Mike Hughes takes off his bike clips, threads a chain through the spokes of his Pashley Roadster and sits down with Sir Gary Verity, chief executive of Welcome to Yorkshire.
Gary Verity is, almost literally, the face of Yorkshire.
As the head of Welcome to Yorkshire he embodies the spirit, optimism and hard graft that are the touchstones of the county. But mixed in with the pride and forthrightness for which he is known, there is also a modesty about him that would make him laugh off any efforts to put him – as we will – on a list of Yorkshire legends.
But if his eight years in charge of the county’s marketing and brand organisation put him on a list or two, then the Grand Départ placed him at the top of the pile. Bringing the opening stages of the 2014 Tour de France to Yorkshire was an audacious and breathtaking success for him and his team, generating around £130m with a crowd of just under five million and led the race director Christian Prudhomme to name it “the grandest Grand Départ” in the event’s 111-year history.
Its legacy is proud and active, with the county’s image changed forever and a nationwide cycling surge started that will not be stopped by any hill or dale. The Tour de Yorkshire was born and Gary became Sir Gary in the Queen’s birthday honours last year.
Now the race to crown Yorkshire as a cycling essential is also won, with the county just being awarded the 2019 UCI Road World Championships, marking its return to Britain after 37 years, with a £27m budget to include £15m towards the construction of 27 venues around the country.
So when Sir Gary heads off for his own cycle rides from his sheep farm in Coverdale his mind can drift off to thoughts of Mark Cavendish, Peter Sagan and Tom Boonen taking to the hills alongside him.
“We have been clear all along that we wanted to make Yorkshire the cycling capital of Europe and for that to happen we need the Grand Départ to be a success and then we have our Tour de Yorkshire and now over a week of cycling with the 2019 championships. It will cover a lot of the county and with the other events everyone will get a look in,” he told me in his organisation’s offices on Foundry Square in Leeds (beautiful building, great people, dreadful parking).
“Cycling and Yorkshire are a very easy marriage because you need roads, accommodation, stunning scenery for those outstanding backdrops....and hills. Put that lot together and, well, it is pretty obvious where you should be.
“But there is also a passion and a heritage for cycling going back to Brian Robinson (first Briton to finish the Tour de France), Barry Hoban (winner of eight stages of the Tour between 1967 and 1975) and Beryl Burton (won more than 90 domestic championships and seven world titles). As a sport it is embedded into our DNA, not just as competitive cycling, but also recreational, with so many tales of people cycling to work at the docks in Hull.
“Yorkshire can be a pretty tribal sort of place with all sorts of local rivalries between villages, towns and cities, but I have never known anything to unite it all as much as cycling has done.”
You might not describe his style as effusive but it is completely compelling and his entirely confident way of telling his audiences that we are the best in the world at so many things, but perhaps they just hadn’t realised it yet, epitomises the county itself. His strong words, softly spoken, have won hearts and minds and made millions love Yorkshire. But it is, as he is quick to point out, a team game.
“A lot of the credit for the success of the Grand Départ must go to the various agencies who worked in it. But also to the stunning people here at Welcome to Yorkshire – they are the ones doing the real work, putting in hours and hours and hours of work, with roadshow after roadshow explaining what would be happening for businesses and communities, Round Tables and WIs and explaining how they could get involved to make the most of it.
“The success of the Tour and the success we will have with the UCI championships is down to this teamwork, with local authorities, police and fire service and so many volunteers as well who make it possible.”
The large part he plays himself is illustrated by a peek into the pages of the Verity diary – a formidable tome that pretty much seems to be full 24-7-365.
“It can be wearing,” he admits, and this is why.... “Before BQ got here today I was delivering a lecture at the university and after this I am heading off to Newcastle, then back down to Yorkshire tonight. Tomorrow I am getting an honorary doctorate from Huddersfield University first thing, then meetings in Leeds in the afternoon and speaking at a school speech day at night. The next day there is a board meeting in the morning and then down to London in the afternoon to give evidence to a Parliamentary select committee... and so it goes on.”
That is devoted service, well worthy of the knighthood. But it is working, he is working, his team is working and the region is working together.
“I am very privileged to be able to do the job I do and I consider it to be a great honour to represent one of the finest places not only in the UK but in the world. So I too will do anything I can to help bring success to Yorkshire in whatever form that may be.”
Maybe even in the form of a mayor then? “No, no, no,” he laughs. “There are better candidates for that than me.” Ah well, worth a try, I suppose, but his high profile means he is much in demand and would be on many people’s shortlist.
“The biggest challenge we face in my office is trying to keep as many people as possible happy, but sometimes you have to let people down. Personally, I know that this comes with the territory and you have to take it in your stride.
“But it is an unusual thing for me as a career chief executive to have a role that has anything like this level of profile and attention. It is slightly strange, but there is a genuine enjoyment of it because – and I know a lot of people will think the same – I really do think I have the best job in the world.”
That job involves continuing to unlock the full power of a passionate and supportive people who hold great promise for a future which needs cycling but doesn’t rely on it. The Welcome to Yorkshire blueprint will have vast assets in arts, culture, heritage, food and drink to draw on as well as the rugby and football that are often the glue bonding together a region’s people – even if they are split into such different camps.
“We have different strategies for each challenge and it is a matter of how we can marry up some of those strategies to get the leverage we need,” he adds. “But we are helped hugely by the fact that innovation is in Yorkshire’s blood. The region is full of entrepreneurs and is constantly looking for opportunities and reinventing itself. We just get on and do things.”
However, uneasy he may be about the focus so often being on him, his opinion matters and his view of the bright future for the county’s businesses is a valuable gauge.
“There is huge potential here and I get the feeling we are ready to move to yet another level. There are a number of really positive things happening around all four parts of the county region which, if you start to join the dots, means the future is really very exciting.
“If companies are thinking of moving their businesses and are looking at the options, just think what this place has to offer – great accessibility by air, roads and ports and only two hours or less from London by train. Then three National Parks, three Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, a stunning coastline with all its possibilities in the renewables sector and a ready-made talent pool with tens of thousands of graduates every year. We have forward-looking local authorities and great places to live in a city, just outside a city or in a small town or village in open countryside.
“There are sixty castles or stately homes in Yorkshire – there are only 16 chateaux in the Loire Valley!
“I am certainly sensing an air of optimism and positivity around for businesses across the whole of Yorkshire and that is really good to see because I genuinely believe that our best work is still ahead of us, not behind us – we just need to shout about it more.
“Theresa May has been very complimentary and supportive of the Northern Powerhouse and what can be done for Yorkshire. Successive governments have tried and realised the need to rebalance the economy by getting it out of London and the South-East and letting other parts of the UK fulfil their potential.
“We are naturally resourceful and resilient as Yorkshire businessfolk and we seize opportunities. Our history is littered with examples of people doing that and seeing a gap in the market and forging forward.
“The talent pool we have across Yorkshire businesses, in many different industries and sectors, is as strong as I have ever seen it.”
His earlier career was as a chief executive known for building high-performing teams. He spent 18 years with Royal Insurance and worked with various other businesses that he helped to turn around, honing the management skills he has put to such good use serving Queen and county.
But his life was changed by a devastating blow when his wife Helen was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer in 2004 and he returned to Yorkshire to be with his family. Before she died, aged 42, at the farm in Coverdale, Helen and Gary had raised a six-figure sum for cancer charities and a few weeks before her death he ran the New York Marathon with a team from Yorkshire to add to the funds.
Family has always been vital for Gary and his home and its stunning surroundings became once again something to hold onto in his shattered life as he and six-year-old daughter Lily started to look to the future.
“The one thing Helen’s death teaches you is a salutary lesson that having a long-term plan is fine, but it is a very good idea to think about the moment and live for that,” he says. “Look to what you can achieve in the immediacy without necessarily having an arrogance that you will still be here in 25 years’ time because you just don’t know what might be around the corner.”
He describes Lily now as ‘on top form’.
“She is really great and doing very well and turning into her person, which is lovely to see,” he says. “It is a very special bond between us.”
Away from home and back in the office, sport is a strong metaphor for Yorkshire businesses, from the teamwork he has already mentioned to the entrepreneurial underdog taking on the premier league firms and the heroes it creates, from the blood sweat and tears of local lads who always believe they belong in the big time.
Sir Gary, now married to Anne, a school teacher, is a sports addict through and through and his admiration for what the human body is capable of means he has little time for those who question pure guts and honest endeavour.
“We had a fantastic Olympics, not only for the cyclists, but for all our competitors,” he says, “with tremendous achievements for our Yorkshire sportsmen and women.
“There have been mutterings about performance levels, and we have had this before when Sir Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France and people were asking how Team Sky could have bikes that went that fast. The team’s manager Dave Brailsford probably summed it up best when he said that the team’s wheels may have been ‘more round than anyone else’s.’
“It is just nonsense – let’s just embrace it and celebrate our achievements.”
The wave of credibility we have now continues to pay dividends with high-level support for the 2019 championship.
British Cycling President Bob Howden knows what Yorkshire can do for cycling, and said during the bidding campaigns: “Not only would Yorkshire deliver a cycling event to rival the scenes we saw in 2014 during the Tour de France Grand Depart, it promises to build on our fantastic legacy of getting more people to discover the joys of life on two wheels.”
And Sir Gary is equally enthusiastic, sensing another milestone for Yorkshire, and it is fitting that he returns to teamwork for his final words before, briefcase in hand, he heads off down the stairs ahead of us on the journey to Newcastle.
“There is an air of confidence around Yorkshire and around our businesses at the moment, which is at a level I can’t remember in recent times. That is brilliant to see and it is fantastic to be able to play a very small part in that.
“The team around me that is looking after Yorkshire is particularly strong and I am really lucky to lead them.”
It is, of course, his county – and his family – that are the lucky ones.
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