WHEN Graham Robb told his mother Sylvia he wanted to be a radio DJ she told him to change his name, adding: “I’m not having it”.
Within a few weeks Robb had enrolled on a audio-visual technology course at a Middlesbrough college. He says the qualification bit helped persuade his mother it was a worthwhile career.
Later the controller of Radio Tees came to visit the budding broadcasters on the course so Robb asked him for a job and after a trial he landed the 1am to 5am slot.
“Prostitutes, insomniacs and mad people were my listeners. I’d go to college, have a sleep and then head off to work,” he smiles.
This was all before he had turned 18. His coming of age saw him promoted to the 10am to 1pm slot, and this was where he learned to speak confidently in public.
“We would do a live show once a week and I would appear alongside a stand-up called Peter DeeDee. We had a kind of double act thing in the pubs and clubs of Teesside. The jokes were pretty rude,” he says and recites one which clearly proves his point.
He says it was an invaluable experience which rid him of any fears of public speaking and stood him in good stead while fronting the opposition campaign to a North East regional assembly in 2004. By the time he was 21 he had his own news show.
“I was brash, cocky and I thought to myself ‘who would be the most high-profile guest?’ Margaret Thatcher, of course, so I wrote to her and she said ‘yes’.
“She was right at the height of her power. We had a cup of tea together before we went on air. I was terrified. She asked me why we had so few Conservative MPs in the North East. There were four at the time! I was diplomatic, saying there was not enough local candidates. I didn’t tell her that it was to do with the high levels of unemployment or the fact she was hated.”
Robb describes his parents as aspirational working class. They owned their own terraced house in Middlesbrough. His mother was a housewife, dad Hugh a local Government clerk and he was the eldest of three siblings.
While politics would be discussed in the house, he never knew his family’s political allegiances. “’It’s a secret ballot, son’ my dad would always say.”
He described himself as a grammar school- educated working-class guy and confesses to wearing a CND badge back in the early 80s, although he says he believes he was always a Conservative. “It was in my bones,” he says.
It was the style of leadership shown by Margaret Thatcher during the Falklands War that he says crystallised his Toryism ... “guts” and “common sense” are the words he uses to describe her.
And it was the subsequent radio interview where she told him to follow his instinct that inspired him to want to become a politician.
In 1989 he to move to Hartlepool to fight the seat for the Conservatives against Peter Mandelson. He had to leave BBC Radio Cleveland so he launched his own public relations and marketing business to generate an income.
Over 20 years on, Robb says his Darlington- based business is performing better than ever. 2010 has been a significant year for Recognition PR after Robb parted company with long-standing business partner Frances Bourne and brought three members of staff into the ownership structure.
The business is growing, with annual sales touching £1m and a staff of 15. Its 50-plus clients range from Duncan Bannatyne to Wensleydale Cheese and Darlington-based plc Southern Cross Healthcare.
Robb has put his political ambitions on hold to develop the business and declined opportunities to put himself forward as a potential candidate at May’s election.
“The time is not right. I am going to enjoy building the business, earning good money and I also have my 15 staff and clients to think about,” he adds. Robb believes the expenses scandal has damaged the standing of MPs in the public’s mind.
Many will recognise Robb as the main force behind the successful NO to a regional assembly referendum in 2004. At the time Robb argued politics should be viewed from a local, not a regional perspective, a mantra espoused by the coalition Government today.
Robb says he recognised politics should be viewed through a local prism during his time in Hartlepool when Cleveland County Council proposed a tram system for Teesside but decided it wouldn’t go as far as Hartlepool.
“In many ways that was the beginning of the end for the county council. Hartlepool is a very different place to the rest of Teesside,” says Robb.
Robb believes the successful NO campaign had a profound effect on Conservative Party thinking and that this emphasis on the local is the intellectual basis for the termination of the regional development agencies we witness today.
Robb has never been a fan of One North East: “The first rule of a regional bureaucracy is that it will grow. Why should a body like One North East determine housing policy in places as different as Hartlepool and Hexham? They are things that should be determined locally.
“Bureaucracies tend to acquire power very quickly.
“In the private sector a person gains respect by having a successful business, making money or winning clients. In the public sector a civil servant’s success is judged by the number of people they have working for them.”
The development of Local Enterprise Partnerships in the regions is a move welcomed by Robb.
He recounts a dinner he had with David Cameron back in 2007 when the North East was the topic of conversation
“He talked about how he saw not one economic area in the North East but three. He is well-informed about the area and viewed it as consisting of three local areas based around the three rivers ... Tyneside and Northumberland, Wearside and Teesside.”
While many commentators say the public sector cuts will spell an age of economic gloom in the North East, Robb believes the region is on the cusp of an era of growth.
“A private sector-led recovery is already underway and I am really positive about the North East. You could almost call it a secret recovery, but it is happening and with Government now getting out of the way there is even more scope for that recovery to take hold.
“Here at Recognition we have two clients who have relocated to the North East and it will be the entrepreneurs who lead the future growth of the North East.”
Robb’s political life has seen him stand unsuccessfully for Parliament on two occasions. First it was against Peter Mandelson in 1992 and next it was in a by-election in Sedgefield in 2007 against Phil Wilson after Tony Blair quit politics.
Robb has not ruled out another attempt despite business coming first for now.
But could it be third time lucky for Robb? He reckons the economy will be in much better shape by the time of the next election and that he may opt to compete against less illustrious rivals next time around.
Partner Recognition Marketing and Public Relations – founded the business in 1990, full-time partner with experience of more than 350 PR, media and marketing projects.
September–December 2002: Presenter – BBC Radio Cleveland.
2000–present day: Main board non-executive director of TTE Management and Technical Training, one of the UK’s largest training companies with a turnover of more than £10m, member of the Institute of Directors.
1994–1998: Current Affairs Presenter – Century Radio.
1989–1992: Parliamentary candidate in Hartlepool.
1986–1992: Presenter/Producer – BBC Radio Cleveland.
1980–1986: Presenter/Producer – Radio Tees.
Family: Married to Anne for 26 years, with two children Jessica and Helen.
Leisure time: Staying at the family cottage in North Yorkshire with family and walking their springer spaniel dog.
What car do you drive?
Land Rover Discovery 4.
What’s your favourite restaurant?
Wensleydale Heifer, North Yorkshire.
Who or what makes you laugh?
30 Rock, Seinfeld and Peter Kay.
What’s your favourite book?
Leadership by Rudolph Giuliani.
What’s your favourite film?
Jerry Maguire with Tom Cruise (show me the money!)
What was the last album you bought?
The soundtrack to The Boat that Rocked.
What’s your ideal job, other than your current one?
Member of Parliament in a northern constituency.
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you’d teach it to say?
"Stop checking your iPhone!"
What’s your greatest fear?
The idea of dancing in public – my wedding dance was an embarrassment!
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Turnover is vanity, profit is sanity but cash is king.
Worst business advice?
Getting trapped into a long lease for telecoms!
What’s your poison?
A good bottle of Chianti.
What newspaper do you read, other than The Journal?
The Daily Telegraph.
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
It was £25 for an overnight programme (1am-5am) on Radio Tees in 1980.
How do you keep fit?
Bannatyne’s Health Club in Darlington.
What’s your most irritating habitt?
Interrupting people, not out of rudeness but enthusiasm.
What’s your biggest extravagance?
Shopping treats for two daughters and a glamorous wife.
Which historical or fictional character do you most admire?
I most admire the fictional Jack Reacher in Lee Child’s books and historically Winston Churchill.
And which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
The Queen, Jeremy Clarkson, Frank Sinatra and Maggie Thatcher.
How would you like to be remembered?
As someone with the courage of his convictions.