Gordon Ollivere MBE is not one for “sticking to the knitting.”
He would also rather talk up his staff’s achievements than his own. Upon sitting down with the RTC North founder, this is the first hint as to why the career-hopper is such an effective leader.
As a young man, a geography degree first led Gordon to research projects in Nigeria and Sierra Leone - in areas now occupied by the militant islamist group Boko Haram.
“I was always interested in Africa, and had the urge to travel. I’d gone to Sierra Leone and came back, but didn’t settle. That led to five years in North East Nigeria,” Gordon said.
He studied the process of rural to urban migration and the formation of shanty towns. Armed with masses of questionnaire data to crunch, a young Gordon put himself on a computing course which was to set the trajectory of his career.
Gordon explained: “I became absolutely hooked on computing and my career totally changed. I spent the next ten years as an IT consultant. At that time people needed others to write programs for them. That got me into technology.”
The roles in computer programming that followed afforded Gordon a first-hand look at how businesses organise themselves, how they circulate ideas, and crucially, how they innovate. It added a new dimension to Gordon’s growing CV.
Towards the end of the 1980s, and now immersed in the world of technology, Gordon had the gumption to submit a proposal for a Regional Technology Centre.
A network of 12 centres were originally set-up nationwide to smooth the flow of technological innovation from universities into the commercial marketplace. The model was funded on a three-year basis, and many fellow centres struggled to survive past the late 90s.
RTC North is now the only one left, and by far the biggest, it has diversified extensively to become self-financed.
Despite a “difficult” period over the last four years, as Gordon admits, RTC have managed to formulate a recipe for survival, and even growth. That is - “giving businesses exactly what they tell you they want.”
Gordon’s organisation now works with everyone from school children through emeritus professors to laboratory-dwelling scientists. The remit is huge and spans consultancy, education, support for international trade and network-building - to name just a few.
Gordon explained: “The core business is technology. We have quite a few scientists and engineers working here, but we also require skills like market researching and marketing. Our job is to marry business skills with technology skills.
“The element in-between is innovation. For this you need good communicators who can facilitate connections, and coordinate foresight type activities, to plan for the future.” This is why Gordon, and his organisation, are not ones for “sticking to the knitting”, as he puts it.
“If we had stuck to the knitting five years ago, we wouldn’t be in business. Little events in our history have rocked us. For instance, losing the MAS (Manufacturing Advisory Service) account was a big one. But in those circumstances you can either throw your hands up and declare the end of the world, or find something new.”
It was the loss of this contract that turned RTC’s attention to design - specifically the coordination of design efforts in the North East.
Since the decline of government funding, Gordon has developed a more commercially-minded organisation - one which has had to adapt to delivering projects on behalf of national operators.
The set-up, Gordon admits, is not always in the mould he would like. He added: “In some cases it’s not quite so satisfactory, as you’re normally working on a numbers basis, where you are paid per output. The danger with this approach is the lack of scope for account management. Doing a mid-term review or exercising a bit of customer care with a client can add a lot of value.
“It’s not a criticism though, because if you look at one of our contracts, such as UKTI, we have a whole host of services from Passport to Export through to Gateway to Global Growth. There’s targets, but they’re structured and the staff are able to deliver them well. Companies feedback that UKTI is a great service - so in many cases it works.”
Gordon’s accepts that many of RTC’s activities need to be numerically driven, but is keen to add complementary services where possible. And this is where he elaborates on his idea of “innovation”.
He explained: “The original idea of innovation was working over company walls - drawing ideas from outside of your own organisation under the assumption that not all the brightest people necessarily work in your own team.
“Big companies are very different from small companies in the way they approach innovation. Big companies direct their own research efforts at finding ideas that haven’t been clear to them. The capacity for small companies to look at what others are doing is much smaller. But, through vehicles like the Design Network North, we’re managing to encourage more of it.”
He added: “Some of our work in the health sector has incorporated employee-generated innovation. That is ideas devised by health professionals on the front line, that can help to improve their service. It can be a very simple ideas through to very high-tech ones.
“Every year we have a competition to recognise staff who have developed these great ideas - and the competitive element helps to drive the workforce. It’s just one example, but you could run a similar model in lots of sectors.”
Since 2008 RTC has managed the Design Network North contract. The vehicle, originally established by One North East, aims to put design at the heart of the regional economy. RTC has established the “boomerang” model - where a problem or requirement is put out to the network and those wishing to collaborate or help answer back.
Gordon explained: “This can happen on a very niche level. For instance we connected Black and Decker with an individual who had worked for Ferrari. They needed to reduce the noise on a particular component and this individual applied a grooved design which had worked for Ferrari. That’s a great example of open innovation.”
He added: “The demography of companies is really interesting. They all live in an ecosystem where they need others to survive. That spans sectors too. And that’s why I don’t believe in sticking to the knitting.”
Outside of day-to-day activities, Gordon has steered RTC into involvement a charity which aims to increase access to professional healthcare for children in his beloved Sierra Leone.
RTC is an ardent support of the WelBodi Partnership which was established by British doctor Matthew Clark.
Gordon said: “We were one of the earliest sponsors. I found it a great thing to do because we could make a big impact with just a small amount of money. Our first donation went to fund a generator to power a hospital in Sierra Leone. Until then it had no electricity whatsoever - can you imagine that?
“Nearly 40% of our work is with medical technology now, so this also seems pertinent. The involvement with WelBodi is something that all of our staff can be really proud of.”
Side by side with the likes of Comic Relief and Sports Relief, RTC has continued to grow its contributions to the extent where it is now responsible for totally transforming the hospital and its capacity to treat children in the country.
Ebola has now dramatically altered the health landscape in Sierra Leone, and when deciding on its charity for 25th anniversary year, WelBodi had to be the choice for RTC North.
Looking to the next 25 years of the firm, 66 year-old Gordon is adamant that his staff should enjoy another 25 years of growth. He speaks passionately of their efforts and of his “luck” in being afforded the opportunity of working with people who share his same view and determination.
He said: “I want to make sure the good people who have supported me for so long are well looked after, and have the opportunity to take the organisation forward in a way that interests them.”
“I’m looking for a graceful exit,” he smiled