Bernard Ginns: Who came up with the best business line of 2014?

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A DOZEN or so years ago I interviewed Archie Norman, then the Conservative MP for Tunbridge Wells, at his office in Westminster.

Looking back, I struggle to remember anything memorable about the exchange, other than my impression that he seemed rather subdued for someone who was supposed to be a corporate titan.

Colleagues at The Yorkshire Post recall a very different man who, nearly a quarter of a century ago, came to Leeds to restore a struggling northern grocery chain.

“He was the lifeblood of the Asda turnaround,” says Ros Snowdon, our esteemed City Editor. “Allan Leighton was a big part of it, but it was Archie’s dream.

“When he went in, morale was at rock bottom and Asda was completely failing. He was the one who introduced ‘colleague’ to the workplace. He turned the whole thing on its head.”

She thinks the move into politics was a mistake; Mr Norman was no longer his own person and could not follow his own vision.

There may or may not be some truth in that - I expect we will have to wait for a memoir to find out.

In any event, Mr Norman stood down from frontline politics in 2005, having served as vice chairman for the Conservative Party and Shadow Minister for Europe (no easy ride there), and returned to the boardroom, most notably as chairman of ITV.

It is a shame he isn’t in a position of political influence now, as he could help bring some much-needed advocacy for Yorkshire in the “Northern Powerhouse” debate.

Manchester has the Chancellor George Osborne - who represents the Cheshire constituency of Tatton - as its champion and some of the recent Government announcements have favoured the city so much that the policy could be renamed the “Manchester Powerhouse”.

But Mr Norman did his bit to redress the balance towards God’s Own Country in a marvellous article for The Sunday Telegraph about his move to Leeds in 1991. He said: “When I arrived, the city was shrouded in fog and only one city centre restaurant was open at night.

“One of the retail analysts headed his research note ‘It’s grim up North’ and another ‘Bye bye, Archie’.

“It was as if I had emigrated. I told my wife to stay in the South as I fully expected to be back shortly.

“To some extent this was a reflection of the challenges facing the business at the time. But over the subsequent 10 years I learned to love Yorkshire.

“More than that, I discovered it was a great place to employ people.”

Mr Norman said that his Yorkshire colleagues were more committed and more genuine than their counterparts in the southern metropolis.

Persuading new executives and their families to move to Yorkshire was sometimes difficult, but once here they were less likely to leave, he added.

“If I was starting a new business today I would go to Yorkshire every day of the week,” said Mr Norman. That has to qualify as one of the best business lines of 2014.

He said the “Northern Powerhouse” concept may have started as a political tactic to win votes in this part of the world, but has now developed into a big economic idea.

“Investing in Liverpool, Leeds and Manchester would make vastly better use of national resources,” he said.

“There are still more people looking for work in the North, housing costs are lower and congestion is less of a constraint.”

With greater governance and more investment in infrastructure, education and business, the North could rise again, said Mr Norman, who implored “Go North, my friends, go North!”

While it is good to hear Mr Osborne talking about empowering northern England, there is naturally a political edge. Less so with respected business leaders like Mr Norman.