As chief executive of Newcastle Airport, David Laws has seen countless flights come and go. Now, however, he’s preparing for his own departure. He spoke to Deputy Business Editor Steven Hugill about his tenure, his time as a football referee and learning from Alan Shearer

“I REMEMBER when Alan Shearer stopped playing for England; I couldn’t believe it.

“I told him he'd taken me by surprise, but he said you've got to get out at the top; that you have to pick the right time once you’ve done everything you think you can achieve.

“That’s when, he said, you leave the right legacies.”

David Laws, Newcastle Airport’s chief executive, has cherished that sage advice for years.

Now, however, the words have new meaning.

Last week, Mr Laws, known to many as Davie, revealed he will step down from his position at the end of the month.

His announcement came as a genuine shock to airport staff and the wider regional business community, for which he spent two years championing as North East Chamber of Commerce (NECC) president.

The former football referee, who oversaw games at Wembley and Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, is leaving the airport after 37 years’ service.

It’s not the end for the 58-year-old, however, who will take up a part-time senior advisory role with infrastructure company AMP Capital’s international airports business.

For the ex-fireman, who took a pay cut to leave the airport’s apron and join the site’s corporate team, it’s a case of farewell but not goodbye to the aviation industry.

Borrowing the phrase from Sir Bobby Robson, another famous Newcastle United name Mr Laws lists as a valued confidant, he says the AMP work will provide a short-term break from his demanding hours, allowing time to find another permanent role.

For the next week-and-a-half, however, Mr Laws says the focus remains on the airport and leaving it in the best possible shape for his replacement.

The ex-commercial director, who has held the title of chief executive for ten years, was instrumental in getting Fly Emirates’ daily Dubai flight to the airport and also lured United into bringing New York services to the region in the spring and summer.

Those blue ribbon routes have been added to by a raft of further recent announcements, including Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair’s commitment to strengthen its winter programme with Lanzarote, Tenerife and Malaga offerings and Vueling’s Barcelona operations.

Such endeavours, says Mr Laws, already mean the airport’s passengers numbers will rise from 4.8 million to 5.3 million next year, with a car park extension now under way to cope with the increase in demand.

He previously told The Northern Echo he wanted to expand the Big Apple connection to an all-year round service by 2020, adding plans for a business park, which has the potential to create thousands of jobs, could move closer this year.

Those proposals will now be waiting on the desk of the airport’s new chief executive, though Mr Laws has no regrets.

He said: “Last year was phenomenal for the business and for me personally.

“We have done new things with Ryanair, for example, and it has been a privilege to lead the team.

“They have achieved so much and I look forward to seeing them, pun intended, taking this place to new heights.

“When I inherited the airport back in the dark days, when it was not seen in the light it is today, I had to get people onside and get them believing in it again.

“I introduced two words to help set that away.

“Our brand used to be Newcastle International; now it is Newcastle International – Your Airport.

“We gave the airport back to the people.

“I got a fantastic note from Tim Clark, Emirates’ president, who thanked me for getting the brand right at the top of the North-East.

“The awards our team have won also show we’re not a flash in the pan and I wanted to leave this place with world-class facilities.

“I think we have managed that with our new £14m departure terminal.

“I had the pleasure of working for the airport’s previous bosses, Jimmy Denyer and Trevor Went.

“I think they would both look me in the eye and say ‘I trusted you and you didn’t let me down’.

“This place is in fine shape; I think I’ve done them proud.”

Pride commands a big part of Mr Laws’ personal and working life, and it will, he says, be a useful weapon when he starts with AMP, which is listed as a Newcastle Airport shareholder, alongside local councils.

Referring to Hitachi Rail Europe’s £82m investment to bring trainbuilding back to the North-East at Newton Aycliffe, County Durham, Mr Laws says his passion for the North-East, coupled with his time as NECC president, will stand him in good stead.

He said: “Telling the people I was leaving was really hard, but once I’d done it there was a sense of relief.

“I’m excited about what I’m going to be doing with AMP; the North-East wants business and needs business leaders.

“AMP is a big Australian infrastructure company and my new role means that someone like me, from the North-East, can sing about the North-East.

“I’ll be fighting for this region.”

When you meet Mr Laws, you are greeted with a friendly smile, strong handshake and pat on the back.

He’s a man you can have a proper conversation with; if you want to be bombarded with business clichés and banalities, you’ll be disappointed.

If you want character and colour, look no further.

Key to such attributes, he says, are his days in football, both as a referee and a coach.

Sitting in his office, as planes come into land over his shoulder, a window framing their approach perfectly, Mr Laws unfurls a list of the sport’s great names, all of whom he’s had the pleasure to meet and learn from.

He’s known Shearer for years, but he was close to Sir Bobby Robson and Brian Clough, with his time in the middle also putting him in contact with World Cup referee George Courtney, who is now president of the Ebac Northern League.

A hip injury put paid to hopes of being a footballer, but, as he recovered, Mr Laws did his referee exams at 14 and got his FA coaching badges soon after.

Work with Manchester City came from the latter, as did the beginnings of soaking up managerial practice and advice, which he still uses to this day.

He said: “I wanted to play football, but my hip injury saw to that.

“I did my coaching, spending a lot of my time with Cloughie, taking youngsters down to Nottingham Forest.

“I got to know him and his backroom staff and witnessed first-hand some of his styles, which were forthright to say the least.

“Sir Bobby was another, though he had many strings to his bow.

“He was a gentleman and could tell when he needed to be forthright, when he needed to put an arm around someone or when someone needed to be cajoled.

“I remember a time at the airport when Craig Bellamy was getting upset.

“Sir Bobby saw this and asked if they could go airside.

“The three of us did so and went to the place they’d be flying from.

“He was telling him ‘you are going to score the winning goal’ and things like that.

“It was all about getting Craig onside; it was a lot harder for him to go home from there.

“It was brilliant what Sir Bobby did; he was an unbelievable person and a big influence on me.

“I always remember too when I got on the national list of referees.

“George Courtney, who used to call me Lawsy, said to me: ‘Now you’re on the list, don’t change.

“You’re here on the back of what you’ve done.’

“I went through the local leagues fairly quickly and I’m proud I came up through the Northern League.

“Within that was Mike Amos, another loyal man, and I remember my times in the league with him.

“These people are North-East icons.”

Being a referee, says Mr Laws, also helped when learning how to deal with people and create a team atmosphere.

In that role, it wasn’t just the professionals he kept in check.

Alongside an appointment to be fourth official at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium in 2001, when Bolton Wanderers defeated Preston North End 3-0 in the Division One play-off final, he was the man in the middle for the last FA Vase final at the old Wembley, in 2000, as Deal Town beat Chippenham Town.

Tales of speaking to captains pre-match, some of which are far too colourful to print, about their responsibilities in the impending game pour out, as does a memory of being the fourth official at Shearer’s testimonial against Celtic, in 2006.

He added: “My thing with players was communication; if I had used my yellow card I thought I’d failed.

“I always tried to be preventative and if there was a decision a manager didn’t like I’d always go and have a look at it again.

“If I’d got it wrong, I’d call them on the Monday morning and apologise.

“It gave me credibility and they knew I was honest.”

Sometimes, however, there was a need to bend the rules ever so slightly.

“I was fourth official at Alan’s testimonial at St James’ Park”, said Mr Laws.

“He’d been injured the week before in a tackle with Sunderland’s Julio Arca.

“However, we agreed with Gordon Strachan (Celtic’s manager) that Alan could come on in the last five minutes, that there would be a penalty and that he would take it.

“But on the night when Celtic were winning, Gordon came marching up to me; he wasn’t too keen on the idea anymore!”

His stories, he starts another about sharing a treatment room with Newcastle’s Shay Given and Nikos Dabizas before getting side-tracked, sum up his career.

It’s one of success and a devotion to achieve the best for those around him, be they young footballers, holidaymakers or the North-East business community, with a laugh and joke not too far away.

“It’s been quite an innings and quite a career, and you only get out of life what you put in”, he added.

“But this isn’t the end and it’s not the final chapter, there will be something else.”