Leading the charge

James Ramsbotham is one of the UK's enterprise tsars. As CEO of the North East Chamber of Commerce he is charged with reducing the £30bn prosperity gap between the North East and the South of England.


The public sector is failing in its responsbilities to the private sector, says James Ramsbotham. ‘Rambo’ to his friends, he served in the Royal Green Jackets for twelve years leading counter terrorist units in Canada during the 1988 Winter Olympics. (His father, Lord Ramsbotham, was a second-in-command of the British Army.) While serving in Northern Ireland, James spoke regularly with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams,  saying: “I have a great deal of respect for his abilities but I do not believe Northern Ireland has sufficient resources to become independent of the UK”. In Borneo he was an instructor in jungle warfare adding he “loved the jungle” and relates as some of his toughest assignments sailing in storms off the coast of Alaska and arctic training in Norway and Canada, where skin uncovered commonly freezes in less than sixty seconds: “we were tested to the absolute limit”.

After working for Barclays and construction company the Esh Group he joined the Chamber in 2006 where he now represents the interests of 5,000 businesses. “Skills are so important for our future. It is important that we inspire the next generation.” In Ramsbotham, the region has their champion.

What would you like to see happening in the North East over the next ten years?
I look forward to seeing the private sector in the North East continue its drive towards making this region one of the most successful in Europe. We need to see our manufacturing sector expand and continue its growth in exports. We will lead the way in renewable energy. Our production facilities for electric vehicles will set the benchmark worldwide. Growth in plastic electronic technologies will transform the way we operate in so many aspects of our lives and the North East will be at the forefront. Our other key sectors such as pharmaceuticals, ICT software and waste management will all see success.  Traditionally the North East of England has been at the forefront of transport technology and power generation and we aspire to rebuild our leading position across these key industries.

You have spoken of wastage in the public sector. How do you think tighter controls might be applied to public spending?
I think we have to move to a greater focus by the public sector on the large infrastructural issues, enabling the private sector to focus on building successful wealth generating opportunities. The private sector looks to the public sector to deliver large scale communications infrastructure, (road, rail etc.) so that people can access work and deliver goods and services to market. The public sector should not be involved in the minutiae of business other than to ensure the burden of bureaucracy is minimized.  Too often the public sector fails to address its key strategic responsibilities and wastes time, energy and finance on tactical issues. Tight control needs to be imposed from Westminster with scrutiny at the regional and local level. Skills needs to be available in the wider business sector rather than us merely relying on the vagaries of the democratic process.

How do you see the recession affecting industry and trade in the UK over the next 12 month – is there  for optimism?
I think the private sector recession we are experiencing will start to improve within the next six months; in a year’s time some measure of confidence will return. Businesses will again start to make long term investment decisions which have been delayed due to uncertainty. Unemployment will continue to rise but export opportunities and profitability will return.

In twelve months we will start to see the looming public sector recession which must come if we are to have any chance of restoring the public finances. This will cause a “double dip” but it is necessary for the long term health of the nation.

Gerry Adams renewed calls recently for a united Ireland. Would the trade and exports industry in Northern Ireland benefit from reunification?
Whilst Eire enjoyed its economic boom, NI benefitted. Now that Eire is in the grips of a recession, NI is suffering. I think the long term economy of the UK holds greater opportunities for NI than does that of Eire. NI should look to put its past (such as shipping) behind it, look to the future, and identify some key strengths upon which to build. NI’s geographic location makes trade with the rest of Europe (other than the UK and Eire) difficult – have you ever tried to travel from Belfast to Berlin without flying? The opportunities must lie in other areas.

You taught jungle warfare in Borneo. Describe your day-to-day experience. Did you keep to a routine?
It was genuine infantry soldiering. Whilst no two days in the jungle are the same it was always important to maintain some form of routine.  It was impossible to work at night – too dark even for night vision devices – so one had to maximise every minute of daylight.

Thus the routine ensured we were fully prepared to move off at first light. Much of the time was spent patrolling in small groups, moving over challenging terrain avoiding paths and clearings. Primary jungle was ideal as the forest floor was comparatively clear and movement could be relatively fast. We learnt techniques for combating the natural (often lively) hazards in order to focus on being able to win through against human hazards. Whilst we carried large amounts of food and ammunition, water was plentifully available (even if purification tablets failed to improve the taste).  We became adept at looking after ourselves physically and mentally, and becoming part of the life of the jungle.

You were in the army for twelve years. When did the job demand the most from you?
Warfare is brutal and training has to be equally demanding. There were many occasions on operations and on exercise when I found myself really up against it. In 1982 we were concluding one of the most successful operational tours in West Belfast. The amount of ‘finds’ of weapons and ammunition and the number of arrests of ‘wanted’ terrorists were exceptional. The Provisional IRA clearly wanted to inflict something on us in retaliation and tragically, during our handover period to the Coldstream Guards, they mounted an attack. Three of our riflemen were killed. We spent every single moment over the next three days trying to catch those responsible but our time came to end the tour and leave the task to the next battalion.

I also remember spending a month in the fish ponds on the Hong Kong-China border arresting illegal immigrants. Each night we would move out onto the dikes in small groups of three or four and set up ambushes. We laid in wait arresting anyone trying to enter into Hong Kong from China.

What do you count among your most satisfying achievements, personally and professionally?
As a soldier the most rewarding was commanding the counter-terrorist quick reaction force for the Winter Olympics in Canada. With Barclays there were successes in assisting businesses to achieve their ambitions, and I was involved in a successful marketing campaign in the business-to-business marketplace (I still have a cartoon in my office as a memento). With the Esh Group my eyes were opened as to how a business can really deliver corporate social responsibility. And in my personal life I am immensely proud of my two children (22 and 19) who have already achieved so much and I am delighted to have been able to help my wife make such a success out of everything she has tackled (such as a fundraising dinner in the Royal Hospital Chelsea in June).