Maggie's mission is flying our flag

The North-East Chamber of Commerce has appointed the first female president in its history.

The North-East Chamber of Commerce has appointed the first female president in its history. Howard Walker talks to Maggie Pavlou about her plans for the presidency and why the region is a land of opportunity for business

Someone who has run the Great North Run twice and is prepared to learn to surf for the first time at the age of 39 is obviously not shy of a challenge.

So if Maggie Pavlou can tackle a 13-mile run and negotiate the waves of North Devon, you suspect she will not flinch at the prospect of becoming the first woman to be president of the largest chamber of commerce in the country.

Indeed, the human resources director appears to be positively relishing the prospect.

"I'm so excited," she enthuses.

"I consider that the North-East is at a crucial and exciting time and I can't think there will be a better time for the likes of me to be working with an organisation like the chamber and work with all the other organisations in the region.

"We are on the cusp of great things and the chamber needs to grasp that and work with the regional development agency and with other business organisations and collectively help to continue to develop our region because there are tremendous opportunities there."

Pavlou is certainly an enthusiast for the region and for her new role in the North East Chamber of Commerce.

The words `passionate' and `opportunity' figure frequently during our conversation and you get the sense that the chamber has picked a good advocate for its organisation.

Pavlou was born in Chester-le-Street and has spent most of her career in a range of training and development roles.

After graduating from York University, she worked for the Rank Organisation in a number of management posts before becoming group training and development manager.

She returned to the North-East in 1997, joining Sunderland's Vaux Breweries as head of personnel at its retail division and starting her involvement in the chamber.

Moving on to Newcastle-based recruitment company NRG a few years later, she set up the group's HR consultancy and did executive recruitment before leaving last May for her current post as director of human resources at Newcastle-based holiday park operator Parkdean Holidays.

In parallel with her career development, Pavlou has also worked her way up the ranks at the chamber of commerce, starting off on the NECC's training and development committee before joining the NECC council seven years ago and most recently serving as vice-president to outgoing president Alan Ferguson.

While understandably wanting to make an impact in her new role, Pavlou is keen to stress that she has "no personal agenda" to follow.

"The chamber has a set manifesto and objectives and I see the role of president as helping them in any way I can to achieve that.

"It's predominantly a figurehead role - (chief executive) George Cowcher will continue to run the chamber on a day to day basis - and my view is to make it more of a team thing so there is not just one person because there's a lot to be done and a lot of opportunities there."

Pavlou will work alongside two vice-presidents - Jeff Fryer, managing director of construction company MMP Group and Richard Bottomley of KPMG - and Alan Ferguson will also retain a role.

Part of the decision to adopt a team set-up is based on the practicalities of the presidency. As a full-time director at an AIM-listed plc, Pavlou's time is clearly important, although she pays tribute to the generosity of her Parkdean boss John Waterworth for being "very supportive" in helping her carry out her new duties.

She also believes the team framework will enable the chamber to provide a better service to its members and be a more effective voice.

Pavlou explains: "There is a need to represent the chamber and in some respects to represent the region, so the role requires quite a lot of networking and profiling. This is part of the reason why I have gone for a team, for more people available at more events.

"We all have businesses to run and manage so it's about prioritising and being as effective as you can whilst acknowledging you can't be there all the time."

Nevertheless, despite the trio of chamber representatives, it is Pavlou who is likely to receive the most attention, not least because she is the first female president in the chamber's 190-year history.

In today's business world, this shouldn't be an issue, but it is and Pavlou acknowledges the fact.

"It would be naive to say it's not an issue," she says. "My working career has been in predominantly male environments, but the chamber is very well balanced in terms of council members, its companies and its staff.

"While there's not been a female president ever, it's a good thing we are getting one now and it reflects the modernisation of the chamber.

"I don't see being president as a particularly more onerous challenge as a woman than it was for my predecessors. It's a great opportunity."

Pavlou plans to use the opportunity to make the chamber's voice continue to be heard on a range of issues of most importance to the organisation's 5,000 business members, a list which covers 30% of the North-East's workforce.

"The main areas of focus continue to be deregulation, the skills agenda - which is very close to my heart - and transport and infrastructure.

"All of those areas are ongoing, they're never going to be done, they constantly need attention and regular campaigns and conversations with members."

The first on the list - deregulation - is a thorny subject for many businesses, although there is an undercurrent recently voiced by Amstrad chairman and latter-day TV star Sir Alan Sugar that too much complaining is done about red tape and that businesses should just get on with things.

How does Pavlou stand on the debate and can the chamber really do anything in the face of the Government and EU machines?

"Realistically, one individual voice or committee can do very little. Collectively, which is where the chamber gets its power from, you can, but it's about keeping lines of communication open.

"We need to be involved with the people making the regulations to make sure they're business-focused and user-friendly. I would like to be more pro-active than reactive, to engage with businesses and local government to help form some of those regulations without them being given to us and for us to complain about them.

"I think the chamber can be much more pro-active and positive in its involvement to shape the regulations rather than just complain about existing ones."

A laudable aim, no doubt, but exactly how much influence does the NECC have?

Pavlou points to a recent strengthening of the chamber's policy team as an indication that it is serious about making its voice heard on a range of issues and in helping its member businesses understand how Government and EU policy affects them.

"The chamber has a crucial role in harnessing the views of business and making sure they're fed into policy decisions."

Of particular interest to Pavlou, both as an HR director and a native North-Easterner, is the issue of the region's skills problems.

"I think the skills gap is crucial," she declares. "It's not something that can just be left, it needs to be addressed pro-actively all the time and companies large and small should contribute to develop that." Pavlou sits on the Skills North East Strategy board and is a "huge supporter" of the CBI-led Aspire campaign, which aims to convince young people to raise their career aspirations further and to do so in the North-East.

"As a region, we need to move on and to enthuse our workforce to meet their potential. It may not be the most sexy of issues but it is fundamental to how businesses operate and unless it's addressed, it's a risk to the region."

Looking on the more positive side of things, the new president sees the North-East's tourist industry as ripe for major expansion and a source of major opportunity - that word again - for the region's businesses.

"Tourism is very close to my heart because of my job and it's one of the interests which I will be involved in. We are asset-rich in the North-East, we have things here that people elsewhere don't have, be it good places to visit or to work, which helps businesses.

"That's a tremendous plus for the region and we need to make the most of it and I think that's an opportunity we are now grasping."

Pavlou, who also sits on the board of the North East Tourism Advisory Board, praises regional development agency One NorthEast's recent "Passionate Places, Passionate People" tourism campaign.

Pavlou sees the chamber changing to reflect the changing face of the North-East and stresses the importance of the organisation working hard for its existing and future members - the NECC has a target of growing membership by 2% a year.

Pavlou says: "We are a membership organisation and people voluntarily join us so we need to address and provide for them. Whether that's through events, networking or facilities, we need to fulfil those needs and develop and enhance them. That's a side that I think will continue to grow."

Away from chamber business and her day job at Parkdean Holidays, Pavlou finds her hands full looking after her two sons, aged three and six.

As well as running the Great North Run for the past two years to raise money for St Oswald's Hospice - and going for the hat-trick this year - she is also taking other sports in her stride.

"I'm learning to surf this summer because one of Parkdean's holiday parks is on the beach in North Devon," she explains.

"My brother is a keen surfer so we are all going to be learning to surf. I'm also riding a bike for the first time in 25 years because my eldest son is learning to ride a bike."

Pavlou's other interests have included working overseas with Save the Children and Raleigh International in Zimbabwe, and working in the education unit at Armley Prison in Leeds.

And as if that wasn't enough, she is also a member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development, the Northern Business Forum and the CBI Human Resources Directors Forum.

Yes, the NECC has certainly picked someone who likes a challenge.

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