Graham Burt, Sunderland Carers’ Centre chief executive

FOR most, the demise of coal mining in the North-East signified the beginning of an economic hiatus for the region, a period that many places continue to feel the impact of today.

But for Sunderland-born Graham Burt, it was the beginning of a new chapter, which would lead him to the helm of an organisation that is changing the lives of more than 8,000 people on Wearside.

"It really was a new beginning for me," says the 59-year-old, who runs Sunderland Carers' Centre.

The organisation, supported by funding from Sunderland Clinical Commissioning Group and Sunderland City Council, delivers vital assistance to carers of all ages in the city.

He said: “I remember being in Spain staying in my Mam’s apartment and doing casual work during the 1984 Miners Strike and thinking ‘I really need to get serious about my future’ – and I did.

"I decided to do something completely different.”

Having taken what he thought would be a "temporary job in 1977 that became a ten-year stint" at the National Coal Board, Mr Burt followed his family into heavy industry.

He said: "My Grandad worked down the mines.

"He survived the Battle of the Somme only to return and lose a leg in Silksworth Colliery and my father worked at Philadelphia Workshops for the NCB from 14.

"I knew, when the mines started to close in the 1980s and the hardship of the 1984 Miners Strike, that I had to make a change and find a job that was for me."

Inspired by his love of working with young people – something he has been doing since 1986 as a karate instructor – and, in a move that he describes as "them having more confidence in my ability than I ever had in my own", Mr Burt joined Springboard, a training provider in Sunderland.

The organisation was set up to help those who may have fallen out of education or employment take their first steps towards work.

He said: "It was at Springboard that I really understood that everyone matters.

"It was the start of a passion for the voluntary sector and all it stands for.

"I realised ability is not something that is measured with qualifications.

"People are different and special in lots of different ways."

Over the next decade, Mr Burt worked in various roles at Springboard, as well as a short stint of self-employment.

He said: "I learnt a lot.

"I was lucky enough to take part in youth exchanges to Greece and Brazil, where I supported some really life-changing projects, including working in the Favelas, which are bad enough now but were terrifying then."

It was there that Mr Burt met a Brazilian teacher named Rosa, someone he credits with shaping his leadership style, even today.

He said: "Rosa was an inspirational teacher, who chose to educate people in the Favelas and give them a chance at life.

"Despite not speaking the same language as her, her social conscience and her commitment to the community she lived and worked in made her a bit of a role model to me.

"I often think 'what would Rosa do' and I know that my decision-making can't go too far wrong with her guiding it."

After growing his knowledge of the voluntary sector, Mr Burt made a move to Sunderland City Council, in a role that was focused on developing the city's relationship with charities and trusts operating in the area.

It was during his 12-year tenure with the council that a chief executive vacancy at Sunderland Carers' Centre came up.

He said: "At the time, there were only two jobs in the world I felt I would leave the council to apply for.

"One of those was the job with the Carers' Centre and I couldn’t ignore the opportunity.

"It was an organisation I knew well, having developed a Beacon Status bid in recognition of the great work we were doing for carers as a city thanks to the centre."

Mr Burt was offered the job, and took up his role in 2012.

He said: “Carers are at the heart of this city.

"They are ordinary people who are doing truly extraordinary things for their friends or family.

“It’s an unavoidable fact that most people will, at some point, whether in the short or long-term, become a carer.

"It is something that touches so many people’s lives and not only that but businesses too.

"In Sunderland, there are probably between 75,000 and 90,000 carers, many of whom are employed.

"It can have a huge impact on these people.

"If people are not supported, and feel their only option is to leave work, more than 40 per cent will never return to employment.

"That’s a shocking statistic, and in an age of skills shortages is a scary prospect for employers.

“It’s vital we support carers – that the business community supports carers.

“One challenge is that people often don’t identify themselves as being a carer, but when a loved one becomes ill or needs support, the harsh reality of sacrificing your own time to take care of someone else, leaves people needing flexibility.

"We have a duty as employers to support them through what can be a really challenging time.

"Not least because it is morally right, but because it makes good business sense when you consider the impact of losing a team member because they simply can’t balance the demands facing them.”

Businesses can support the Carers’ Centre in more practical ways.

As well as embedding greater support for carers, and signposting to the centre, they can also offer donations to financially support its work.

Mr Burt added: “When I joined the centre, one of the first things we needed to address was funding streams.

"We rely heavily on public sector support, and we must attract more private sector backing.

"After all, this impacts on everyone - from businesses to individuals.

“Heavy industry in this region left behind a legacy of ill health.

"It also left behind close-knit communities and these are values I think we still hold as an area.

"Businesses work together, people work together – it’s a supportive area.

"We rely on that spirit.

"It’s what makes Sunderland Carers’ Centre work and what keeps the region working, and I am proud to play a part in that.”

Five minutes with... Graham Burt

Favourite North-East building and why? Having been born and raised in Penshaw, which was then in County Durham, I cannot think of a more iconic building than the Penshaw Monument.

What was your first job and how much did you get paid? Delivering papers from a shop in Herrington to houses in Penshaw. My first real full-time job was in the Department of National Savings, in Durham. It lasted three months before I joined the National Coal Board in 1977.

What is the worst job you've had? Without doubt working in a local abattoir while still at school for extra money.

What would you cook for me if I came around for dinner? Slow roasted lamb shoulder with garlic and rosemary and all the trimmings.

What would your superpower be? Being in two places at once.

Name four people, dead or alive, who would be at your perfect dinner party: My wife Sandra, because she would hate not being involved, Robin Williams, Dudley Moore and Dolly Parton. It would be a real giggle.

Most expensive thing you've bought - other than car or house - and how much? I once hired a large speedboat with a crew in Portugal for the day, which was extravagant at £1,000. My wife and son, my sister and her partner had a fantastic day.

Who is the best person to follow on Twitter and why? I love to follow Carers Trust as it keeps me updated and grounded.

Favourite book? To Kill a Mockingbird, closely followed by The Book Thief.

When did you last cry? Watching The Book Thief film over Easter.

What is your greatest achievement? Being a karate instructor, seeing someone have the courage to walk into the Dojo as a pure beginner and progress over the years to become a black belt and then truly to start to learn.

What's the best piece of advice in business you've ever been given? If in doubt, say nowt.

Favourite animal and why? Tigers. They are just so cool.

Most famous person on your mobile phone? I don’t have any really. What I do have is important people, people who know me and know if I say I am going to deliver something, I will.

What was the last band you saw live? Pink Martini at the Sage.

Describe your perfect night in: Couple of drinks in a bar overlooking the sea before returning home to finger food, a movie (old or new) and then bed to read my book. It feels like heaven.

In another life, I would be... An actor.

Who would play you in a film of your life? Not being the tallest of chaps I think Martin Compston (Steve Arnott in Line of Duty) would be about right.

What irritates you? People who cheat at anything.

What's your secret talent? I can kick higher than people think.