Rob McKay, IoD Cheshire Chair and MD of executive search firm Sherrington Associates, is leading a group of local business leaders to Borneo next year to run an ultra-marathon in aid of Chester Zoo’s reforestation work on the island. He tells Director that he hopes their efforts will inspire the wider uptake of green business practices, particularly on the issue of sustainable palm oil use.
How would you describe the IoD community in Cheshire?
It’s the most vibrant it has been for a long time. I was appointed chair in February 2019 and brought together a new committee of eight members, including Jamie Christon, COO of Chester Zoo, and David Maisey of ICC Solutions, who was appointed an OBE for enterprise in the new year’s honours list.
Each committee member represents a business area they’re passionate about, from skills and apprenticeships to collaboration between business and the arts. Having such a passionate and engaged committee has really driven engagement across Cheshire. Our regional team’s work on diversity and inclusion has also helped to spread the message that the IoD is open to directors from all walks of life.
What is the hottest topic of conversation at the moment?
Sustainability is high on the agenda. I’ve recently joined the IoD’s Sustainability Interest Group, which is working on ways to support members to become more accountable for sustainability in their organisations. It is even looking at ways to embed sustainability into the IoD’s professional development offering, so that directors are held to account on meeting the goals they set.
We had our first meeting about the subject in January, so it’s still at an embryonic stage, but we’ve already seen interest from a lot of members. They’re all very aware of the challenges presented by the climate crisis and are keen to do their bit.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing firms in your area?
One of the biggest challenges in Cheshire is the struggle to retain skilled young people when they leave the education system. They don’t tend to come back until they are in their 30s and looking to start a family.
Although they often earn and spend more locally when they return, this pattern does create a real skills gap. It makes it hard for employers to recruit for jobs at a certain level and in certain sectors.
What opportunities are there for ventures looking to set up in your area?
Cheshire is a great place to start a business and the quality of life here is a massive pull. In my work as an executive recruiter, I often have to persuade directors from London to relocate to the north-west – and it’s not a particularly difficult sell. For anyone wanting to leave the Big Smoke and settle within the leafy lanes, Cheshire, with its’ good schools, and access to red-brick universities in the North West, is often perceived as a great option. This area is surprisingly well connected too: For example, Chester is only 40 minutes from Liverpool and only slightly further from Manchester.
What’s been the highlight of your time as branch chair so far?
Last July we hosted an incredible and quite emotional event at Chester Zoo on the subject of ‘Business Resilience’. In December 2018 the zoo had suffered a devastating fire that caused significant structural damage and loss of life to several small animals from the collection. It was the biggest crisis the zoo had faced in its history, but it managed to bounce back. Last year was its busiest ever in terms of visitor numbers.
At the event, which was attended by 80 directors, the owner of a local chain of boutique hotels spoke about an arson attack on one of its properties, Peckforton Castle, in 2011. The damage cost this family business £6.5 million. Yet it grew from the experience and went on to open a number of new hotels. Members fed back on the uplifting benefits of hearing other directors share their stories about resilience.
What other events do you have coming up?
We have an exceptionally busy calendar of events in 2020 which I wrote about in a blog earlier this month. There’s something for everyone with a blend of subject-matter specific events for directors such as ‘Hiring Apprentices’ and ‘Tackling the Digital Skills Gap’. We are also hosting the IoD Professional Development Series at the University of Chester in June.
In addition, a number of IoD Cheshire members are working with me on a fundraising project that will see us run an ultra-marathon next March. The Race for the Rainforest, which covers 100 miles, has attracted a mix of hardened athletes and first-timers. It will raise funds for Chester Zoo’s reforestation and conservation work in Borneo, following devastation by the palm oil industry.
The zoo plans to purchase land and reintroduce a lot of the biodiversity that’s been lost from the area. It’s a chance to do some real good for the world. I hope it will give the participants greater impetus to come home and make their own organisations more sustainable too.
What plans do you have for your branch in 2020?
I’d like to see ongoing member engagement and more collaboration with other business groups in the area. I also want IoD Cheshire to do more on the sustainability front. This is so important, given the state the world is in. If I can look back at my legacy over the next few years, it would be great to think that we’ve done some good in that space. Lastly, I plan to hand over the baton to the next Chair with Cheshire being in a better place than before I took on the role. If I do that, I’ll sleep well.