Interviews

STEPPING INTO THE VOID

Christine Gaskell MBE DL was part of the management team which revitalised Bentley. Today, she is charge of making Cheshire the best place to do business. Louisa Castle meets the business leader

‘Cheshire is the best kept secret. It’s 871 sqm of opportunity.’ This is the first thing Christine imparts after the pleasantries over coffee at The Mere. Her passion for her role and county is evident.

‘Cheshire and Warrington Enterprise Partnership is one of 39 in the UK. Created in 2011 due to the abolishment of the Regional Development Agencies. We were the first and sole economic organisation championing the growth of our region.

‘There was no blueprint. It was very much a step into the void. If I knew then what I know now I would not believe it.

Now, nearly four years on the enterprise partnership has fourteen board members from the public, private and voluntary sectors committee to supporting and promoting the economic growth of Cheshire. Christine was asked by her fellow board members to Chair.

‘It’s such a diverse area. There are cities on your doorstep, yet the natural beauty of the countryside too. There are two airports, easy links. It’s just a great place to live and work.

‘We’ve a diverse economy too – we’ve not got all our eggs in one basket. We have strong financial services, automotive, chemical and tourism industries which offer huge potential to the UK and overseas markets.

‘As part of the government’s Growing Places Fund, we have been allocated £12m. This evergreen fund allows us to support and develop sites, unlocking development and leveraging private investment and, as developments are completed, recycle the funding for future developments.

‘Our Strategic Economic Plan and Growth Plan [a bid to secure funding from the £2bn Local Growth Fund] sees major projects proposed; Atlantic Gateway, extending the logistics and trade corridor from Liverpool, via the Ship Canal to Birchwood; and the Cheshire Science Corridor, creating a centre of excellence from Thornton Science Park to Alderley Park to Jodrell Bank and beyond.

‘Then there’s HS2, which will make Crewe a high speed city and completely regenerating south Cheshire. It’s not about the train, it’s about the capacity. The faster you can get people where they need to be, the more people can travel. We’ve all had the challenge of finding a seat on the Friday night train from Euston.

‘This, in turn, will offer the opportunity for businesses in the South to have very nice, affordable back offices here as more and more lifestyle decisions come to the fore in careers.

‘Let’s not forget the east to west links too, across the Pennines and supporting the Northern Powerhouse. It could be a massive economy.’

Christine was born and raised in the Northwest and still lives in Cheshire with her husband, Paul. She is a Deputy Lieutenant for Cheshire and quotes her proudest moment being asked to lay the wreath at the Alderley Edge cenotaph.  Christine was also awarded an MBE in the New Year Honours List 2012 for services to training and apprenticeships.

‘When I was little I wanted to be a fashion designer, then a lawyer. I was brought up on current affairs programmes Today and Panorama and in the 80s manufacturing was at the forefront of all the news. It looked like an exciting place to be, so after attaining my English degree I entered the graduate milkround and won a role at British Leyland’s truck division.

‘I was put in a head office role in employee relations, then into an engine plant in a similar role. Girls didn’t do that at the time. Have a look at the top of my head; you’ll see the marks from breaking that glass ceiling!

‘I never set out on a crusade for women’s role in the workplace, I don’t mean it to sound like that. I had amazing mentors and evety challenge I was given I took on. No plan but to do what I love doing and do it well.’

Thirteen years later Christine was part of the employee negotiations as British Leyland was bought by DAF. ‘It was an amazing era to be a part of.’ As there was no company to work for, Christine took a personnel manager position locally until she got a call from her brother.

‘One Sunday morning, out of the blue, my brother called. He said “I’ve found the perfect job for you advertised in the paper; board member at Bentley”.  I laughed and said “I don’t think so!” Then  a few days later I got a call from a head hunter!’

Over the next seventeen years Christine saw the sale of Bentley Motors to Volkswagen Audi Group (VAG) and was the driving force behind improving the skills and capability of Bentley’s workforce.

‘The new owners understood the brand and the industry, and were committed to its success in the long-term. I mean Crewe has been Bentley’s spiritual home since 1946. It is an iconic brand and run as such, paying tribute to the proud British heritage. The cars are designed, engineered and handcrafted in Crewe by a British workforce.

‘Vocational training has been highly underestimated in my opinion. Academic training and vocational are not better than each other. To me there is nothing nobler than apprenticeships and learning skills on the job.

‘To be part of the renaissance was incredible and investing back into the Bentley brand. We have a world class motor industry in the UK I think sometimes we forget.’

In 2012 Christine stepped down from her position as a Member of the Board at Bentley Motors Limited. ‘Some people were surprised as I was at ‘the top of my game’, or something like that, but it was right for me.

‘Retirement is a boring word for me so doing nothing was never an option!’ As well as being Chair of the enterprise partnership Christine sits on the board for a portfolio of companies sharing her experience and knowledge.

‘I often come across young women who say “I’m not ready” or “I haven’t enough experience”. My answer to anybody saying that is “if the opportunity is presented to you, grab it with both hands. More often than not you will swim and not sink”.

‘The way I was brought up, no was not part of my vocabulary. The result is that I have done some amazing things. Don’t be frightened, things always turn out better than you think.’

(871candwep.co.uk)

For The Cheshire Magazine, February 2015

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