incident somewhere, or that a town had lost its gas supply.”

From there, he went to Newcastle Building Society, at a time when building societies were being targeted for acquisition by larger societies and banks and he was appointed to frame a written defence strategy should it be required – it wasn’t.

Then, in 2002, John moved to the Alcan Lynemouth aluminium smelter in the newly-created role of corporate affairs director, at a time when the plant’s future looked far from secure.

“Long before working for Alcan, I’d read in the papers that there was a threat to the local coal industry which in turn was a threat to Alcan, but then it turned, so that the coal industry in Northumberland almost became dependent on Alcan. When I took the job, my friends were telling me, `we’ve heard that place is going to close in 18 months’. Even when I got there, people were saying, `you do realise we’re closing in 2004?’.”

His most important role was to make the case to government to give the plant a legislative and regulatory framework that would allow it to continue operating. With British government support, and after a hearing at the European Court of Justice, the plant gained an exemption from some EU regulations, but when the Anglo-Australian mining company Rio Tinto acquired Alcan in 2007, the writing was on the wall.

Pretty quickly it became apparent that, not just Lynemouth, but that all the UK operations didn’t fit with their portfolio, they were too small and were too high cost. Rio Tinto launched a strategic review, which basically meant that they looked at every aspect of the business to decide whether they could keep it within the business. If we couldn’t keep it, we sell it and, if we can’t sell it, how and when do we close it?”

Owing to the relationship John had forged with the government through his work on the legislative threat, Rio Tinto appointed him to work on that strategic review team, the most senior member of the Lynemouth team involved.

He recalls: “If you just looked at the numbers, they didn’t stack up to a sound sustainable business case going forward. So, once we got past the inevitable ‘can we keep it?’ stage we were on to ‘can we sell it?’. There are parts of it that we can sell, so let’s try and do that and keep as many jobs going as we can, but when we got to how and when do we close it, my focus shifted from doing the best I could to keep it open to doing the best I could to ensure that Rio Tinto closed it in the right way: the right way for the people, the right way for the community, the right way for supply chains. It wasn’t something that anybody would have chosen, but I think, by and large, they did it the right way.”

He adds: “It was valuable experience: that exposure to how big corporates make those decisions and what influences those decisions and what influences come into play and the importance of doing it the right way. I would like to think that I played a significant part in ensuring that we did it in the right way and that we looked after people in those circumstances as best we possibly could.”

John was eventually made redundant in 2013, but continued to do some work for the plant on a consultancy basis.
He says: “That allowed me to do some other bits of consultancy work and I planned to do that for the 12 months, or however long, that bit of work lasted and then get another proper job. This contracting situation morphed into my own PR and design agency Fusion.”

Today, Fusion represents a varied customer base in the public, private and voluntary sectors across a range of industries such as manufacturing, energy, healthcare, education and skills. Its clients include Northumbria University, Nuffield Hospitals, AVID Technology, The North East Fund and Akzonobel.

Then there’s work with the National Grid, on the North Sea Link project, a subsea energy pipeline being built between Cambois and Blyth and Norway. Fusion also works with a mental health charity and local schools.

John’s involvement with the North East England Chamber dates back to his time at Northumbrian Water, when he was responsible for issuing company press releases and notices to the Chamber magazine of the time and served on the Chamber Council for part of his time at Alcan. When he set Fusion up he joined the Chamber. He was asked to take a seat on the Northumberland committee and, a few months later, he was asked to chair the committee. Then, he was appointed to the board, then to the Chamber’s regional council and then, in 2017, he was asked to take over as president, and went on to serve for just under two years.

So, what does the role of president entail? Apart from showing his face at Chamber events and shaking a few hands?

“I think that’s a big part of it,’ he laughs. “It’s easy to be dismissive of that, but it is a kind of ambassadorial role. You have the chief executive and the executive team who are running the day-to-day operations and the chair of the board and the board members who are responsible for the governance. But the president is one of the faces and voices of the Chamber, representing the Chamber and its members at big high profile events but also at Chamber Council, which is a closed meeting where we debate Chamber policy. What’s our position on Brexit? What’s our position on devolution? The president chairs that and I always thought that my biggest single responsibility in that forum was to make sure that members’ voices were being heard and to represent them.”

Stand-out events during his presidency included the first Chamber dinner in Durham Cathedral.

“Speaking to an audience of nearly 700 people from the pulpit at Durham Cathedral was a big thing – I never thought I’d be doing that,’’ he says.

He also got to meet some notable people, including John Major, Nicola Sturgeon and the US ambassador.

But the highlight for him was signing the mental health pledge, Time to Change.

“That was really important for me because mental health was a big part of the manifesto of my tenure as president,’’ he says. “I wanted the Chamber to start looking at, and talking about, mental health in the workplace, so to sign that pledge on behalf of the Chamber was a personal highlight.”

He ended his term as president early in order to stand for election as mayor of the newly-created North of Tyne Combined Authority. On the face of it, it was a surprising decision as he’d never stood for any other kind of political office. But, increasingly, people were approaching him to persuade him to stand. Initially, he declined, but, he even received messages when he was on a family holiday in February, urging him to throw his hat in the ring.

He recalls: “When I got back from holiday, I spoke to a few people I knew very well and respected, people who I knew would give it to me straight. I said, what I don’t want to do is get absolutely clobbered, if I’m going to do this, it has to be credible. Everybody said, ‘It is very credible, you should go for it’.

“I took a lot of persuading and, even up to a couple of days before announcing I was doing it, one minute I was doing it and the next minute I wasn’t and it came down to a very personal decision that was taken at home with the wife and kids. `Do
we want to do this? If we do it, we are going to have to throw everything at it’.

And throw everything at it, he did. “The campaigning was hard and intense,” he says. “I was an independent candidate, so it was all volunteer-led and we had a campaign team of fantastic volunteers, but none had worked on a political campaign before and I had never stood as a candidate.

“Then we had a wider volunteer group of people who were just phenomenal, who were friends or people I just knew and a lot were people I’d never met before who contacted us and asked to do some leafleting. We had 80,000 leaflets distributed across the North of Tyne region by volunteers who just took their own time to do this and it was a phenomenal team effort.’’

Despite all his efforts, he didn’t win. But, he points out that, if the first and second preferences were added together, he received more votes than any other candidate.

“The reason I didn’t win is that I didn’t get enough first preferences to get into the run-off against the eventual winner, but if I had got into that run-off, if you added my second preferences, I’m told I would have won,’’ he says. “But, the rules are the rules, that’s fine and I’m okay with that. If I can, I really want to help the mayor succeed.”

How would he answer the charge that he only ran to raise his profile? He is, after all, a PR man.

He shakes his head. “I have never had a grand career plan and if I had written one down this time last year – running for mayor? Not in a million years. If you’d said to me seven years ago, you’re going to be running your own business – not in a million years. I was into my forties before I started running my own business. I’ve never had that sort of career plan and anything that happens next is not something that I’m planning for. Undoubtedly yes, it has raised my profile and given me opportunities to do stuff that I want to do.”

These ambitions include an involvement in regional economic affairs and policy development and implementation, particularly in education and skills development. He has already taken steps in that direction, having recently been appointed chairman
of Gateshead College, replacing long-time incumbent Robin Mackie.

He concludes: “If people think there’s a space and a role for me to contribute to that sort of North East regional agenda, to create opportunities for great people, I would love to be involved.”