Industrialist and investor Sir Hugh Sykes speaks about his role in Sheffield’s regeneration and why anyone can turn their hand to entrepreneurship
Within the first few pages of Sir Hugh Sykes’ new memoir there is a telling passage recounting a decisive moment in the industrialist and investor’s childhood.
After the second world war, Hugh’s father William, a church parson, took early retirement and money in the family became tight.
Gone was the car, the nanny, the big house and the expected place at public school. Instead Hugh and his twin brother Richard were sent to the local grammar.
“We felt humiliated and inferior,” he writes.
“Probably that sense of inferiority made me even more determined to succeed.”
I was always trying to encourage the city to make good plans
By any yardstick he’s reclaimed his lost prestige over the following decades. A distinguished former global businessman, bank chairman and Master Cutler, Hugh calls a bucolic 130-acre estate in the Peak District home.
Yet today he claims that cash isn’t a motivator – and, in fact, selling his internationally successful firm Thermal Scientific for £72 million in 1988 was ‘from a financial point of view, the wrong thing to do’.
He adds: “To me, life is about more than just making money.”
There was a greater challenge in the offing, he goes on to explain – namely the task of chairing the Sheffield Development Corporation, a controversial Government-formed body responsible for regenerating the Lower Don Valley after the area went into steep decline sparked by the closure of the steelworks.
He’s proud of the transformation the corporation brought about, and can reel off a list of achievements – £683m of private investment stimulated from £108m of public funds, a link road connecting the M1 to the city centre and offices covering thousands of square feet.
There was the Sheffield City Airport, too, but this project still plays on his mind. It shut for good in 2008, rendering the vision of flights to Europe from Tinsley Park a dream once again.
“A great shame, in my book,” he says.
Meadowhall, the retail colossus that has sucked trade out of the city centre, is the biggest elephant in the room – but Hugh is at pains to point out the corporation’s limited role on that score, the initial go-ahead having been granted by the city council before the SDC was set up.
“The impact of Meadowhall is a concern,” he says, well-informed and sharp at 84. “I was always conscious of that and trying to encourage the city to make good plans.”
Hugh spent nine years heading the corporation, from 1988 until it was abolished in 1997, and later chaired Sheffield One, an urban development company that focused on city centre projects. He’s now chronicled his life story in a book called Lighting The Furnace, which is endorsed by ex-Prime Minister John Major, no less, who refers to Hugh as ‘a shy man’ – although the author prefers ‘modest’.
“If you put your mind to it, it’s amazing what you can actually do.”
Hugh was born in Bristol, one of five children. During the war the family was evacuated to Cumbria after William’s church was hit and destroyed by a bomb.
National Service in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps was followed by a scholarship to study law at Cambridge, after which he held accountancy and financial positions with different companies. Hugh bought his first firm, Bamford-based furnace-maker Carbolite, in 1972, with friend Bill Mills. Many ventures ensued as companies were taken over and sold – Hugh even set up Real Radio along the way.
Thermal Scientific, which Carbolite became, emerged as the prime triumph. His wife, Ruby, now Lady Sykes, had misgivings about its sale at first, but was eventually persuaded.
The couple have been married for nearly 40 years, and moved to Brookfield Manor in Hathersage 10 years ago, having previously lived at Hallfield House, Bradfield Dale. They have two sons together, Christopher and Andrew, while Hugh has another two sons, Peter and Jonathan, from an earlier marriage. Banking came later – his spell as Master Cutler from 1990-91 led to a non-executive directorship at Yorkshire Bank, and a decade later he chaired the bank’s larger owner NAG Europe.
A personal account with the Bank of England, plus debit card, was a notable perk of this period.
Early on in Hugh’s chairmanship of the SDC he was accused of using his position for financial gain – he denied the allegation, and was cleared after a fashion, but 25 years on he still feels strongly about it. “It really was stressful. Because I wasn’t a rogue, I didn’t know how to defend myself.”
Since being knighted in 1997, Hugh has chaired Mid Yorkshire Hospitals and focused on his and Ruby’s charitable trust, which has made donations to health, education and the arts. Hugh formerly chaired the Sheffield Galleries and Museums Trust, and the Sykes Gallery in the Millennium Gallery is a nod to the couple’s contribution.
The Lower Don Valley today is ‘buzzing’, he says. He feels Sheffield is friendlier to business than it once was.
“I did work very hard at that. The ARMC is really good – the universities, the research, Boeing and McLaren. And there’s a glimmering of a digital economy starting, which is where the emphasis should be. We’re in the middle of the fourth industrial revolution, and is Sheffield up to speed on that? That’s the question I’d ask.”
* Lighting The Furnace: The Story of a Burning Ambition is out now. Copies can be ordered online from Amazon, priced £16.95.