AS MIDDLESBROUGH boss John Wright marks the end of his first year at the helm of the Federation of Small Businesses with a tour of duty in Helmand province, Afghanistan, SUE SCOTT discovers what makes the Cleveland adventurer tick.
IT SOUNDS mighty incongruous hearing a man representing the hard core of UK capitalism citing with some pride his years spent serving on the national executive of a major trades union.
But John Wright is full of beguiling and surprising contradictions - much like the Cleveland that shaped his upbringing and informed his character.
A self-confessed adrenalin junkie, Wright thrives in the political scrum, but, he says, he “cannot stand at any price bullies or people who take advantage of their position in life to lord it over others or belittle them”.
Lucky then that he’s only met “one or two” at Westminster - although, with more diplomacy than they probably deserve, he declines to reveal who they might be.
He’s on first name terms with the PM and the opposition leader and has even survived a grilling from the Today Programme’s John Humphreys. But he admits that the first year as chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses has been more stressful than he imagined.
During one eight-week period, he spent just two nights in his own bed in Guisborough, putting a strain on the Middlesbrough-based training company he bought in the late 1990s and probably testing the patience of second wife, Pam, whom he married three years ago.
A fellow National Association of Local Government Officers (Nalgo) officer when Wright was chief legal adviser to the former Cleveland County Council, she now holds the reins at CATC training while Wright is pursued by a pack of press and 211,000 federation members seeking advice and comment on everything from the insanity of council parking charges in rural high streets to the strength of the euro.
“The federation is a trade union for small businesses and I don’t care what government is in power, I will give them a hard time if they are not helping to create an environment to help them,” he says, slipping into classic shop steward pose.
“I vividly remember the steel workers’ strike, the nurses’ strike, the social workers’ strike and the miners’ strike ... Teesside has been used to difficulties and we’ve been pretty good at overcoming them,” he says.
His own life, too, has been something of a triumph over adversity. A bright child born into a self-respecting, self- made family - his mother and father ran a small chain of boarding houses and fish and chip shops on the North-east coast - he was sent to prep and then boarding school before studying law in London. It was then that he learned the hardest business lesson of all.
“They went bankrupt,” he says. “During the cod wars with Iceland, the price of fish went up dramatically. The same year we had a bad potato harvest. Instead of putting the prices up, they tried to be fair to the customers and that led them into difficulties.”
Years later, the experience has at least brought him closer to the issues that face Federation members day in, day out.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about small business,” he says, especially among those who hold it in their power to promote or destroy Britain’s biggest commercial community. As he repeatedly points out, 90% of the 4.5m small businessess in the UK employ fewer than 10 people, but generate 50% of the country’s GDP and keep 53% of the working population gainfully employed.
“One misconception is that small businesses make a lot of money and do not have to work very hard - that’s 120% wrong. I have some members who work 60, 70, 80 hours a week, including weekends, to possibly make less than they could earn in an average job.”
Which begs the question: why do it? “They want to be in charge of their life,” he says simply. It’s a scary place to be and their courage should be fostered and rewarded, he says, not beaten out of them by a culture that despises failure.
“My real desire is that the education system should be encouraging more young people on Teesside who are quite capable of running their own business, whether that’s web design or window cleaning. And should they not be successful the first time I don’t think that reflects that they have failed - it reflects that it was a learning stage.”
At 52, Wright discovered only recently that he’d unconsciously spent most of his life overcoming his own hurdle - dyslexia. Ironically, it was only diagnosed when he began running training courses to help others identify the problem. He sees dyslexia as a blessing, not a curse and it’s put him in some illustrious company.
“Richard Branson is dyslexic, Leonardo da Vinci was dyslexic, Einstein was dyslexic. It made us all lateral thinkers. So, you see, when you overcome, it can be an advantage.”
Wright has no hesitation in signing up for a challenge. He’s just back from Helmand province in Afghanistan with the military press corps, promoting the work of reservists and encouraging more employers to support staff who want to volunteer. The majority of the 42,000 reservists and TA personnel deployed as soldiers, naval and air crew are employees or principals of small businesses and, he says, he has “tremendous admiration” for them.
“Going to Helmand province was my way of showing my personal appreciation and the federation’s for the work they do.”
And he was even more chuffed when it involved having his blood tested for the first time. “Guess what it came back as?” he teases. “B positive. I thought that was pretty appropriate.”