When Nigel Tomlinson stepped down as chief executive of Sheffield Chamber of Commerce, the last thing he expected to be doing was running an international consultancy, helping Chambers to cope with change and meet new challenges.
“I wanted a clean break. I wanted to explore the possibilities of advising companies as a non-executive director – and I was really enjoying that,” he recalls.
But the telephone kept ringing and when Nigel answered it was more often than not a foreign Chamber, aware of the award winning work Sheffield Chamber had been doing abroad, during his tenure and seeking similar help.
High winds were blowing through the international Chamber movement – thanks largely to the global credit crunch. While British Chambers have always been independent of local and national Government, many foreign Chambers were quasi-statutory bodies, which meant local businesses had to be members, whether they liked it or not.
But, all that was changing. Within a year of Nigel Tomlinson leaving Sheffield Chamber, the French Government was talking about removing public law status from French Chambers. Spain actually removed it, giving Chambers just six months notice, and Cataluña’s Chamber of Commerce went from 225,000 members to none, as a result.
The Governments of Serbia and Slovenia followed suit and the Dutch Government announced it was no longer prepared to subsidise Chambers in Holland.
“Chambers around the world are at the cross roads and that’s when positioning becomes critical,” says Nigel.
“Their relevance is being questioned, particularly in the new economies and key economic communities and they are going to have to play more of a role in enterprise and ready to what they get at international trade development,” he added.
“In many cases they were losing development and public law status and needed to develop their teams to be about customer service and good management. I realised there was a job to be done and I had a head start.”
Nigel was already a registered consultant and adviser for UNIDO, the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation, whose job is to promote and accelerate sustainable industrial development in developing countries and economies in transition.His former Sheffield Chamber colleague Stephen Mitchell had a lengthy track record of working abroad for international charities and not for profit organisations.
Meanwhile, the two of them had notched up a series of successes, at Sheffield Chamber, providing advice and training to Chambers in emerging countries with European Union and UN funding.
With those contacts and that sort of experience behind them, setting up their own consultancy seemed the natural thing to do and Universal Projects was born.
The consultancy also calls on the expertise of other contacts the two men have built up with specialists from around the world.
“Universal Projects isn’t just myself and Stephen Mitchell. There are a number of associates who are both existing and past chief executives of Chambers around the world, including Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Holland, Finland, Austria, Irelanad and the UK,” says Nigel.
“We know who to call upon when we need a certain type of discipline, whether its inside the UK or outside.”