Profile - Julie Kenny: Looking forward to the end of an era and an enterprising new start

Yorkshire Forward's new chairman, Julie Kenny, talks redundancies, programme closures and tells why she's worth over £50,000 a year for two days a week. Lizzie Murphy reports.

WHEN Julie Kenny became chairman of regional development agency Yorkshire Forward, she knew her role would be very different to that of her predecessor.

Terry Hodgkinson presided over an organisation which had a substantial pot of cash and was helping to grow the Yorkshire economy. Mrs Kenny, who took up the post last month, is preparing the organisation for closure next year.

Regional development agencies (RDAs) across the UK will be replaced by local enterprise partnerships (LEPs), led by local authorities, who will take over the job of stimulating the economy outside London.

"The chairman's role I've taken on is very different to what it was," says Mrs Kenny. "It is a closure and transition role – to close down Yorkshire Forward and help the transition to the new local enterprise partnerships."

However, the transition role is minimal as Yorkshire Forward has to close down or complete about 900 of its projects between now and March 2012. There will be 93 projects remaining, which will be transferred to other organisations. None of the staff at Yorkshire Forward will transfer to the new LEPs.

Mrs Kenny was the RDA's longest-serving board member, so when it came to choosing a new chairman to see Yorkshire Forward through its final year, she was seen as a safe pair of hands.

"I have done eight years with the regional development agency and I'm proud of the work we have done and what we have achieved. It is important that we complete the job in the best way possible," she says.

The 53-year-old mother of three, who was given a CBE in 2002 for services to industry, has attracted criticism for the 54,479 salary she receives for working two days a week. But she says it's a nationally-set rate and the figure is justified.

"The pay has actually been reduced because I'm doing a two-day week rather than a three-day week. It's a nationally-set salary but it's difficult and we are sensitive to the economic climate we are in."

As well as her Yorkshire Forward role, Mrs Kenny is also managing director of intruder alarm manufacturer Pyronix, in Rotherham, a company she founded in the 1980s, and a director of its parent company, Secure Holdings.

She is also a director of the British Security Industry Association, a UK commissioner for employment and skills, sits on the Small Business Forum, and is a member of both the Better Regulation Stakeholder Group and the Administrative Burdens Advisory Board. She also serves on the board of Creative Sheffield and she was the first female president of Rotherham Chamber of Commerce where she is now an honorary director.

The role at Yorkshire Forward presents a number of challenges, not least because guidance from central government on how to wind down the organisation has been slow.

There is a big question mark over what will happen to Yorkshire Forward's 60m of assets, which includes the Tower Works regeneration site, in Leeds, Barnsley's Metropolitan Centre, the Odeon site in Bradford, which is primed for redevelopment, and the Cable and Wireless Building in Leeds The Government is yet to announce the future of the assets, although there are concerns the region will miss out if it sells them to fill Treasury coffers rather than benefitting the region.

The Government says its aim in dealing with assets will be to get "the best possible outcome for the locality" but says decisions must be "consistent with achieving value for the public purse".

"We have to prepare a case for government this month to show what our assets are, and we'll have to wait for guidance on what to do," says Mrs Kenny.

While she won't go as far as criticising the Government's slow decision-making, she adds: "What would help is that we get timely decisions once the Government has made its mind up. It's not a huge frustration, we are no more or less frustrated than anyone else, but it would help us to plan.

"We don't know how big the job is going to be. If we're giving the assets to another company, we don't have to worry about the value for money or manage the best price. If they say we need to go out and sell them, it is a much bigger job."

One of the most difficult tasks is managing the staff reduction. Ninety-three staff left their jobs in a swathe of voluntary redundancies at the end of 2010, leaving 350 employees.

The Government's Superannuation Bill, which was passed in December, set out the rules on further redundancies and payments for staff during the next round of cuts.

"All the regional development agencies have to put a business case to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills for the next phase of redundancies," says Mrs Kenny. "As soon as we are in that position we will talk to staff

about it."

She adds: "It's still business as normal at Yorkshire Forward. We still expect to deliver the projects currently under way. In respect of Business Link, we are still working and providing that support to local businesses, making sure they are getting high-quality advice.

"We have got a 102m budget to manage but, at the same time, we have to close down projects that have been completed."

Mrs Kenny believes the organisation's biggest triumphs were backing the Advanced Manufacturing Park between Rotherham and Sheffield, supporting businesses following the foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001 and the South Yorkshire floods in 2007, and supporting the financial services industry during the recession, as well as one of its biggest investments – rebuilding the tourist unit, Welcome to Yorkshire.

But RDAs have been criticised for wasting taxpayers' money on unsuccessful programmes, extravagant trips abroad, lavish conferences and "ludicrous" taxi expenses.

"I suspect there are lots of changes we would make with hindsight but I'm not sure I can think of a specific one now," says Mrs Kenny.

"Part of the job was to try new things. I haven't been in the

thick of the detail but we have had one of the best rates in the country in terms of administration costs.

"At the end of the day, we are Yorkshire people and we always want to get good value for money."

Mrs Kenny believes the LEPs have a difficult role to perform with a small budget and says it's important for all areas of the region to be represented.

"It's going to be tough," she says.

"I am pleased we have got Sheffield and Leeds City Region LEPs and I hope we will get North Yorkshire and the Humber represented to fully maximise the funds there are available. It's important that no area is left behind."

A former litigation lawyer, Mrs Kenny sold her home to set up Pyronix, which manufactures electronic security equipment, in 1986. The company, which employs 135 staff, is projecting a 15m turnover this year.

So after racking up a full-time job, a part-time job and a number of other responsibilities, how is Mrs Kenny going to fit everything in?

"It's hard," she admits. " But I'm going to take a step back at Pyronix. I'm going to become chairman of the company while deputy managing director Sebastian Herrera will take over as managing director.

"I've realised that I can't do everything and the role at Yorkshire Forward is an important one to get right."

Julie Kenny

Fact File

Title: Chairman of Yorkshire Forward and founder of Pyronix in Rotherham

Date of birth: August 19, 1957

Education: Went to evening classes to train as a legal executive while working as a legal secretary

First job: Shorthand typist

Favourite song: There are so many –but the Motown era in the '60s and '70s

Car driven: Jaguar XK8

Favourite film: Pretty Woman

Favourite holiday destination: Gran Canaria

Last book read: The Confession, by John Grisham

What I am most proud of: My three children, my company and my achievements