Natasha McDonough’s CV counts stints in iconic locations such as Sydney and Los Angeles. It also lists Sunderland. However, as owner of market research and strategic marketing agency MMC, which calls Sunderland home, and chair of the North East England Chamber of Commerce’s Sunderland committee, Natasha couldn’t be happier. Here, she tells Deborah Johnson why the city is a great place to do business and why the Chamber committee is so important to Sunderland’s future commercial success
London. Sydney. Los Angeles. Sunderland.
“I’ve worked in some fantastic places, some really amazing cities,” admits Natasha McDonough.
And while perhaps few would rank Sunderland alongside the other undeniably iconic destinations where she has lived and worked, for Natasha, there’s no doubt which one is home.
“I absolutely love living in Sunderland,” she says.
“My husband is from here originally, and I met him when I worked in LA and was visiting home in London.
“I love the quality of life, the work/life balance you get here and the fact I can walk my dog on the beach, which is just a couple of minutes away from where I live – the people are so friendly too.
“My husband said in our wedding speech, ‘how I got this lass from Venice Beach to Roker Beach? I’ve nee idea’, but for me, it was a very easy decision.”
And, as the owner of MMC, a thriving market research and strategic marketing agency, Sunderland is also a great place to base a business.
“Oh, 100 per cent,” says Natasha, who is also chair of the North East England Chamber of Commerce’s Sunderland committee.
“I couldn’t actually think of a better place to be.
“We have a strong business community here, we’re very supportive and open, and very diverse too in terms of the business types we get in our area meetings.
“There is a great mix of businesses who have been here for years, many of which are independent, alongside the many new ones moving into the city.
“There’s a huge amount of innovation and development going on here, which makes it an exciting place to be long-term.”
Sunderland has indeed seen huge and ongoing investment in recent years, building on its proud industrial heritage to become a city set for the future.
Major new additions over previous years include Sunderland’s Software Centre, home to some of the UK’s most dynamic tech businesses – including MMC – and the Riverside Masterplan, hailed as the most ambitious city centre regeneration project in the UK with one million sq ft of office space and 1000 sustainable homes, which is set to equip Sunderland for future generations.
Add to that the likes of the new £11 million auditorium and the confidence from global names like Legal & General to invest £100 million in the city, and Sunderland seems to be a place to be – even despite the significant economic challenges introduced through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ll get through it, but some businesses have really struggled, and that’s hard for all of us who care about our fellow business owners,” says Natasha.
“But others have pivoted, which has really helped them.
“Quite a few of our independent shops with an online business are doing well digitally, and quite a few are going online for the first time as a result of the pandemic.
“I’ve been part of a group, led by Sharon Appleby of Sunderland BID, which has met every week to talk about what the city needs and how we can help.
“We are all in it together, and there’s some terrific individuals working very hard day and night to keep the city going.”
One business which adapted its offering to win new work was MMC, which ran research projects to help companies understand how their customers and stakeholders were feeling during the pandemic.
“I didn’t sell at all – it just didn’t feel right to when we first went into the first lockdown,” says Natasha.
“I went into supportive mode, thinking ‘how can my business help yours?’ and worked closely with people to help them navigate their way through it all.
“I also thought it was critically important to support our in- house team, so we invested in counselling sessions for our team, to look after their mental health.
“Working fully flexibly also helped us get through it.
“Our team are fantastic and are the reason our business is growing, and we need to look after them.
“Thankfully, we remain on track to continue to grow, not least to take forward our plans to expand into Leeds in 2021.”
MMC also completed a research project during the pandemic, supported by the Chamber, North East Counselling Service, Foundation of Light and Newcastle United Foundation, into business owners’ mental health – a subject very close to Natasha’s heart.
It revealed that more than half of business owners felt their mental health had worsened since lockdown, with many citing cash flow and staff livelihoods as major concerns.
“Mental health is a hugely important topic and I wanted to know how we could help these people whose businesses had deteriorated overnight
– in the first ten days of lockdown, my business had a massive drop-off in work, and I thought that if I was feeling such anxiety and worry, then others must be too,” says Natasha.
“We found that business owners really saw value in peer-to-peer support and talking about how they’re feeling and sharing experiences can help.
“My message would be that it’s OK to reach out for help – there are people who want to help you.
“And we made a charitable donation to the mental health campaign ran by the two football foundations too.
“Giving back not just our time but contributing to charity during this time has been important to me.”
Clearly, the Sunderland North East England Chamber of Commerce group provides that kind of supportive environment, with close member co- operation.
“Our Sunderland area group is one of the best-attended, and we’re very proud of that fact, and I think that shows the kind of commitment we have from our businesses.
“They want to get on and help others to get on, too,” says Natasha.
“All of the sectors are represented, the only one that wasn’t really represented was software and digital before I joined, but we’ve worked to develop that.
“We have colleges, the university, business support, professional services,
hospitality, retail and everyone in between.
“It’s important that everyone has a voice, and for me it’s important to remember that not everyone in our group will be doing well, so I try and chair meetings with empathy and awareness.
“We have a forum we call the State of Play, where everyone has the chance to
talk about their sector and how they’re doing.
“It’s not a sales pitch and is really well received as it helps us all to find out a bit more about what’s happening in our city.
“We all share a common goal of helping to make Sunderland into an even better place to be, and we’re all committed to working together to achieving that.”