Sir Gary Verity

Leading Questions: Sir Gary Verity

03 May 2018

As Chief Executive of Welcome to Yorkshire, Sir Gary Verity played a crucial role in bringing the start of the Tour de France to the White Rose county for the first time, and now organises its legacy event, the annual Tour de Yorkshire – bringing world class cycling to the region’s hills, dales and cities.

Before joining the tourism body in 2008, Leeds-born Sir Gary had a long career as a corporate turnaround specialist. His first job was with Barclays as a management trainee, and the bank is now a corporate partner of Welcome to Yorkshire, working with the organisation to support the region’s SMEs.

We talk to Sir Gary about leading by example, living on a sheep farm – and whether there’s a specifically Yorkshire approach to leadership.

What did you learn from your early work experience?

You learn from the people around you: from the role models you can see. People can be a positive or a negative influence – and you can see good examples of leadership everywhere, not just in the organisation you work in, but in other business organisations and sporting organisations as well.

As your career developed, what did you look for from senior leaders?

I was very fortunate to work for some really inspiring leaders: people who had presence, people who had visibility, people who were inspiring, and people who weren’t afraid to give out tough messages. All of those qualities are ones that are very important for me in leadership. I was able to see that first hand and hopefully I’ve managed to plagiarise small parts of them.

Sometimes leadership potential is very obvious – you can see passion, integrity and credibility. If you can combine all those things then you’ve got a special person.

Is there a difference between being in charge at Welcome to Yorkshire and your leadership roles in the commercial sector?

There are some great similarities and there are some differences.

Ten years ago, I said I would come here for three years to turn the organisation around, which was my background – coming in and getting businesses to do better than they were currently doing

Turning around an organisation from my point of view is really simple – it’s problem, solution, execution. The Yorkshire Tourist Board – as it was – needed rebranding, refreshing and rebooting.

We’ve worked collegiately with many other organisations to improve the lot of the Yorkshire economy. When you’re running just one organisation competitively there’s slightly less of that – but we’ve tried to bring some of that commercial focus to this organisation too.

Managing an organisation with many younger people at an earlier stage of their careers – what lessons to you try to impart?

It’s a mixture of showing and telling. You need to lead by example, when it’s possible, but sometimes you have to issue an edict to take things forward. We put on a lot of big events, and some of it develops in collegiate mode, but when we get into “event mode” there isn’t a huge amount of time to have discussions.

What tells you that someone has leadership potential?

Occasionally you meet people where it’s very obvious – where you can see passion, integrity and credibility, and you can see ability. If you can combine all those things then you’ve got a special person, and we’ve got quite a lot of those people here, so from that point of view we’re fortunate.

Welcome to Yorkshire - Tour de Yorkshire

Is there a particularly Yorkshire approach to leadership?

I think there is. People who are more politically correct than me would say there isn’t, but I think there is. If you look at Yorkshire leaders over the years, decades and centuries – they’ve been buccaneering, forthright, sometimes a bit blunt. If you saw Sir Ken Morrison doing a fantastic job leading his supermarket chain – he was, I would say, a classically Yorkshire leader.

If you look at someone like Brian Close, who was a great cricket captain inspiring great success – Brian didn’t take any prisoners.

There are good examples of leadership on many different fronts that Yorkshire has provided to the world, from James Cook from Middlesbrough, to William Wilberforce from Hull, to Helen Sharman from Sheffield. There are many examples of fantastic leadership in the county.

Is there a leader in the business or wider world who you particularly admire?

I hugely admired Sir Ken Morrison. I was very pleased to know him, and I think he was a great Yorkshire leader, but there are some great examples around nowadays, some of whom I know really well and wouldn’t embarrass by naming them here.

What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve been given?

Be fired with enthusiasm, otherwise you’ll be fired with enthusiasm.

What was the best day of your working life?

I’m lucky to work with a brilliant team at Welcome to Yorkshire. They’re very talented and truly inspiring, so for me – having been here ten years – I still can’t wait to get out of bed at half past five every morning and get to work.

Clearly, if you ask me for special days, the Grand Départ of the 2014 Tour De France – when Yorkshire hosted the start of the annual cycling race for the first time – accounted for two very special days, but every day at Welcome to Yorkshire is special too.

Sir Gary Verity, Welcome to Yorkshire county map

How do you unwind?

I have a working sheep farm and it’s a big part of my life. I do as much of the lambing as I’m able to, and I love being on the farm.

I had a set of farm animals as a kid that I played with, and now I’ve got a farm, so I’m happy!

Partly the farm is a counter-balance to the manic world of business – the sheep are not interested in who you’ve had a meeting with that day or what you’ve been up to. They’re completely binary in terms of their want in life, which is generally food.

I’m also very happy when I’m on my bicycle. I get out on my bike as much as I can – in terms of unwinding, I’m probably happiest when I’m on my bike.

How important is a work/life balance?

I’m completely the wrong person to ask about a work/life balance. There are loads of people who will give you a better answer and better quality advice. I’m probably the worst person in the world to ask about that.

What influence has your family had on your leadership ethic?

The person I most admired was my dad, who sadly passed six years ago. He was a massive influence on my life. He gave me my love of sport and many other things, and I miss him very much.

My daughter has been the reason I do a lot of the things that I do and work hard. Her mother died when she was six, which was difficult for us all. So, family and close friends – who I would include in this answer – are really important. You can tell how many close friends you have when something goes wrong – when something challenging happens in your life – then you can count who your real friends are.

Best piece of advice I’ve been given? Be fired with enthusiasm, otherwise you’ll be fired with enthusiasm.

Mapping the Tour de Yorkshire

“Working out the routes for the race is really interesting – it’s like designing a giant Sudoku puzzle. We start by inviting organisations, towns and cities to bid for starts and finishes. This year we had 18 bids for eight starts and finishes – we’re always oversubscribed. We look for a couple of flat or flattish stages for sprinters to win, a couple of hilly stages for punchers and attackers to win, and a tough stage right at the end where the race can be ultimately decided. We need iconic climbs, iconic scenery and stunning backdrops. And we need to go to all parts of Yorkshire: North, South, East and West. So, we put all those things together and see what works well.

“There’s a team of us that work on it. We like to get other people’s ideas into the mix, but, ultimately, I will have to make the decision on the routes. I’m always keeping my eye open when I’m driving around – I’ve become a bit of an anorak on tarmac, seeing if there are new bits of road I can drive on to have a look at how it might work! There are climbs in this year’s Tour de Yorkshire that are a result of driving around over the past couple of years and thinking: ‘That would work, let’s see how that would fit into the race.’”