SIR Paul Nicholson nearly didn’t make it to the age of 71 and his current role as Lord Lieutenant of County Durham.
A small plane, thick clouds and a fuel tank holding less than it should almost cut him off in his prime.
Shortly after qualifying as a pilot, he and a girlfriend flew to visit friends in Spain in a trip marred by thunderstorms along the French coast and low clouds over the Pyrenees.
“I thought I could take off and climb out to sea then get above the clouds and set sail to the south of Spain,” he recalls.
“We got in the cloud and the next thing I saw, the cloud cleared and there was a mountain absolutely straight ahead.
“I spiralled up and then set off for the south and I very carefully checked the amount of fuel that I should have had and it was fine.
“But then my girlfriend suddenly pointed that the fuel gauges were reading empty and we still had about half an hour to go to get to Malaga.
“We eventually landed and the plane coughed and spluttered on the runway. But I was so concerned I had it checked and I found that this particular aircraft held four gallons less than it was supposed to.
“If one had crashed and disappeared in the southern Spanish mountains, they would just have said the silly fool had run out of fuel.”
It didn’t put him off – he flew for 30 years, including the Vaux company plane. He agrees he is possibly a bit of an adrenaline junkie.
“I can always stop a conversation when they say, ‘Did you ever ride?’ and I say, ‘Well, I did get round in the Grand National and I won the Foxhunters (run over the National fences at Aintree twice,” he said.
It happened in the early 1960s on a horse called Sea Knight, bought by his father to three-day event but who preferred racing.
“I remember coming into Becher’s and with him digging his toes in. However, we got round, about in time to win the next race,” said Sir Paul.
“I was absolutely dead scared before any race but in the National, the nerves of the other jockeys ... the atmosphere was thick with smoke in the changing room, you could hardly breathe.”
Although he enjoyed riding, he never considered becoming a professional jockey and joined Vaux after qualifying as a chartered accountant.
The Nicholsons’ involvement with the Sunderland brewer began with his grandfather’s marriage into the Vaux dynasty.
“There were two brothers who owned the brewery and he never was allowed to have any shares until the company went public in 1927,” Sir Paul said.
“He was a very distinguished man. He became a knight – Sir Frank Nicholson was certainly a name to conjure with in those days.
“The trouble with Vaux was that we weren’t a family business as such, we were family-managed and my grandfather, my father and myself were all the chairmen, but we only had about 2-3% of the shares. The original Vaux family had rather more.”
Sir Paul – knighted in 1993 for services to North East industry and the public – was also chief executive of the group, which included breweries, tenanted pubs and the Swallow Hotel chain.
Vaux closed 10 years ago after boardroom machinations destroyed a management buyout bid led by his brother Frank.
Although he refers to it as old history, he admits a certain bitterness about the way things ended.
“Over 1,000 employees lost their jobs who shouldn’t have. One was accused of being paternalistic. I think people who worked for Vaux felt a loyalty to the company that was stronger than working for just the Federation Brewery or something like that. There was a loyalty there to the family and a respect.
“That devastated people when it went. A lot of people were extremely sad. That made it worse in many ways that it might have been otherwise.
“If you go to Sunderland, there is a desert in the middle of it which is where the 14-acre site of the brewery was. Ten years on, it’s a spat between Tesco who own the site and want to build a superstore there and the town who don’t want a superstore there.
“I’ll never feel anything other than pretty bitter, and pretty angry about it. There are certainly one or two people that I don’t talk to. Anyhow, it’s 10 years past and I’ve certainly moved on.”
The inside story is told in Sir Paul’s book Brewer at Bay. But Vaux is just part of his tale; he has been embedded in the North East business community for decades.
Sir Paul chaired One North East’s predecessor, the Tyne and Wear Development Corporation, was the first president of the combined North East Chamber of Commerce and is a former CBI regional chairman.
He said: “One North East is a good organisation but I think that the Northern Development Company probably achieved 90% of what One North East did at 10% of the cost.
“And I think that if a new government decides they don’t want regional development agencies, I hope that one will be able to – and maybe only behind the scenes – try to help get a new Northern Development Company going.
“That’s going to be needed; if we don’t have a regional development agency, we’ve got to have something.
“The main difference between One North East and the Northern Development Company is that the Northern Development Company was a bottom-up thing – we formed it, we appointed the board, we appointed the chairman, not the government – and chief executives.
“One North East is a top-down organisation – people, the board, are selected by whatever means the Government have and it is very much Government-controlled; we weren’t. We did rely on a lot of Government funding but we had an enormous amount of discretion.”
Although deeply rooted in the region – our interview takes place in his home near Durham where he was born – Sir Paul travels widely. And he fears the outside image of the region is perhaps not what it could be.
“It’s definitely regarded, I’m afraid, as rather very much public sector and a drain on the prosperous South East.
“I think that both the present and last Government have done quite a lot to try to correct that. I always quote the number of Japanese companies that have come here – so there must be something right – and we’ve always had, properly-led, one of the best labour forces in the country.
“We haven’t got enough small business, though. That didn’t apply in the 19th Century when Tyneside had these families, mainly founded on coal – the Armstrongs of the world.
“We were then almost the powerhouse of the country.”
He has had an international handle on things since becoming part of the Young Presidents’ Organisation, a global group for people under 40 running large businesses.
Now graduated to sister group, the Chief Executives’ Organisation, he remains an active networker.
“You meet people who basically have been in industry from all over the world. It involves a certain amount of travel because they have meetings in various exotic places.” He met the Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi during one trip and says: “She ain’t the saint she’s made out to be by the Western Press.
“She’s extremely beautiful and she sat there, with her feet up, and said, ‘Why have you come to my country? You must not come to my country – you are supporting the regime’.
“One of us said, ‘Well, we might invest in the country’ and she exploded at that.
“We then said, ‘What about the jobs it would bring?’ and she said, ‘Oh, they’re only jobs for servants’.”
He also attended a dinner in Cuba hosted by Fidel Castro.
“There were about 60 of us on that party and we were all entertained very lavishly, and then we were all given a box of his very special cigars and a tube of what was alleged to be Cuban Viagra!”
Closer to home, establishing and becoming president of the County Durham Community Foundation is one of his proudest achievements. Foundations originated in the US and ask people to set up endowment funds.
“We have handed out in our time over £15m in grants since 1995,” said Sir Paul. “They’re mainly small grants up to £5,000 to help a community village hall or a group.”
His Lord Lieutenant duties also “keep me very much out of mischief”. He said: “One of the most interesting but sometimes difficult things is you are keeper of the rolls and chairman of the advisory committee on the appointment and the disciplining of magistrates – and the disciplining can be very tricky at times. They’re naughty boys and naughty girls!”
But after a life in the thick of it, he misses the business sharp end.
“One regrets that you’re no longer involved in the nitty-gritty of industry,” he says.
After his experiences during what he calls the Vaux tragedy, he is mistrustful of the modern corporate finance world and illustrates his point with two stories.
The first involved buying a London hotel from Sir Maxwell Joseph, known at the time as the most ruthless takeover king of his generation.
Sir Paul said: “When it came to the detail of the thing, he was as tough as hell. I went to see him eventually and said ‘Damn you, Sir Maxwell, I’ll take it on those terms’.
“He leant back and he opened his drawer and he produced a box of cigars and offered me one. I refused it, but he lit one himself, and he said, ‘Mr Nicholson, I wish you hadn’t said that, you see I had a much better offer’ – ie, he had no legal obligation at all, but he’d given me his word.”
That contrasts with the tale of “an even more famous businessman, who shall be nameless” who agreed to sell a property to a government department.
“Subsequently, someone came along with a much better offer. So what does this businessman do but ring up his pal in the government office and say, ‘Look this wasn’t a very good deal for your lot, really you shouldn’t go ahead with it’.
“That’s an interesting contrast between the old morality and what I would suspect is the new morality.”
Page 3: The Questionnaire
What car do you drive?
What’s your favourite restaurant?
Boodle’s Club in London.
Who or what makes you laugh?
My four-year-old granddaughter.
What’s your favourite book?
Churchill by Roy Jenkins.
What was the last album you bought?
What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
Was running a big company.
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?
What’s your greatest fear?
Serious injury in an accident.
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
To stick to your word.
And the worst?
To trust a corporate financier.
What’s your poison?
What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?
Times, Telegraph, Financial Times.
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
£3 per week as an articled clerk after graduating from university.
How do you keep fit?
Try to do 40 minutes aerobic exercise five times per week.
What’s your most irritating habit?
What’s your biggest extravagance?
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire?
Admire – Winston Churchill.
Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Lady Thatcher, Sir Menzies Campbell, George Bush Snr, Tony Blair.
Now would you like to be remembered?
That I helped the North East.