Welcome to Yorkshire’s new chief executive, James Mason, has no illusions about the scale of the challenge in restoring the scandal-hit agency’s reputation. Chris Burn reports.
The new chief executive of Welcome to Yorkshire is to launch a review of how the company operates as he seeks to turn around its precarious financial position.
James Mason, the former chief operating officer of Bradford City Football Club, has joined the troubled tourism agency from sports agency First Point USA, which helps promising athletes get scholarships to American universities.
The 41-year-old, from Bradford, said while he was excited to take on the role, he knows it is a challenging one and changes will need to be made.
“I’m aware of the challenge ahead. I know this isn’t going to be easy. There will be structural changes in the next few weeks and months that we will have to enforce and that’s where my business acumen will hopefully be useful to the whole organisation.
“In some areas we will have to really analyse our whole fixed cost base, our variable costs and go ‘Can we continue like this? What changes can we make in the short, medium and long-term? What’s necessary? What’s a must-have? What’s a nice-to-have?’ They are the difficult things that I will have to take upon me. But at the same time, the challenge is an exciting one. Because it has been bashed over the head over the past nine months it is now an opportunity to give the staff something to get really excited about and look forward.”
Mr Mason, who started work at the Leeds-based tourism agency yesterday, is only the second chief executive in the 11-year history of Welcome to Yorkshire after the company was established as a successor to the Yorkshire Tourist Board by his predecessor Sir Gary Verity in 2009.
Sir Gary helped bring the Tour de France to Yorkshire in 2014 and was awarded a knighthood the following year for his work in promoting the region, while also establishing the annual Tour de Yorkshire cycling race. But he resigned last March on health grounds amidst allegations about his behaviour towards employees and expenses claims. Subsequent inquiries found his behaviour towards staff had “fallen short” of expected standards while he repaid over £25,000 in expenses claims found to have been “not incurred wholly for the benefit” of Welcome to Yorkshire.
Investigators were also unable to determine whether almost £1m of other expense claims by Sir Gary and other senior managers had been “reasonable and proportionate” due to a lack of clear spending policies.
Welcome to Yorkshire – which receives millions of pounds in funding from the public sector, largely through local councils – has struggled to recover from the fallout to his departure and in September took out a £500,000 loan from North Yorkshire County Council to prevent it running out of money and being unable to pay staff.
In October, new chairman Peter Box said the organisation had operated with a “spend now, worry about it later culture”. It was revealed that in the months after Sir Gary’s departure the organisation had gone £170,000 over budget on its Chelsea Flower Show garden.
The company recently missed a deadline to file its annual accounts for 2018/19 and auditors are still working to assess whether it is a going concern.
Mr Mason admitted that redundancies at the agency are a possibility in the coming months. “I think any organisation that could potentially have gone out of business and that is having to some extent use funding that was probably going to be coming at a later time has to look inwardly and look at where we can save costs,” he said.
“Redundancy is one way of reducing cost, it may be something that we have to do in the next few weeks and months, it is something I would rather not do but at the same time an opportunity like this has come along because Welcome to Yorkshire hasn’t been able to balance the books in the last few years.
“We don’t want to be making hundreds and hundreds of thousands of pounds because we are a not-for-profit organisation. But at the same time, we have to make sure we cut our cloth accordingly.”
But he said he does believe there is a sustainable future for Welcome to Yorkshire and urged all in the region who want to see tourism flourish to get behind it. “Anyone who has got a pro-Yorkshire agenda needs to be behind Welcome to Yorkshire in the next few weeks and months. I have been brought in to bring about change, to offer the transparency that has been asked for, to bring in governance, to bring in commercialisation that perhaps we haven’t been challenged on as much as we might have been in the past.”
Mr Mason said he still hopes there is a long-term future for Tour de Yorkshire following this year’s event.
“It is a decision we are going to have to make with stakeholders in the next few months and years. As it stands, I don’t see why not.”