Graeme Kalbraier, managing director, Call Connection

The charisma and charm of the Geordie people are what ultimately drew entrepreneur Graeme Kalbraier and his family north. Coreena Ford spoke to him about his transition from Army life to Civvy Street

Call Connection Managing Director Graeme Kalbraier
Call Connection Managing Director Graeme Kalbraier

The plaque to honour Emperor Hadrian in Graeme Kalbraier’s office is not just to symbolise it’s “the chief’s office”. It also speaks volumes about how he runs his business, Call Connection, which he founded in 2003.

Originally from London, Kalbraier, 60, is a liberal man with a generous spirit and real desire for the welfare of the people – especially here in the North East. He has already created 55 call centre jobs in Newcastle since last November – with plans for another 30 by the end of July.

He said: “The charisma and warmth of the Geordie people is what drew me here. We had 6,000 applications for only 55 posts in six months and I was amazed with the response. The Call Connection team provides customer service for clients such as the AA, Admiral and Aviva. The call centre can hold 112 in total, so we will be expanding the team further.”

Unlike other call centres which have moved overseas, foreign conquests aren’t important to Kalbraier. He has no intention to take work abroad.

He said: “We have a business in Ipswich which employs 250 people as well as the Newcastle centre. I’ve looked at taking the business to South Africa, and we did some work with a business out there, but while that was good, I believe you are much better off in the UK.”

Kalbraier now refers to his family as ‘adopted Geordies’. His son Robbie, 28, heads up the Tyneside Group Limited, a student lettings and student property development company. His daughter Victoria, 25, a Bath Spa university graduate also now lives in Newcastle and, as the company’s administration manager, is playing her part in helping to build the Tyneside Group.

Robbie, a former Newcastle University student, was commissioned by Call Connection to carry out the £1m refurbishment work within the glass-fronted building, which lies snug against Piccolino’s restaurant in Pandon on the Quayside in Newcastle.

And there’s a distinct historic North East theme running through the ultra-modern building.

“My room is named after Emperor Hadrian. Our large meeting room is named after Grainger, and we also have a smaller Dobson room. Then we have the Stephenson room, used for train-ing, you get that don’t you?” Kalbraier smiles.

The theme even runs on to the IT room, which is named after the Newcastle-born physicist Peter Higgs. Kalbraier jokes that, like the Higgs boson that the scientist discovered, the IT room is also “small and very expensive”.

Kalbraier’s passion extends to sport, though he doesn’t like football. He’s more of a rugby man.

“My son had a season with Newcastle Falcons Rugby and still plays for Blaydon now. I’ve always supported him in rugby. He’s played for England Counties and I’ve always enjoyed travelling around to watch him play. I’ve come to love Newcastle through visiting him.”

Kalbraier’s achievement as a highly successful businessman building on his empire is clear to see. However this wasn’t always the case.

Growing up in Ipswich as an only child, Kalbraier lived with his parents Alice and Bob. Alice was a carpet weaver, while Bob was a chartered accountant. By the age of 19, he’d signed up for a life in the Armed Forces.

“I joined the Army by accident. I’d just finished school in Ipswich and didn’t know what to do. A careers officer came to the school and said ‘I think you’ll do!’ That was that. I was very fit in those days and the Army weren’t bothered that I couldn’t spell very well.

Kalbraier’s love of sport grew and he even became an Army canoe instructor at one stage. “I loved the great outdoors, especially ski-ing,” he enthuses.

However, he admits not being prepared for the immense scale of life in the Armed Forces when he signed up as a fresh-faced 19-year-old in 1973.

Kalbraier reflects on his time serving in Northern Ireland, Germany, Norway and Canada.

“As a young man, the Army exposes you to all sorts of situations. I spent most of the 1970s in Northern Ireland which was a huge and exciting challenge.”

His job as a junior officer in Belfast was tough though and there are some things about that part of his life he doesn’t talk about.

“It did affect me. I first went to Northern Ireland in 1973 as a very young officer, I was very green. Looking back, not very well trained either at that stage. I was still learning my trade.

“Back in those days it was common to patrol the streets and get shot at.”

Northern Ireland was memorable for personal reasons too as it’s where Kalbraier met his wife, Norma, 56.

“Norma was visiting the barracks in her public relations role for a dinner. I wasn’t at the dinner, but I came into the bar – and the rest is history! We were married 100 days after that meeting.”

Kalbraier believes it’s how you prepare for change that ultimately makes a difference to whether you sink or swim in the outside world.

“As a member of the Army, each soldier will inevitably return to life on Civvy Street at some point. The Army provides you with total security, providing you do what you’re told, be where you’re supposed to be and act like you’re told to act.”

Kalbraier acknowledges there is more help for people leaving the Army today, but it’s always a difficult transition.

“It’s never too soon to start preparing for change,” says Kalbraier, knowingly.

“I would say to anyone still in service that they should take whatever courses the Army offers them. Take resettlement and relocation courses and be realistic about what you can do and what jobs there are out there.

“We have taken ex-forces people on in the past, and we’d look to take them on in the future.”

Much of his enthusiasm for helping former servicemen and women is a reflection on his own struggle. “It was hard for me,” he says.

Following Northern Ireland, Kalbraier was posted to Canada.

He said: “I went to Canada to do an exchange posting with the Canadian Army for 18 months. While I was there I decided it was time to move on.

“I left the Army in 1981 after nine years. It was during the last recession, so it was difficult to get my first job. I eventually secured a job at Sun Life Canada selling life insurance but it was commission-only, so luckily I was good at selling!

“If you leave when you are 40 though, your whole adult life has been spent in the Forces. It can be a massive shock to the system leaving that infrastructure of support behind.”

But when Kalbraier returned to life as a civilian sales man he was surprised at how growth could come from that. By 1987, he’d turned his vision to run his own business into a reality.

“I returned to East Anglia where I became a manager for Sun Life Canada. I started working in the mortgage business too and I wanted to set up my own business.

“My father helped me form my first insurance business ‘Spinmore’ in 1983 and continued to run the accounts. There were only three of us back then, me, my dad and Eileen Damant, who still works for the company and is 79! She comes in two days a week.

“I then started two businesses in 1987, one in property development and the other in motor insurance, they were Anglia Property Developments and Anglia Motor Insurance.

“The development company at its prime in 1990 had around 30 staff on the building side. Anglia Motor Insurance quickly spread to London.”

Kalbraier sold the building company for £100,000 in 1993 and also a small management company which owned some freeholds for £50,000.

“£150,000 was a good stake to build my insurance business,” he said.

“In 1994, I formed a company called National Direct which joined in the telephone insurance sales market. It was the early 90s before the telephone insurance sales took off, and we grew over four years.

“In 1997 Anglia Motor Insurance and National Direct merged to become Anglia Countrywide Plc and in 1998 it was bought by Churchill. When I sold it for £10m, it had around 350 staff.”

Kalbraier is a keen traveller and also a qualified advanced scuba diver.

“It was hugely important for me to take the kids all over the world to every continent when they were younger. My success in business meant we could go on every holiday possible.

“We made them do project books wherever they went. It was a broader education for them and meant they could see a bit of history. They both have degrees now, so it can’t have been that bad for them!

“My family and I have dived all over the world too, from the Great Barrier Reef to Hawaii, Thailand, Indonesia and Bali.”

So what does Kalbraier think of the way call centres are portrayed on TV currently?

“I think the Call Centre programme is awful. It does nothing for the call centre business. It’s reality TV designed not to show call centres in what they do and not to show behaviour in call centres like it should be.

“If any of it’s true at all then that business has no business in being there. That isn’t the way you behave, it isn’t the way you treat customers and it isn’t the way you treat staff.

“Call Connection has twice been named as a Sunday Times ‘Top 100 Company’ and holds the Investors in People Silver Standard award. Our team are good talkers with plenty of personality and contact centre experience, that’s what we look for when recruiting.” Kalbraier said.

The Questionnaire

What car do you drive? A black Toyota Landcruiser Amazon.

What’s your favourite restaurant? In Newcastle, Cafe 21.

Who or what makes you laugh? Only Fools & Horses.

What’s your favourite book? Guinness Book of Records.

What was the last album you bought? Only One Man by Russell Watson.

What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got? - England Rugby coach.

If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say? “Who’s a pretty boy then?”

What’s your greatest fear? Failure.

What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received? Always sell if the price is right.

And the worst? An advisor recommended that I turn down a good offer for one of my businesses because it was worth more...it turned out not to be!

What’s your poison? Decent wine.

What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal? The Times, Daily Mail.

How much was your first pay packet and what was it for? £10 – for picking beans on a farm.

How do you keep fit? I have a gym at home and also a personal trainer.

What’s your most irritating habit? I’m not always the world’s best listener!

What’s your biggest extravagance? - First class travel (although I see most forms of travel as being a mobile office).

Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire? I will always greatly admire Nelson Mandela.

Which four famous people would you most like to dine with? Jonny Wilkinson, Julie Andrews, Barack Obama and Richard Branson.

How would you like to be remembered? With fondness and amusement.

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