The initiative that helped bring Nissan to the region is still hard at work, writes Alastair Gilmour.
John Sanderson with Richard, one of his three sons, at The Centurion, Newcastle
Nissan arrived in Sunderland in 1986 and has thrived ever since Margaret Thatcher opened the first factory in what is now a giant complex. But now Brexit threatens its North East future and that of the 7,755-strong workforce and 30,000 jobs in the supply chain.
More than 30 years ago, the chairman of the Northern Development Corporation told The Sunday Times that there were three reasons why Nissan had chosen Sunderland – the people, the skilled workforce, and the welcome they received at The George Washington Hotel.
“It was very nice for him to say that and very exciting for the staff as well,” says John Sanderson, who operated the hotel at the time and now heads STR Enterprises which owns several very successful hotels and leisure businesses around the North East. However, he’d learned a bit about Japanese practice ten years previously.
He says: “When I had an engineering business – Norsted Engineering – I read in The Journal that a Japanese company, NFK Ballbearings, was about to locate to Peterlee, the first in the region. So I got a letter translated and posted it off, offering our services. I never got a reply and was so disappointed.
“Then about six weeks later, a minibus full of Japanese arrived at our office in Hume Street (Newcastle) carrying the letter and asking if they could see the kind of work we did. I quickly phoned around places we had worked in but nobody wanted to meet them. Then Scottish & Newcastle agreed to show them what we had done on their new bottling line at the Tyne Brewery.
“They were very impressed and were invited to the hospitality lounge to try samples of Newcastle Brown Ale. (John, ever the diplomat, draws a veil over the next few hours.) The upshot was, we got the job of installing all the machinery in the new Peterlee factory.”
Norsted Engineering, with not one bad debt in 20 years, was later caught up in the collapse of the infamous Canary Wharf development scheme which hit the rocks owing millions. John Sanderson sold the business and moved into the leisure sector, taking over The George Washington Hotel which he built up from 18 rooms to 100, opened the first leisure club in the North East, plus a golf course.
In the mid-1980s Washington Development Corporation was approached by Nissan to advise on somewhere for their delegation to stay while they looked at available sites.
John says: “We all went off from the hotel to Durham University’s Department of Oriental Studies and got to know some Japanese customs and words. They are very superstitious and we made sure they didn’t have rooms with odd numbers and arranged Ikebana flowers in the rooms and in reception.”
In Japan, flower arranging is all-important, it’s about a fresh approach, movement, balance and harmony. The philosophy is that a single stem never dies.
“The chef made all Japanese food,” says John, “but they only wanted to eat British – but at least we tried. We also kept the leisure facilities open 24 hours a day so the shift workers could go for a swim in the middle of the night. They are extremely polite and very kind people and I got calendars for years after they went back to Japan.”
STR Enterprises is a real family business with John’s wife Elizabeth and sons Christopher, Jason and Richard all fully involved. A lot of the staff have been with the company so long they’re treated like family as well. The business includes The Centurion at Newcastle Central Station, The Queen Victoria Hotel in Bamburgh and the Grade I-listed Jacobean-era Manor House Hotel at West Auckland.
“We’ve got some fantastic people working for us, it gives me a real buzz – we run the company from the bottom up rather than top down,” says John. “The best people to give you ideas are those who are facing the customer.
“The Victoria Hotel was doing badly when we bought it and now it is extremely successful. Business is very good at The Manor House; I love good-looking buildings. We took The Centurion from a derelict building to fully operational in 12 weeks and it’s doing fantastically well. I wish I had ten of them.
“The Honest Lawyer in Durham had been flooded, abandoned and closed for five years. We put flood defences in and now it’s a very successful hotel. The Quayside Exchange – the best-looking building in Sunderland – is doing extremely well, as is Wallsend Golf Club. We love the local nature of the business with everything being within 40 miles of Newcastle. It’s a joy to go to work in them.”
Appearing in a list of Three Best Things in regard to Nissan is no bad thing for business. Once, twice, three times a payday.
*This article appeared first in Cheers North East (www.cheersnortheast.co.uk)