'We were hit hard in recession - but Newcastle is a city on the up': Meet the man charged with making the city thrive

As firms vote to back NE1 Ltd for a second term, chief executive Sean Bullick explains the small team's big ambitions for Newcastle

Chief Executive for NE1 Ltd Sean Bullick
Chief Executive for NE1 Ltd Sean Bullick

When Sean Bullick returned to Newcastle eight years ago it looked immensely different from the city where he’d spent his student days and met his future wife.

The passionate Geordie folk were just the same but the days of heavy industry in the surrounding areas over and a very new city had emerged.

The Quayside had been reborn, a vibrant nightlife drew in people from all over the UK and further afield, new business sectors had emerged and a transformation of the city centre was also taking place.

The city may have been pipped to the post by Liverpool to become 2008 European Capital of Culture, but with improving transport networks and increased flights into the international airport, Newcastle and the North East had become a European regional capital destination.

And Sean was about to embark on a new mission to officially reinstate the greatness of Newcastle city centre, as the leader of the then City Centre Partnership (CCP).

Soon after, Newcastle became the 90th Business Improvement District (BID) in the UK and one of the most ambitious, with the centre containing more businesses per square mile than any other improvement district – more than 3,300 in all.

A concept first launched in Toronto in 1970, the BID scheme transferred to this side of the pond when legislation was drawn up in 2003, as a public-private partnership in which businesses in a defined area elected to pay an additional tax – 1% of their business rates – in order to fund improvements to their trading environment over a five-year period.

Five years on after NE1 was created to drive the Newcastle BID and the results are there for all to see.

Driven by Sean’s small expert team, a cleaner, greener, safer and more attractive city centre has played host to all manner of events including Restaurant Week, the Zapcat Grand Prix, Fashion Week and arguably the biggest economical success, Alive after Five, in which, since October 2010 NE1 launched permanent late night opening with shops open until 8pm weekdays and 7pm Saturdays with thousands of free parking spaces.

The private company has introduced street rangers, bike rental as well as steering the £20m Central Station redevelopment and the construction of the Newcastle City Marina on the River Tyne.

It’s a fantastic achievement for the six-strong team and Sean, who chose to make Newcastle the focus of his family life and career having already lived and work in a host of diverse and interesting places.

Edinburgh-born and Hampshire raised, Sean took a history and politics degree at Newcastle University, before taking a law conversion course at Newcastle Polytechnic, leaving in 1991 to run his own private practice in London for 10 years.

He then joined Berkshire-based media technology company Quantel as a company solicitor, commuting from London and travelling around Europe as part of his job, but his interests were primarily cultural and historical, a passion which led him to the National Museum Directors Conference.

“I had to bring the 29 national collections together and we quite successfully secured money from government,” said Sean.

“It was all very interesting legal issues and was also about getting 29 different organisations to work together, so in some ways not that different from what I do now – getting 1,400 businesses to work together with a mutual interest in projects.

“I took a sabbatical in France, initially for a year, working with the same organisations, and that was extended to two years.

“We were based in Chinon, in the Loire Valley and it’s everything you think of – lush rolling vistas, vineyards, chateaus.

“It was idyllic. To be honest I could have merrily stayed there.

“But we were looking to come back to the UK. The prospect of bringing up a couple of kids in a flat in London wasn’t appealing, and we’d both been students here so thought ‘ah yes, what about Newcastle?’

“It was a great city with countryside and coastline, and that made it ideal to bring up a family, so we looked for jobs – and here we are. And we love it.”

When NE1 Ltd first began work it was a two-man operation, Sean and Steve Patterson, the head of communications.

The firm is headquartered at Milburn House on Dean Street, a magnificent building with intricate and majestic architectural details that epitomises all that John Dobson and Richard Grainger set out to create, and indeed NE1’s aims.

Today, the private company has grown to seven in their part of the building, and a team of 20 Street Rangers, visible in and around the city centre on a daily basis, is increased according to larger events.

During the first period – 2009 to 2014 – 60% of businesses gave the scheme a vote of confidence, and turnout topped just 52%.

Now the firm is embarking on a second five-year period and confidence has grown among the city centre firms.

The ‘yes’ vote increased to 78% with a turnout of 62% – a firm stamp of approval for NE1.

Sean said: “I think the first period worked well. We have obviously developed over the last five years and we have demonstrated that we can deliver.

“We delivered credibility as an organisation but in doing that, we delivered returns on investment for business. “Alive after Five, for example, has been worth around £250m to the city economy since October 2010.

“There were some who have voted no, such as national chains who have a policy of voting no.

“Situation arose where many at a local level said they would like to participate and pay but group said no. Some were also looking to make savings so said they couldn’t afford to pay the levy, but only a small number don’t pay because they don’t like us and never will.

“I think we’re all very pleased with what we’ve delivered. There are certainly a good range of things that have happened or are happening across the city, that have had commercial benefit and a cultural benefit which simply wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t here.

“There wouldn’t be the 100s of 1,000s of interactions between public and businesses. There wouldn’t be the NE1 magazine, or Space 2, the young people’s centre set up in Newgate Centre.”

Having voted to support the business improvement district firm financially until 2019 several major projects to improve the Bigg Market, Percy Street and east Pilgrim Street will take shape.

A physical redevelopment to futureproof Northumberland Street will also unfold in 2016, a project that will cost around £16m.

As for evolving projects, Sean is driving forward a mission to place Newcastle on the map as a centre for leading edge thinking, celebrating the achievements of the universities, hospitals and promoting the work of Newcastle Science City.

“There is all sorts of groundbreaking work and practice taking place,” he said. “We have world renowned experts and we’re very keen to get that message across.

“We can lead the way in bioscience, genetics, renewable energy and we’re very keen that Newcastle is known for these things so are in discussions to see about bringing about talks, debates, conferences and so on here.”

A funding expert has also just the joined the team to look into help with infrastructure plans from European funding, and sponsorship from firms will also be explored.

“It’s hugely important that businesses take part,” said Sean.

“We have a board made up of business people and we talk about thinks like plans around moving of bus stops all the way through to plans for 50 years time. They will be central to evolving this programme and its ongoing development.

“The BID system has such strengths and what’s nice in a way is that Newcastle is seen across the UK as absolutely ‘up there’ as one of the most ambitious BIDS. The level of our ambition has been voted by the ‘thinkers’ as very different.

“And I think organisations like NE1 have helped the city drive itself out of the recession.

“There were those hit hard in the recession but if you look at how the city has continued to evolve – and there is still much more to achieve – there is no doubt that Newcastle has done well.

Sean’s diplomatic skills as a lawyer have come to the fore in bringing the businesses together, but he said there has always been enthusiasm to be involved.

He said: “In terms of the whole concept, apart from national chains, I think genuinely they want to be involved? “But it’s like the work I did with the various museums – to some degree they will be competitors but there are aspects from which they can all benefit. There’s a broadness of view that is very helpful.”

While support – financial and otherwise – from firms is essential, the ideas have to be formulated in the first place, and Sean believes it’s the close-knit, open atmosphere within the NE1 offices that help ideas germinate and take shape, and very quickly.

 

I pose questions to Sean on how he personally feels about driving forward the BID’s aims, how he operates to develop ideas, but he’s consistently reluctant to answer in the first person singular pronoun – it’s clearly all about teamwork for Sean, in everything NE1 takes on.

“The basic programme is determined by what businesses say they want about their needs and worries and we endeavour to tackle those,” he said.

“Beyond that, internally here and with the board we brainstorm, and quite often it will be informal.

“The team here all have different backgrounds – we have a marketeer with a military background, a former legal secretary, and someone who worked for a recycling charity. It’s a funny mix but there’s real creativity that works really well.

“And these ideas are generated or taken forward to another level by the people here.

“We’re a small team and I have an open door policy and we try to encourage ideas from the team.

“We’re very lucky that they all put in more hours than they need to – they are genuinely committed to doing what we do.

“With that atmosphere of producing new ideas and not resting on our laurels it works well and keeps it fresh.

“I do keep my door open – and some of the best ideas have come up over the coffee machine. That’s the way it works in a small team of creative people I think.

“There are benefits like any job and frustrations from time to time. But what’s good is that we can be flexible, adaptable and we can deliver quickly.

“For example, with the City Marina, from idea to the opening it was just six months and the NE1 magazine which we produce was just three months from idea to street.

“There aren’t that many jobs where you have that freedom of manoeuvrability.

“I like to involve everybody in the ideas generation and the decisions – as CEO I have final say but I very much involve the team in developing the programme and indeed themselves – that certainly seems to work here.

“My average days is a mix of meetings, administrative details, emails and phone calls but I try to strike a balance between that which has to be done and that which is more interesting and exciting.

“It’s important to get out there and meet people to find out what’s going on, to make sure the ideas keep flowing.

“When we had the first vote a database of all the city businesses was split up with four people covering them but it’s much less formal now.

“Some businesses are quite content to hear from us time to time and some want something every day – that’s a factor of what the businesses are really.”

The biggest challenge facing Sean is the levy which raises a fixed £2m a year. That £2m won’t stretch as far in 2019 as it did in 2009.

He said: “That amount is broadly fixed. The benefit of that is that we know what our income is. But we are stuck at that unless we can find funding from other sources – that’s why we’re very interested in Hilton Heslop who we’ve just taken on, with a view to look to Europe, national government and the other endless pots. It’s a complicated world of funding that you need to be an expert in.

“We are quite successful in supplementing that figure. Showing confidence and ambition in what we do is the way forward in that regard.

While local knowledge is key for a BID chief executive it’s a role which ultimately Sean could take on in any of the several thousand in the UK, Canada, US and Germany.

However, Sean has no plans to uproot anytime soon and likes nothing more than enjoying the vibrant city life on nights out to The Stand comedy club or on family nights out to favourite restaurants.

“I think it would take a strong pull to draw me away,” he said.

“That’s partly because I enjoy what I do and because Newcastle is a great city and also because I’ve got family and kids in school - Jo is 11 and Grace is eight – so I think we’re here for good. We’re settled.

“And I don’t think we’ll ever get to a stage at NE1 where we can’t see a project we can do. So long as we continue there will always be challenges and the need to keep ahead of the curve.

“It has to be a continuing, living, breathing thing.”

A day in the life of Sean Bullick

  • Up at 7.30 - take daughter, Grace, eight to school - great to catch up with her life en route and the trials and tribulations of an 8 year old. My son, Jo, 11, is way too cool to have Dad take him to school!
  • Once school drop off is done, I’m back home, out of the car and onto my Vespa to navigate the traffic along the Great North Road into Newcastle.
  • Get to work to a mix of routine tasks and new ideas generations.
  • Like most people my day is punctuated with emails, calls and meetings covering a range of different themes and topics from discussing our latest campaigns with our advertising agency, everything Different, to meetings with architects and engineers working on capital investment projects NE1 is either involved in, or is championing across the city.
  • What’s great about my work is the diversity that our members, the business community of Newcastle, brings. The range of people I talk to and deal with in any one day can be vast.
  • At some point in every day - I do an internet trawl to keep abreast of what our European peer cities are up to, to find out if there are any innovative projects, or initiatives that Newcastle could adopt or learn from. Many of our summertime events were influenced by other European cities - NE1’s Quayside Seaside, for example came from the precedent set by Paris with its Paris Plage on the River Seine.
  • At the end of the working day - its back home to start the round of ferrying to and from children’s after school activities - brownies, scouts and swimming. On activity-free evenings, I like to cook dinner or pop back into town to go the cinema, or have drinks and a meal with friends in any one of a number of my favourite restaurants in Newcastle. Having lived and worked in France and London for much of my married life, I love the fact that Newcastle is now Alive after Five and as a family we often make the most of the extended city opening by shopping later in the evening, or having a meal, or going to the cinema in the early evening with the kids.

 

Sean Bullick in 60 seconds

What car do you drive? 

I have a Vespa; much better for getting around town

What’s your favourite restaurant?

Piccolinos with the family, The Stand Bistro for a night out, Pan Haggerty for Sunday lunch…

Who or what makes you laugh? 

My daughter’s phonetic reversals; “that Jemery Clarkson is ridiclious”

What’s your favourite book? 

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

What was the last album you bought?

The Next Day by David Bowie

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

I would like to run the British Museum

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

“The more you explain it, the more I don’t understand it”  

What’s your greatest fear?

I’m not great with heights or small spaces

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

Only employ the very best staff

And the worst?

Something about buying a liquor store in Alice Springs, selling grog to locals and making a fortune, circa 1986!

What’s your poison?

Beaujolais

What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?

The Times if I have to, the FT at the weekend. And Private Eye

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

Can’t remember the exact sum, but it was for working as Eddie the waiter at Pizza Hut in London; the Dymo label writer had run out and there was only one spare badge 

How do you keep fit?

I swim three times a week

What’s your most irritating habit?

I have many, but my wife recently said that I was less irritating now than ten years ago, which has to be good.

What’s your biggest extravagance?

It was motorbikes, I think now nice shoes

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

Napoleon Bonaparte

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

Muhammad Ali, Oscar Wilde, Sarah Palin, Ronnie Barker

How would you like to be remembered?

As a thoroughly modern chap!

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