From humble beginnings in Northumberland, Sir John Hall rose to mastermind the development of the largest shopping centre in Europe and reinvigorate Newcastle United.
But now, at the age of 84, he is back – for part of the time at least – in our ‘magnificent county’; the renowned North-East businessman and chairman of the Magpies at a time when that elusive league title was almost delivered enjoys spending time at his house in Lesbury.
It’s been a full and eventful life that has seen Sir John go from the pit village near Ashington where he grew up to walking his dogs along the north Northumberland coast, but wherever he has been and whatever he has done, he has always remained in touch with his roots and, speaking to the Gazette last week, was full of affection for a ‘wonderful, wonderful county’.
Born into a mining family in North Seaton, Ashington, Sir John earned a place at the grammar school in Bedlington in 1944, which he says ‘made a tremendous difference to my life’.
He wanted to be a municipal engineer and went for a number of interviews, but was unsuccessful, before his old headteacher told him there was a job as an apprentice mining surveyor at Newbiggin Colliery and he would put in a word if he wanted it.
“I was indignant,” Sir John said. “I was too good for the pits. But my father said to me, ‘Take that job and it will help you get another job’, and I never knew what he meant until years later.
“So I took it and went down the pits for eight years. I had a great time, there was a great camaraderie and the coal board was a wonderful employer.”
He then started to study to become a chartered surveyor so the coal board moved him above ground to work in its estates office in Ashington. A year after starting there, he turned up to work to discover that the land agent had died suddenly and he had to take on his files.
After qualifying, a visit to Killingworth New Town which was being built by Northumberland County Council at the time proved very illuminating. “I just learned about development,” Sir John says.
Next up was working as an estate agent in Sunderland to learn about the selling of houses. And it was there that he set up his company, Cameron Hall – Cameron being his wife Mae’s maiden name as ‘she was as much part of the business as I was’.
Despite having no money, he happened to meet a bank manager, Peter Swainson, who had moved to the city around the same time and, having set up an account with him, received a £2,000 loan. Sir John used his services for 32 years until he moved away from the North East and retired.
Houses in Sunderland were bought and modernised before being sold on for a profit and there followed a move into commercial development, starting with a new Co-op in Gateshead.
The seeds of what became the Metrocentre were sown during Sir John’s trips abroad.
“One thing I learned was we don’t have all the answers in property in the UK so I travelled and travelled, mainly to America. At the time, it was where everything happened in retailing, where all the new ideas were.
“I saw the American malls and I thought that was a great idea for the English winters. I tried to find a site for it, but I was before my time. No local authority was going to let an out-of-town shopping development go ahead.
“Then Mrs Thatcher got into power and in order to stimulate the economy, she created Enterprise Zones, based on an American idea so I knew what they were.”
The aim was to cut taxes and strip back planning rules in areas which were unattractive for development, just like the site in Gateshead where the Metrocentre was built, which Sir John says was ‘a lagoon’ where they used to pump all the slurry from the power station at Dunston.
But having gained an option from the electricity board on 100 acres of land and the Enterprise Zone status being granted, there still remained the tricky problem of persuading retailers to come on board.
“I learned a lesson; if you’ve got anything to sell, tell the world,” says Sir John, so in an era before the internet and social media, he organised a three-day exhibition at Gateshead’s Five Bridges Hotel.
The turning point was when Marks and Spencer agreed to take on 150,000 square feet and from there all the others followed. Within six months, most of the scheme was let.
“Here I am, just a local little company and I’m building a £100million scheme and it really got a bit too big for us and I was a bit nervous.”
And it was at this point that the Church Commissioners offered to buy it. Initially, Cameron Hall retained a 50 per cent stake, but Sir John didn’t want to work with other people and sold the rest.
However, he now says that this is the one regret in his business career: “I wish I’d had a mentor when I started the business and when I built the Metrocentre – I wouldn’t have sold it, I’d have a kept it as an investment, it’s worth a billion pounds today.
“But, of course, when I was offered the money I was, I had never seen so many noughts in my life. This is what small businesses need – mentors, people who have experienced business who can say, ‘hang on, don’t do that’. You have got to experience all these things to understand.”
He adds that coming from a working-class background, there was always a philosophy of not taking on debt, ‘but that’s my one regret, that I didn’t mortgage the Metrocentre’.
The sale was used to fund the 1987 purchase of Wynyard Park, on Teesside, and again the inspiration was from across the Atlantic – this time, a development near Houston, Texas, called Woodlands.
Having bought the estate, Sir John Hall recalls taking his wife and her mother to see it for the first time. Upon spotting the country house, his mother-in-law said: “Oh Mae, how will you clean it!”
Sir John, now in his 80s and having been diagnosed with prostate cancer a number of years ago, largely takes a back seat in the business now, acting as a consultant for his son and daughter, who run the two sides of the business.
Wynyard, under his daughter’s control, is now run as a hotel, while housing development continues on the site.
Despite still splitting time between an apartment at Wynyard Hall and the family house in Lesbury, it is clear that Sir John is enjoying being back in the county of his birth.
“It’s a wonderful, wonderful county,” he said.
“We have made lots and lots of friends in Lesbury, it’s a great village, good pub and the cricket – I’m enjoying my time at the cricket.
“We’re splitting our time between the two; Wynyard’s still the main residence, here is a place to relax to get away from all the stresses.
“They never leave you when you’re in business, you can never, never get away. You’re never totally relaxed, but it’s exciting.”
They have moved from another house to their second in Lesbury, as they wanted something a bit bigger ‘so that everyone can enjoy it’.
“We’re here, Mae and I, and the family come up and join us, that’s the whole idea – we’re great family people. We have got a very good social life up here.”
Later in our interview, he added: “Now I have come back to spend some time in my roots, which is Northumberland, a most magnificent county. When I walk on the beach with the dogs and look across the bay, you just think, what a wonderful place.”
l The second part of the interview, including Sir John’s stint at NUFC, will be in next week’s Gazette.