Newcastle International Airport has rarely been out of the news this year. Shortly after learning we are getting a daily flight to Dubai we then learn the airport’s chief executive has been suspended and later resigns. Peter McCusker meets the new chief executive Dave Laws.
TRAINED as an airport firefighter Dave Laws seemed to be the perfect person to take control of Newcastle Airport when the furore over the bonuses paid to its last boss John Parkin were revealed.
In March this year the airport suspended Mr Parkin and is currently undertaking a “robust legal action” in connection with a near £6m bonus he had managed to secure for himself.
Laws, the airport’s chief operating officer at the time, was left to pick up the pieces and admits it was a difficult time dealing with the heightened media interest and concerns of airport staff.
Mr Parkin and Laws, have not spoken since.
Laws broaches this sensitive subject pretty much as soon as we meet – and while not prepared to elaborate fully on the case as legal proceedings are still to be resolved – he says he will not shirk from revealing all when the time is right.
All he is prepared to say on the record is: “This has been a difficult time for the airport and all of its staff and all I can say is that there are on-going legal proceedings which will run for some time.”
But there is no doubt that this plain-speaking Tynesider feels strongly that the people of the region – who partially own the airport – have a right to know what has happened.
He projects a steely determination to ensure this issue will not be brushed under the carpet.
There is no doubt that public perception is key to how Laws manages the region’s premier airport but he leaves you in little doubt he views the relationship between the airport and the people of the North-East as a two-way street.
“Newcastle Airport is at the heart of the region. We are a key to the North-East’s continued success and economic development.
“The people of the North-East realise how much this place means to the region. It is a key to our success. We really want people to take us to their hearts. I want to make this airport into a regional asset that every single one of us in the North-East can be proud of,” he says.
Laws’ son Patrick tells people his ‘dad works in the sky’.
In some respects his five-year-old lad is tellingly accurate.
Making around 50 business flights a year, there is now doubt his dad makes his aircraft seat his office on occasions, but the story of Laws’ flight to the top began on the ground.
After leaving school at 16 he served a five-year apprenticeship as a joiner, he was tempted to apply for a firefighter’s job at the airport where his brother-in-law worked and convinced the then boss Jim Denyer to appoint him.
Fast forward 12 years and the green fireman is now a dad-of-two young girls who wants more from his life.
He said: “I realised I wanted to achieve more. The other side of the airport fascinated me. I was offered the job of safety adviser and I had a big decision to make.
“Do I stay where I am? or do I move on? It meant having to take a big drop in wages. I decided I had to do it if I wanted to progress.”
The managing director of the airport at the time was Trevor Went and Mr Went proves a crucial figure in Laws’ story.
“The best piece of business advice I have been given was from Trevor. He would always say ‘never forget where you come from’.
“I learnt a lot from him. He was a very calm person, he was very charming and very fair and would give people opportunities to progress.
“I think he saw something in me. He saw that I also was a very calm person.
“The things that he taught me are the things I also believe in.”
Mr Went was also very supportive in helping Laws achieve great things in the world of football refereeing.
A football mad youngster he had to give the game up at the age of 14 after having five pins inserted in his hip. He re-focused and by his late teens qualified as a ref and also went on to qualify as a football coach.
This led to him managing Cramlington Juniors when a younger Alan Shearer was its top striker – they are still good friends.
Laws’ refereeing career saw him officiate an FA Vase Final at the “old” Wembley – one of the last games to be played there and also a play-off final at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, between Bolton and Preston.
“Trevor was very supportive he would have no problem if I had to fly down to London – taking time of from work – to a night game.
“Taking charge of a game in front of 40,000 people who are all telling you what to do, as well as 22 players telling you what to do, well, you learn to keep your head. Decisions have to be made in split seconds.
“This taught me to be composed and the benefits of that experience have been transferred to the business. It’s vital that you remain calm and composed in an emergency situation.”
He continues: “In Trevor’s later years we had an fire in the terminal. Trevor was away at the time and I took control of the situation while he dashed back.
“On his return I naturally said ‘do you want to take over?’ but he saw how the situation was under control and said he was happy for me to continue as it was ‘in good hands’.”
Laws interest in football saw him working for West Bromwich Albion and Nottingham Forest as North-East scouts. He recalls how Brian Clough, the Forest manger, would always say the same thing to him whenever he saw him at the City Ground.
Laws chuckles as he recalls Clough’s words ‘Good to see you, young man. Have you brought any good footballers from the North-East for me?’.
Laws continues: “I watch how real characters manage, Sir Alan Sugar and Sir Bobby Robson are both people I admire.
“Alan Sugar for his determination. He did it his way. It’s not necessarily my way, but he has shown what you can achieve with drive and determination.
“Sir Bobby is someone who deserves all the plaudits that have come his way. He is a very, very special man.”
Laws, 50, has big plans for Newcastle Airport. In recent months the daily flight to Dubai has been successfully launched and the new £8m control tower has come on-stream.
In the New Year there will two new eateries, the Eagle Bar Diner, and the Caviar Bar, and in May a new walk-through tax and duty free walk-through store – one of the first of its kind in the UK – will open.
A new 24-hour petrol station opens in March and this time next year the £30m four star hotel – most probably a Ramada – will open.
Laws has his eyes focused on his environmental responsibilities and with that in mind has recently introduced a continuous descent stipulation which saves on fuel.
Laws says: “We have to look at climate change. We want to be responsible to the environment.” In the New Year one of the operators will make a significant announcement on reducing carbon emissions by their fleet.
After working hard to open up a long-haul eastern flight Laws firmly has his sights to the west.
“There are lots of US companies in the region and securing a regular flight to the US is one of our primary goals.
“The Dubai flight has been a success and I want to take this opportunity to thank the business people of the North-East who have supported us.”
In 10 years’ time he foresees a doubling
of passenger throughput to around 10
million a year, a bigger terminal and a daily flights to the United States and Cancun in Mexico.
Brought up in Wallsend Laws now lives in Ponteland with his partner, Nicola, and son Patrick. He has two elder daughters from his marriage, Carly, 21, and Emma, 16.
He follows Newcastle United and despite the corporates on offer to a man of his standing he prefers using his season ticket seat for the ‘terraces’.
He admits to having sleepless nights worrying about work-related issues
from hitting budgets to international
He says he finds it hard to relax and even on holidays has negotiated a one-hour daily window with his family to check emails.
And only when pressed can he offer driving to act as a referee’s assessor to at Premier League games as one of few opportunities to relax.
No doubt there was many sleepless night during a drawn out five-stage interview process which the saw him selected from 69 other applicants.
The calmness identified by his mentor
Mr Went is evident throughout our hour-and-a-half interview.
No doubt this was one virtue which impressed the interview panel, but equally as impressive is his drive and passion.
He added: “I am passionate about my job. I have been very fortunate to have been employed here for 28 years. I am very fortunate to have an opportunity to shape a business like this.
“We have 350 direct employees here and there are 3,500 people employed at the airport in total.
“This is not my airport this is their airport. This is also the region’s airport and if we all pull together we can create something we can all be proud of.”
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How the airport is run
NEWCASTLE International Airport is owned by seven local authorities – Durham County, Gateshead, Newcastle, North Tyneside, Northumberland County, South Tyneside and Sunderland – and Copenhagen Airports.
They entered into a Public Private Partnership in 2001 which saw the local authorities sell 49% of their stake to Copenhagen.
Its annual turnover is £53m and profits from this total £11m. It has around five million passengers a year and expects this to double in 10 years.
Earlier this year its chief executive John Parkin left after it emerged that in the deal between the councils and Copenghagen he had secured a bonus and wages worth £5.956m.
Finance director Lars Friis, who died in 2006, also shared part of the total bonus of £8.547m.
This is now the subject of legal proceedings.
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What car do you drive?
BMW 6 Series
What’s your favourite restaurant?
Kevin Liu's New Rendezvous in Ponteland
Who or what makes you laugh?
Mark Benton from the comedy series Northern Lights
What’s your favourite book?
Sir Bobby Robson’s autobiography
What was the last album you bought?
Dire Straits’ Private Investigations
What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
Being employed by Newcastle United in some capacity
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?
“Howay the Lads!”
What’s your greatest fear?
My partner having a bump in my car
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
“Always remember where you came from”
And the worst?
It’s not possible for you to print it!
What’s your poison?
A nice bottle of Sancerre
What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?
The Evening Chronicle, of course, and occasionally the FT
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
I used to get £1.50 for my newspaper delivery round, which paid for me to get in to watch Newcastle United as a kid
How do you keep fit?
Running and cycling which I need to do more of!
What’s your most irritating habit?
You’d better ask my partner that one! I think my work colleagues would tell you I need to learn to relax and forget about the airport when I’m on holiday
What’s your biggest extravagance?
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire?
Grace Darling. She showed bravery beyond belief, putting her own life at risk to save others
Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Alan Sugar, Kylie Minogue, the actor Martin Shaw and Princess Diana
How would you like to be remembered?
As someone who gave it his all