A world of experience – and fun!

The North East Chamber of Commerce is awaiting the arrival of its new chief executive.

The North East Chamber of Commerce is awaiting the arrival of its new chief executive. Rebekah Ashby meets James Ramsbotham and talks honey bears, beer testing, mythical sea monkeys and jungle life.

When interviewing business leaders it is customary to talk about the skills agenda and the economic climate.

Meet James Ramsbotham - who is due to take over the top job at the North East Chamber of Commerce next month - and you'll get all that, but also an unending catalogue of anecdotes about his colourful life, including being bitten by a scorpion, the Canadian Olympics, imaginary sea monkeys and living with Aborigines.

For the current vice-chairman of County Durham construction company Esh Group, who becomes chief executive of the region's largest member organisation on July 17, spent a decade working all over the world in the Royal Green Jackets.

Despite living in some extraordinary places, Ramsbotham - whose grandfather was Suffragan Bishop of Durham and Bishop of Wakefield, father was one of Britain's highest- ranking Army officers and whose grandmother owned Belsay Hall before it was taken over by English Heritage - has always called the North-East home.

He begins: "I was born in West Germany because my father (Lord David Ramsbotham, the former chief inspector of prisons) was a soldier, but I was christened in Corbridge and my parents are from the North-East.

"It was funny actually because I remember being called up for German national service and having to explain that I was already in the British Army. My father ended up as number two of the British Army, so can you imagine?"

"I lived at Brockbushes (now the farm shop at Corbridge) until I was 16 and we moved out as bulldozers moved in to build the new A69."

Ramsbotham's first job before he joined up was as a beer tester for the Herforder Pils Brewery in Germany.

He says: "My father was working in North-West Germany and there was three choices for employment - a chocolate factory, a furniture factory and a brewery.

"My first job there was as a beer tester and I thought `haven't I landed in the right place?'.

"But, unfortunately, the way you test German beer is to get a one litre glass and a one litre bottle and you have to get the whole bottle into the glass within three pours, waiting for the froth to go down, within plus or minus 20 seconds of 14 minutes, so there was actually no tasting involved.

"I had to clean the vats and, because I was working with two men who had worked there for too many years, they couldn't get through the hole so they would make me go in.

"I used to have to stand there brushing it with acid while they poked their heads through the hole, telling me how to do it and drinking beer.

"When I think about the health and safety of it - I was wearing a T-shirt and working with this acid spraying all over the place. It would never happen today."

Next stop, jungle warfare school in Brunei, on the North-West coast of Borneo, where he completed an instructors course.

The 46-year-old smiles: "It (the jungle) is a most extraordinary environment to live in, I absolutely loved it. People think the jungle is really dense with thick foliage but there are big, huge trees that grow to massive heights and all you really have on the ground is dead leaves.

"So, you live in permanent twilight and people ask you why you come out the jungle bleach white and you haven't got a suntan.

"When it got dark, if you put your hand out in front of you, you couldn't see it. It was true darkness. But, from a soldiering perspective, it meant you would get a lot of sleep because there was no way you could work in that.

"The most extraordinary thing is your senses get completely reversed. Normally our primary sense is sight but there you can hear people quite a long way away, but the most peculiar thing is how heightened your sense of smell becomes.

"If someone entered the jungle who had recently washed you could smell them half a mile away. It was extraordinary."

Whilst in the jungle, Ramsbotham, who now lives in Wolsingham, County Durham, with wife Carolyn and children Charlotte, 18, and Matthew, 15, made friends with scorpions, snakes and gibbons and had a rather unfortunate encounter with a honey bear.

He recalls: "The main monkeys you get are gibbons and they are such fun. If you put up a shelter for the night and they were in the trees above, you knew you would get no sleep.

"They would be eating nuts and if one hit the shelter they knew you were there and would pelt things off it all night - they thought it was great fun.

"We lost a Singaporean for two days once when he got confronted by a honey bear. We had old radios in back packs with huge antennae and the aerial hit a honey bear in the tree above.

"He jumped down and the honey bear, which had enormous claws and was very angry, fled one way and the Singapore guy went the other. He must have been scared, it took us two days to find him."

His time in the Green Jackets took him to the Far East, Central US, Mediterranean, Western Europe, Northern Ireland and North US.

He says: "One of my favourite memories was when we got sponsored a huge amount of money because we came up with an expedition to go and find a mythical sea creature which we called Stella's sea monkeys.

"There had been a drunk sailor who said he had seen one once about 200 years ago, so that was good enough for us," he laughs.

He took a three-year break from the forces to read geography at Durham University which he says was "good fun", even though he confesses he didn't come out with a "startling degree".

Later his career took him to Shrewsbury in Shropshire, training junior soldiers who joined the Army when aged just 16.

"They weren't allowed to go on operational duty until they were 18 and most hadn't been away from home, so we tried to keep them busy the whole time because one of the biggest problems was homesickness.

"A friend of mine was working at the Jockey Club at the time and I rang him and asked if it would be possible to bring 40 young soldiers to come and help with the Grand National.

"Because they go round Aintree twice they have to re-build the fences after the first lap, so he jumped at it. It was cleared with PR and the unions and we agreed not to wear uniform.

"We arrived on the Wednesday and worked for them on the Thursday and Friday but a national newspaper picked up on the fact that in 1983 animal rights protestors had set fire to The Chair in protest, had seen the Army camp in the middle of the course, put two and two together and come up with 36.

"The headline read SAS Guard The Grand National and we were called to a press conference. I took the youngest looking 16-year-old with me - he looked about 12 - and said `here's your SAS'.

"At the end of the press conference, one of the journalists pointed out of the window and asked what a JCB was doing digging an Army Land Rover out of Becher's Brook.

"Two of my corporals had got a little bit happy the night before and decided to have a little drive around the course as though they were the TV cameras and discovered that Becher's Brook was exactly the same depth and breadth as a Land Rover," he laughs.

"An MP then asked a parliamentary question in the House and there ended up being a full ministerial inquiry for something I had tried to do to prevent my soliders being homesick."

At the end of that year, Ramsbotham married wife Carolyn, who sits on the Durham Area Tourism Partnership, and in 1989 decided it was "time to grow up" and left the Army.

For the next 15 years he worked for Barclays bank, in the North-East, West Midlands and latterly in London.

Ramsbotham, whose mother was a Dickinson, later of the family behind the Dickinson Dees law firm, says: "Barclays offered me a good deal and I had no experience of the commercial world at all; banking was a way to pick that up.

"They offered me a flexible programme and based in the North-East which is where we wanted to come back to. The North-East was home.

"The thing about banking is you are going into a different business every day and learning something new."

His Barclays era allowed him to "wangle" courses at Harvard, until County Durham construction company Esh Group offered him his current role as vice-chairman two years ago.

Ramsbotham says Esh, which has grown turnover to £100m and its workforce to 1,000 in just six years, has been very supportive of his impending move to the Chamber.

He says: "Ten years of banking gave me huge experience of every type of business in the region and so for a membership organisation, where you have every type and range of company, that was important.

"My experience with Esh has also been really powerful and I am also chair of the North-East Learning & Skills Council.

"Skills are so important for our future and the Chamber is all about the Aspire campaign that we do.

"With the North East Public Procurement Forum (which he also chairs), I have learned how to improve the way the private and public sector should work together so I hope my experience brings something new to the party."

The questionnaire

What car do you drive?

VW Passat estate.

What's your favourite restaurant?

Bistro 21 in Durham.

Who or what makes you laugh?

People who use humour to defuse a "situation".

What's your favourite book?

High Endeavours written by Miles Clarke.

What's your favourite film?

Chariots of Fire.

What was the last album you bought?

Back to Bedlam by James Blunt.

What's your ideal job, other than your current one?

Chief executive of the North East Chamber of Commerce (due to take up the post next month).

If you had a talking parrot, what's the first thing you'd teach it to say?

"Audax, sit" (Audax is the Ramsbotham's black Labrador).

What's your greatest fear?

Sleeping through my alarm clock.

What's the best piece of business advice you have ever received?

Give people what they aspire to, not what they need.

And the worst?

Trust me.

What's your poison?

What newspaper do you read (apart from The Journal)?

The Week.

How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?

400 Deutsche Mark for being a beer tester at the Herforder Pils Brewery in Germany.

How do you keep fit?

Outdoor activities.

What's your most irritating habit?

Never sitting still.

What's your biggest extravagance?

Sailing

With which historical or fictional character do you most identify?

Richard Sharpe (from the Bernard Cornwell books or the television series starring Sean Bean).

And with which four famous people would you most like to dine?

Ellen MacArthur, Keith Emerson, Bill Gates and Norman Foster.

How would you like to be remembered?

Positively.

CV

Educated

Mowden Hall School, Stocksfield, Northumberland;

Harrow School, London: A-levels: Economics, History and Geography;

Durham University: BA Geography.

1978 - Commissioned into Royal Green Jackets - served in the Far East, Central US, Mediterranean, Western Europe, Northern Ireland and North US.

1989- Joined Barclays Bank North-East.

1999 - Barclays West Midlands.

2001 - Barclays head office in London.

2004 - present - Vice chairman, Esh Group.

Extra activities:

Chairman, North East Learning & Skills Council.

Chairman, 14-19 Task Group of Regional Skills Partnership.

Chair, North East Public Procurement Forum.

Council member, Newcastle University.

Council member, Durham Cathedral Chapter Finance.

Trustee, Common Purpose UK.

Trustee, Gillian Dickinson Charitable Trust.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer