Paul Mackings, chief executive of Cameron Hall Developments

No stranger to hard work, Paul Mackings has enjoyed a varied and high profile career in business. Now, as chief executive of Cameron Hall Developments, he talks to Robert Gibson about one of his most ambitious projects to date, the redevelopment of Woolsington Hall

Paul Mackings
Paul Mackings

An unswerving focus on a set career objective is a rarer trait than one might imagine in the world of business, where gut instinct and chance encounters matter more than many would care to admit.

Paul Mackings, though, was clear from start: “I always wanted to be an entrepreneur.”

And it was an aspiration that blossomed at an early age, when, after working in bars to 3am, he would get up for nine-to-five shifts for a second job as a service engineer.

Even now, as chief executive of Cameron Hall Developments - the company launched by property developer and former Newcastle United chairman Sir John Hall - Paul’s no stranger long hours.

“I’m at work at 8am and often work 12 hour days,” he said.

“Even at home, I’m looking at email.

“I don’t work weekends, though. In my spare time, I love rugby, golf and time with the family.”

Certainly, he’s got a lot on his plate at the moment, with Cameron Hall Developments about to submit a full planning application to transform the derelict Woolsington Hall into a five star hotel, compete with golf course, restaurant, spa and cookery school.

The £23m project, which has met with a largely positive reception from local residents, will be funded by the construction of 70 detached executive homes to the south of the historic parkland.

Consultants estimate that if all goes to plan, the development could bring an additional £8.9m into the local and regional economy.

“Newcastle currently doesn’t have a five star hotel and for a city the size of Newcastle, this is a significant,” Paul said.

“What we’re doing here is going to be absolutely top end.

“We get a lot a lot of top end executives visiting this area and there just aren’t the facilities they are used to staying in. Football and rugby teams coming to the North East would also usually go elsewhere.”

He added that the site’s importance was enhanced by its proximity to Newcastle International Airport,

“The North East is going through a resurgence from an economic point of view,” he said.

“We need to take the facilities here to the top and the timing is right both politically and economically.

“Now’s also the time to bring a heritage asset back to life.”

Originally built as a hunting lodge, the 17th century Grade II listed Woolsington Hall, on which Capability Brown worked as landscape architect, was first bought by Sir John in 1996, with the intention that it be converted into a sporting academy for Newcastle United.

However, the plans were never implemented as NUFC went on to set up a facility in Benton.

The hall, meanwhile, lay vacant and fell on to the English Heritage At Risk register in 2000.

Ideally, Cameron Hall Developments would have sold it on, but, on failing to find a buyer after putting it on the market for six months, the company saw only one way forward.

“It was back to the drawing board and this is the only option in terms of taking this development forward,” Paul said.

“We believe in it, we’ve done a business plan and we’ve looked at all the options for rescuing this site.

“We think this is a scheme that works, it’s sympathetic to the greenbelt and it’s rescuing a heritage asset.

“This scheme brings it back to life, but you’ve got to develop something that brings the economic benefit.”

In that respect, the knock-on effects could be enormous.

The project, which will see Bellway taking on the homes aspect, will create more than 120 jobs, including construction roles, and Cameron Hall is striving to keep the work among local firms as much as possible.

Newcastle architects IDP are involved in the development, as are Darlington planning consultants England & Lyle.

For the specialist conversation aspects, John Sanders of Simpson and Brown in Edinburgh has been providing his insights, and, because of the heritage of the site, a lot of old techniques and materials will be involved in the work.

Around 20 apprenticeships are be created as a result, with Cameron Hall linking up with Newcastle College and Northumbria University to provide them.

“This is a one-off opportunity for some lucky apprentices to work on a building of historic importance,” Paul said. “There’s a need to prioritise apprentices, as they will come to us and be trained in skills specific to the business.

“We will work with them, hopefully with the promise of a job at the end of it.”

With estimates suggesting it will take 18 months to two years before profits are seen, it’s certainly not a quick win project, but Paul, who’s originally from Whitburn, knows a thing or two about getting results over the long-term.

Back in his office equipment days, for example, he secured a directorship at NEP before establishing a spin-off consumables and spare parts company, Copyline.

In 1989, then, he took a chance on buying a firm called Tyneside Waste Paper and worked hard to acquaint himself with its finer workings before concentrating on solid management.

“I knew nothing about it,” he said. “I spent six weeks on the factory floor.

“But when you get to the managing side, you realise that managing in office equipment, waste paper, nursing homes, leisure companies... It’s all the same.

“The end result is different, but the management is exactly the same.”

Paul sold the business in 1995 and, after a six month break, went into the nursing home sector, before becoming involved in professional rugby and taking on the role of chief executive firstly for West Hartlepool then for the Newcastle Falcons.

“I enjoyed it,” he said.

“Balancing the books was the hardest part, and controlling costs – because it’s very easy in professional sport to allow costs to get out of control.’’

Paul went on to work for a leisure company and when Sir John, whom he had met through his sports connections, wanted somebody to work with him on development, Paul was the natural choice.

“I joined the company and haven’t looked back since,” he said.

“Sir John is a hard act to follow.

“He developed the Metrocentre and he was the saviour of Newcastle United Football Club in the 1990s.

“Sir John always thinks big in whatever he does. He’s not a details man. He’s a visionary and I’ve learned a lot from him.”

Among the company’s major ongoing projects, one stand-out achievement has been conversion of stately home, Wynyard Hall, into a hotel that has been one of the Tees Valley’s greatest success stories.

Under the guidance of Sir John’s daughter, Wynyard Hall managing director, Alison Antonopoulos, a grand marquee that can host up to 650 people has been developed.

Now, plans are in place to enhance the walled garden, which will house the largest rose garden in Europe, along with shops and a cafe.

Planning permission has already been secured and the project is set to be completed by spring 2015.

Last year, Cameron Hall also secured work on an inland port in Doncaster, along with a new road in the town, delivering significant job creation.

And, as well as plans for 134 homes in Hartlepool, the firm has now secured planning permission for 500 homes, a health centre, shops and schools on the Wynyard Estate.

It’s all high profile work for the business, whose turnover varies year-on-year, but currently stands at around £12m.

It’s also high pressure for Paul, on whose decisions a great deal depends.

Thankfully, he’s not one for losing his cool.

“If you dwell on risk, the reality is you might have second thoughts,” he said. “Most entrepreneurs have lived on the edge at some stage and most have learned from mistakes.”

“It gets easier.

“It’s about having the confidence to work with people, but also bringing people through.

“You can’t do it all on your own; it’s impossible. It’s about how you deal with staff and issues and problems.

“I have a methodical and technical brain, which helps.”

As to his management style, he’s firm but fair, he adds, seeking a shared positive vision among those with whom he collaborate with as much as a strong work ethic.

“I enjoy projects - I’m a project man,” he said.

“I like seeing something through from scratch - creating a company, restoring Woolsington Hall.

“I would like to put my stamp on that, so that I’ll have basically been the person who has taken something that’s sat for 18 to 20 years and created something from it.

“It’s a legacy, if you like – that I had a hand in taking it forward.”

The Questionnaire

What car do you drive? Range Rover

What’s your favourite restaurant?  Crab & Lobster at Thirsk

Who or what makes you laugh? Peter Kay, Inbetweeners, most of the modern British comedians

What’s your favourite book?  The Long Walk to Freedom – Nelson Mandela

What was the last album you bought?  Michael Buble – To be Loved

What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got? Coach for England Rugby Team

If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?  Swing low sweet chariot

What’s your greatest fear? Underachieving

What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?  Take advice but go with your gut instinct

And the worst?  To take a hedging agreement with the Royal Bank of Scotland

What’s your poison? A good bottle of red wine

What newspapers do you read other than the Journal?  The Times

How do you keep fit?  Rugby refereeing and boxing

What’s your most irritating habit? OCD!

How much was your first pay packet?  £18 per week as a trainee engineer

What’s your biggest extravagance? Our children!

What historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire?  Sir Clive Woodward

How would you like to be remembered?  As a fair guy who worked hard

Which four people would you most like to dine with?  Arthur Scargill, Maggie Thatcher, Muhammad Ali and Sir Ian Botham

Journalists

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