28th February 2020

Paul Callaghan is co-founder and the Chair of The Leighton Group, the North East-based set of software, technology, communication and media companies. Alongside his corporate accomplishments, Paul has achieved success in a variety of public sector roles, including with One North East. He recently spoke to us about the work that he is doing with Sunderland MAC Trust and Live Theatre to help develop the region and its cultural offerings.

Could you please tell me a bit about your early life and career?

I was born and raised in Sunderland and then went to University at the London School of Economics. After graduating, I worked as an economist for Clark Chapman in Gateshead. I then moved into academia and lectured in Economics in Durham and what is now Northumbria University.

In the early 1980’s, I established a publishing business with a colleague. We were traditional, print-based publishers, with a main focus on educational textbooks. With the arrival of the internet in 1992, this evolved into a digital business and my brother and I set up the first of the Leighton Group companies and for the last 28 years we have run software companies.

You have been involved in a host of businesses, as well as economic and regional development organisations throughout your career. What motivated you to partake in these?

I believe we all have a responsibility to make a contribution towards building a better society. I think there are three main foundations of society: economic development, education and culture. One of the ways I have been able to contribute is through building Leighton Group businesses and creating jobs.

I’ve also worked closely with other businesses and public sector organisations to encourage economic growth – this included chairing Business Link and being a founding director of the Entrepreneurs’ Forum. Most significantly, I was a board member of the regional development agency, One North East. I chaired the board until it closed, which was disappointing as we were doing some excellent work to improve the North East’s economy.

How do you think education helps to aid development in a region?

I’m a great believer in education. There isn’t any one single way to change society but I believe education is probably the most important factor and so I’ve tried to get involved wherever I can to help – at all levels of education. I was Chair of the University of Sunderland for more than a decade, I’ve been visiting professor and Leighton was able to sponsor Red House Academy, a secondary school in Sunderland.

I’m passionate about creating opportunities for everyone in our society to have access to a decent education. Widening participation in further and higher education is so important and has been a high priority at the University of Sunderland.

You mentioned that culture was one of the three main foundations of society. What is it about culture that benefits a region?

You can have a good job and a good education, but if the cultural life where you live is weak, then you’re likely to move away and this is a challenge the North East has historically faced. Newcastle and Gateshead have made great strides in the last two decades, but other parts of the region were being left behind.

This is one of the reasons we established The Cultural Spring initiative for Sunderland and South Tyneside in 2014, which was funded by Arts Council England under its ‘Creative People and Places Programme.’ It has been designed to really get into the community and engage people; this could involve everything from re-engaging isolated older people, to getting young people to feel as if cultural activities aren’t alien to them.

How else have you played a role in developing the culture of the region?

In 2012 I left One North East and so with some other like-minded people we set up the Sunderland Music, Arts, and Culture Trust. The objective was to achieve three things. The first was to encourage cultural activity through projects like The Cultural Spring and Sunderland’s Bid to become UK City of Culture. The second was to change the way culture and arts are governed in the city, as well as how they can raise money and be organised. To accomplish this, the MAC Trust, in partnership with University of Sunderland and Sunderland City Council, set up Sunderland Culture.

Finally, we wanted to get investment into cultural infrastructure, which has been the Music, Arts and Culture Quarter Project for the last eight years. This has resulted in £20m investment into the old Edwardian centre of the city, which had fallen into decline. It is coming to fruition now and we’ll have the new Fire Station auditorium open next year. It will bring an exciting programme of music, drama, dance and spoken word to the city and has attracted partners like Dance City and Live Theatre to open up studios in the Fire Station. What we’re doing is using culture as the catalyst for urban regeneration.

What is it about the North East that makes you so passionate about it?

It is a place that has a real sense of community; people identify with the region and become very passionate about it. Whilst I’ve lived abroad in the past, I’ve spent most of my life here – it’s where my friends and family are, and it is home. What makes the North East special is that even if you’re not from here, people still feel very much ‘at home’.

You’ve obviously been able to bring a lot of corporate experience into the not-for-profit arena, how has this been beneficial?

As I’ve said before, I feel like we have a responsibility to make a contribution to society. Many very good and generous people donate money and leave the actual operation of the charity to charity professionals; however, I’ve gone about it in a different way and directly involved myself. Having worked a lot in the public sector with One North East, I understand public funding and what is likely to attract it.

As someone who has also sat on many commercial and non-commercial boards, I think I understand how to shape the direction of an organisation. I’m able to identify talented people who are going to make a difference and then work with them. As you get older there is a need to help the next generation take the reins to ensure the long-term sustainability of an organisation.

Sustainability has become increasingly important to not-for-profits in recent years, especially in terms of income. How have you worked to achieve this with MAC Trust and Live Theatre?

What we are trying to do is establish an asset base. Over the last decade Live Theatre has grown its asset base by purchasing buildings surrounding the theatre. It’s now what we like to think of as ‘the Live Quarter.’ This provides commercial revenue for the Theatre, making it less reliant on charitable donations or public funding. For example, income from the Broad Chare, a pub run in partnership with the 21 Hospitality Group, is able to fund the production of our plays or our youth theatre provision. With the Sunderland MAC Trust, we have sought to achieve a similar asset base to ensure the sustainability of the cultural quarter.

Projects such as this help raise the profile of Sunderland and Newcastle nationally. People take notice – the funders, the DCMS, and the charitable trusts see the work being carried out in the North East as being very proactive. They trust what we’re trying to do, which is to provide a cultural infrastructure for the people of this region in an innovative and entrepreneurial way.

How would you like to see the North East region develop in the future?

I think we need to shift the economic structure towards a more knowledge-industry base. We’re doing that quite successfully in the North East and we are seeing fast growing clusters of high-tech businesses up here. However, if you’re going to steer your economy towards the knowledge sector, then you need to improve educational standards. We must work with schools to help get more children from the North East into Further Education and University, to match the demands of the economy.

In terms of culture, we need to understand what the challenges are and where we should be making investment. The “Passionate People, Passionate Places” campaign, which was originally set up by One North East, has recently been relaunched. It was not just about selling the North East to people outside of the region but also about changing how people perceive our own region and to encourage them to be proud and passionate about this area and want to stay here.

What projects or initiatives that you’ve been involved in during your career are you most proud of?

I’m clearly very proud of the Leighton Group business. I’m getting to the end of my career now, and I’m very proud of not only the businesses we’ve created, but also the people that currently work for us as well as those that have worked for us and moved on to achieve great things elsewhere.

In terms of not-for-profit, I’m very proud of the two educational elements I’ve been involved in – Sunderland University and Red House Academy, the latter having just received the OFSTED ‘Good’ rating. The University has made huge steps in Sunderland and now, with the new Medical School, is recruiting students from the North East who will go on to become doctors and hopefully stay in the area. I’m also very proud of what we’re currently achieving with both Live Theatre and Sunderland MAC Trust and Sunderland Culture in relation to significantly enhancing the cultural life of the region.

What’s the best advice you’ve received during your career?

Never underestimate what can be achieved. You should always aim high and even though sometimes you’ll miss the mark, you’ve still set a high bar and might have achieved something you didn’t think you could. If you’re not ambitious, then you can’t move things on.

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