Eric Morgan sits down with Jeffrey Ball to discuss his life as a Trustee.
"Oh yes, we’ll go and see Wallace & Gromit” smiles Eric Morgan, settling into his chair with a hearty handshake. He’s outlining the plan for his visiting granddaughters who are arriving shortly. He has a calm demeanour befitting his previous career as a Chartered Surveyor, but when he starts talking about his role with three of the North East’s largest charities, that is when you get a glimpse of the passion lying underneath.
Born in Consett, County Durham, Eric Morgan has been a Trustee of Azure Charitable Enterprises and The William Leech Foundation for over a decade. However, we are here today to talk about his work as a Trustee with Reece Foundation. Currently it is supporting the schools programme of the Great Exhibition of the North and a number of events, including a Wallace & Gromit display, aiming to inspire the next generation of engineers, designers, innovators and inventors. And entertain visiting grandchildren.
ERIC, HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED WITH THE REECE FOUNDATION?
I had known Alan Reece for 10-15 years before I retired in 2005. I actually chanced upon him in a pub one lunchtime when having a sandwich.
“Do you know anything about charities?” he said. Well, actually I am already trustee of a couple. “Perfect. Come around and we’ll have a chat about a new charity I am thinking of making.”
At that time, he put in £10 million of his own money. “I’ll give you the chequebook, you look after the money” he always said. [laughs]
REECE GROUP IS AN ENORMOUS ENGINEERING FIRM IN ITS OWN RIGHT, BUT £10 MILLION IS STILL A HUGE AMOUNT OF MONEY. AND YOU HAVE BEEN INVOLVED SINCE THE WORD GO?
That’s right. It must have been about £40 million he put in over the years. Absolutely amazing. An amazing man. If I have pride in what I’ve done it’s because I have been really fortunate to work with some super people. But the most innovative was Alan Reece. He was a different class of guy, I was just lucky.
THE FOUNDATION IS SUPPORTING ‘FUTURE ENGINEERS’, AN EVENT FEATURING WALLACE & GROMIT AND LOCAL 19TH CENTURY ENGINEERS, WILLIAM ARMSTRONG AND ROBERT STEPHENSON, THREE OF ENGLAND’S GREATEST INVENTORS. WHY IS THAT?
Alan was an engineer. He had a view you have to manufacture things. When you’re an island, you have to build things and have a degree of self-sufficiency. He was concerned that not enough clever people were going into engineering, so setting up the foundation was him trying to correct that. He believed in helping the best. That is why he gave £5m to the Cambridge University engineering [department]. He commissioned a London think tank to change government policy about manufacturing. Alan came to the conclusion it was not enough trying to do little things in little bits in the North East. You had to arouse the big political debate, and he did.
NOW, THOUGH WOULD YOU SAY REECE FOUNDATION IS MORE OF A NORTH EAST CHARITY?
We would like to spend most of our money in the North East. That’s not to say we won’t still look outside.
WHAT ELSE IS REECE FOUNDATION CURRENTLY SUPPORTING?
Oh, there’s a number of initiatives. On a national basis, we support the Arkwright scholarships. They are awarded to aspiring engineers, the ones from the best schools with super CVs and destined for the best universities.
WHEN DO THEY RECEIVE THAT SUPPORT?
In sixth form. We also wanted to support less well-off kids so set up a local one, the Reece Scholarships, ran by St Cuthbert’s in Newcastle’s West End. We give small sums but it’s an encouragement to a large number of kids. We were advised you need to reach the kids at a much earlier age. They already know what they want to do by the time they are sixteen, so we have supported Primary Engineer. They are a national charity and it’s great to see kids aged eight, nine, ten coming up with ideas.
WHAT SORT OF IDEAS?
Engineers solve problems, that’s what they do. Alan solved the problem of how to plough the seabed to lay cables. What problems do kids have? Lego Bricks.
One kid had a big tub of bricks and he wanted to invent a machine to sort them into the right sizes. There are a lot of examples. It’s great to see. And it’s not always the crème de la crème schools.
The story I always tell is that we support the UK F1 in Schools competition (contested by 22,000 schools across 43 countries) and we have paid for a team from Kenton School, which can’t be described as a well- known academic school, to go to the international final in Texas beating many teams from some of the best schools in the south. Emmanuel College in Gateshead too, we helped them go the year after to Singapore.
These kids are just as innovative as the Arkwright scholars. We want it to be life-changing for them, and for other kids who will go “hey, they’ve done well, we could do well.”
MEASURING IMPACT IS IMPORTANT FOR A GRANT-GIVING CHARITY. DO YOU HAVE STRICT MEASURES FOR THAT?
There are only four trustees so it can be hard to monitor. Broadly speaking we base our decisions on the people making the applications. We go to their events and get a feel for them. We get a lot of applications from organisations we don’t know. It’s hard to give money to them if we don’t know them and they haven’t got a strong track record. It is like any other business, you need to know who you are trusting.
WHAT’S IT LIKE WORKING WITH A CHARITY LINKED TO A COMPANY?
It’s interesting, there are some very strong links with the company, they make the premises (the iconic half-mile long Armstrong Works on the banks of the Tyne) available to show the kids around. There are very strong ties between the company and the West End of Newcastle as they are part of the West End. You can’t let it get too close. Our objective is charity, their objective is business, so you must keep a degree of separation.
ARE THERE ANY COMMON THEMES ACROSS THE THREE CHARITIES YOU WORK WITH?
At the end of the day, they all have to be considered like businesses. You are looking to maximise your returns from the funds you have in your charity. It is no different to being in business. We try and choose projects to support in line with our core charitable aims, which have good people to manage the projects. That is no different to doing work with people in a commercial set up. It is all about people.
SO IT’S ABOUT BUILDING A RELATIONSHIP?
WHAT ATTRIBUTES MAKE A GOOD TRUSTEE?
The reason I said yes to all three of them is I thought the people were really good. Have I said no? I have been asked to work with others, but you say no if you don’t think you are going to gel.
SO, IT’S ABOUT FINDING THE RIGHT MIX?
Yes, you need a spread of people. You may need someone who really knows about disability, which we have at Azure. At Leech, we thought we needed a legal body to be a Trustee you go and find one, you balance the board to meet the challenges you have. It is a big challenge to find people who understand your charity objectives and are prepared to commit the time.
IN TERMS OF THE SKILLS YOU NEED TO BE A TRUSTEE, UNDERSTANDING INVESTMENTS CAN BE TERRIFYING TO SOME. IS YOUR KNOWLEDGE SELF-TAUGHT OR SOMETHING THE CHARITIES HELPED YOU BRING ON?
I would say a bit of both. You learn sitting in meetings with people like yourself, sitting in trustee meetings with people that know an awful lot more than you do. I myself run my own little self-invested personal pension so I keep my hand in, in that way. I think you just have to be interested in the topic.
TWO-PART QUESTION FOR YOU: WHAT’S THE BEST PART OF BEING A TRUSTEE?
Giving money to someone and you go along and see it is working.
AND WHAT’S THE WORST PART?
Giving the money and seeing it’s not working!
HOW DO YOU BALANCE AMBITION WITH REALISM?
I don’t know [laughs]. You just try and do it. We try but we probably fail. it’s better to be ambitious and fail than not be ambitious at all.
THAT IS A GOOD APPROACH. HOW WAS THE ROLE CHANGED OVER THE LAST THIRTEEN YEARS?
There’s a difference between Alan, and John and Anne Reece, his son and widow (and fellow Trustees). Alan was prepared to spend more nationally, John and Anne want to spend more in the North East. We’ve just got a new chief executive at Azure. We had a very good one for 15 years, that’s a challenge in itself. He’ll want to do things differently to the previous one and needs to bring new ideas. I’m not saying there was anything wrong in the past, he’s just different. The most important thing a trustee can do is appoint a chief executive. If you get that right, a lot follows. Get it wrong, and you’ve got problems.
AND HOW DO YOU MAKE SURE YOU GET THAT RIGHT?
You don’t! You just interview people, check them out the best you can, and you make a decision. We think we have got it right at Azure.
WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS FOR THE FUTURE?
Oh, I’m 73 so I’ll need to step aside in the next year or so, but I will always remain interested and you would hope you would stay friends with the people you have been trustees with.”
With that, his phone hums signalling the end of our chat and that it is time to show his granddaughters around the Great Exhibition of the North. He bids his farewells and heads out for one of the number of themed trails currently winding throughout Newcastle. It seems quite apt the one he is guiding them through is the one called innovation.