LEP chair Lord Haskins lifts the lid on what has driven a distinguished career

By Hull Daily Mail | Posted: 3 Nov 2017

Entrepreneurs are known for being mavericks – people who live by their own rules and who do not often seek advice from others.

So to have one of East Yorkshire’s leading entrepreneurs tell me he not only admires Lord Christopher Haskins, but is also, at times, in awe of his contacts, knowledge on numerous subjects and ability as a leader and a negotiator, is testament to Lord Haskins’s influence.

As the former head of Northern Foods, government adviser and chairman of numerous organisations and committees – the Open University being just one – Lord Haskins has a CV that would put most people to shame.

He also remains more involved with the local economy than many people 20 years his junior.

He said: “I am always curious. I don’t like to be idle and I have been fortunate in that things tend to come along. 

“Things come to me rather than me looking for them, and these tend to have been things I have an interest in.”

Before being appointed chairman of the Humber Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), Lord Haskins was arguably best known for his role at Northern Foods. 

The business, which was founded as Northern Dairies, was launched in Hull during the war by his father-in-law. 

Having been “persuaded” to join the business in 1962, Lord Haskins helped to inspire the innovation that saw Northern Foods create some of the most ground-breaking products of its day, namely the first  chilled ready meal, the first supermarket sandwich and the first shop-bought trifle, among other things.

INNOVATION: In Lord Haskins’s time at Northern Foods he helped inspire some of the most ground-breaking products of the day – the first chilled ready meals.

Ready meals are now so intertwined with our everyday lives  it is hard to imagine a time without them, yet when they first hit the shelves of Marks &  Spencer  (M&S), they were hailed as a revolution.

Lord Haskins said: “Chilled fresh ready meals are now the norm in many households, but they weren’t even on the horizon 50 years ago.

“When I went in to the business, food in this country was of pretty awful quality. 

“Supermarkets as we know them now did not exist.

“We used to spend a lot of time abroad in places such as Italy carrying out research. They were much better at food than we were. 

“Now, I go to M&S in Willerby and the innovations we created are still there on the shelves. Elements might have changed a little, but the basic formulas we made have lasted 40 years.

“The biggest challenge for us as a business was going into a completely new world, which is what Marks & Spencer was.

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Marks & Spencer was moving into a new world too, exploring innovation and new products.  There was a huge transformation of what we made and how we did it, and Marks & Spencer led that transformation.”

M&S’s legendary trifle was based on a Mrs Beeton recipe, and took product developers at Northern Foods five years to work out how to ensure the trifle not only tasted great but also didn’t turn to mush in its packaging.

But where did the idea behind pre-packaged sandwiches came from?

Lord Haskins said: “I was in Marks & Spencer in London when the chief executive was doing an experiment. 

“He had the women in the food department make up some sandwiches. 

“We watched them coming down the aisles and they didn’t even make it to the chiller cabinets; they were all snapped up by customers before they got there.

“I rang  our factory in Oldham and said, ‘I think we are on to something here’.”

Though he clearly had a huge impact on Northern Foods, Lord Haskins maintains he was not the entrepreneur of the business. The entrepreneur, he insists, was his father-in-law.

“He started the business from scratch, often having to live on a wing and prayer,” he said. “When I joined the business, it was making £300,000. When I left, it was making millions, but the £300,000 was the clever part.”

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It was during his time at Northern Foods that Lord Haskins began to dabble in things outside of the business, namely using his farming and food expertise to offer advice to both Conservative and Labour governments.

This eventually led to him becoming Prime Minister Tony Blair’s adviser on farming matters, including the  foot and mouth outbreak that rocked the industry.

He said: “I have always had an interest in Government. I knew the former Prime Minister John Smith, and when he died I had been doing some work for the Labour Government. I got to know Tony Blair before he became prime minister.  I attended a few meetings he spoke at in Leeds, and was one of the few business people at the time that was supportive of him.

“He was a good person to work with. There were a lot of his policies I did not agree with, for example Iraq.

“I also worked alongside the likes of Gordon Brown and David Blunkett. I had disagreements with them all, but they always supported me.”

One cause for disagreement between Lord Haskins and the former Prime Minister was an issue that continues to divide businesses and politicians to this day.

Lord Haskins said: “Tony Blair had a more hands-off perspective of the economy than I did; he was always wanting me to back off regulation but I said no, I want to make regulation better.

“The idea that regulation is strangling business is nonsense.  Of course there are bad regulations,  but in a civilised society you need regulations.”

Softly spoken and outspoken are not qualities readily bestowed on one individual, but they both fit Lord Haskins, whose willingness to speak out about issues he feels strongly about, whether to leading politicians or local farmers, are well-documented.

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This outspokenness continues today, and he makes no apology for having a strong opinion on Brexit.

He said: “Brexit is on my mind all of the time. It is a real problem we have to tackle. The ports are very effected by Brexit, as are so many industries here in the Humber.

“We have spent my entire lifetime building a stronger relationship with our neighbours, not just economic but social and political, too, and suddenly this country decided to turn its back on that and undermine 70 years of progress, and for what? For nothing.

“I think the campaign was badly handled on both sides. 

“People were just misled. They were told huge amounts of money would come back to the country if we left the EU, which was not true, and that the economy would get better, which is not true. 

“Before the referendum, Europe was quite low down people’s priorities. When they were then given the chance to vote, it  was  high on their minds. 

“The general feeling was that a lot of people were getting a raw deal. They saw chief executives on huge salaries and felt hard done to, and they had every right to do so. But leaving the EU was not the answer.

“Now the challenge is tackling the complexities of Brexit and understanding, or trying to understand, how complex it is and how we are going to get out of the other side.”

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Despite having lived in the area for four decades, Lord Haskins says he has only really come to understand it since his appointment to the Humber LEP.

“I tended to spend a lot of time in London,” he said. “I didn’t know too much about the Humber, really. The past five years have been quite new to me, and I have found it very stimulating.

“The Humber has historically been an isolated part of England. Trying to get it more mainstream, to get people wide of the Humber to work more closely together than they ever have in the past, has been key.

“I think we have made real progress, and the Humber economy is going quite well. The local politicians are working together, local businesses are working together. 

“The impact of Siemens in the area is it has created 1,000 direct jobs, but much more importantly,  it has created confidence and self-respect. Local businesses are much more confident. If businesses are confident that breeds confidence, and confidence comes.”

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