A job offer that never materialised changed the course of Andy Street’s life. Instead of being a local social worker he became one of the UK’s most famous retailers and then West Midlands mayor – and he’s not finished yet!
Fate. It plays a part in all our lives, but none more so than that of West Midlands mayor Andy Street. For more than 20 years from his school days, Andy was involved in voluntary work running adventure camps to Wales for underprivileged Birmingham kids. After graduating from university at Oxford, a career in social work in his home city appeared a shoe-in. Only it was that simple.
He was interviewed and then offered a job as a social worker in Brum, but Andy was informed at the eleventh hour that the authority had run out of money – they didn’t have any budget left to hire him! Frustrated, he decided to direct his talents in the commercial sector instead – he studied economics and politics at uni.
He applied for a position at the biggest name in the high street, Marks and Spencer, but they turned him down. An interview with another retail biggie, John Lewis, proved more successful and he was hired. The rest is history!
Working his way up through department stores and head office, Andy became John Lewis’s managing director in 2007 and during his tenure oversaw a 50 per cent increase in sales to more than £4.4billion, a doubling in the number of stores and the growth of the company’s online sales presence. He became one of the highest profile retailers in the UK.
Then after 10 years at the company, he opted to change direction completely, quitting the business for what he readily admits was a “huge gamble” running as a candidate to become the region’s first-ever mayor. The risk paid off when he was elected by voters to lead Birmingham and the West Midlands in what is one of the most important periods of change in our modern history.
Born in Banbury, Oxfordshire, Andy was just 10 months old when his parents decided to move back to Birmingham after the briefest of times away. Andy grew up in the family homes in Northfield and then Solihull and went to Green Meadow Infants School, Langley Junior School and King Edward’s School, Edgbaston.
“My great grandparents and grandparents came from Castle Bromwich and Northfield and were traders in the city, so I have generations of Brummie blood running through me,” said Andy. “And now I live in the Cube, so I am well and truly right in the heart of the city, seeing and feeling everything that goes on.”
Being in the thick of the action is important to Andy not just because this is a particularly exciting time in the development of Birmingham and the wider West Midlands as a centre of world-class excellence in business, education, technology, the arts and more. Regardless of your personal political persuasion, it’s hard not to be won over by the man’s sheer enthusiasm and ‘can do’ attitude.
“This is such an exciting and vibrant time for the city and region,” he said, citing the ever-growing numbers of young people choosing to move from London to work here. “When I was 18 in the early eighties, I remember clearly how people wanted to leave Birmingham,” he explained. “Now we have completely turned that around, statistically with more young achievers moving from the capital to Brum than going the other way.” The same figures show that 16,000 more young Londoners choose to come to Birmingham than opt to go and work in Manchester.
Andy says this picture promises to get even better with major infrastructure projects such as HS2 which already directly employs more than 6,000 people. In his true ‘Mr Motivator’ style, he also argues that the West Midlands could get a boost from Brexit – even though he campaigned as a Remainer during the referendum campaign. “Remainers have to accept we lost the argument and now we move on and it’s all about securing the all-important trade deals,” he says.
Andy says the biggest challenges facing decision-makers will come as a result of the region’s success. A growing population will require more and better housing and transport. “One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in life is to be brave and bet big. There’s no doubt in my mind that Birmingham has got its mojo back and we have to set our horizons really high.
“For 40 years we went backwards and that has been reversed. I want to see Birmingham in the list of the top international cities and I am very optimistic we can achieve this. The feedback about the city, particularly in the US but around the world too, is very positive.”
When he’s not championing all-things Birmingham, Andy likes to get up early, relax and recharge with a run along the city’s canals. “It’s my favourite part of the city, not just the bits that we all get to see and are familiar with, but also the quiet, unloved parts of the canals. They are a part of the uniqueness of the place.”