DISCRETION is the watchword of the Northern Counties Club, which is hidden down a little lane near the Theatre Royal in the heart of Newcastle.
Even the heavy wooden door gives little hint of what lies beyond; indeed, an unassuming brass plaque proclaiming the building as the home of the private members’ club is a very recent innovation.
It’s one of the small changes made by David Devennie, the club’s first ever general manager, who was appointed in 2007 to bring a bit of modernity into an institution that has been part of the North East business community since 1829.
“Times weren’t so good for the club; we’d had a tough few years struggling a little bit financially, membership was declining a bit, and the committee had an extraordinary general meeting and felt they had to make some changes,” says the 38-year-old Scot.
“They commissioned someone to come in and write a management report and as a result of this report, my position was created.”
Three years ago, there was a real risk the club could have shut up shop for good.
“That was one of the options the committee had; it was either close the doors, sell off the building or make a change, take a gamble and create new position of general manager,” he said.
“That was the choice and they had to vote on it; thankfully, the vote went in my favour.”
Devennie, whose background is hotels – he spent a decade with the De Vere group – is aiming to bring the club into the modern era and is making his mark with initiatives such as wi-fi and ‘express’ lunches.
“We’ve got the stigma of being a ‘gentlemen’s club’ and trying to change that perception,” he says.
“About 20% of our members are female. We’re trying to make it much more approachable – not somewhere you should be absolutely terrified of entering.”
Women have been permitted to join since 1990 – which meant structural changes including splitting the toilets in two.
When Devennie arrived, member numbers hovered around the 300 mark and are now almost 500.
“We still have the traditional system where members are proposed by existing members,” says Devennie.
“But it’s not to say we’d throw someone out the door if they rang up out of the blue.
“I would invite them into the club, show them round, make some introductions and integrate them into it and let them see what it’s all about.”
Most are North East-based, but the Northern Counties can also count people in the US and Italy among its membership.
Members enjoy a range of perks.
They can bring in as many guests as they like and Northern Countries has reciprocal agreements with clubs around the UK and overseas, allowing members to stay overnight at rates that are much easier on the pocket than hotel prices.
“It’s great for people being able to take business out of the North East, nationally and internationally,” says Devennie.
“They’ve got places to meet people and do business when they’re out of town.
“The members can walk in there and use it as if it was their own club.
“Obviously, members can bring in guests, so if you were a member you can still put up a colleague overnight. You can still bring in people in for lunch, hold conferences, meetings, anything you want.
“There is no limit on the amount of guests you can bring in.”
Devennie, who works with a four-strong executive committee, is aiming to make the club more family friendly and has introduced events such as wedding receptions.
His own wedding reception was catered for at the club when he tied the knot with wife Sarah.
The couple met when he returned to the region to take up the Northern Counties job. Although born near Glasgow, dentist’s son Devennie first came to the North East to work at Slaley Hall.
He was deputy general manager there for just over two years – which is where he met David Beckham, and wasn’t allowed to speak to the footballer.
“I got the privilege of carrying David Beckham’s bag like a concierge,” says Devennie.
“There was two security guards either side of us. They were watching what I was doing with the bag to make sure I didn’t interfere with it, and I thought, ‘one of you guys could carry it!’
“It was when the England team came and stayed at Slaley when they were playing at St James’ Park.
“They all get pretty special treatment but he got just that little bit more than anyone else.”
Devennie admits he fell in love with the region and says that after taking position as general manager at Marston Farm Hotel near Birmingham’s NEC, he quickly became “homesick”.
“I kept my house in the North East and after nine months, I wanted to come back,” he says.
“I certainly have no plans to move anywhere in the future – I’m very settled here. I recently got married, I met Sarah while I was working here.
“I just think it’s such a friendly place to live and work; the football club was a big draw as well, I have a big passion for Newcastle United.”
Sport is important in David’s life. He is currently in training for next year’s London Marathon – which will be his seventh marathon in four years.
He says: “I’d put on an awful lot of weight – hotels are not healthy lifestyles – I was pushing towards 15 stone and I thought I’ve got to do something about this.
“So I bought a pair of trainers, went online, signed up for the New York marathon and just started going for it and started training and just running and running.
“It was nice having a goal at the end of it, it really helped me.”
He has also done the Great North Run four times and also competes in triathlons.
Devennie credits the job at Northern Counties for giving him a better work-life balance.
“I love the hospitality, but I was sick of hotels and being there 24 hours a day – you never switch off,” he says.
“I was looking for something a bit different and I couldn’t quite pinpoint it.”
Devennie contacted an employment agent to help find him a new job. One of the key criteria was that it was in the North East.
His timing couldn’t have been better – what he was looking for and what the Northern Countries Club wanted dovetailed perfectly.
“I’m still doing similar things – food and drink, and hospitality and looking after people, but it’s in a very different context.
“It’s much more personal. It’s a lot smaller than I’m used to, and it’s still hard work and long hours but it’s much more satisfying, being able to offer a very personal level of service.”
With nine staff and eight bedrooms at Northern Counties, it was rather a culture change from the 250 workers he was used to managing in the hotel trade.
“And it’s much harder managing nine people than 250, because there’s nowhere to hide. You’re on top of each other almost like a family living in the same house,” says Devennie.
He likens his current job to running a small business, where everyone mucks in. It’s no idle boast; at lunchtime, he can often be found waiting on tables and has been known to fix wardrobe doors as part of his remit – not that far removed from the furniture assembly, cooking and cleaning tasks he undertook as a hotel management trainee.
And bread and butter events for hotels, such as wedding receptions, are part of the way forward at Northern Counties.
“I don’t think the club had ever seen a wedding, but that’s what my background was. I was doing two or three a week when I was in hotels, so it was second nature for me,” he says.
“I just walked in and saw the place and the spiral staircase and I thought what a lovely place for a wedding.”
The club is actually based in the former Tyne Hotel building. It moved from its original home in Eldon Square almost 40 years ago when work started on the shopping centre.
“It moved in September 1972 – the month I was born,” says Devennie.
“It was meant to be; it could’ve been on my birthday – I like that story.”
Everything was moved lock, stock and barrel from the old building to the new, including fireplaces and carpets.
Devennie says: “The members’ dining table is still the original table from 181 years ago. There are all these nice little features that make the place so unique. There’s a story behind every lamp and book and picture on the wall.”
The club, which was set up as a place “to eat, drink and do business”, still has that motto today.
“It’s just different priorities and different ways of doing it,” says Devennie. “In 1829, people would have a business lunch that would probably last all day; that’s what they defined as ‘doing business’.
“Today, there’s less emphasis on drinking port all afternoon, so we’ve tried to the readdress the balance.”
Devennie reckons he has one of the best jobs in the world.
“I’ve got a position of great responsibility – I’m very much a custodian of the Northern Counties Club and looking after it for this generation,” he says.
“They place a lot of trust and faith into me and hopefully, we’re starting to see the benefit of that.
“Sometimes, I have to pinch myself and say what have I done to deserve this job, because it is so much job satisfaction.
“It’s the sort of opportunity that will come up once in a lifetime and I didn’t hesitate at all taking it on. I’m very, very lucky – I love what I do; it’s an absolute pleasure coming to work.”
1992-1996: Glasgow Caledonian University – BA in Hospitality Management with First Class Honours
2007-Present: The Northern Counties Club, Newcastle, general manager
2006-2007: Marston Farm Hotel, Birmingham, general manager
2004-2006: De Vere Slaley Hall Resort, Northumberland, deputy general manager
2001-2004: De Vere St David’s Park Hotel and Golf Club, North Wales, deputy general manager
1997-2001: De Vere Carden Park Hotel, Golf Resort and Spa, Chester, food and beverage manager
1990-1997: Victor Limited, head chef
What car do you drive?
I own a Ford Focus, but I only average about 3,000 miles a year. I prefer to use a bicycle or walk whenever possible.
What’s your favourite restaurant?
Panis on High Bridge, Newcastle.
Who or what makes you laugh?
I am not a big TV fan, but Harry Hill’s TV Burp makes me laugh a lot.
What’s your favourite book?
I enjoy the philosophical nature of Alexander McCall Smith’s novels.
What was the last album you bought?
Under Great White Northern Lights by White Stripes.
What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
A travel photographer on a bike.
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?
Having watched a parrot with some of the crudest vocabulary I have ever heard on You Tube recently, I think I would rather give it some ear-plugs!
What’s your greatest fear?
Being trapped in a burning building.
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Always keep an eye on the cash flow – plenty of profitable businesses go bust.
And the worst?
The longer you work, the more you will get done.
What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?
The Times and The FT.
What’s your poison?
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
£3.50 for delivering newspapers six days a week!
How do you keep fit?
Training for marathons and triathlons. I like to have a goal to stay motivated.
What’s your most irritating habit?
Having to go back to the house to check the iron is switched off.
What’s your biggest extravagance?
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire?
I admire the resilience and determination of Lance Armstrong.
Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
AA Gill, Alan Sugar, Duncan Bannatyne and Mark Cavendish – the fastest man on two wheels. I imagine the conversation would be pretty no-nonsense.
How would you like to be remembered?
As someone who always tried to look on the bright side.