Business people and organisations across the globe, from Mongolia to the United States, China to Brazil, are benefiting from the expertise of an inspirational individual who spreads his message of change from his home on the seafront at Tynemouth.
He is Maurice Duffy, the lifeforce behind business consultancy Blackswan, which punches way above its weight in the world of organisational transformation. Now operating in 22 countries, big-name clients include Rio Tinto in Australia, Coca-Cola and the National Health Service.
Blackswan turns over a figure in the millions and Duffy is able to call on literally hundreds of high-profile movers and shakers to help him deliver his work.
And it is all masterminded from a mid-Victorian villa in the popular coastal village of Tynemouth where he relocated his operation.
Duffy explained: “We were based in Grey Street in Newcastle in very nice offices but we were lonely. No one ever came to visit us on the basis that we have very few customers in the North East – less than 5% of our business is in the NE less than 20% of our business is in the UK – and we sitting there in palatial offices.
“I came to the conclusion that I spend my life on the road, I come back to Tynemouth, I then drive into town for half an hour, have to park, go to the office, come out. So I was thinking why not just move the office?”
Now his workspace takes up a large proportion of the three-storey building, the acquisition of which is itself an indication of the determination that drives this genial Irishman.
His business partner and wife Karen Lee is from the North East and when living elsewhere the couple would regularly return to their base in one of the flats that the building was then divided into. “I loved the house so much that I said I was going to buy the other four apartments,” Duffy, 58, recalled. “Karen said, ‘There are people living in them who might not want to sell them to us’ but eventually we acquired the whole house. It took about five years.”
He employed the same direct approach when he found himself living in an area where he knew no one.
He said: “When I came to the North East, one of things I thought was that I don’t know anyone and it was difficult, I’m a gregarious individual and like interaction and I was sitting there, not doing business, not tending to meet many people, so I decided I would set up a network.
“I got distracted but came back to it two years ago. I was thinking I needed some friends so created the North East British Irish network and it’s been fantastic.”
From County Mayo himself, he called upon people in the North East who were Irish or from an Irish background, among them Paul Callaghan of the Leighton Group, Mary Coyle of the NHS, PR consultant Daniel O’Mahoney and Labour Party stalwart Chris Lennie.
“They said, ‘Why are we here?’ and I said ‘I want to have a party and a St Patrick’s Day parade - and create some friends’. It’s gone very well. We’re running an event in the Hilton for about 400 people in March and we raised about £15,000 last year for charities.
“The network has grown and grown quite substantially so the point being that if there’s not something there and I want something, then I’ll just go and create it. I’ve got a four-year-old and have rejoined the PTA at his school. I don’t know whether they think I’m a force of nature or just dangerous, they can’t quite make up their minds yet. I’m running Santa’s Grotto at the Christmas fair.”
Duffy and Lee previously worked together at Canadian telecommunications giant Nortel Networks but left in 1999 to set up the business then known as GFI Blackswan.
“We had offices in 15 different capitals around the world, one significant contract and it was just marvellous, and I was thinking, ‘This world of business is really easy’.
“We had a fantastic time, absolutely marvellous, until the world ran out of money in 2002 and then that’s when we discovered how things could go terribly wrong. We learned a lot from 1999 to 2002, we made shedloads of money and the business grew, and grew quite substantially, and probably grew too fast. A lot of what I do these days is based on what I learned in that period when I learned about what business was really all.
“We came out and we were a recruitment business and we grew from a recruitment business into a kind of HR consultancy and grew from an HR consultancy into a change business and we grew from a change business to a transformation business so it’s kind of evolved and grown over a period of time.
“We work with some of the top executives, some ceos of large global companies that are big brand names. Our biggest client is Rio Tinto and we’re just in the process of signing the contract for the third time, that’s one of our biggest coaching contracts.”
Blackswan is currently working with Indian outsourcing company Genpact and is also in China and the US: “We’re running the programme in Mandarin in China, running it in the languages of India and running it in the us and that’s for the top tier of their organisations, so again it’s a fantastic fast-growing business and to an extent we’re lucky to be part of it.
“We run Rio Tinto out of Australia, run Genpact out of India; they have no idea where Newcastle is, never mind Tynemouth.”
Some 18 months Blackswan got involved with organisational change in the behemoth that is the NHS.
Duffy recalled: “They never liked us, we were too commercial, too fast, much too modern, and 18 months ago the NHS kind of woke up to the fact that, guess what, we need to get modern, we need to get commercial, get ourselves focused and they have been hugely receptive and the feedback is unbelievable.
“I feel if you have power and you have to use it, you’ve lost. The best and greatest leaders are those who go to their teams and say, ‘I don’t know the answer’. It’s understanding that you don’t always have to be right or be in charge. what people absolutely want is engagement.
“Competence and skill have little to do with productivity. The greater the level of engagement, then the greater the productivity. When we talk about the NHS, if we put the people in the nhs first and they are engaged, then the experiences the patients will have will be extraordinarily different but what we’re tying to do is regulate the nhs, impose a set of structures without understanding the consequences.
“You cannot suddenly say, ‘We’re going to have an entrepreneurial business ... the mindset of the individuals, the types of leaders, it’s bloody chaos and then we say it’s chaos we need more regulation.
“I don’t make assumptions that all solutions can be applied to every problem, my assumption being that the uniqueness of individuals ensures that everything may be the same but everything can be different so I work on this basis.”
His business is change and Duffy practises what he preaches. He is a voracious reader, sucking up information from many sources and never standing still, or even wanting to. He admits to relentlessly driving himself on in search of the next new experience.
“I got into what I do by sheer accident as most things in my life,” he said.
“I’ve worked in banking, I’ve run manufacturing sites, run teams of sales people, been in HR. My last role in my kind of corporate life was in Nortel Networks when I was European HR director.
“I decided I wanted to leave corporate. I’d run big global sales team in 103 countries around the world, managed big outsourcing businesses for companies like HP, run HR organisations and I’d had enough so I took my tie off and I’ve never worn it since.”
He tells a story to explain the ethos behind Blackswan, which owns its name to the fact that until Australia was discovered, black swans were unknown.
“A turkey is born and thinks, ‘This is a great life, I live somewhere nice, the hay is hot, the farmer feeds me every day and I can look forward and say I have a great future’. Until December 24, the point being that you cannot extend the past into the future. The phrase I use is the past is a place of reference, not a place of residence.
“A lot of what we do is based on the black swan theory, the change journey and what it looks like, why people and businesses are not successful.
“Fifty years ago 70% of change programmes failed and the data is the same now. We haven’t learned anything, we are applying the wrong practices. You cannot fix today’s problems with the thinking that got you there, you’ve got to apply a different set of thinking.
“An example in relation to business. Over the past 40 years not one business has outperformed the stock exchange. You will say, ‘Come on, there must be, these are businesses with very bright people. No one runs the stock exchange, it is unregulated, unmanaged, how can that outperform these very clever businesses’
“Simple reason, the minute the stock exchange smells failure, you’re gone, you’re dead. What we do, the minute we smell failure, we reinvest in it because we have a commitment to it and continue to pour money into it so the bigger the commitment we have, the more we put in, even though we know it’s failing.
“And even though we know it’s holding us back from moving forward, we’ll continue to do it again and again, especially if we’ve made the decision that has caused that problem. Then we won’t give up, we’ll try and turn it around. We carry and anchor ourselves with all this baggage when the very first thing you have to do in change is to unlearn to learn and you have to be the change you want to see. So, long story short, that’s what we do.”
He has a team of 400 people on what he calls his bench “a highly-intelligent, high-profile group of individuals who we work with on an regular and irregular basis and who work on our behalf”.
“Our solution to our clients is that we won’t give you our people, what we will give you is a solution and if that’s our people so be it, or if it’s a draw-down from what the world can give us, then we will do that as well.”
Free time is spent running, managing his son’s football team and studying for a PhD at Sunderland University. Such is his profile and success that the only person suitable to mentor him was the pro vice-chancellor John Macintryre, a fact he finds amusing.
“What I’m studying I can describe as, ‘Can we truly identify the DNA of organisations and track those through the evolution of the business itself’. They sent me to an induction course and I was there with all the 20-year-olds but I love it, just love it, it’s consumed me.
“It’s hugely frustrating because its alien to everything I believe in; it’s highly structured, highly regulated, highly bureaucratic, self-centred, egotistical, all of those things. John said, ‘You’re going to find it so difficult’ and I said, ‘I’m going to find it so new’ and what I’m discovering is that I can operate within that environment.
“There’s not much point in me trying to educate other people about how to handle change if I’m incapable of dealing with it myself, so, for instance, going on the pta is a challenge in its own right in a small community. I’m used to clicking my fingers and things happen and you can’t do that, you have to sit and listen but again it’s educational and I think it tells you something about yourself and most of the things I have learned I have learned from the mistakes I have made.”
He spends much time travelling and loves his journeys on the East Coast Main Line, seeing them as an opportunity to read the newspapers and people-watch. With his experience of so much time spent out of the region, and operating within a global marketplace, Duffy’s views on the North East’s business community may make uncomfortable reading for some of its members.
He said: “I remember being at a network meeting here. This guy said to me, ‘In this room there are 100 people - cheese any of them off and you’ll never do business in the North East’. And I said, ‘I’m going to cheese every one of them off’, the point being that I find it (the regional business scene) insular, difficult to break into.
“The reason I live there is that it’s a fantastic place to live, I think it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world, I find the people are just unbelievably good, great people, but I do find that in the business community we’re locked in a past of needing to get grants or handouts or to being on the receiving end.
“Well, stand up and fight. I don’t want to denigrate a whole population, there are individuals doing remarkable things. But I also think there is a culture we have to break through, a culture we sometimes are not as proud as we should be, as outward-looking as we should be, sometimes too wedded to a past on the way things were, rather than the way things should be and sometimes the region needs to be a region rather than a fragmented group of individual committees that all have an agenda, working to a particular plan, and I’m sure working very hard, but it’s not co-ordinated, it’s not cohesive and it doesn’t represent the region.
“If it was in my gift, I would say, ‘Let’s stop thinking about Scotland or Wales going independent, I think the North East should go independent, stick up a Geordie flag and say, come on, we’re brave enough’.
“Yes, the infrastructure could be better but do we really want London, do we want an M25. Yes, we need to bring the region forward but we will not do it as a group of isolated communities, we will only do it as a region and until you have that regional voice, until we can declare and speak with one voice, then we’re always going to be picked off and so busy in competition with others that people sitting in London or elsewhere will not hear us because we speaking with such a small voice.”
His team is 30-strong in Tynemouth with another 60 around the world in addition to his consultants and the business has grown through word of mouth.
Duffy said: “We have a greater brand and a greater presence than we perhaps deserve because we’re very well-known but well-known internationally rather than in the UK.
“I’m surrounded by what I call kids, exceptionally bright kids. Karen keeps telling me not to call them kids, they 30-year-olds – and I want to create an environment that allows them to express themselves, not create an environment where they do what I say. And I’ve no idea where they’re going to take me but it will be fun.
“I would like to say that it’s a busy life but I think I’m extraordinarily lucky, I can sit here and chat, I would have done a lot of work by 9am this morning but I don’t have to, I can decide what I want to do,
“I do the things I want to do so nothing is hard, I’m having a fantastic time, it’s a good life. I feel incredibly lucky that I have made a lot of mistakes and learned from them and been given the opportunity to go back and do it again.”
What car do you drive?
What’s your favourite restaurant?
My favourite place to go is the wonderful Crusoe’s on the beach at Tynemouth.
Who or what makes you laugh?
My four-year-old son.
What’s your favourite book?
At this moment Daniel Kahneman, Think Fast and Slow.
What was the last album you bought?
Folk Tale by Christy Moore.
What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
Politician for Labour.
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?
Be the change you want to see.
What’s your greatest fear?
Not having enough time to do all the things I want to do.
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
If you are not making a mistake a week, you are not stretching yourself. Jeffrey A Joerres, CEO Manpower.
And the worst?
Take your time.
What’s your poison?
Ahhh - Guinness when in Ireland. Red wine when I am trying to be professional.
What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?
Financial Times and Twitter.
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
Working on club doors at £3 an hour.
How do you keep fit?
run with two big dogs on Tynemouth beach.
What’s your most irritating habit?
Talking, talking, talking.
What’s your biggest extravagance?
Gadgets - always looking for new and exciting ones in the marketplace.
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire?
Reading Nelson Mandela, Gandhi and Mother Teresa books again, I am always humbled.
Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Bill Clinton, Aung San Suu Ky, Bill Shankly and Mother Teresa.
How would you like to be remembered?
Someone who was always willing to make the effort.