Exactly 20 years ago, I picked up Guy Readman from his house in Gosforth, Newcastle and drove him to visit a community project in Saltmeadows, Gateshead. It may only have been a few miles drive but the two places are a long way apart.
Guy Readman was honoured last year with the inaugural North East Philanthropy Award as a lifetime achievement for a series of increasingly generous donations to build his endowment fund at the Community Foundation, where I worked at the time.
I reflected affectionately on our day out when I heard that Guy Readman, who died recently, had left a legacy of £2.5m to the Community Foundation. It is typical of a man who always thought carefully about his affairs and liked to plan ahead.
The Readman Foundation had awarded a grant for a group of children to go on a canal boat holiday. After the local women who ran the project had described the week away and shown us the scrapbooks the children had compiled, Guy broke into the conversation with one of the piercing and incisive questions for which he was famous. (I had to field a lot of them – not always to Guy’s satisfaction.)
“Can you tell me why it was worth making a grant of £2,000 for this holiday” he asked, with just a hint of exasperation.
“Bairns nerrbinoota Gitesead” the project leader barked back without hesitation.
It took us a minute or two to decode her message which roughly translates as “the little darlings have never had a holiday.”
I smiled to myself. There you had it. The Hepburn family had just returned from a fortnight family holiday on a narrowboat which had emptied our piggy bank. Guy had been telling me about his latest holiday on the Queen Elizabeth, moored off the coast of Spain, for golf lovers to follow the Ryder Cup nearby. And the bairns had never been out of Gateshead.
I did not for a minute begrudge Guy’s holidays and lifestyle. Voted North East Businessman of the Year, he worked hard to make a success at his factory in Gateshead and had taken a series of highly calculated risks. He was absolutely clear that Margaret Thatcher had removed business regulation in order to let entrepreneurs like him create the wealth the country needed. He was equally adamant that he was expected in return to use his wealth to benefit those less fortunate than himself.
Guy made this point with such conviction that I imagined that the then Prime Minister had looked him straight in the eye and ordered him to do so herself. Given the circles in which Guy moved, she may well have done so.
Levels of poverty are just as high today as they were 20 years ago. In its latest report, Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates that child poverty costs £29bn a year. Inequality between rich and poor has grown at an alarming rate and, according to the Equality Trust, costs £39bn through its impact on health, wellbeing and crime rates.
Guy would have drilled into such figures sceptically and rigorously. But in his last 20 years, he threw himself into trying to improve to improve the life chances of young people with all the passion he had brought to his business affairs.
However deep their pockets, philanthropists cannot solve the enduring problems of poverty and inequality on their own. But they can set an example for the rest of us and few have done so more fulsomely than Guy Readman.