ID Birmingham has just been launched. Ian Halstead finds out more about the initiative and its driving force, Beverley Nielsen.
Having a conversation with Beverley Nielsen can be like trying to corral cats – the pedigree kind of course.
It’s an interesting and stimulating pastime, but there are moments when she appears torn between the elemental forces of her nature.
There’s creative Beverley – driven by a love of art, fashion, design, history and stage-craft, who studied six languages, dreamed fervently of being an actress, directed award-winning productions of Ayckbourn plays, and worked in the editor’s office at Vogue‘s New York HQ.
“I was so passionate about acting, I was in all the school plays, and sang in local am-dram productions. Even when I finally realised it wasn’t going to happen, I chose law for my degree because I thought I could use my acting experience in court,” she admits.
“I never really saw myself as a lawyer though, and didn’t go to the London Bar after being accepted.
"However, New York really did impress me, and the job at Vogue was all about getting models and clothes to photo-shoots. In a much less glamorous way, it was like The Devil Wears Prada.’’
Then there’s serious Beverley – musing about politics, economic theories and corporate philosophies, the secretary of Fianna Gael at Dublin’s Trinity College, who then crossed the city for an MBA at University College, and presented a CBI strategy paper to the House of Lords as a 23-year-old.
“My first job was with the Confederation, writing policy in the European Directorate, and it was just wonderful. I did a report on trade barriers and Europe, and then I went to their Brussels office,” she recalls.
“I have such happy memories of the CBI, and I think it has become the business organisation because there is such intellectual rigour about all it does. Yes, it’s about policy, but it’s always policy in the real world.”
Inevitably, as Beverley’s thoughts swirl around like snowflakes on a mission, there are times when Yin and Yang head in different directions
However, it’s very easy to understand the forces which have shaped her life, as she reminisces about her idyllic childhood in Malvern. For if ever someone was the child of their parents, it is Beverley.
Dad was a sober-sided scientist of renown, who completed his doctorate in chemistry, worked for the Radar Research Establishment – the forerunner of QinetiQ – and was invited by the Irish government to move to Ireland to devise its new science and technology strategy in 1968.
Mum was the polar opposite; artistic, creative and gregarious, whose love of books, poetry and drama led her to study English at Queen’s University in Belfast, and then to become a dedicated and impassioned teacher.
Contrasting personalities for sure, but they were blissfully happy, as Beverley recalls.
“She absolutely idolised dad. He was like Gregory Peck in The Big Country, her quiet hero. Mum died two years ago, and I still miss her very much.”
Even a passing understanding of her parents makes it very clear why Beverley is so enthused by her role as director of employer engagement, at Birmingham City University.
She’s always passionate and committed, whether selling air-time for Ted Turner’s CNN media empire, penning strategy for the CBI, or persuading a sleepy supermodel to forsake her bed for art‘s sake, but this is something different.
After a career which criss-crossed the globe, passing through myriad business sectors along the way, Yin and Yang are now contentedly curled up in the same intellectual basket.
Beverley’s task – at its simplest – is to cajole the region’s leading academics, architects, and other creative souls into working with manufacturers, large and small, to help drive innovative design into every aspect of their business.
The initiative is based on the premise that the region’s competitiveness will increase, if its long-time expertise in production design can be melded with its cultural and design heritage, creating employment, and raising the area’s profile at home and abroad.
The project’s funding is currently being assembled, its backers already include the high-profile corporates, Aga Rangemaster, Jaguar Land Rover and Morgan Cars, architect Glenn Howells is also on board, and Birmingham City Council has pledged significant support.
Beverley outlines the backdrop to ID Birmingham – Innovation:Design Birmingham – in her shared shoebox of an office perched high above BCU’s Perry Barr campus, with characteristic elan.
“Design is about disruption and change, and most businesses prefer to take small and incremental steps, but already we’ve seen what can happen when fresh eyes are brought to bear on a business,” she says.
“William McGrath – chief executive of Aga Rangemaster – was very impressed at the concepts for night storage heaters which our students came up with in just 72 hours. Another example was using Triumph motor-bike components to create a contemporary design of corkscrew.
"This region has very special brands, which sets us apart from other parts of England, and since Abraham Darby’s ingenuity was the catalyst for the Industrial Revolution, we have also had a global reputation for manufacturing innovation.
“ID Birmingham aims to help our businesses showcase their products and expertise, and promote our region for the characteristics which make it unique, but also to help them enter new market segments, building on the wonderful brand values they have created.”
It’s an idea very much of its moment, given the fragile economic recovery, and if its ambitions can be realised, it will surely overtake Beverley’s current career highlights; raising £1 million for the Midlands First campaign, as regional CBI director, and starting the Midlands Excellence awards.
However, such achievements will still count as naught alongside the emotional tipping point of Beverley’s life, the death of her first love.
“After my law degree, I met a guy who persuaded me to do an MBA. He’d just taken one, at Wharton College in Pennsylvania, and then returned to Ireland to run part of his dad’s business,” she says casually, recounting her early years.
‘‘However, it’s clear that he was much more than a passing acquaintance.
“Yes, he was my boyfriend,” admits Beverley. “I met his parents, they were Roman Catholic, and we weren’t, but they were such great people.
‘‘Then one day, when I was working in Brussels, his mother rang to say that he’d died in a road crash. He was just 25.’’
Almost 30 years have passed, but Beverley’s sense of loss is still heartbreakingly evident, and she has to pause deeply to collect, and then settle her emotions, before she is able to continue.
“I quit the CBI, who were very understanding, and spent a lot of time with his family, in County Down. I’m still very close to them, and get back to Ireland whenever I can.
“Eventually though, when I’d stopped mourning after a year or so, I realised it was time for a clean break from Ireland, as I didn‘t want to become known as the girl who had suffered a tragic loss.”
Working for the fashion industry more than 3,000 miles away in upstate New York was a break on a grand scale, and Beverley began the long journey which would ultimately bring her back home to Worcestershire some 15 years later.
Now, she’s one of the county’s Lib Dem councillors, but only after shedding her traditional Conservative views and removing her name from David Cameron’s A-list of 100 potential MPs, which he conceived to transform his party’s face – and its electoral prospects.
“I did want to be a Tory MP, and they looked after me very well, but my thinking changed after the financial meltdown. Complacency had been our big enemy, but it was still stunning to see what happened when you had very little regulation and unlimited credit,” admits Beverley.
“We wouldn’t have had such a crash had all our values been right, and the bonus culture was obviously very damaging, but the problems ran deeper. When capitalism doesn’t work, you have to think again, and I was very impressed by the ideas and analysis in Vince Cable’s The Storm.
“I’d been feted by the Tories, and didn’t want to let them down, but after a year of agonising, I decided to join the Lib-Dems. I don’t like knee-jerk reactions, but it’s obvious that we all need to think differently, and to evolve new models.”
As the ID Birmingham initiative itself started to evolve, at an informal Jewellery Quarter launch, it was intriguing to discover that so many of those who had committed to the cause, did so because Beverley had them in her thrall.
Aga’s McGrath – one of her contemporary corporate heroes – even suggested she was following the dictum of Victorian England’s greatest designer, William Morris. “Everything should be either useful or beautiful.”
As Birmingham aims for its ambitious goal to become one of the world’s great centres of design, it’s tempting to hope that an audience in the city could one day hear the likes of Miuccia Prada confess: “I am so glad to be here. I also have been ’Beverleyed’.”
* Read Beverley’s blog at www.birminghampost.net/beverleynielsen