At the end of this month, I will retire after 15 years as Chief Executive of Cumbria Chamber of Commerce.
When I took the job, I came with a background in industry but only a scant knowledge of the Chamber network. Over time, I’ve come to appreciate how Chambers can make a real difference for businesses.
There are 53 Chambers like ours across the UK. All owned by and run for the benefit of local businesses. At the same time, they are businesses in their own right with enterprise in their DNA and a mindset to succeed and create products and services of value. It’s a unique model that we should cherish.
Cumbria has faced tough challenges in recent years including multiple floods, Brexit and now the coronavirus pandemic.
No matter what, the Chamber has acted as a first responder for business providing support, essential information and guidance.
When floods hit in 2009 and 2015, we didn’t wait for the Government to act. We dipped into the Chamber’s reserves to fund advisers and grants to help businesses through the immediate aftermath.
I’ve witnessed how Chambers can influence Government. I’ve taken part in conference calls with other Chamber CEOs, spelling out to ministers the issues faced by businesses during the pandemic, and I’ve seen those conversations lead to interventions to better target funding to meet businesses’ needs.
Alongside my role as Chamber CEO, I’ve been honoured to serve on the board of the Regional Learning and Skills Council, as a director of the North West Regional Development Agency and then, following its abolition, to play a pivotal role in establishing Cumbria Local Enterprise Partnership.
In 2012 we set up Cumbria Business Growth Hub to fill the void when the Government dismantled the national Business Link business support network. The Growth Hub has so far assisted 8,500 Cumbrian businesses including many start-ups.
We also deliver New Enterprise Allowance, a worthwhile Government initiative to help unemployed people start in business. We’ve been so successful that we were awarded contracts to run it in Lancashire and Merseyside, as well as in Cumbria.
The Chamber invented the Growth Hub, made it work, demonstrated its value and then saw it rolled out by Government as the national model for business support.
That’s an enormous source of pride, as are the accolades I’ve received over the years including the MBE for services to business, the Institute of Directors’ North West Third Sector Director of the Year Award and, most recently, in-Cumbria’s Lifetime Contribution Award – the latter surely a hint that it’s time to retire.
I’ve been fortunate too to work with some talented and inspirational colleagues at the Chamber and Growth Hub. These awards are as much a reflection on their efforts and hard work as they are my own.
Equally, I’m grateful for the support we’ve had from external stakeholders and funders not least Sellafield and Cumbria’s local authorities.
So what of the future? 2020 has been a difficult year for obvious reasons and none of us knows what 2021 will bring.
But I remain optimistic about Cumbria’s prospects. It’s a phenomenal place with some world-class businesses. I never cease to be amazed at the capability, resilience and entrepreneurial flair of the people who run them.
We have the ability to create fantastic businesses but perhaps we need to be more aware of what other Cumbrian businesses are doing, to collaborate more, and I hope that’s something the Chamber will be able to facilitate.
Our board is using my retirement as an opportunity to restructure the Chamber so that it is in the best possible position to respond to future challenges.
Rather than appoint a new Chief Executive, my Deputy, Suzanne Caldwell, will become our first Managing Director overseeing a team responsible for delivering specific functions, activities and outputs.
I’m delighted that Suzanne has taken on this role. I know she has the skills and commitment to take the Chamber to the next level. I hope you will be able to work constructively with her, as you have done with me.
I will be staying on as a non-executive director. Indeed, part of my new role is to recruit board members to help take the Chamber forward.
If that is of interest, if you’re a Chamber member who would like to give something back to the business community, then please get in touch by email at email@example.com
Signing off as Chief Executive is quite an emotional moment. The Chamber has been a fundamental part of my life, 24-7, for these last 15 years.
I’ve enjoyed representing, and working with, so many fantastic businesses and behind those businesses exceptional people who, through their hard and work and enterprise, create the wealth that underpins the fabric of our society.
It has been an enormous privilege and a pleasure. I wish you, your families and your businesses a happy Christmas and all the very best for the future.
ROB JOHNSTON, MBE, FCIM
Chief Executive, Cumbria Chamber of Commerce
As mentioned in the letter above, Rob recently received the Robin Burgess Lifetime Contribution to Cumbria Award in the 2020 in-Cumbria Business Awards. More in this short video: