The Endeavour Partnership has represented Tees Valley Combined Authority for three years and as well as providing ‘day to day’ legal advice, has acted on several high profile projects including work relating to the Darlington 2025 project, the early stage infrastructure funding for the proposed £200m development of 270 acres of land to the south of the runway at Teesside International Airport and Teesworks.
Regional leaders Deborah Kirtley (The Endeavour Partnership) and Julie Gilhespie (Tees Valley Combined Authority) took advantage of a change in the weather and caught up for a walk along Stockton’s riverside to discuss a range of issues around the impact of the global pandemic.
Julie Gilhespie, Group Chief Executive, Tees Valley Combined Authority
Julie was appointed chief executive of the Tees Valley Combined Authority in 2018 having joined the organisation in 2017 as finance director, where she oversaw the complex financial arrangements necessary to make a success of devolution and the economic transformation of the Tees Valley. Julie is an experienced chartered accountant and has represented both the private and public sector in senior roles.
Deborah Kirtley, Partner, The Endeavour Partnership
Deborah joined the firm in 2018 bringing with her over 25 years of legal experience in the banking sector. A partner in the corporate commercial department she has advised both borrowers and lenders locally, nationally and internationally. Deborah has experience working on a wide range of corporate banking, acquisition and development finance transactions and has acted in many of the region’s most complex high-value deals.
Deborah: “It’s a shame the event was unable to go ahead this year as it is important we champion women’s success and provide role models and showcase opportunities. When we both started out, the landscape was very male dominated and there were many occasions when I would be the only female in the room.
“Thankfully we are seeing positive change and addressing the issue has allowed us to speak more openly about other challenges women face as they seek to develop their careers.”
Julie: “As a result of the events hosted by The Endeavour Partnership, we have run internal events at Tees Valley Combined Authority and have had some really positive responses – from both sides of the fence! It is important we make these events inclusive for everyone so seeing a really mixed crowd was great.
“It allows us to address the practical issues. Feedback from young women, and men, has been that they see us as different, when in fact we are probably just a bit further along our careers so have experiences to share.”
Deborah: “If we continue to do things the same way, we reinforce certain dynamics. Recognising females and other groups that are not as well represented as others means we can seek different outcomes. It can be difficult for young families for example and equally hard for people caring for older family members. Opening up the discussion allows us to provide an equally represented environment and by sharing experience and leading by example, we will make improvements.”
Julie: “We should recognise the strength that women can bring to senior leadership because they generally have a different approach. Diversity around the board table is important because it brings different life experiences which must promote better decision making. A key element is providing role models, as if nobody like you is doing the job you will naturally think you can’t do it. There are barriers for some people being able to do a long week behind a desk and naturally, women with young children fall into this category and there are many reasons why people struggle with the traditional ways of working.”
Businesses have adapted to remote working during lockdown, how do our leaders think this will impact the future and how we consider work?
Julie: “One of the things I am really hopeful of post pandemic is that we will be smart and not rush back to how we used to work. We can use the lessons from flexible working as a way of breaking down barriers. There are times during lockdown when people had children at home whilst managing their work and did an amazing job. Some did it by adjusting working hours which is something I did when my children were younger, picking up on work when they had gone to bed. It wasn’t discussed then and now we have become more open to sharing those challenges and finding solutions together.”
Deborah: “I agree, some businesses previously reviewed productivity based on hours in the office and the pandemic has allowed us to understand there are situations where we can be productive, reviewing outputs rather than hours. We can learn from this and if we can find the balance and land a new normal way of working, we could really benefit. There are times when people need to be in the office and, face to face meetings can sometimes be more productive, but we are used to online meetings now and more likely to suggest them when it is the better choice.”
Julie: “There are times when people need to be in the office but asking the question ‘do I actually need to come into the office?’ is now more openly and easily considered. If you need to come into the office then do so but maybe we should consider planning this and booking a desk rather than everyone having a desk allocated. We have a town centre office with free parking, and that is unusual but does mean we are restricted by spaces. If I am meeting someone from London for an hour, do I really need to travel or can we do it on Teams?”
The region’s business landscape is changing, what have our leaders recognised from their careers within the Tees Valley?
Deborah: “Positive things have been happening in the region for a while. We seem to have finally realigned ourselves away from traditional heavy industry, taking the challenges from those sectors and pivoting to create new ones. It’s not about complete change but about learning the lessons and applying them to better methods.
“We have seen this with the hydrogen refuelling work that has been going on in the region, acknowledging the presence of the unused carbon, and finding a sustainable method for its use. We were at the forefront of the industrial revolution and now it seems we are influencing the green revolution.”
Julie: “The Tees Valley is a net exporter and an area that has been traditionally known for heavy industry. The balance of that type of industry will not survive the climate change targets. As a region, we have the know-how and technology to make those industries green and the work that is being done around carbon capture for example shows how this can promote an industry that will evolve and develop to the benefit of the region.
“During the pandemic, our region’s businesses have shown our amazing ability to manufacture. We are not a region that is doing the cutting-edge biomedical science, most of that tends to take place in Cambridge, but when there is a need for manufacture on a large scale, that’s where Teesside comes into its own and Fujifilm is a great example with their production of the Covid-19 vaccine.”
Both ladies have a background in finance. What impact has the last 12 months had on businesses and what should they be thinking about for the future?
Julie: “The global pandemic has certainly had an impact on local businesses, the size of the challenge has been huge and the national government provided support which was distributed through the local authorities. One of the challenges for us has been deciding how to manage our resource in the best way to help in the most effective way we could manage.
“We have channelled our support and provided a one stop shop through the Combined Authority to offer support and signpost business leaders where required. The devolved model has allowed us to have better access to lines of communication within government and given us the ability to have regional discussions at a national level.
Deborah: “For the private sector, access to finance has been the overarching topic of the last year. The various government schemes have really supported businesses but it remains to be seen how the economy will rebound when they come to an end. Businesses should be thinking about the future and planning ahead to manage their cash flow.
“The government loans have acted as a pain killer that has kept things ticking over and the discussions we are having with clients is about how they will prepare and make use of the support they have received as they anticipate future operating cash flow needs.”
High streets have seen a decrease in trade, is it expected to improve once the lockdown restrictions are relaxed?
Deborah: “The high streets were changing well before the pandemic and different areas took different approaches. Stockton for example has embraced leisure and with the planned opening of The Globe seems to be consolidating the retail offer and opening up the river access. Middlesbrough has looked at ways of increasing footfall with the Northern School of Art, expansion of the university and the Centre Square development.”
Julie: “Both models hope to attract people into the town centres and increase footfall for retail. Places like the Tees Valley were already considering the importance of the high street and the way we use them, the pandemic has accelerated this but we had already started our revolution. Stockton is a good example and is ahead of the game, it will be interesting to see how the bigger city centres, who rely heavily on the retail offer, manage this.”
As well as the traditional industries, is the region creating innovative businesses within emerging sectors?
Julie: “One of the problems Teesside had was that a huge proportion of our residents worked at ICI or British Steel and as those started to break up we were behind the rest of the country in terms of start-ups. It has taken a little bit of time to develop but we are now seeing thriving businesses emerge, some of which were as a result of redundancies forcing people to consider all of the options.
“There are businesses like Cubic, who are running the London underground and Sydney, Australia’s, traffic system from an office in Stockton!”
Deborah: “We do amazing things in this region which others may not be aware of. The tech sector is thriving and we have exciting and innovative companies like Sock Monkey Studios achieving great things within a thriving gaming industry and VisualSoft growing from a start-up e-commerce business to being at the forefront of their sector.”
What does the future hold for young people growing up in the region and considering their future in the Tees Valley?
Julie: “I am a massive fan of encouraging young people to develop their ideas. I think they have a much better understanding of what is important, not just locally but nationally and internationally because they have access to more information. When I talk to young people you can guarantee that at least 50% of the questions are about the environment and they are usually better informed than I am and we are starting to see that come through. They have a different view of work-life balance; they don’t subscribe to hierarchy in the way we did.
“This creates a much more level playing field. Young people do not expect to go and work for one organisation for life, in fact, they are happy to switch professions within their career.”
Deborah: “I remember the discussions when we thought it would a problem that young people were unlikely to have a job for life, but the reality is they don’t want it. They are much more focused on quality of life, they embrace technology, demand flexibility and are resilient. These are the skills we need in the 21st century.
“We were conditioned to accept things whereas they will not tolerate something they feel strongly about. As they move up the ladder and become the leaders we are seeing them push to create positive change.”