Mike Jobson, Business Northumberland High Growth Programme Manager

Mike Jobson’s career has taken him from London to Lagos. He talks to FRANCESCA CRAGGS about boosting business in Northumberland and why he’s returned to his North East roots

Mike Jobson
Mike Jobson

Mike Jobson is a man whose glass is always half full. It’s an outlook which will undoubtedly set him in good stead in his new role helping Northumberland’s entrepreneurs realise their growth potential.

Not only will his post as Business Northumberland High Growth Programme manager with Oxford Innovation provide him with yet another new challenge, it’s also prompted his return to the North East after 35 years.

If there’s anybody who can provide inspiration to the business community, it’s Mike. He’s held senior roles with global brands such as Guinness and Colgate Palmolive, as well as running his own successful marketing business. Working in the south, he joined Oxford Innovation in 2009 and returned to the region in March this year, to head its new Northumberland office in Ashington. The organisation will deliver the Business Northumberland High Growth Programme, part of a �1.35m investment intended to stimulate economic prosperity and growth in the county. The programme is funded by the North East European Regional Development Fund ERDF.

Mike, 62, said: “We had the opportunity to bid for this work in Northumberland which development company ARCH were commissioning. It seeks to offer business support for start-ups and high growth businesses. As I’m from the North East, I vowed that if we won it, I’d go back and run it. It’s 35 years since I last lived here and it means a great deal to be back.”

Oxford Innovation adopts a coaching approach to business, something which is a relatively new phenomenon, according to Mike.

“A lot of bigger businesses have been using coaching as a tool to develop and motivate people over the past decade or so. Coaching is very much a one-on-one intervention and the art of facilitating improved performance, improved learning, and the development of other people.”

Last year’s closure of the Alcan aluminum smelter in Lynemouth prompted demand for such a service says Mike.

“ARCH felt that with the number of people going to be made unemployed, there was a need to assist businesses in the area. If businesses are successful, they take on more people.

“I’m involved with businesses that have been around for around three to five years, and are seeking to take the business to the next level. At times businesses are too busy at the coal face, and don’t spend the time to step back and work on the business rather than in it.

“Most of us in this business are passionate about passing on our experience to business owners who are perhaps experiencing problems for the first time. It’s about giving something back to a certain extent.”

Born and bred in the West End of Newcastle, Mike went to Rutherford School before studying technical drawing at Charles Trevelyan College in Newcastle. His late father Fred ran his own business called the Northern Commercial College in Jesmond, while his late mother Peggy worked in Fenwick.

“Like most people at the time, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do when I was growing up. My career advice was to join the Ministry as a clerical assistant. I wasn’t particularly academic and left school with one O-level in English,” said Mike.

Mike landed his first job at the age of 16 with the National Cash Register company based on Westmorland Road in Newcastle. Working as a junior technician, he applied to join the NCR sales force, but was turned down due to lack of experience. In search of the experience he needed, he joined Alcan in its Poly Foil division, selling foil and paper trays to caterers and retail outlets.

He said: “The plan was to go back to NCR when I had the necessary sales experience. However, I ended up landing a territory salesman’s job at Colgate Palmolive, based in Darlington. I was about 23 and it was the first time I’d moved away from Newcastle.”

His career with Colgate Palmolive quickly progressed. He was promoted to sales trainer, then area sales manager based in Scotland, before returning to Darlington where he met his wife June, a nurse. He relocated to London to become national account manager at head office in Oxford Street.

“Living in London was tough. My mother was then a widow, but I judged that moving away would be good for my career and I’ve moved around ever since. I lived in London for two years and then we moved back up to Darlington when I was promoted to northern divisional sales manager. June and I got married and after two years I returned to London to take up the role of national sales manager. I always think the first move is the worst. It’s not for everyone. For me, if my career was going to progress, I had to move away,” he said.

In 1983, Mike was head-hunted by Guinness – a move which would take his career further afield than ever before. Living in London with June and their two young sons, Michael and Oliver, the family relocated to Glasgow when Mike became Guinness regional MD for Scotland. A move to York followed, and after six years, the family returned to London where Mike took up the role of national sales manager.

In 1999, Mike was given the “life changing” opportunity to be Guinness sales, marketing and logistics director in Lagos, Nigeria.

“I went out on a three-year contract and ended up staying for six years. Nobody was holding a gun to my head. Michael and Oliver were going to university so stayed in the UK, and my sister moved into our house to help them. June spent most of her time with me in Lagos and returned to the UK for the summer.”

Living in a bungalow on a compound meant Lagos was a far cry from life in the UK.

He said: “You’d see everything from dead bodies floating in the river and by the side of the road. There were beggars everywhere and huge traffic jams. It was chaos most of the time. However, Nigerians are absolutely fantastic people and hugely friendly. Although a lot of them don’t have anything, they are so upbeat. It’s actually quite humbling to see people with very little, have such a good outlook.

“I went everywhere in the country. I met the President and most of the Emirs in the Muslim areas. I never had a minute’s trouble.

“I think it’s a mental attitude thing. If you are living in fear of your life, and it’s perfectly possible to do that, then you’re not going to go out. We would think nothing of just walking along to the local hotel and restaurant and having a meal. I was old enough and wise enough not to put myself in dangerous areas. If you’re a glass half full person like me, you see all the positives. It is of huge importance to have lived, worked, and been a part of, another culture.”

Mike cites his time in Nigeria as one of the high points in his career.

“When I went, Nigeria was the third biggest market for Guinness in the world. When I left it was the second biggest. The only bigger market was the UK. We sold more Guinness in Nigeria than we did in the US. We had three breweries and turned over �180m a year.”

After six years in Nigeria, at the age of 55, Mike decided to return to the UK and retire. That was the plan.

He said: “My father died in his early 50s and I always said to myself that I was going to retire when I was 55. Nothing appealed to me after the high spot of Nigeria, so I took a redundancy package and took early retirement. However, I got bored, so decided to start a part-time marketing business.”

In 2009, Mike was approached by Oxford Innovation and he jumped at the chance.

“Boosting business in the region is about focusing on where the opportunities are. I see a lot of businesses trying to do too much, rather than really thinking about what is going to make a difference. What’s going to move them from a �1m business to a �2m business? It doesn’t happen by accident.

“Companies that sent their engineering and manufacturing out to China, are now considering bringing it back. Most of the rest of the world’s living standards are improving, which means their salaries are rising.”

Apprenticeships are also key to our economy’s future.

“We have to fill the gaps about the lack of apprenticeships. Somebody recently told me that the average age in an engineering business is 62. What we need is for those guys to be handing on their experience to the 21-year-olds.”

In his spare time, Mike likes a spot of sailing in his 40ft Beneteau yacht, harboured on the south coast.

“It’s the only thing that I’m missing about being back in the North East. We used to sail every weekend in the summer. I love the freedom and the challenge.”

When it comes to retiring for the second time, Mike has no plans.

“I haven’t given retirement any thought. I’ve got quite a passion for life in general and it’s always good to have personal goals. One of my fears is a fear of failure, so perhaps it’s a bit of that that’s driving me on.”

The questionnaire

What car do you drive? BMW X5.

What’s your favourite restaurant? Café 21 at Newcastle’s Quayside.

Who or what makes you laugh? Sarah Millican.

What’s your favourite book? The Hunt For Red October, by Tom Clancy.

What was the last album you bought? Jason Mraz – Love Is A Four-letter Word.

What’s your ideal job? RAF fighter pilot.

If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say? Listen very carefully, I’ll say this only once.

What’s your greatest fear?  Failure.

What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received? Focus on three big priorities and execute them brilliantly.

And the worst? It’ll be all right on the night (it never is)

What’s your poison? Guinness Foreign Extra Stout from Nigeria.

What newspapers do you read other than The Journal? The Telegraph, The Guardian.

How do you keep fit? Walking.

What’s your most irritating habit?  Ask my wife!

How much was your first pay packet and what was it for? £5 per week as a trainee technician with NCR.

What’s your biggest extravagance?   Boats, cars and motorcycles.

What historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire? Winston S Churchill.

Who would you most like to dine with? The Ab Fab ladies, Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley.

How would you like to be remembered?  As someone who has changed lives for the better.

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