Paul McEldon, Chief Executive of North East BIC

The North East Business & Innovation Centre (BIC) is synonymous with enterprise in the North East helping create more than 6,000 jobs since it opened in 1994. Aranda Rahbarkouhi speaks to Paul McEldon who was appointed as chief executive about his passion for enterprise.

Paul McEldon
Paul McEldon

My first experience of enterprise came at the age of 17 when my dad, aged 50, decided that he’d had enough of engineering and was going to set up his own restaurant.

It was a really exciting time for the whole family and I enjoyed getting involved. It was really inspiring to see him make such a big change to something he’d never done before having come from a shipbuilding background,” says Paul McEldon, commenting on what first inspired his passion for ‘doing business’.

McEldon’s route into the world of enterprise was fairly clear cut from an early age. He embarked on a degree in accountancy and financial analysis at Newcastle University in 1984 getting the highest mark on his second year accountancy paper which guaranteed him a job with KPMG in Newcastle.

“I always had a passion and a head for figures. My first job while I was at university was at a bookmakers because I liked working out the odds. If I hadn’t gone into accountancy I think I would have ended up a turf accountant,” he commented.

After university McEldon took up the role with KPMG where he spent six years working across the auditing, corporate recovery and tax departments.

“It was a really valuable experience. I was working with large companies like NEI and Bellway and was getting a real insight into business in the most obvious sense of the word. I was able to get a feel for what worked and what didn’t.”

In 1994, a secondment to the Sunderland City Training & Enterprise Council (TEC), one of 70 national government funded schemes responsible for the delivery of modern apprenticeship programmes, marked the beginning of McEldon’s career in enterprise and business support.

When the scheme came to a natural end in 2001, McEldon took over the running of the BIC in its current guise, where he became responsible for a team of 30 and a 14-acre site.

McEldon said: “The centre is a lasting legacy of the TEC programme. We continued delivering business support and grew the site to what it is today – the BIC is now home to a wide range of businesses from bio-science companies to software firms and companies with a low carbon agenda to outsourcing specialists.”

Indeed, the BIC is a real hub for enterprise in all shapes and sizes. The business space across the site ranges from 6000 sq ft industrial units to 150 sq ft office spaces, so is ideal for businesses starting-up, expanding as well as for well-established businesses.

Currently 92 percent full, the highest rate of occupancy in the last five years, the BIC is home to 140 businesses from a diverse range of industries that employ over 1000 people between them.

The BIC itself now employs 52 staff including a team of start-up advisers equipped with the specialist knowledge and skills to help businesses to start up and grow, both on site and across Wearside.

A recently announced merger with TEDCO in South Tyneside will see the two agencies joining forces to create a powerhouse for enterprise support in the North East, extending the BIC’s reach into South Tyneside, North Tyneside and Darlington.

“The BIC is dedicated to helping businesses explore innovative and enterprising opportunities and TEDCO has a superb reputation in delivering start-up support. Collectively the north east enterprise agencies helped to create over 2,000 new businesses last year and by bringing the BIC and TEDCO together we feel we can do more to support fledging firms as well as established businesses in the region,” commented McEldon.

Another important part of McEldon’s BIC remit is overseeing the Innovation Programme, a project which matches businesses with the potential to innovate and become more competitive with specialists. The programme, which McEldon was instrumental in shaping has been up and running for a year and has created around 60 jobs to date.

But while this particular programme and the wider work of the BIC team is clearly reaping dividends, McEldon says that the biggest challenge of his work is “not being able to do more”.

“As a commercial organisation this is something we have been able to work around, developing new initiatives such as the Interim Sales Director Programme and supporting the Centre for Digital Business.

“Both these projects are dedicated to supporting established SMEs but more than this they are also designed to help the region prosper and we are therefore delighted to be associated with them.

“We recently led a debate on barriers to innovation and growth in business which involved leaders from both the public and private sector. Sessions like this are invaluable as they help us to shape our own agenda and it is own impartiality which enables us to do this. As a result of this particular event one of key areas we will be focusing on in the autumn is graduate retention in the region,” said McEldon.

In addition to his work with the BIC, McEldon is involved with several organisations all linked to shaping enterprise in North East England, helping to ensure that as much resource as possible is channelled into the region.

McEldon chairs the regional enterprise network group NEEAL and recently became national chair of the National Enterprise Network (NEN).

“Being involved with enterprise at a national level enables me to help shape thinking and policy, representing the North East on a national platform,” McEldon commented.

And with three sons aged between 18 and 27 as his motivation, he’s recently taken on a new role as a board member for Sunderland College, which provides an opportunity to influence education in Sunderland.

“Education is absolutely fundamental to the ongoing development of the city’s workforce – whether that is school-leavers looking to further their education with A-Level studies and vocational studies, or those already working taking a course to enhance their skills. Aligning education to the needs of industry is paramount, and that is something I am well placed to take forward,” said McEldon.

“The role also gives me the opportunity to promote entrepreneurship into the mindset from an early age, positioning self-employment as a very realistic career option,” he added.

And, in a role that falls outside of the enterprise arena, McEldon is non-executive director of the Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust, one of the largest Mental Health and Learning Disability Trusts in England.

“I’ve been able to utilise my business decision making skills in a completely different environment and the experience has also been beneficial to my work at the BIC. It’s really rewarding to be able to help shape the important work of the trust,” said McEldon. With so many commitments aside from the day job of overseeing the running of the BIC, it’s surprising McEldon finds time for outside interests, however his lifelong commitment to Sunderland Football Club (SAFC) is unwavering, having been a season ticket holder for the past 30 years.

“I used to go to all of the away games too along with my sons, but as they’ve got older they’ve developed their own interests, and the constant disappointment of losing matches is making it a much harder sell!”

So, what’s next for McEldon and the BIC? “What we’re doing clearly works but we’re always looking for ways to improve our offer. Last year we went through Customer First accreditation which was a really valuable experience, helping us to take a step back and really review the customer experience. We’ll keep working hard to ensure that businesses based here or coming to us for support continue to get the very best experience. There’s a 75 percent survival rate after three years for our start up clients, which is beyond the national average. The BIC is very much a community and by working with new and established businesses alike, we are able to offer advice to businesses at any stage and I believe this is fundamental to our success.

“I still admire the bravery of people who set up in business. There’s definitely been a change in culture and attitude towards self-employment over the past few years. The fact that the BIC, home to businesses from emerging industries like software, creative and bio-sciences, is built on a former shipyard site just goes to show just how far things have changed in the city of Sunderland and in North East England.”

The Questionnaire

What car do you drive? 

Nissan QASHQUI – helping the local economy!

What’s your favourite restaurant? 

I don’t have one as such, although I am very partial to a nice brasserie so I am really looking forward to the new restaurant opening at the National Glass Centre in Sunderland.

Who or what makes you laugh?
My three sons.  When they get together it is impossible not to.  I also saw Jason Cook at the final night of the inaugural Sunderland Comedy festival, he was very good.

What’s your favourite book?

This is a really tricky question as it changes constantly.  The last book I read was ‘The Psychopath Test’ by Jon Ronson - a surprisingly high number of CEOs and government leaders have these traits.  It was very eye opening.

What was the last album you bought?

I honestly can’t remember.  I much prefer to see live acts, and in the past year I’ve seen Stiff Little Fingers, The Damned and Big Country.

What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?

Playing for Sunderland AFC.

If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say? 
Keep smiling.

What’s your greatest fear?
Something bad happening to my kids

What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Maintain positive relationships in business, you never know where you’ll come across people again in future. 

And the worst?
Don’t worry, things will be fine.

What’s your poison?
A nice cold lager.

What newspapers do you read other than The Journal?

The Observer on Sunday.

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

Working in a bookmakers in Gateshead during university being paid £20 per day.

How do you keep fit?

I fail miserably – a running machine in my bedroom acts more like a clothes horse.

What’s your most irritating habit?
You’ll have to ask other people

What’s your biggest extravagance?
Probably spending time and money following Sunderland Football Club around the country

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

Joe Strummer from The Clash

Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?

Joe Strummer, Jesus (to see if he was who he said he was), Halle Berry and with this guest list the final place would have to be reserved for my dad as he loved good company and as a former restaurateur would have ensured the menu was a good one. 


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