Star Interview: Sir Norman Adsetts puts his life as a Man of Sheffield on record

Sir Norman Adsetts.
Sir Norman Adsetts.

The nickname ‘Mr Sheffield’ has followed Sir Norman Adsetts for decades.

Over 30 years as managing director of Sheffield Insulations Group he steered the firm towards being the multi-billion-pound global concern it is today, was a prime mover in the city’s regeneration, championed culture and played an important role in the birth of Hallam University - so much so that the student library on Arundel Gate bears his surname.

But, however tempting it might have seemed, using the sobriquet as the title for his life story wasn’t on the cards.

“It sounds a bit too self-congratulatory for me,” he says. “Let that be other people’s opinion, not mine.”

Instead, more democratically, he’s called the book ‘A Man of Sheffield’, dedicating half of the volume to the lives of his ancestors. There are some surprising and salacious branches of the Adsetts family tree, it turns out.

William Henry Adsetts II was a murderer hanged in Hong Kong in 1907 for killing an actress and opera singer, while his earlier namesake was a bigamist champion athlete involved in race-fixing.

This was all news to Sir Norman’s ears. He worked on the book for 30 years, on and off, starting writing at around the time he succeeded his father Ernest as SIG’s chairman in 1985.

“He knew his grandfather had died in an accident with a scythe while gardening but he didn’t know much more than that. He was seven when his father died, so he never really had much of a chance to talk with him. He was a bit of a lonely child because his brothers and sisters were 10 or 20 years older – he was a late arrival.”

The Adsetts line begins in Clowne in the 1600s - 12 generations linking directly to Norman, who was born over the Pennines in Withington, Manchester, in 1931.

His family came to Sheffield in 1934, and as a child he had little interest in business. Ernest ran an ice cream company, Abbetts, based on Ridgeway Road, but his son foresaw a life at sea instead.

“I would have preferred to have been a sailor, and wanted to go to Naval College at Dartmouth. That was when I was pretty young, 10 or 11. I tried to persuade my father and failed.”

Winning a scholarship to King Edward VII school in Broomhill aged 11 meant his aspirations were diverted, and he admits that, slowly, he changed his mind and started to relish the challenges of business. He was a bright boy, and was steered by the grammar school towards a scholarship at Oxford, where he read PPE - philosophy, politics and economics.

Halfway through Norman’s schooling Ernest came back from the RAF and re-started the ice cream venture as a firm named Maytime.

“I was old enough to get involved – selling ice cream, driving the delivery van when I had a licence. I guess that was my first real introduction to business. But it was very small and I had aspirations to be in a larger company. There wasn’t really much room for me.”

After university Norman joined Fibreglass Ltd, and moved to St Helen’s, Merseyside, having married his wife, Eve, in 1956.

“There wasn’t really much of an attraction, apart from family, to staying in Sheffield. Because Sheffield was a pretty dull place at the time. There was no real city centre; industry and accommodation was all mixed up in the middle. There wasn’t much in the way of entertainment, apart from a lot of cinemas. The difference between now and then is unbelievable. For a young person it was a rather boring place. Our main entertainment was Saturday night hops - ballroom dancing - where I met Eve.”

He pulls a face when asked whether he was an ambitious young man.

“I was questioning, eager for knowledge. I was reading a lot, so had visions of all kinds of possible directions for my life. It was a trend in me that turned me into a jack-of-all-trades.”

A single picture in the book captures the moment SIG began - entrepreneurship in action. Taken at an Ideal Home Exhibition in 1956 at the Edmund Road Drill Hall in Sheffield, Maytime’s catering stand is laden with provisions, but stacked up in the corner are small rolls of a product called Cosywrap, used for insulating lofts.

Norman had heard about the new line at a conference in Southport, and when his father was offered a free stand at the exhibition he told him it would fit the bill. Maytime was struggling as television was shutting cinemas, ice cream’s traditional home for sales.

Ernest borrowed 29 rolls of Cosywrap, and ended up selling 1,300. The Sheffield Insulating Company, as it was originally known, was swiftly registered.

“Opportunism, and the ability to see a chance, is the essence of recognising new markets. My father was good at it and I inherited some of it,” says Sir Norman.

“You can describe it as coincidence, but coincidences that turn into real trading opportunities distinguish the best of the business people from the others.”

He joined his father in the company aged 35 in 1966.

“At the time we had a turnover of about £150,000, and possibly a dozen employees and two vehicles. When I left 20 years ago it was £500 million but now it’s several billion.”

Does he take pride in such staggering figures?

“I like achieving things, and setting targets. I’m clearly proud of my achievements, but it isn’t my first thought.”

He was Hallam University’s first chairman of governors when the polytechnic transformed itself in 1992. In the years since, higher education has become a hugely competitive market, but Sir Norman - who fought to create a better relationship between the public and private sectors - denies that universities are now too business-minded.

“I don’t think they’ve gone too far down the road. One thing I found when I was asked to come in on two or three of these private-public organisations is that not enough effort or time or thought was going into recognising what was changing in the marketplace.”

In the 1980s and 90s he was the chairman of Sheffield Theatres, and drove forward the restoration of the Lyceum where, as a schoolboy, he avoided football by watching plays on Wednesday afternoons. He also applied his thinking to the Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust, becoming its first chairman in 1994 and overseeing the relaunch of Kelham Island Museum and the Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet.

Today Sir Norman lives in Eckington with Eve - they occupy a ‘slice’, as he puts it, of a large house where their daughter Helen lives with two of their grandsons, Stephen and Jonathan, both of whom are in their mid-twenties and have autism. Norman and Eve also have a son, Philip, six more grandchildren and one great-grandchild, with another on the way.

“It’s basically a three-generation household; it works very well.” He’s 86 now, and a little hard of hearing, but other than that seems as sharp as ever, eagerly showing off his garden with heated swimming pool, avenue of lime trees and countryside views.

Sir Norman’s study is packed with books, family photos and reminders of his past - including his coat of arms with an Italian motto that translates as ‘he who does nothing makes no mistakes’. Learning through trial and error is something of an Adsetts philosophy. When taking holidays he used to book three weeks off – sufficient time, he reckoned, for staff to make instructive slip-ups.

He retired from SIG in 1996 and was knighted three years later. SIG will leave its old headquarters at Hillsborough Barracks next year, and its growth has stalled recently, but Sir Norman thinks things can be turned around by playing up ‘the heritage of the original company’.

“What we became was a kind of unique middleman with a big emphasis on meeting customers’ needs while also being very sensitive to the needs of the supplier as well. You can survive if you carry on meeting the needs of the customer.”

A Man of Sheffield: The Adsetts Story is being launched on Thursday at a special event in the Crucible Studio, where Sir Norman will be interviewed by Lord Bob Kerslake. The book, published by RMC Media, is available on Amazon and at Waterstones in Orchard Square, priced £17.95.

‘Professionals needed to be taught about autism’

Sir Norman Adsetts was motivated by his grandsons’ autism to change the way the condition was dealt with in everyday life.

“Autism is a particularly difficult condition to understand,” he says, remembering the ‘traumatic impact’ of the two diagnoses, which came in 1996, early in his chairmanship of Hallam University’s governors.

He spoke to the National Autistic Society, who reported a shortage of professionals - such as teachers and police - who understood about the condition in children.

“My business brain clicked in. Sheffield Hallam as a polytechnic was a group of training colleges who trained professionals. But here was a change in need. I went back and said ‘There’s a big opportunity here for you, they need to be taught more about autism - add that to your product and you’ve created a competitive advantage’.”

A small education and research unit in the university grew into the Autism Centre. Sir Norman went on to work with autism charities and in 2008 launched the The Adsetts Partnership, which offers work to people with the disorder.