Sunderland internet and software entrepreneur Paul Callaghan has pledged to help revive the city centre by harnessing culture and creativity.
Over the next 10 years he believes that by unlocking the city’s creative potential, Sunderland can be a more entertaining and thriving place, where ‘talent wants to live’.
Here he tells R&R about his vision for a city with a more cultural and prosperous future.
AS CHAIRMAN of Leighton Group, Paul Callaghan has launched a series of multi-million pound internet and software businesses that successfully trade across the globe.
A Sunderland man through and through who is very proud of his roots, he has also devoted a lot of his time to promoting and supporting institutions across the city – from the University of Sunderland where he is chairman to the Red House Academy, where Paul is also Chairman and Co-Sponsor.
Recognising the active role he plays in the economic development of both the North East and his home city, Paul has also recently been made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) – an honour he is immensely proud of.
But he admits that he now faces one of his biggest personal challenges yet in helping to revive the fortunes of Sunderland City Centre’s economy – although he is relying on people power to help make it happen.
“I really believe that collectively we can turn this place around. We need to look at what Sunderland is lacking and what will attract people back into the city centre while also looking at what Sunderland has in spades, which are creative and talented people in many different fields and spheres.
“We seem to be excelling at the moment in the music field and going through a renaissance in terms of the city’s standing in the music industry and we really need to build on this.
“Unfortunately we haven’t got venues though to make the most of our music scene and breathe life into the city centre. People should want to come into the city to hear music and to see other forms of art and culture – if they do, they will spend their money in the restaurants and the pubs and the city will revive.
“What I and other people want to do is to make Sunderland a place where talent wants to prosper and in order to do that you have to make it a creative hub where people with ideas come to network, perform and exhibit.
“If you look at business and civic success – it’s about clever and talented people being given support and guidance. We need to unleash that spirit and determination in the field of music, arts and culture. Look at the success of Split Festival in Sunderland. It started with just a few people who said lets make something happen and look at what it has grown to now.
“Talent breeds talent. Take for example the lads in The Futureheads. A band of thoughtful and creative people who are leaders in their field who are now influencing the next generation down such as The Lake Poets. People need role models.
“Listening to BBC6 we have ex-St Anthony’s pupil Lauren Laverne who still talks with a Sunderland accent and kids of Sunderland will recognise that someone from the city can be on TV or radio.
“If collectively we start to break down barriers and take away hurdles we can achieve great things.
“The Bunker in Sunderland is an example of what can be achieved with a bit of vision and it has developed into a valuable creative organisation. The Live Theatre in Newcastle, where I am on the board, is coming up to its 40th anniversary. When it was started by a small group of talented people they didn’t know they would end up producing shows that would go on to London and even Broadway.
“I am not saying the City Council always has to be leading – the lead should come from the young and creative people, while people like me who are older and have more experience of making businesses work and raising finance can help them achieve things.
“Barry Hyde from The Futureheads spoke at the (Journal’s) Culture Awards when Split Festival won an award. In his speech he said that the future of Sunderland lay in the era of creativity. He saw it, I saw it, as do many others.
“Sadly I think that too often in Sunderland we have relied upon the lower common denominator when it comes to entertainment. The evening economy in the city consists of cheap drinks and getting fuelled up rather than things happening.
“We need to create venues and events and put on the range of things that other cities do. There is a line from the city’s Masterplan that says Sunderland is a city with a university rather than a university city. In many ways that is right and it needs to change.
“Cities have culture, cities have events and we have shown we can do big events – just look at the stadium gigs over the summer – but we need more things happening at a grass roots level.
“I think those of us who have had commercial success and who are committed to this city can help transform it – it will be a hard slog and it will cost time, money and effort – but I for one am not going to sit back and allow this city to die. Sunderland is a city that afforded me opportunity and it is home.
“The next 10 years is going to be about seeing what we can do to make this city a more cultured more entertaining place to be – a place where talent wants to live. We have to make it vibrant and exciting so that kids want to stay.
“I do get fearful at times. Sunderland can sometimes seem like a doughnut city with things happening around it but not a great deal going on in the centre.
“But I’m not going to abandon this city. We have to face up to the problems we have and at the end of the day those of us who live here know the reality and unless we take collective responsibility for changing the city then it will continue to decline.
“Fortunately there are enough people with good hearts who are genuine about what they do. They and I believe that if we can get enough people to work together we really can change the city.”
The Leighton Story
NOW a successful global software and internet empire, the Leighton Group started as a small textbook publisher back in 1979.
An economist by trade, Paul Callaghan was lecturing at Durham when along with three other lecturers he published a business studies textbook.
Recognising that publishers made more money than the authors he set about self-publishing the next book with a business partner and Leighton was born. It started in the back office of his father’s accountancy firm in Vine Place in Sunderland.
The big break came with the launch of BTEC Business Studies courses in 1985 and demand for their tailored course books soared. The buoyant firm moved to Grange Crescent in Sunderland and quickly went from a cottage industry into a leading player.
In 1991 Paul picked up on an article about the internet and quickly spotted its potential.
Meanwhile in 1992 younger brother Gerard returned to Sunderland and joined the firm armed with a Masters degree, keen to catch the FA Cup fever that had unexpectedly swept the city.
Paul said: “Before Google you couldn’t find things on the Internet unless you unless you knew the exact Internet address and so we realised the importance of domain names in about 94/95 and started to develop the business that became domainnames.com which went on to become the biggest dot.com registrar in the UK within three years.”
Leighton moved out of Grange Crescent in 1997 with seven people and moved up to Doxford International. Within 18 months the company had 150 people in the team and by 1999 had offices in San Jose in California, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, London, Brussels, Hong Kong and Sydney.
While preparing to float the business on the stock market in early 2000 Leighton was approached by American company Verisign who bought the domain business ‘lock stock and barrel’.
In 1999 middle brother Bernie had joined the family firm after several years with the University of Sunderland and became Chief Executive of the group. He went on to mastermind the Sunderland Software City project and is now Dean of the Faculty of Business and Law at the University of Sunderland.
The last decade has seen the Group continue to successfully grow and develop a number of new software businesses under the Leighton Brand.
With fellow directors Chris Wilds, who joined the business in 1994, and Steve Nelson, who joined in 2001, the business has had another decade of success building 4Projects, the UK’s largest online project management company which was sold in 2007 and Communicator Corp, a major email management business, sold in 2011.
Currently the Group includes e-commerce software firm, SaleCycle, web conferencing business, WorkCast, and Leighton, which is one of the North’s most successful web agencies.
Of course Business Education Publishers, where it all started is still going strong although it has changed from being simply an educational publisher and is now rebranding as My World Publishing.
Whatever the next decades holds for the Leighton Group we can be sure that it will be innovative, creative, technically superb and selling software built in Sunderland to every corner of the world.