Sarah Stewart has been CEO of NewcastleGateshead Initiative (NGI) since 2010 and was awarded an OBE for her services to the North East economy in 2016. In the latest of UNW’s exclusive client interviews, we discuss her career so far and this summer’s Great Exhibition of the North.
Tell us a little about your background, and how your career led to NGI?
Well, it’s been long and varied, so there’s plenty to go at! My career has predominantly been spent in marketing and business development, and the reason I moved to the North East in the first place was to become Brand Manager at P&G way back in 1981.
I then spent time leading the marketing consultancy practice at Price Waterhouse, before becoming Sage plc’s first marketing director. I left, to set up my own marketing consultancy, which led to me becoming more involved in large regional projects with the likes of One NorthEast and taking on a wide range of non-executive roles. This led to my introduction to NGI, where I initially worked on an interim basis, as I had sworn never to do a full-time role again! I quickly realised that if I was to change my mind it would be for NGI and I was delighted when the role was made permanent in 2011.
NGI was established back in 2000, how has the organisation changed during that time?
At the heart of the organisation is the public-private partnership, of which the Newcastle and Gateshead councils have been long-term supporters. In addition, we have also had very strong private sector support which has laid the foundations for everything we’ve achieved since.
What has changed during this time, however, is what NGI does. Initially the primary focus was the European Capital of Culture 2008 bid, but when that went to Liverpool, NGI focussed on leading other culture programmes, becoming heavily involved in leisure and business tourism, promoting the idea of the region as an ideal city break, and more recently in inward investment and bidding for major events.
Two successful recent bids are The Great Exhibition of the North, which begins in June, and the World Transplant Games in August 2019.
What is planned for The Great Exhibition of the North and the potential impact it will have on the region?
In a nutshell, it’s going to be the largest event in England, an 80-day celebration of Northern art, design and innovation with a target audience of 3 million. The event’s aim is to change perceptions of the North as a whole, as well as instil local pride for those already living and working in the region. A key underlying objective for us is to also drive more investment and visitors to the region.
What do you feel are the biggest challenges, and areas of opportunity, facing the North East in the coming years?
Like everywhere up and down the country, the uncertainty surrounding Brexit is a major challenge we’re currently facing, further underlying the importance of increasing the number of opportunities for our young people, and people who work in the region already.
The Great Exhibition of the North is just one way in which we as an organisation seek to help with this. It’s a great opportunity to raise the North’s profile, highlighting all the good things that are going on here to attract more students, visitors and investors. I think this is both the greatest challenge and the greatest opportunity we face.
What has been NGI’s greatest challenge during your time with the organisation?
The Great Exhibition of the North is a huge challenge for the team on a personal level, as it’s by far the largest event we’ve ever delivered. But the most significant challenge we’ve faced over the past 8 years has been securing and sustaining significant funding, as there were a lot more public funding options available back in 2010.
We’ve had to very proactively seek out alternative funding and we’ve done this in a variety of ways, including strengthening the level of support we get from the private sector and from national funding bodies, be it from the Arts Council or VisitBritain, which is absolutely critical to what we do.
NGI Solutions, which delivers insight led research, marketing and PR services to a wide variety of clients on a regional and national scale, is also key to helping us overcome funding challenges. A separate company but still part of the NGI group, the income secured through it is then reinvested back into the core business.
Could you expand a little on NGI’s working relationship with UNW?
UNW has been our auditor for the past five or so years and has been involved supporting NGI for many years. We’ve also received further advice in a key number of other areas, such as when bidding for the World Transplant Games, around VAT treatment and charitable status.
The Let’s Grow grant fund, which was run by UNW alongside the Journal and BE Group, was also a great help for the Invest Newcastle team at NGI, working collaboratively to secure grants for companies looking to invest in the region.
Finally, is there a specific piece of advice that has stuck with you throughout your career?
One thing that’s always stuck with me is something my dad used to say; always take the time to smell the roses. No matter where your career takes you, or the amount of your time it takes up, always take a little time to appreciate what’s going on around you.
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