A personal tribute to James Ramsbotham, who officially hands over his responsibilities as Chief Executive of the North East England Chamber of Commerce at the start of next week...

AS he looks back on his 15 years as an unswerving champion of the North-East, James Ramsbotham has no shortage of memories, not least a hair-raising experience during a trade mission to Northern China.

James, along with his then president, had been put into a green army bus, with the driver under strict instructions to get the VIP visitors to an aircraft factory on time.

Unfortunately, a queue of traffic was snaking into the distance, so the driver promptly commandeered two waiting lorry drivers to help him to dismantle the central barrier of the motorway, enabling the bus to cross onto the opposite carriageway and drive at high speed through oncoming traffic.

“He got us there on time, so he probably got promoted,” laughs James.

The memory serves as a fitting analogy because, when he took over as Chief Executive of the North East Chamber of Commerce in July, 2006, James found himself fighting against a steady flow of negative publicity facing the region.

“The region kept talking itself down without realising it,” he recalls. “In trying to win support for the region, our politicians kept saying it was a terrible place. It was like trying to sell a car by saying it was the worst one on the road.”

He made it his mission to talk the North-East up, and his first major speech as CEO was entitled: “The problem with the North-East is the problem with the North-East.” It was his way of urging the region to stop focusing on its problems and start accentuating the positives.

The Chamber led the way with a campaign called “50 Great Reasons To Do Business in the North-East”. It also produced ‘Ten Commandments’ for general election candidates, starting with “Thou shalt not talk the region down.”

But changing perceptions wasn’t easy: “Radio 4 would call for a comment on the employment statistics, expecting to focus on the negatives, but I’d use the figures to show we were actually doing incredibly well. It wasn’t what they wanted to hear, so they didn’t run the interview,” he remembers.

“My message was that the North-East is an asset to be maximized on behalf of UK PLC. We’re the only region that actually makes a profit because we sell more internationally than we buy in – the problem is that it’s milked out by London.”

Charming though he is, it should come as no surprise that James has the instincts of a fighter, because he comes from a proud military background.

He was born in a military hospital in West Germany, the son of one of the British Army’s most illustrious officers, David Ramsbotham CBE. Now Lord Ramsbotham, he rose through the ranks to become Adjutant General and Commander of the Field Army. After retiring from the military, he was Chief Inspector of Prisons, and a passionate advocate of prison reform and rehabilitation.

David’s father, John Ramsbotham, had been Suffragan Bishop of Durham and later became Bishop of Wakefield.

Sadly, James’s mother, Sue, passed away recently. From Northumberland, she was the daughter of Olympic high-jumper, Robert (Roy) Joicey Dickinson, and the family name built a high reputation as part of the Dickinson Dees law firm.

James, who has a younger brother, Richard, followed in his father’s footsteps by pursuing a military career, joining the Royal Green Jackets at 18, and performing roles worldwide.

Highlights included working with the Canadian Army as counter terrorism commander for the 1988 Calgary Olympics, best remembered for Eddie The Eagle, and the Jamaican bob-sleigh team.

He left the Army in 1989, spending 14 years with Barclays Bank, before being appointed executive vice chairman of County Durham civil engineering company ESH Group, and settling in Weardale, which is where his wife, Carolyn, is from. They have a daughter, Charlotte, and son, Matthew.

During his time at ESH, James put his experience in the finance sector to good use by joining the board of Darlington Building Society, becoming chairman in 2017. However, his main focus remained the Chamber, which celebrated its 200th anniversary, and rebranded as North East England Chamber of Commerce, during his tenure.

He’s taken trade missions to every part of the world, and his championing of the North-East was recognised with the CBE in 2018.

One fortnight particularly sticks in his mind about his time at the helm. On September 1, 2007, the inaugural long-haul flight from Newcastle to Dubai became “a turning point” for the North-East because it opened up a world of new markets.

But just as the region was flying high, Northern Rock hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons on September 13, and James suddenly had a new fight on his hands.

History shows that Northern Rock was beyond saving, and the financial crash had a devastating impact globally. However, the fight to promote the North-East continued and on September 1, 2012 – five years after that first long-haul flight – Emirates had to put on a aircraft with 50 per cent bigger capacity.

“It was symbolic of how the North-East had grown,” says James.

One result of those raised horizons was Hitachi choosing Aycliffe as the location for its new train-building plant in 2015, creating hundreds of jobs.

Job done, James has now taken over as Chairman of Newcastle Building Society and, on Monday, he formally hands over the CEO role at the NEECC to John McCabe (below), a former Chamber president, and managing director of Fusion PR Creative.

The Northern Echo:

“The opportunity to become Chairman of Newcastle Building Society was too good to pass over, but I know the Chamber’s in good hands,” says James.

“We’ve built a phenomenal team, and their work during the pandemic was incredible. It’s also been a privilege to work with wonderful members and, if you enjoy what you’re doing, you never work a day of your life.

“John McCabe understands businesses large and small and is a great guy with the region at his heart. As President, he made us focus on mental health in the workplace and, without that, the last 18 months would have been 10 times harder.”

As well as chairing Newcastle Building Society, James retains a long list of other duties, including serving as a Deputy Lieutenant of County Durham, and Honorary Colonel of The Rifles.

There’s also the small matter of doting on his two grandchildren Alexander, four, and Olivia, two.

“Hopefully, I’ll continue banging the drum for the North-East for a long time,” he says. “It truly is a great region – and I think we’ve got better at telling the world.”

No one should be the slightest bit surprised that James Ramsbotham would want to end on a positive note.