As a successful businessman, founder of both CEO Sleepout and Middlesbrough & Teesside Philanthropic Foundation – and the front cover of the very first BUSINESSiQ magazine – Andy Preston has a lot to look back on. He spoke to Mike Hughes about his past, present and future

Andy Preston chose the Level Q offices in Stockton as the base for our interview.

The location says a lot about him. He used to own the site with fellow investor Gareth Cherry and it was a statement of intent. He believed smaller Teesside businesses deserved a touch of quality around them – and that there would be a market for it – so he bucked the trend of L-shaped five-storey carbon copies and planned in an indoor village green, gym and cinema room, café and... free wine.

That’s the philanthropy side of him, giving more than he needs to, but always as part of a razor-sharp business plan.

With a previous history as a very successful financier and co-owner of investor Green Lane Capital with his brother Chris, there is no getting away from the fact that Andy is a wealthy man and has earned the comforts success brings him. But it is what he has chosen to do with it all that defines him now.

Alongside Level Q – a simple business deal but with extra Andy in the mix – three things stand out. The reaction to him setting up CEO Sleepout, the long-term success of The Teesside Charity (formerly known as the Middlesbrough & Teesside Philanthropic Foundation), and his decision to stand as Mayor of Middlesbrough.

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CEO Sleepout is now a national force in charity fundraising, raising more than £3.8 million for over 100 charities working to tackle homelessness in cities across the UK. Andy set it up in December 2013 after being impressed by the work of Bernie Fehon in Australia. During lockdown it even became virtual, with “at home” sleepouts raising well over £125,000.

Nationally, venues have now included Middlesbrough FC, Newcastle Utd FC, Lord’s Cricket Ground and Christ CollegeOxford.

The Teesside Charity was established in March 2011 to bridge a gap in the provision of social and economic opportunities. It has a powerfully inclusive model, targeting the homeless, those recovering from an addiction, the long-term unemployed, those living in poverty or living with a disability. Over 13 years, it has donated more than £5 million and supported over 10,000 people.

So – with that sort of success and profile, why on Earth let yourself into the lion’s den of regional politics and then close the door behind you?

In the boardroom next to the Level Q café, Andy made it clear that the experience, the very public claims and counterclaims, investigations and pure vitriol had clearly left its mark on him.

“What these disgusting people did can make you want to run away, but then sometimes you sit there and you think no – I’m going to make sure they are the ones who disappear. Genuinely, there are some fantastic people involved in local politics, and there are some absolutely wicked people who use politics as the medium by which they express their malevolence towards mankind and basically they just pick a side and the other side is fair game.

“It is eye watering. It is mind blowing. But sadly it is tolerated.

The Northern Echo: Andy Preston. Images by Chris BoothAndy Preston. Images by Chris Booth (Image: Chris Booth)

“There’s an absence of talent in local politics, an absence of brains, but an abundance of maliciousness.

“And I see bad behaviour on both sides but as someone who used to be on the left and now very much considers himself centrist, I would say that with people on the left there is a greater incidence of real nastiness and I think it’s because people on the left don’t think they are ideologically driven. They are, but they think they’re no. They think they’re driven by a moral mission, a moral crusade.

“And when you think that your fight is about good versus evil you can justify any behaviour if it’s leading to a greater good.

“That’s why these people who were otherwise nice neighbours – the person who lets you out of the car park before them – when it comes to politics, they will turn into monsters.”

This man in front of me is passionately angry about the way he has been treated and so very frustrated by the unfairness of it. Mud sticks, and so many people who object to someone know that all they need to do is make a claim and the damage can be done.

They are snipers picking off parts of your character one by one – and good men and women have been hit and wounded many times. But the thick fog this all creates obfuscates any legitimate challenges to policy or behaviour, which good leaders won’t want. They want clarity so that clear choices can be made.

“They damaged me personally, at an emotional level and I guess they damaged my reputation at least temporarily,” he says.

“But the truth that I think many people can see is that we were the only place in the country that fed the poor. So anyone who had an issue where, for whatever reason on a Friday night at 7pm there’s no food in the house and you and the kids are going to go hungry, you can’t get any money until Monday and the foodbank doesn’t open until Monday if there is one near you, then we would get food to you.

“That was never talked about even though it was a national triumph and a role model for politicians outside of our area. It was a magnificent thing and I’m not trying to seek loads of credit for it, but I’m trying to illustrate that some great stuff did happen in a period where in Middlesbrough the population had haemorrhaged people year in, year out it and I faced that head on and we started building affordable houses, nice places for people to live.

“That was just the beginning because regeneration, in my opinion, requires a sense of urgency, a sense of dynamism and momentum, and all of those things are all something that councils are rubbish at.

“And that’s not because they’re bad people, it’s just they’re not set up to do that. They’re set up to do the opposite. Councils are set up to administer and make sure that no screw-ups happen And if you think that the worst thing in the world is making a mistake, you’re never going to do anything in a timely manner – if you’re incentivised to make sure there’s never a mistake, rather than being incentivised to make something happen, it’s going to happen really slowly.

“What you need is someone challenging that all the way through saying ‘no’ – this is why nothing ever happens, we’ve got to get that done faster.”

The Northern Echo: Andy Preston. Images by Chris BoothAndy Preston. Images by Chris Booth (Image: Chris Booth)

So despite the myriad sniper injuries, he might – just might – do it again because he is so sure that councils run in the right way can be an overwhelming force for good.

But he admits: “Truthfully, the idea of having something that is 60 hours a week terrifies me. I can understand why people are saying it and some friends have said that to me, but I honestly don’t want something as all-consuming, and by that I mean that when I was mayor, I might be on holiday or in the shower and the call would come through. It wasn’t even work, it was getting news of ‘they have said this now’ or ‘they’ve created this dossier on you...’ “You need someone with loads of passion and the right brains and the right skills. Now whether I’ve got the passion, the skills and the brains is a matter for other people to decide. Obviously, I think I have, but other people can form their own opinion.

“I will take advice and I solicit advice, but you need that passion to say if that’s good, we can’t just sit back and wait for it to happen – there’s too much of that, which is why stuff that should take two months but is probably going to take nine actually takes 18 months or 27 months and the person who was thinking of doing something great will lose their momentum. Then something else pops up in a better location in a different town.

“If somebody wants to come to your town, you have to grab them and say, yeah, we’re up for this.”

He pauses, reflecting on what he has said as if talking has helped him settle a few things in his mind. It seems like a good time to take him out of the maelstrom and back to his upbringing in a Catholic house in Acklam with brother Chris and sister Claire, who is now head of operations at the Teesside-based Power of Women, whose message is “today’s young women have the power to change the world – and that each and every one of them should be given the opportunity to do so”.

Andy tells me that at more recent ADHD diagnosis made a lot of sense of some of the challenges he had.

“There was lots of pressure from my parents to work hard at school but I didn’t. Everyone talks about it now, but I do have ADHD, which means that it is really hard for me to read things. So if someone gives me a 100-page report, or even a six-page report, I find that incredibly difficult unless it’s written really well with bullet points and headers. If it’s just a chunk of text I find that really hard, so with things like schoolwork, I always really struggled.

The Northern Echo: Andy Preston. Images by Chris BoothAndy Preston. Images by Chris Booth (Image: Chris Booth)

“Even now, if somebody puts it down in front of me and it’s just massive long paragraphs I get a feeling almost like a pain and discomfort in my stomach like someone is putting a straightjacket on me. The more information you give, the less I can take in.

“That also means that with things like filling out forms, I really struggle and need help from friends or from my wife, who can sit down and do a form with me and then check it 20 times. It may sound trivial to some people, but I only learned about ADHD in adult life and that’s the way in which I’m disabled and so I’ve found ways of dealing with it.

“Give me four bullet points, now give me three bullet points for each of those bullet points and in ten minutes I’ll completely understand it and read between the lines and come back to you with a million questions.

“Then when I left school there was a big industrial recession. It was a grim time and I was 15, coming up 16 but ended up joining the Air Force and then went to night school and then Edinburgh Uni where I really scraped through – I genuinely was just anawful student.

“I find that to get things done I need looming deadlines and that adrenaline which stimulates me and overcomes the barriers that I have to doing painful work, reading and taking notes.

“I eventually managed to get a start in the city as a graduate trainee because I was good with numbers and there wasn’t a lot of studying, but rather a lot of learning, which I think I’m OK at. So I learned really fast and I was promoted really fast and that suited me.

“There’s a famous book I read then called Option Volatility and Pricing Strategies by Sheldon Natenberg. It’s a very mathematical book and I didn’t understand the maths, but the first half I could read and I understood how options worked, which at that point wasn’t too common, so I developed a niche in technical things like options, which are fairly mainstream now.

“There were six of us as graduate trainees and while some fell by the wayside and I just absolutely prospered in that environment. People could see that I was useful and promoted me a bunch of times.”

His family have always played a central role in his life, with he and Chris setting up Green Lane and Claire working in Sound Training, an education system that helps pupils struggling with language and literacy.

“With Green Lane Capital, me and Chris work pretty well together. What we do is quite small – a property portfolio mixture of a little bit of office, little bit of residential, little bit of industrial space and a tiny bit of development.

“Chris really does all of that but we all get on really well and are all close. They were all at my house just the other day.”

The Northern Echo: Otterington Hall near NorthallertonOtterington Hall near Northallerton (Image: Savills)

The house is Otterington Hall near Northallerton – a magnificent Grade II listed house set in around 90 acres. A sale is hopefully going through soon – at around £4 million – which will be the end of an era for the family, but it is a huge estate to run and a smaller alternative nearby has already been lined up.

“It’s been a fantastic place to live, with the main house and then several dwellings around. My dad saw his last days there, my brother lived there and my sister still lives there. It’s been almost like a Preston hamlet.

“I bought it when I was 36, which felt really old, but you’re just a kid, aren’t you?

“Now it’s not just that the house is too big, but there’s too much land and too many other properties and it’s a bit of a pain. Whether you have the money or not, it costs a lot and occupies a lot of your brain, with six dwellings, so six roofs to worry about and six burst pipes. Also, we’re a bit remote where we are and I’d quite like to live in a little village so we’re moving to an appropriate house with a fantastic gastropub a mile away so I can walk there.”

And the next investment? Andy is already backing the Northern Lithium mine in County Durham and he and a close friend are “talking about me investing in something” but he can’t bring himself to say he is happy – perhaps always thinking there might be one more thing he should have achieved.

“I wouldn’t say I’m content. I’ve done some stuff badly and I’ve done some stuff probably quite well, but I’m just not made that way. I’m very lucky – don’t get me wrong, Mike, I’m really lucky.

“The most valuable thing in the world is to have the option to do something or not do something. That’s a real luxury, isn’t it? But do I feel fortunate, do I feel successful or satisfied? Definitely not. I wouldn’t say I’m riddled with self-doubt, but I just don’t think that’s me.”

His views on the region he has spent so much time backing, supporting and fighting for are both stimulating and fascinating. The jobs side is doing fine, but we’re missing a key element.

“I think it’s going to be better than it was at collaboration. I don’t think it’s got better recently, but I think it will get better, but it’s still going to be challenged in what it offers someone bright and ambitious.

“Even Manchester loses talent and energy down to London and I think that the challenge that we have in our area is that for the medium term outlook if young people want to stay here and want an apprenticeship, there are far more vacancies than there are potential apprentices.

“There are already far more career opportunities than people want and there are already far more jobs than unemployed. So like the rest of the country – and the world at the moment – we’re in quite a good spot. To me, the issue is that of course you want to create these jobs at Teesworks, and I think the progress there is fantastic, but the challenge is less about a lot of jobs outside of town and much more about creating that dynamism, the cultural, leisure and business infrastructure in the centres of towns.

“The problem we have is a cultural infrastructure one and it’s about identity and ambition. It’s about retaining talent and that’s not going to change until there’s a sense that there’s a vibrancy and excitement here and young people want to be here.”

Geography and identity will also play a huge role in how successful the whole region can be even after more devolution and combined authorities.

“The challenge in Teesside is different to the challenge elsewhere,” he says.

“The model we have is flawed because if you look at the combined authority of the Liverpool City region that is about a million and a half people – it’s basically dominated by the city of Liverpool and its outer areas.

“So there is no doubt that if you want to build an Opera House or an astonishing shopping centre, you’re not going to build that in Saint Helens – why would you do that? Similarly, Greater Manchester, which is much bigger, maybe going up to three million people now, is made up of loads of medium sized towns and one medium sized city which is the absolute geographic, cultural and business centre.

“There’s no doubt that when you’re doing the major stuff, it happens in central Manchester and Bolton benefits, Rochdale benefits, Stockport benefits, Oldham benefits. It’s much more difficult here because although Middlesbrough used to dominate, for a variety of reasons, it doesn’t dominate in the same way.

“So everybody benefits if you allow one place that’s geographically central and has the infrastructure to grow and grow and grow and in the end things become so expensive and so concentrated that offshoots start to appear. Like in New York, where the Manhattan property market went crazy, and New York’s population declined in the 70s. Then it started to recover in the 80s and by the early 2000s, it was too packed and too expensive.

“So Brooklyn started to improve and get the theatres and the cultural infrastructure and the big apartment blocks. But you need that energy, momentum, dynamism.”

His is still a voice well worth listening to – he just has to satisfy himself that he has found that next phase of his career and his life and the next platform for his views.