John Silker, chief executive of Magna, Rotherham

John Silker
John Silker
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As the chief executive of the Magna science adventure park in Rotherham, John Silker had been instrumental in starting to turn around its fortunes.

Mr Silker, who has died at 64, had joined the enterprise, one of Yorkshire’s biggest indoor tourist attractions, at the culmination of a leisure and hospitality career that had spanned 37 years.

But he had discovered his philosophy for life earlier still, he had said. Shortly after leaving school in Liverpool, he had a chance meeting in the street with his hero, the late football manager Bill Shankly, who passed on a few words of wisdom.

“He said to me, ‘Be the best in whatever you do in life’,” Mr Silker recalled, many years later.

After leaving Archbishop Whiteside secondary school in Liverpool, he had taken a job as an office junior in a catering firm, and worked his way through the industry to become manager of Manchester United’s VIP suite at Old Trafford.

In between, he managed a series of hotels, spa and golf resorts from Suffolk to Gretna Green, where he put on 1,000 weddings in a single year.

There were some unusual requests for hospitality. “When I was in Blackpool at a party political conference, a well-known politician wanted his bath filled with Champagne so his guests could dunk their glasses in because he was hosting a party in his suite,” he remembered.

His longest stint was the eight years he spent in charge of Hellaby Hall Hotel near Rotherham, which he left in 2008. During that time he was also vice-president of Rotherham Chamber of Commerce.

When Manchester United came calling, he took some teasing from fellow Liverpool supporters. But you had to admire their facilities, he told them.

It was at old Trafford that Magna came calling, and returning to South Yorkshire felt, he said, like coming home.

He had been headhunted to lead a turnaround at the attraction after its owner had reported losses for 2011-2 of £1.2m.

His original appointment was to the post of general manager but he was soon elevated to chief executive.

Housed in the former Templeborough steelworks on Sheffield Road, Magna is a family attraction with more than 100 hands-on exhibits designed to explore the elements of air, water, earth and fire. The building is a third of a mile long, with one end in Rotherham and the other in Sheffield.

When Mr Silker arrived, it had a turnover of more than £900,000 but was running at a loss of £250,000.

“Magna was a sleeping giant and I was brought in to shake the giant and wake him up and to push the business forward,” he said.

Its turnaround was still in progress when three months ago, he was able to announce plans for a £20m research academy there, with a giant furnace producing 30 tonnes of glass each day.

Brian Chapple, one of the trustees, said: “John worked tirelessly and with passion to realise Magna’s potential and drive it to be the best it can be. He was devoted to the venue and was a friend, as well as a colleague, to many.”

Mr Silker is survived by his three daughters and their families.