WHEN we went out with Nolan Gray to get the images for this interview, we were driven in a Teesworks Land Rover through mile after mile of pure potential.

Vast swathes of former steelworks land that have still to be touched sitting next to working businesses, which in turn sit next to land being cleared for new tenants like the landmark site of the GE plant where wind turbine blades will be made.

The whole place is so far-reaching the staff still sometimes get lost trying to find each plot to show a prospective partner. But they’re learning every day as more and more people turn to Teesside for the answer.

As the Freeport Director, Nolan’s ‘patch’ stretches across the region, including Teesworks, Teesport, the Port of Middlesbrough, the Port of Hartlepool, Liberty Steel, LV Shipping, Wilton International and Teesside International Airport – around 4,500 acres or an astonishing seven square miles of prime development land.

The structure behind such a huge operation is complex, involving Teesworks and the combined authority.

The Northern Echo: The Freeport siteThe Freeport site

“The Freeport, a sort of microcosm of Tees Valley Combined Authority, is an amalgam of a number of landowners and Teesworks is one of them,” he tells me in the smart boardroom at the Teesworks gatehouse.

It’s now dark outside after our photographic adventure, so the kettle is on and we’re warming up as we chat in front of a wall-sized map of the site that helps bring all those different elements together.

“Redcar Bulk Terminal is another of the landowners, along with Sembcorp, and some of the Wilton International and the Wilton Centre landowners as well.

“So you've got a multitude of landowners there and then you also have facility stakeholders as well such as the airport, but also Port Clarence, Able Seaton Port, Port of Middlesbrough and then one or two companies who were involved as well, like 2M and Liberty Pipes.”

That’s a boardroom-full of internationally experienced partners who know that being awarded Freeport status by the Government in March was a game-changer.

“Running the Freeport is about governance in terms of bringing it all together and making sure we can deliver,” he says.

“The other part of it is a brand to bring enquiries to the region and make sure that we punch above our weight internationally when there's development opportunities so that we can then put those through an investment cycle, which means that they will end up in Teesside.

“But equally, we look at how we work with the local supply chain so that when we do bring an investment in, we can grow it locally.”

As a local lad, the success of the site means a lot to him, and he draws on the inspiration of his early home life to feed his determination to never stop working for something he believes in.

“I grew up in Washington from social housing stock and I think my mam is probably one of the biggest influences on my life,” he tells me.

The Northern Echo: How the Freeport is made upHow the Freeport is made up

“She brought up three children and never gave up. Went back to university as a mature student with three young kids in tow and changed our stars. I think because of that I never give up.

“I went away to university in Manchester and then headed to London to gain experience because the opportunity wasn't there and I think in some respects that also falls nicely back to the Freeport.

“Why do we want to do the Freeport? To bring opportunity, and I look at my three amazing kids now and I'd hope that eventually their opportunities are in the North East so they can be in the North East, not away from the region.

“They are all very different characters and they will all probably have three different career aspirations. Personally, I just say to them every day I'd like them to be happy and healthy and not hurt anyone.

“That tends to be my philosophy with them, but ultimately they need to have that opportunity and for a long time in the north the opportunities haven't been there.

“So if, at the end of my days, I've left some opportunities for my children and future generations, I think I've probably done a good job.”

His career path that got him to the role looked at one stage as if it might veer away to another direction, from HMV to Reg Vardy and then Deep Ocean, but then those stars his mam changed started to align and he now controls a large part of the region he grew up in.

The Northern Echo: Ben Houchen launches the FreeportBen Houchen launches the Freeport

“I’m a fully qualified accountant by trade and I worked my way all the way up to the top of the tree, becoming a finance director and was heavily involved, particularly at Deep Ocean, around the offshore renewables and the oil and gas industries.

“Towards the end of that career I started to market Deep Ocean as a company and got into a more sales-oriented process.

“When I finally left, I moved across to the Port of Tyne and had five years of experience in both commercial and engineering, developing the quayside for Lynemouth as part of a dual role as well as managing the client and commercial face.

“So looking at what I do now, we want to target three specific clusters at the Freeport, one of which is the offshore engineering energy market, which I now have a strong background in.

“Part of the Freeport philosophy is understanding customs and tax incentives which by being an accountant is incredibly helpful to understand.

“Then around around port infrastructure and stakeholders I also have that background which means I understand some of the trials and tribulations of ports.”

The role seems to have been written for him and when he came here to work with the South Tees Development Corporation on the Compulsory Purchase Orders that helped gain control of the land, the circle of experience was complete. He had arrived where he was always meant to be.

Now all he as to do is fill the site with tenants.

“Freeports have to be brownfield sites, so you couldn't select land that already had tenants within it, so it has to be new businesses coming into the Freeport area to get the regeneration benefits. In terms of the custom zones, there can be established businesses, but hopefully they can grow from those benefits as well.

“We are looking to work fully with Government through the Department of International Trade. They have agents all around the globe and we're working with them on HPOs - high potential opportunities - centred around the clusters that we are looking to market the Freeport to.

“So we're engaged in three HPOs with them where they will go the market globally and say if there's an opportunity you can come to the UK and it'll be centred around one or two Freeport locations and our specific clusters.

“That means that the whole international focus is actually coming down into Teesside

“For some that might be enough, but not for us. So we are also promoting the Freeport in itself, and equally we're working with each of our stakeholders to promote to the various markets as well - working three-fold to get enquiries into the UK and then into Teesside.”

Read more: Teesside Freeport begins operations and promises 18,000 jobs

This mammoth effort is producing what Nolan calls ‘a magnetic pull’ towards this region. We haven’t had that pull for a long time, an irresistible lure to bring money and jobs to this part of the world rather than any other.

And when it arrives, Nolan, Ben Houchen, Mary Lanigan, Bill Scott, Frans Calje and so many more Teesside titans will refuse to let it leave and will work together to invest it in the future they are all helping build.

There is momentum… traction… and Nolan thrives on the potential.

“When you have this sort of role you wake up feeling alive,” he says.

“You can describe a Freeport in terms of what it's going to achieve - jobs, numbers, GVA, that sort of thing. But for me it offers hope.

“It's about opportunity and you don't often get into a position where what you're doing truly makes a difference.

“That could be offering a job helping with the remediation and the construction that's going on at the moment. It could be about a job working with any of the new businesses. It could be the jobs they are saving with the reinvestment at SABIC.

“But you genuinely make a difference to that person’s life, and therefore that family’s life and from that the local economy as well.

“It’s rare that you get the chance to do that.

“It's not that I own the Freeport, or that anyone owns a Freeport. The Freeport is actually the people.

“We have to believe in it to take it forward and I'm just here to look after it for a little period of time and hopefully hand it over to the next person who can take that on as well.

“I always put it in my own context and ultimately you have to say ‘what do I want to do?’

“I needed to challenge myself and in some respects, that's what Teesside Freeport is about here. It's about challenging ourselves.

“We're not settling for second best. We are trying to be the best at everything we do, and we're trying to grow, and my role within this is to start the ball rolling.

“I’ve got to be honest, my kids - 13 year old, 12 and six - are the greatest achievement in my life and I live for them and every day I wake up and want to make sure that I give them every opportunity.”

That’s an extraordinarily frank and personal example of the sort of motivations that make our Teesside business heroes do what they do.

They are husbands and wives, parents, sons and daughters as well as doing the 12-hour days and the endless meetings. That’s what makes people like Nolan Gray so important to the region.

It matters to them.



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