Considering he was dragged to Norwich ‘kicking and screaming’ at the age of 13, it didn’t take long for John Gordon-Saker, CEO of OPEN Youth Trust, to fall in love with our fine city.
The Liverpudlian recalls: ‘I was a mad Liverpool supporter so my first questions were ‘where is Norwich and do they have a football team?’’
He adds: ‘My first night in the city was Christmas Eve and it was snowing – we went for dinner in Tombland and it was fairly magical, with the Cathedral in the background.’
He would go on to take Business Studies at City College Norwich before entering the world of work. ‘I always thought I’d retire back here at some point, but didn’t think I’d be lucky enough to come back and get a proper job.’
John’s proper job is Chief Exec of a charity which is making a positive difference to the lives of young people living in Norfolk. It also happens to be an impressive venue space for hire.
Formerly the site of a wine merchant, Gurney’s Bank and the Regional HQ of Barclays, the landmark Grade II listed building on Bank Plain has played a pivotal role in the development of Norwich.
John comments: ‘My first job interview was here, in this building, when I was 19 and interviewed by Mr Gurney.’
His career trajectory has taken him from HSBC, to Crown Television (as Marketing Director), being invited by Tony Garnett (of Kes and Cathy Come Home) to set up a business media division within an award-winning broadcast production company, and becoming MD of a global marketing communication group.
Three years ago, he ‘stumbled across OPEN,’ explaining: ‘One of the trustees asked me to do an interim CEO-ship and to also write a business plan and marketing strategy.’
He adds: ‘The biggest issue wasn’t necessarily the finances, it was the perception. When I went to meetings and asked ‘what do you understand about OPEN?’, some said ‘it’s a music venue’, others said ‘it’s a charity’, and some said ‘is it a religious cult where they brainwash people?’
I actually got that the other day!’
Perhaps that’s why OPEN recently launched its new corporate brochure, ‘which will hopefully put to bed a lot of misconceptions about the place,’ says John. The new tagline is: ‘Every penny of profit from the venue goes to young people in Norfolk through our charity OPEN Youth Trust.’
The new in-house catering launched earlier this year and offers menus for any event, from canapés and buffets to gala dinners or fine dining in the privacy of the former Bank Manager’s Dining Room. The room we were chatting in is one of two which can seat around eight, and there are two more rooms which can seat up to 40.
The fine dining menus offer cuisine using Norfolk produce and are prepared by Head of Catering Andrew Baker (formerly of The Feed).
At OPEN, ‘no two days are the same,’ says John. Recently, the Banking Hall played host to the Norwich Law Society Dinner, and then one of the country’s best Oktoberfest celebrations. As we approach December, OPEN is gearing up for its Christmas party nights, complete with three-course traditional Christmas dinner. John comments: ‘The venue is the reason people come, but we want the food to be the focus. We are trying to diversify the type of public event so it’s not all music.’
He explains: ‘It’s partly because Andyrew’s here, and it’s partly to do with the fact that I love food, but it’s mainly because the profit margin on banqueting events is much better.’
John taps his tummy at this point. ‘I hate salad or anything healthy! When I ran events I used to go around the world and stay in posh hotels, eating posh food – I loved it.’
Nowadays, John lives near the football ground. He has two sons from his first marriage, aged 39 and 40, two grandsons, and a 20-year-old daughter from a subsequent relationship.
So has his business plan for OPEN gone to plan? ‘It was a three year project to become self-sustainable – I think that might’ve stretched to four years, but we’re in a really good place.
‘I’m not out there with a begging bowl, asking for money – I’m out there asking for corporates to use the spaces.’ When he arrived, around half a dozen clients were using OPEN – nowadays it’s more like 60.
John says: ‘We have an amazing list of clients. But it would be nice to get people in from London and other places. My dream is to make Norwich a destination for conferences.’
There are many plans afoot. ‘One is to get rid of the bridge and increase capacity for everything: banqueting, conferencing and shows.’ A new balcony is planned for over the bar. ‘The bridge will go in January and hopefully the balcony will follow in a couple of years.’
John recently turned 65. He has no imminent plans to retire, although he says: ‘Once I’ve got the place to be self-sustaining, I think I’ll have done my bit.’
• Norwich Vegans Christmas Market takes place at OPEN on December 2
Featured in issue 32 – December 2018