Five minute interview: David Sheepshanks
PUBLISHED: 13:58 23 February 2016 | UPDATED: 13:58 23 February 2016
Gina Long talks to the man whose interests have embraced fish, football, mayonnaise and music
You’ve had an incredible career – how did it begin?
Well it’s certainly been varied. It started as a motorcycle messenger in London – almost as good as doing ‘the knowledge’, like every taxi driver. Through it I was introduced to the world of commodity trading in the Ralli/Merill Lynch empire and given training in all aspects of an international trading business before graduating to the trading desk. There we bought and sold container loads of frozen and canned fish all over the world. I was sent to manage a small prawn processing plant in the Middle East in 1974. I moved to an American company in San Francisco, where in 1976 I met my wife, Mona, who was visiting from Sweden. This month we will have known each other for 40 years. I specialised in supplying frozen salmon from the US west coast, Alaska and Canada to the big smoked salmon manufacturers all over the UK and Europe.
In 1980 I set up my own frozen fish business, Starfish Ltd, and built a factory in Martlesham to pack Icelandic and Norwegian prawns for Marks and Spencer, Tesco, Bejam and many others. I learnt many lessons and ended up selling the company to a wealthy competitor.
My brother, Rick, and I started Suffolk Foods in 1990, building it into being one of the major players in sauce manufacturing. One of our first customers was Pret a Manger – we made all their sauces from the day they had two shops, until they had hundreds.
When I pull it all together, I feel enormously fortunate to have had the breadth of experience from the food industry, football and charity in the main, not to mention radio (I was chairman of Vibe FM briefly), a director of Radio Orwell (then SGR ), banking with Coutts and consulting with Onside Law. Every bit as important are the wonderful friends made along the way.
Tell me more about the football.
Ipswich Town invited me to be a director in February 1987. After an invaluable eight years learning how it all worked, I was invited to take the chair in 1995. Football was changing rapidly then. The demands were for an ever more professional approach. I became the first full-time chairman and in 1996 I was appointed chairman of the football league, with a mandate from the 72 clubs to ‘sort it out’. This led me to the FA where I joined the board in 1997.
What were those years like?
Football became a 24/7 life. At Ipswich, after being perennial bridesmaids in the play-offs, we finally, gloriously, pulled off the five-year plan to be promoted to the Premiership at Wembley in 2000 and then into Europe. We were suddenly the ‘model club’. It was heady stuff, yet sadly it all proved too much, too quick. We couldn’t handle so much success at such a tender stage in our development. Relegation and all the nightmares that came with it followed. It was a harsh lesson in how and how not to build sustainable success. Football was changing quickly, becoming a bigger and bigger money game. We had two more years of missing out in the play-offs in 2004 and 2005, and the board decided we needed a ‘benefactor’ type owner. Happily, we found Marcus Evans, who has bankrolled the club ever since 2007/2008, when we sold it to him. His support is invaluable and although he has appeared less keen to invest in fees for players of late, Mick McCarthy is a brilliant manager and will succeed if anyone can.
You’re still involved in football?
In 2008 I was asked to lead the creation of the National Football Centre, St George’s Park. It was all consuming. I spent three years researching, consulting and rallying support for it. It took two years overseeing the building, three years ensuring that it ran properly. We delivered on time and on budget and today it has 80% occupancy. I have always been proud that we chose a woman to lead it as our first MD, Julie Harrington, who did such a fabulous job. She is now operations director for the whole of the FA, including Wembley Stadium.
What are you currently working on?
My latest project is Vistage peer group learning. They are industry leaders in creating peer group, quasi non-exec boards of business leaders and CEOs. My eight years at St George’s Park has both enthused and taught me an enormous amount about leadership development. As we grow older, formal learning becomes less relevant and informal peer groups become a far more effective method of personal development.
There are 80 chairs like me across the UK with over 1,000 Vistage members and I’m setting up the first group in Suffolk. We meet monthly, and have expert speakers and facilitators on everything from leadership, trust, succession planning, crisis management, to work/life balance. I am also chairing a new advisory board for the FA, which is exciting, and I continue to work with Coutts Bank here in East Anglia and nationally.
How do you start your day?
Unless there is an early meeting or train to catch, I am usually up at 7.30am to let the dogs out, Maizie and Totty, a yellow lab and a pug. Breakfast is berries, yoghurt and granola with as little honey as possible, whilst reading emails and planning the day.
What are you reading right now?
Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed – subtitled ‘The surprising truth about success and why some people never learn from their mistakes’. I’m also listening in my car to Leading at the Edge, a fascinating account of Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition.
Has anything or anybody inspired you lately?
Lots – and too many to mention everyone. Will Pooley, from my local village, Eyke, was awarded a much deserved MBE. He went to Sierre Leone to nurse people with Ebola and ended up catching it himself, being flown home for treatment, surviving before going back to work with them again, and donating his own blood with all the right antibodies. A local hero.
Kate Chisholm, the head teacher who challenged the local malaise of parents who not only did the school run in pyjamas, but even went to school plays in their nightwear. It was a great story for the media, but she was big enough to stand up for her principles and standards despite the risk of ridicule.
In sport, people like Jamie Carragher (and many others, but not enough!) who donated £1 million from his benefit game to an endowment fund, the income from which produces £30,000-£40,000 every year for investment into local community initiatives in the back streets of Liverpool where he grew up.
People doing wonderful things every day for causes they are passionate about – these are what inspire me.
You contribute a great deal to charities . . .
My charity life started properly with the formation of Ipswich Town Charitable Trust. As chairman of the club, I had my eyes opened to the vast number of hidden causes all over the county. This was the precursor to becoming a founding member and chairman for eight years of Suffolk Community Foundation, which was the most humbling, yet inspirational experience. Local community foundations connect us to the myriad local causes that are otherwise unknown to us, operating under the radar. I call them social glue.
I now chair UK Community Foundations, the national umbrella representing the Suffolk Community Foundation and the 47 others across the UK. Collectively, we made grants of £65 million last year to 21,000 causes, making us the fourth biggest grant maker in the country. Yet still not enough people have heard of us. I’m passionate about local giving – charity begins at home.
I’ve also enjoyed being on Sir Bobby’s Online Auction committee from day one, a great cause. We hope to have raised £1 million from five online auctions in October this year. And I’m privileged to be president of Ipswich Citizens Advice Bureau, and Ipswich and East Suffolk Samaritans, both of whom are at the forefront of helping people facing critical and desperate issues. Their love and devotion to humankind is admirable. All the staff and volunteers are modern day saints in my book. I also enjoy supporting C Company Army Cadets in Ipswich, wonderful volunteers making it possible for boys and girls to learn standards and enjoy new experiences.
Where do you want to travel next and why?
The southern (US) states, taking in Nashville and Memphis. I love blues and country rock.
The last restaurant you went to was . . .
Motcombs in London SW1. It’s a real throwback, a brasserie/French restaurant with great ambience, delicious food and not too expensive wine. Mona and I love our Suffolk restaurants too, like the Unruly Pig at Bromeswell, happily now re-opened.
Is there a word you overuse?
YES! I’m still learning not to say it too often. I’m always an enthusiast and enjoy life’s experiences and invitations when I can, but I have to be stricter with myself.
One possession you’ll never throw away?
I would be much less fit without my personal luxury, my swimming pool. I swim virtually every day of the week in an exercise routine I learnt in Ipswich Town days.
If you could add one hour to your day, what would you do with it?
What do you love about Suffolk?
Living in this beautiful countryside and yet having easy access to London. We really have the best of both worlds. The people of Suffolk – unpretentious with a unique sense of humour. My father in the early 60s to our head stockman on return from his holiday: ‘Stanley, what did you think of Windsor Castle?’ ‘It’d tayke an aowrful lotta bricks t’ build a funny ol’ place loik ‘at’.
A typical Sunday morning is . . .
Dog walk, croissants and milky coffee for breakfast, with Mona’s wonderful homemade marmalade.
If you could acquire a talent without any extra effort what would it be?
Play guitar. I am very musical at heart – I was a chorister at school, and could read music. I bought an electric guitar when I was 40 for my midlife crisis, but never persevered. Maybe it’s not too late . . .
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
Probably St George’s Park. The sheer privilege of being asked to lead the team to develop and build a national centre was very special indeed.
What is your motto?
Perseverando – Latin for persevere. This is the Sheepshanks’ family motto on the old family crest and I believe it to my core. APP – ambition, passion and perseverance – are the three essential ingredients common and essential in every successful person.