No better place for progress

No better place for progress

Multi-millionaire Jonathan Ruffer, a lifetime achiever in the City, tells Brian Nicholls why he sees great potential in Japan for the North East as he sets up home in the region.

The future that North East multi-millionaire Jonathan Ruffer visualises for South West Durham could become as remarkable in a way, perhaps, as the £15m worth of 17th Century paintings he's rescued for the region.

Before succeeding the Rt Revd Justin Welby on the economic review team of the North East Local Economic Partnership (following the latter's meteoric elevation from Bishop of Durham to Archbishop of Canterbury), Ruffer felt he knew the North East well - but not its individual people whom you really must know, he says, truly to know a place.

Now, in helping assemble the North East Economic Review for government action, he has pondered: what makes the region special? "I say, as a Southerner, how cheap everything is. If you can buy infrastructure as cheaply as other things here, who needs China or Sri Lanka? We might just as well make things here.

"I think we'll find looking back that relocating industry to the Far East has proved a dead end, great for a decade or two, but with many disadvantages - great distances and cultural differences, for example.

"Now I didn't come here wearing my investment hat saying the North East will be on the up. But that's what I believe. I think South East England will be dead in the water in 25 years' time. Its skills are in the wrong places. Its pricing of wages and property is wrong. I don't think the advantage has been appreciated of being able to buy in the North East a nice three bedroom Victorian house for 85 grand.

"And we have a world class university at Durham. Why shouldn't graduates, instead of going to London where they can't afford to live, stay here and set up here if they're entrepreneurial. It's much easier."

Ruffer's struck by Japan's 48 businesses in the North East. "My guess is, no other place in the Western Hemisphere has that concentration. I'd like the North East LEP to see this area through Japanese eyes. If you're the 49th business looking here what would you say? What do incomers look for in us?

If your business sells tea towels, you need to make the tea towel as nice as possible but also know the sort of people who buy them. What pictures do they like on them?"

He's fascinated when BQ tells how the region's manufacturing links with Japan go back to Tyneside-built warships and guns that helped the Japanese to defeat the Russians at war in 1905. He wants to learn more.

Don't dismiss Ruffer's assessment as infected optimism picked up while relocating here permanently. Winner of a lifetime achiever award for his City astuteness, he predicted the 2008 banking crisis and ensuing misfortunes. He knows what he's about and, encouragingly for the North East, he's wholeheartedly into the consequences of buying the Zurbaran paintings, such as refurbishing Auckland Castle where they hang.

He chairs Auckland Castle Trust, current owner of the castle with the largest private chapel in Europe, and which has been a home to Durham bishops for 900 years. With eight trustee members drawn locally and from arts and heritage sources, he plans to turn the building into a major visitor and study centre, and a venue for weddings, concerts and festivals, while promoting its religious significance besides simply restoring it.

Furthermore, he envisages a £50m regeneration can make Bishop Auckland an outstanding revenue-earning tourist destination, benefiting South West Durham generally.

He has the support of Durham County and Bishop Auckland Town Councils, as well as voluntary sector partners, and looks for business-minded people to play their part.

Described once as "the most modest man in the City", he founded Ruffer LLP investment managers which, with the Japanese market coming right for it recently, now nurtures £15bn of investments from London, Edinburgh and Hong Kong. A whimsical, self-effacing evangelical Christian whose gentle demeanour would match that of any bishop, Ruffer has little regard for money despite his personal wealth.

He likens it to food. "It's meant to pass through you," he explains. "If you eat food and it doesn't pass through it will poison you. That's what money does. I don't give money away because I'm selfless. I give money away because I'm selfish. I don't want to be poisoned. I look at a lot of rich people and see shackles. I think, not for me thanks."

Again, why the North East? One of his recreations listed in Debrett's is sleeping. He chuckles. He used to list namedropping. "I got over that. I lost that social drive." However, he admits he's a dreamer - not practical.

"The trouble is, you need to earth dreams to something specific. In a sense it doesn't matter much what."

For Ruffer it's South West Durham. "This dream will have the practical effect of reviving the north end of Bishop Auckland. Here's a town of 25,000 people, whose catchment area includes the Dales. We've all the big retailers here, but at the expense of old Bishop Auckland - this end.

"So we've an area that’s run out of steam. Three years ago, when I first became involved, there was a problem with underage binge drinking in the market place. Now the place is so out of cash it can't even afford that. Even vice has been driven out of the town! I thought if we can get 100,000 people here, and we jolly well should because the whole project will be northwards of £50m by the time we have finished, fortunes can change."

Ruffer, the region’s fourth wealthiest individual with a personal fortune of £330m according to the latest Sunday Times Rich List, says the money will be found by others as well as himself.

“If any of your readers, bonkers as I am, wish to participate I’ll willingly send an account number to which payment may be made. If we do get that figure it will create something of a cathedral close effect in the market place of a fine Georgian town.”

Other influential participants include Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of the history of the Church at Oxford University, a knight and a deacon also, who considers the castle and its environs the most important working episcopal complex outside the Vatican and Avignon seats of the Pope. "This word complex is interesting," Ruffer remarks.

"It says don't think just of the castle, but of town parts integral to the castle, and the park adjoining which is Grade 1 Listed mediaeval. One's not looking at a building alone but interlocking parts also.

"We must give the overgrown park back its extraordinary visual drama it presented in the 18th Century. If we can bring back views you were meant to see at the deer house there, and the follies and grand rock formations, that would be great.

"We have walled gardens where I think the most northerly pineapples were grown, for there are greenhouses called the Pinery and the Vinery. There was a belvedere where bishops could put their thumbs in their waistcoats and survey all around them."

There could also be a picnickers paradise to come. In 1894 a slice of parkland was turned into an existing golf course. But on the 150 acres remaining there's a farm and failed golf course. "This could be used for leisure activities," Ruffer remarks.

"We've ambitious plans there, but it's too early to talk about that. Hopefully the castle will be at the centre of a full day people will enjoy indoors and outside."

Again, why the North East when Ruffer could have revived almost anywhere else? It has been widely and inaccurately reported he was born at Stokesley. He was born in London, and though describing himself as a Southerner, his parents brought him to Stokesley in 1954 as a two-year-old.

His mother's family were Constantines, whose eponymous Middlesbrough business was  EF_shipping. Constantine Technical College, with which they were associated, was the seedling of Teesside University. Ruffer's grandfather, Robert Willam of Shincliffe, was a professor of medicine at Durham University and ran the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle.

Ruffer's mother during the Second World War was a Wren, his father a Royal Marine gunnery officer on Arctic convoys. They met when his ship was in for repair. "That was that," says Ruffer.

"A great cry in those days was 'up with the lark and to bed with the wren'!

“Father after the war had a travel agency on Teesside and never spotted that a travel agency called Ruffer Travels probably drew a lot of business from customers who found the name hard to believe."

Young Ruffer attended Marlborough and Cambridge then, he claims, spent his 20s being useless at all he did. This is his self-demeaning sense of humour.

He was called to the Bar. A distinguished legal career might have followed had inclinations not turned him to finance, and numerous institutions including Dunbar Group and Rathbone (which has recently opened a Newcastle office). In 1994 he set up Ruffer hoping (according to Josh Spero, editor of Spear's wealth magazine) to change an industry in which measuring yourself against indices was everything.

On receiving his lifetime achiever award in 2011, he pointed out that when others had doubled and trebled investments during dotcom year 1999, his company "achieved" -0.2%.

It was someone else who mentioned that in 2008 he'd gone up 14% while the FTSE fell 31%. Ruffer, 62 and now repositioned from chief executive to chairman of Ruffer LLP, has re-affirmed his North East commitment by setting up a new home within a shout of the castle, a "dungeon with the front door painted the colour of a sick parrot".

He'll work in London only early in the week, freeing time to share the pleasures of his art purchase for the people of the North East, and with them. His wife Jane, who was a pathologist, is taking up palliative care at Butterwick Hospice. "It's a happy place up here and very easy to get stuck in really," says Ruffer.

Jane's mother, who's from Sunderland, is migrating north too and is delighted to come home. Remarkably in the Zurbaran purchase, Ruffer lashed out £15m without seeing the goods. Given their acknowledged artistic blemishes, does he still feel he paid the right price?

A self-confessed risk taker, and admirer of the religious tolerance behind the original purchase, Ruffer replies: "I don't think there's a right price for something like that. I've always bought pictures without seeing. I collect 17th Century religious art. I had a Zurbaran postcard and I've an 18th Century copy of a Zurbaran painted about the time these came to the castle. We think it's a copy by Gainsborough. That was one thing that made me think perhaps I ought to be doing this.

"There are three sets like this. The other two, simply beastly, are in South America. This set is wonderful, painted I think by a mixture of him and his workshop. The workshop have a simplicity and directness which in a way has qualities the master doesn't have. So even if I could wave a wand, so every brush stroke was Zurbaran's, I think I'd keep them as they are. I suspect the other two sets have no Zurbaran in them at all.

"When the Church Commissioners threatened to sell these pictures I thought it extremely discouraging and it set people against one another. I thought if I could solve that it would be a start. I did it without quite understanding what I was doing. I just felt it was a way of saying to people of the North East 'these belong to you and they've been given back to you'. One thing led to another. That got us onto the castle.

"I thought then I'd like to come back to where I was brought up and try to revive a part of the world that needs that sort of thing. I didn't really know what that would entail."

Jane's reaction to his £15m outlay from a personal fortune assessed then at £100m? "I think she was all for it really. Money's a much over-rated commodity."