Interview with Richard Blackledge: Former businessman and Master Cutler’s rise to the top chronicled

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The pursuit of riches would, you’d expect, be high on the agenda of a man with Sir Hugh Sykes’ lifestyle.

A distinguished former global businessman, bank chairman and Master Cutler, he calls a bucolic 130-acre estate in the Peak District home.

Nevertheless, cash isn’t a motivator, Hugh claims – and, in fact, selling his internationally successful firm Thermal Scientific for £72 million in 1988 was ‘from a financial point of view, the wrong thing to do’.

He adds: “To me, life is about more than just making money.”

There was a greater challenge in the offing, he goes on to explain - namely the task of chairing the Sheffield Development Corporation, a controversial Government-formed body responsible for regenerating the Lower Don Valley after the area went into steep decline sparked by the closure of the steelworks.

It was a tense time. A property developer once threatened to break Hugh’s legs if he didn’t grant planning permission for a particular scheme through his role.

However, threats of violence aside, he’s proud of the transformation the corporation brought about, and can reel off a list of achievements – £683m of private investment stimulated from £108m of public funds, a link road connecting the M1 to the city centre and new office space covering thousands of square feet.

There was the Sheffield City Airport, too, but this project still plays on his mind. It shut for good in 2008, rendering the vision of flights to Europe from Tinsley Park a dream once again.

“A great shame, in my book,” he says. “I think it would have served a useful role in terms of a business airport. A lot of the people who make the really important decisions have their own private planes – they can fly here and back in a day with no hassle.”

Of course, Meadowhall, the retail colossus that has undeniably sucked trade out of the city centre, is the biggest elephant in the room – but Hugh is at pains to point out the corporation’s limited role on that score, the initial go-ahead having been granted by the city council before the SDC was set up.

“The impact of Meadowhall is a concern,” he says, still well-informed and sharp at 84.

“I was always conscious of that and trying to encourage the city to make good plans.”

Hugh spent nine years heading the corporation, from 1988 until it was abolished in 1997, and later chaired Sheffield One, an urban development company that focused on city centre projects. He’s now chronicled his life story in a book called Lighting The Furnace, which is endorsed by ex-Prime Minister John Major, no less, who refers to Hugh as ‘a shy man’ – although the author prefers ‘modest’.

“I wanted to encourage people to aim high in their own careers by writing about mine. Many more people could do it. If you put your mind to it, it’s amazing what you can actually do.”

Hugh was born in Bristol – his father William, a church parson, and mother Phyllis had five children, including Hugh’s identical twin brother, Richard.

During the war the family was evacuated to Cumbria after William’s church was hit and destroyed by a bomb.

When the conflict was over, Hugh’s father took early retirement – tellingly, he pinpoints this as a decisive moment. Money became tight – gone were the car, the nanny, the big house and the expected place at public school. Instead Hugh and Richard were sent to the local grammar.

“We felt humiliated and inferior,” he writes. “Probably that sense of inferiority made me even more determined to succeed.”

National Service in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps was followed by a scholarship to study law at Cambridge, after which he held accountancy and financial positions with different companies.

Hugh bought his first firm, Bamford-based furnace-maker Carbolite, in 1972, with friend Bill Mills. Many ventures ensued as companies were taken over and sold – Hugh even set up Real Radio along the way.

Thermal Scientific, which Carbolite became, emerged as the prime triumph. His wife, Ruby, now Lady Sykes, had misgivings about its sale at first, but was eventually persuaded.

The couple have been wed for nearly 40 years, and moved to Brookfield Manor in Hathersage 10 years ago, having previously lived at Hallfield House, Bradfield Dale. They have two sons together, Christopher and Andrew, while Hugh has another two sons, Peter and Jonathan, from an earlier marriage. Banking came later – his spell as Master Cutler from 1990-91 led to a non-executive directorship at Yorkshire Bank, and a decade later he chaired the bank’s larger owner NAG Europe.

A personal account with the Bank of England, plus debit card, was a notable perk of this period.

Early on in Hugh’s chairmanship of the SDC he was accused of using his position for financial gain – he denied the allegation, and was cleared, but 25 years on he still feels strongly about it. “It really was stressful. Because I wasn’t a rogue, I didn’t know how to defend myself.”

Since being knighted in 1997, Hugh has chaired hospital boards, and focused on his and Ruby’s charitable trust, which has made donations to health, education and the arts. Hugh formerly chaired the Sheffield Galleries and Museums Trust, and the Sykes Gallery in the Millennium Gallery is a nod to the couple’s contribution.

The Lower Don Valley today is ‘buzzing’, he says.

“The ARMC is really good - the universities, the research, Boeing and McLaren. And there’s a glimmering of a digital economy starting, which is where the emphasis should be.”

But Hugh can’t resist pushing for more.

“We’re in the middle of the fourth industrial revolution, and is Sheffield up to speed on that? That’s the question I’d ask.”

n Lighting The Furnace: The Story of a Burning Ambition is out now. Copies can be ordered online from Amazon, priced £16.95.

‘Tragic dropping of Sevenstone scheme’

Sir Hugh Sykes says his legacy is a Sheffield that’s friendlier to business – but calls the failure of the city’s original new retail quarter development ‘tragic’, despite its replacement scheme having finally begun.

“The council was becoming less radical and more open-minded to business,” he remarks of his time chairing the development corporation.

“I did work very hard at that.”

The hostility was a simple matter of history, he thinks.

“Some people had very rough rides in the steel and coal industries, and they blamed the capitalists for this. And I can understand it.”

The original retail plan – Sevenstone – was dropped in 2013 when the council and developer Hammerson parted ways. The first phase of its successor is now under way in Charter Square.

“It was an excellent scheme. It would have transformed the city centre and the developers were raring to go. Tragic.”