From Captain Bob to her own Bridge

From stamping passports for Swedes, through doing PR for Robert Maxwell, twice breaking her neck skiing and now winning a Queen's Award, life has never been dull for Caroline Theobald.

From stamping passports for Swedes, through doing PR for Robert Maxwell, twice breaking her neck skiing and now winning a Queen's Award, life has never been dull for Caroline Theobald. Graeme King met the networking queen.

Caroline Theobald

Visiting the headquarters of The Bridge Club on a Thursday morning seems to give a reasonable impression of how busy Caroline Theobald's life tends to be.

I arrive in a bustling little office, to be told the boss is on her way, but her last meeting has over-run. I'm shown into the boardroom and on display are a piece of art provided by a contact of Theobald's - Musa Fine Art - and portrait pictures of King Carl Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden (Theobald is the North-East honorary consul for the Scandinavian nation), as well as a whiteboard with a polite but firm notice that you must use the right kind of pens on it.

When she arrives, it is in the company of 12-week-old Jarvis the cocker spaniel - his name being a pop cultural reference which Theobald admits is unusual for her - who is not one to stand on ceremony and starts careering round the room.

His owner has a reputation for being only slightly less exuberant, and indeed makes a living from boldly facilitating introductions between those more reticent than she.

It is the kind of service any regional economy with ambitions to grow could surely use. And for those of us not at ease with approaching strangers and thrusting a business card in their hand, Theobald's brand of upbeat, jolly introductions makes life easier.

Theobald, 49, lives in a rented farmhouse near Matfen in Northumberland with her partner Justin and the ever lively Jarvis. She is widowed and has two children from that relationship, Ashlie and Philip.

She grew up in the Surrey village of Gomshall, near Guildford, and attended a Catholic boarding school.

After studying English literature at York University, she got a job with Haymarket Publishing in London and then found her way into working as a reporter for the glamorously titled Litho Printer Week. She admits it was not a promising name, but the reality was rather better. She says: "It does not sound sexy, but that was the period when there was the big move from hot metal printing to litho printing, so it was a really interesting time, as the unions were still pre-eminent. Then I went to work for Printing World as news editor, and then Robert Maxwell in the British Printing & Communications Corporation (BPCC).

Captain Bob was apparently as intimidating as all previous reports have indicated, though Theobald had a certain affection for him. She says: "I went for an interview, having boned up on him and his business all night. He just said: "Do you want a job?"

"I was officially BPCC press officer, but was also personal press officer for him too. The challenge was to keep him out of the press. Lots of moguls like him are fixated by newspapers and television.

"He was quite a scary chap, and I worked directly for him - when he first appeared in Private Eye I was absolutely terrified.

"He had his office in a building called Maxwell House, and he had a balcony. He was sitting out there and I had to go and speak to him with a copy of Private Eye. I said, `I don't know if you want to see this', and handed it to him. He was always a big man, and he leapt out of his deckchair and said, `Caroline, I've made it!' He was delighted.

"I was very fond of him. I believe you should treat people as they treat you, and at the age of 26, he gave me a hell of a break. I left when he took over the Mirror. He said he would either make me managing director of a company in his printing group or he would make me PR manager at the Mirror. But I said I was not qualified to do those jobs.

"To me he was charming. There was mutual admiration. He kept me away from the stuff he knew I would be upset by. I know he was a crook, but he never involved me in any of that."

The Theobald CV features a long list of appointments, both paid and voluntary, but it is undoubtedly Bridge Club for which she is best known.

She says: "We started on April 17th, 2000 - the day the stock market crashed, though we (Theobald, James Lawler, Charles Hoult and Lorraine Surtees) had actually started work on it back in the middle of 1999.

"I had had success working for Common Purpose, so I had a wonderful network around me. It was a period when people were using dotcoms to set up businesses. They all needed access to networks such as what Common Purpose can deliver - and also access to finance.

"We just went for it and our first year was sponsored by Eversheds, Merill Lynch and KPMG. They could see there were these businesses setting up, and they wanted a slice of that.

"We disbanded the partnership after the first year as it was not working, and I took on the debt and the business. In the second year, we did terribly well with £250,000 turnover and quite a healthy profit."

Then there was a bit of a diversion for Theobald with interest in the region in founding a mentoring organisation to develop more entrepreneurs.

She explains: "People said we (as a region) could do well if we set up an entrepreneurial exchange, as was operating in Scotland. So I helped put the board together, and raise finance for, the Entrepreneurs Forum. It is heavily supported by the public sector to act as a progression route for businesses.

"Enterprise is a continuum, in my view. My strengths are in the early stages of businesses, as a kind of business community `mum', but when you are a mature business your needs are completely different.

"Last year we made 1,643 connections - either getting people new clients or providing access to finance or access to professional services. And people are also looking for non-execs. When you are building a business, you need to know you've got the right people on the bus." Theobald says last year The Bridge Club employed 12 people, half full-time and half part-time - and they are all between 15 and 25 years younger than she is - which she says is about developing talent, and contributing to the future of the North-East.

"They are all responsible for their projects and for their budgets. I have given them shares and I am introducing a bonus scheme. I like to give people long leashes, to let them get on. And last year I worked with seven sub-contractors, so put £140,000-worth of work back into the economy. That was for services like HR, IT, web, legal, financial, PR."

She is immensely proud of the contribution her business makes, and says it can be difficult to explain its worth since it is not very large, yet its influence is extensive, though there are no financial stats that can quite explain its purpose and value.

She says: "We now have 100 members, but a database of 10,000. We do stuff here in Newcastle, in the Tyne Valley, South Tyneside, and we are going into Sunderland. The format is all the same - I will have a conversation with a home grown entrepreneur to get their story. I try to get stuff from them that will be of use to people about early stage businesses.

"Members are encouraged to get connections from me or my team to accelerate their business journey. There's no point in just turning up just because you think it's a good idea. It has got to take you forward. The value of connections could be absolutely huge.

"But if we have made a contribution, what does that look like? How is it expressed? The value is in what the connections put back into the North-East economy. This is what me and my team do - connecting people for mutual benefit."

Despite a reputation for fearlessness in her professional life and for launching into any social or business situation with a certain boldness, Theobald professes to have the same fear as the rest of us.

She says: "I find it difficult going into a room full of people I don't know, and introducing people. That never changes. But when you are the organiser, you can shamelessly do it. If people want to stand on their own, that's fine. But they should break out of their comfort zone - and I do take responsibility for the introduction."

One imagines her networking skills might well prove useful in her latest role, as honorary consul for Sweden in the North-East, which came about through her partner's family.

She says: "Justin's father was the Swedish consul. The family firm was Souter shipping and his great grandfather was apparently `Mr Tyne' in terms of his profile. Christopher said to me `I want to retire, so could I put your name in the hat to take over?' I did not think the ambassador would say, `Good idea', but I was appointed on February 7, and I'm now really interested in developing trade links with Sweden, and cultural links too."

The latest honour for Theobald is to be awarded a Queen's Award for Business Promotion, which she has only recently found out about and was made public knowledge only on Saturday. She says: "I was nominated by a member of my staff, which is the greatest compliment to an employer. And people who have sent letters of endorsement from the business community are people I really rate and rank.

"They sent me a letter to my address in West Moorhouses, which for some reason I did not get. I was off sick for the first six weeks of this year. Then I got a phone call on my mobile from the Prime Minister's office, and I did not know anything of it.

"I said `Are you pulling my leg?' I was absolutely gobsmacked. But now I am going to London on Tuesday to meet the Duke of York and then there will be an event with the Queen in July. I want to take my Dad with me, as he has been a major force in my life."

So the Caroline Theobald story goes on, and the pace does not look like slacking any time soon. It probably won't be long before the next big thing comes along and Theobald will think for a couple of seconds then say `yes' and her world will move still faster. And we will all have to try to keep pace.

---------------------------------------------------------

The questionnaire

What car do you drive?
A red, open-top Saab.

What's your favourite restaurant?
It's more my most frequented - the pub part of The Angel at Corbridge.

Who or what makes you laugh?
Jarvis, my cocker spaniel, and my children - Ashlie and Philip.

What's your favourite book?
Bleak House by Charles Dickens.

What's your favourite film?
The Shawshank Redemption, directed by Frank Darabont.

What was the last album you bought?
Holst's The Planets.

What's your ideal job, other than your current one?
Running a dating agency.

If you had a talking parrot, what's the first thing you'd teach it to say?
'Join the Bridge Club' or `Get connected, make connections'.

What's your greatest fear?
Not living up to expectations.

What's the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Do the right thing for the right reasons.

Worst business advice?
The end justifies the means.

What's your poison?
Sauvignon blanc.

What newspaper do you read, other than The Journal?
The Saturday Telegraph and the Sunday Times.

How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
Not sure how much it was, but it was for delivering Christmas mail for the Post Office, when I was still at school in Surrey.

How do you keep fit?
Dog walking, and through working out with a personal trainer - though I can't do that at the moment due to a cyst on my spine.

What's your most irritating habit?
Being a workaholic, so my partner says.

What's your biggest extravagance?
Spending time and money on family and friends. I am the eldest child in a large Catholic family, and my siblings all had four children each.

Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with/admire?
Shakespeare's Cleopatra. I love the play, and I love the fact that it's about an ageing woman who is not remarkably beautiful, but she captures people's imagination.

And which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
I would rather dine with family and friends, but otherwise I would nominate Nelson Mandela, Charles Dickens, Rory Bremner and Cleopatra.

How would you like to be remembered?
With love.

---------------------------------------------------------

CV

Education
1968-75 St Leonards-Mayfield School for Girls
1975-78 University of York BA Hons Ebor 2:1 English Literature

Professional experience
January 2000 - present owner-manager of Bridge Club Ltd, Consult Caroline Ltd

Additional board memberships
Bums on Seats
COCO
Fresh Element
Musa
North-East E Learning Foundation
Young Enterprise North-East
Entrepreneur in residence, University of Newcastle
Committee member, IoD North-East, FRSA

Recent board memberships
Think Differently
North Tyneside Primary Care Trust
Service Network
Entrepreneurs Forum

September 2002-February 2003 - Consultant to Entrepreneurs Forum·

February 2003-March 2004 - Board member Entrepreneurs Forum

September 2002 - Director, Think Differently Ltd

October 2003 - Director, Consult Caroline Ltd·

1994-June 1999 - Common Purpose Charitable Trust, Sunderland, senior programme director, Sunderland Common Purpose

1992-1994 - A19 film and Video Ltd.

Sunderland programme manager, Sunderland Documentary Project

1989-91 - Freeform Arts Trust.

Self-employed marketing and development officer

1985-89 - Self-employed communications consultant. Clients included: Coopers & Lybrand, and BPCC plc. Also founding director of CAIS (Community Architecture Information Services) - organisers of the 1986 Building Communities Conference. Consultant to the Inner City Trust (a Prince of Wales initiative).

1984-85 Marketing manager, R Seifert & Partners, London

1982-84 Press officer, Robert Maxwell and BPCC plc, London

1981-82 News editor, Benn Brothers

1979-82 Journalist, Haymarket Publishing, London

Interests and activities
Education, health, transport and policy issues. Young people, theatre, skiing, reading, playing tennis, walking, broadcasting, socialising.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer