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February 2010

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February 2010

Interview: Sue Woodward


A Granada stalwart for much of her career, it could be that the defining role in Sue Woodward’s career is happening right now.

Sue Woodward

Sue Woodward’s an enthusiast. Insider visited her at the Sharp Project last year for a piece on how the electronics giant’s old Newton Heath warehouse is the Great White Hope of Manchester’s digital strategy and was struck by her vigour, charging about the place in dress and steeltoecapped site boots, cheerily waving at how this mucky, dark bit will be this and that corridor there will be that.

Catching up in the more rarefied surroundings of the Bridgewater Hall, she’s no less buoyant, although the boots are gone. The news is good. The Commission for the New Economy has agreed in principle to pursue a next-generation broadband installation programme across the city, using the Metrolink network to cut costs by a fifth and take a major step to a competitive advantage in communications.

The plans go before the main board of the Northwest Regional Development Agency in March. If approved, work will start in the autumn. It’s a quick turnaround and one that mightn’t happen elsewhere. Woodward, Manchester’s creative media champion, says: “It’s a terrifically quick turnaround really and it’s only made possible by phenomenal partnership working. But that’s what Manchester does.”

Woodward will always be associated with Granada. She worked her way up the ranks at Quay Street, from reporter to finally become managing director. Along the way there was the Commonwealth Games. When prime minister Tony Blair asked ITV head honcho Charles Allen to chair the Games, Woodward was offered the role of creative director.

“He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse” she says. “I was seconded to the Games and took responsibility for the opening and closing ceremonies and all the press, marketing and communications.”

Probably the defining image of the Games was David Beckham with Kirsty Howard during the opening ceremony – someone clearly thought so as Woodward received an OBE for her role in 2002.

With the Games over, Woodward was due to head back to Granada in an unknown capacity when she got a call from Liverpool. Sir Bob Scott had suffered a heart attack at a crucial stage of the city’s bid to be European Capital of Culture 2008. Woodward stepped in to help write the bid before rejoining Granada, where she served as managing director and UK regional director of current affairs for four years. She left in April 2008.

She says she needs to really believe in a project to do it and the Sharp Project is now very much her baby. There’s already a functioning studio space and normal office space near completion. By 1 April, Woodward says, work will be complete on the central warehouse, which includes a communications room, a music studio and a special effects studio, plus cheap offices in 53 shipping containers, a third of which have found takers.

“Interest has been phenomenal,” she says. “We’ve done one type of marketing brochure, but it’s spread through word-of-mouth. Two names are pencilled in against the production block. Two larger offices in phase one have names pencilled against them.”

The music room and communications room are taken, and there are two possibles for the green screen room. “Against our aspirations of getting the building occupied, we’re way ahead of target.” There’s also a name pencilled in for the upper floor of the 30,000 sq ft southern warehouse. A seven-month build on the northern warehouse starts in April.

This was a part of Manchester that needed some loving, with the New East Manchester urban regeneration company guiding. The new Greater Manchester Police headquarters is on site next door at Central Park, there’s finally scheduled delivery of Metrolink to the striking station built some years ago, and major education projects are happening. It’s the latter that Woodward sees as the point of it all.

She says: “It’s been a great year for New East Manchester and it’s exciting to be involved. What we’re doing will be another legacy. The idea behind our Sharp Futures programme is that these kids can see and touch something close to home that will allow them to fulfil their ambitions… it’s great to be building the future.”

The Manchester Creative & Media Academies, which replaced the North Manchester boys and girls’ high schools, opened in 2009. And the East Manchester Academy, set to open in 2010, will specialise in the built environment and performing arts.

Woodward says: “There’s also the National Enterprise Academy, which Peter Jones is involved in, close to us. We’re looking to have connections with all of them.”

So what has a career spent mostly in TV given Woodward that makes her the woman for this job? “I’m quite bossy and I’m good at running big projects. I can take a modest budget and make every penny spent count. And I know my sector very well. When I was at Granada, I was always on a long leash and was allowed to examine new ways of working. That’s given me a wide network, and I’ve been able to use that network to good effect with the Sharp Project.

“I’m a bit of a geek. I like technology and content, and I can take quite complicated things such as fibre optics and deconstruct them to an understandable, accessible concept.”

As to the future: “Well, the building work should be over by the end of the year, but then it needs managing. A team will be put in place. But then, who knows? Onwards and upwards. But my heart belongs to Manchester. Manchester made me.”

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