Norman Stoller

SIR NORMAN STOLLER 

Sir Norman Stoller and his team built Seton Healthcare (SSL International PLC), inventors of the tubular bandage, into a worldwide brand and one of Oldham’s biggest employers. Through the Stoller Charitable Trust, he has dedicated over 30 years to philanthropy in the North West and beyond. In the period February 2014 to  end of June 2015, The Stoller Charitable Trust pledged just over £47M of which just over £7M has been drawn down.

Among numerous honours, Norman was appointed High Sheriff of Greater Manchester 1999/2000, is a Life President of the Oldham Chamber of Commerce, and was granted Freedom of the Borough of Oldham in 2008. He was recently inaugurated into The Langworthy Circle at the University of Manchester, which recognises individuals who have committed over £1 million to the University, and named North-West Business Masters Ambassador 2015.

Norman lives with his wife, Sheila, on the shores of Lake Windermere in Cumbria.

 

You registered the Stoller Charitable Trust in 1982 – was that the start of your philanthropy?

No, when I was 36 or 37, with very little in my pocket, my friends and I still found time to do things for other people. It wasn’t a question of giving away money, it was about doing things, which is much more important. My next door neighbour started what was called the Frank Salisbury Fund for Needy Children, and a group of us got together with him to help children in need. And when Frank Salisbury died, I was asked to take it over. That’s how it all began.

Then in 1982 we created the Stoller Charitable Trust through which we could do things for other people. For example, in the name of the late Lord Rhodes of Saddleworth, we brought to the UK a fantastically talented young Chinese musician, En-Shao.

I brought this student over because Lord Rhodes wanted to do more for Anglo-Sino relationships. Lord Rhodes became a Minister in the Labour government and was responsible for three All-Party delegations to China. He lived in Oldham, was a First World War air gunner, and was shot in the leg, so from the time of 1917 onwards had to have his leg dressed every day with crepe bandages. Then we [Seton] released Tubigrip, which replaced the crepe bandage and he, like so many others, became a daily user.

We enrolled En-Shao at the Royal Northern College of Music. The college developed his skills, and whilst there he won enormously difficult competitions and has gone on to become a virtuoso conductor to some of the world’s most famous orchestras.

Then in 1990 we took our company public and I provided a tranche of shares to my Charitable Trust which, like all shareholders, received a twice-yearly dividend. All of a sudden, I had the means to say ‘yes’ to appeals for help. I can’t tell you how much of a privilege and a pleasure it is, to be able to say yes. It’s life-enhancing, and I’ve always smiled about it.


You’ve often said that you don’t give money ‘away’, you give it ‘back’. What exactly do you mean by that?

I am in a very fortunate position of having a lifestyle that I enjoy, of being able to afford anything within reason that I wish to acquire, and I find myself with far more money than I need, so why on earth shouldn’t I give some back? I liken it to people in a house: I say, “Imagine you had a lounge full of furniture, and wanted to change the suite, are you just going to pile more in? Or get rid of some?” And they say, “Get rid of some, of course”. Well, for goodness sake, how much money does one need?

Maybe it’s the privilege of being 80, but I thought like this when I was 60 - I didn’t have the money then! What I had, I suppose, was enough to help people by giving donations. And over the years, our donations grew from very small beginnings – maybe £20,000 to £50,000 a year – to last year when we gave away about £1.5 million, and in the current year about £4.5 million

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I can’t tell you how much of a privilege and pleasure it is to be able to say ‘yes’. It’s life-enhancing, and I’ve always smiled about it.

 

Recently you’ve been able to scale up your giving significantly – how did that come about?

A young man came to see me 15 years ago and talked about his idea of selling white goods on the internet. I am always intrigued by ”tomorrow’s world”, and although the internet was the subject of a lot of suspicion at the time, I liked this young man and I liked the concept of simplifying the buying process, particularly for items that require delivery, installation and the removal of the item it replaced. I backed my judgement by joining his Board and providing the cash that he needed to survive and grow. I continued to do this with two other non-executive directors and I resigned from the Board on the evening before his company went ‘public’ in February 2014.

John Roberts, the pioneer of what was originally DRL, now AO World plc, heads a company that trades in Europe as well as the UK and is doing very well. As I am still a substantial investor in the company, I confidently expect this to enable me to continue to help the causes that attract us.

 

So AO World became a public company last year. How did that help you?

It transformed my opportunity to do good things, and enabled great things to be achieved – and the timing was fantastic, because 2015 is 25 years since Seton became a publicly listed company, and as I’ve said, that provided my Trust with annual income. However by selling some of my AO equity I have been able to transfer £50 million into my Charitable Trust and over £40 million has already been pledged in this jubilee year - much of it in the North West. Some of it is reflected, as funds have started to be drawn down, within the £4.5 million pounds donated in the year to March 2015, that we have discussed earlier.

 

There are, of course, many things that you could say ‘yes’ to. How did you go about deciding what the focus of your giving was to be?

I am determined to help the next generation and I support brilliant initiatives like the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. I’m also involved in healthcare, particularly research, and I’m involved in Oldham. I did a few things for Oldham and in 2008 they gave me the Freedom of the Borough – what a fantastic honour! My wife Sheila and I then went on holiday, and while we were away I said to her: “I know what I’m going to do, I’m going to start a youth club in Oldham”. When I came back, an old friend of mine wrote to me and told me that he wanted to replicate the benefits of the Bolton Lads and Girls Club in towns throughout the country. So the OnSide Youth Zone concept was born, and over the next four years – with some very hard work; the backing of the Oldham Metropolitan Council and an enthusiastic, determined and wonderful band of supporters – we created the Mahdlo Youth Zone (Oldham spelt backwards) and opened its doors in March 2012.

We now have 5,000 visits by our members every month, and we are changing the lives of our young people. Three years ago I used to talk to the kids and they’d say: “Why do I need education? My Grandfather never had a job, Dad’s never had a job, my brothers and sisters haven’t got a job.” I used to metaphorically stick them up in front of a mirror, and say: “I don’t know what you see, but I see somebody who can be anything, do anything, achieve anything, as long as they’ve got the guts, the willpower and the determination”. And why do I say that? Because I started my business life with £100 of borrowed capital, a former Post Office van with bus seats in the back, and a great deal of cheek which I have managed to retain. Young people need to believe in themselves and when they hear stories such as mine, they start to do just that.

And things that are good create more things that are good. Of course Youth Zones like Mahdlo need the support of the local borough council and the help of generous and vital financial supporters, because although we charge 50p to gain entry it is very heavily subsidised. But what value for money! Not only do these Youth Zones provide a safe, warm and friendly environment, with endless things to do and experiences to gain, but the opportunity to mix with others, including the voluntary leaders. At Mahdlo we now have about 40 staff and over 140 volunteers. This country could not survive without the multitudes of unsung heroes giving not just money but giving themselves, which is much more important. The amount of experience that’s out there is enormous, so what’s better than passing it on to the next generation?


Other than the Youth Zones, have there been any gifts that you’ve been particularly pleased with?

I have been delighted to support the building of an international-standard Concert Hall at Chetham’s School of Music, and a new organ to replace the 600 year-old model at Manchester Cathedral. What is really pleasing is that this organ will be used by the music students at Chetham’s, thus bringing the Cathedral to life on a daily basis.

I have also helped talented people to get where they deserve to be. En-Shao is a very good example. When he came over here he didn’t even have a pair of shoes; he now earns a six figure salary.

 

You’ve recently been honoured by the University of Manchester – how did that connection begin?

I had cancer of the colon in 1997, and a fabulous surgeon saved my life. I then got cancer of the prostate in 2012, and they say that anyone who has cancer twice is just greedy!

Manchester is one of the most fantastic centres of excellence in this field, and who would not want to help them? So I have pledged support towards building two world-leading research centres – the Biomarker Discovery Centre and the Manchester Cancer Research Centre – where they will be finding new ways to prevent, diagnose and offer personalised treatments for diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. I was very honoured to be invited by the University to become one of the first members of The Langworthy Circle earlier this year.

Experiencing cancer of course also brought me to Maggie’s Centres. Maggie was a lady who had cancer. She went to the doctor, and then came the day in the consultant’s room when he gave her the bad news, put his arm around her shoulder and said, “Don’t worry, we can do wonderful things here”. He ushered her out of the door, and then the world fell on her: How am I going to tell my husband? How am I going to tell the children? There was no support at all. And she said, “This is never going to happen to anyone again”.

She created the idea of rest centres, beautifully designed by world-class architects who give their expertise free to this wonderful cause. The hospital gives the land, and benefactors put up a building to which people can go for a cup of tea or coffee before their treatment, or call in for some respite afterwards, because chemotherapy isn’t funny. People can chat to each other and to healthcare specialists. When I was asked to help put one up at The Christie in Manchester, I said: “Yes, but if I’m going to do that there also has to be one in Oldham!” So we’re doing that too.

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Giving to charity should never be valued by the quantum – one gives from the heart in recognition of the needs of others.

What prompted you to involve other people with your Charitable Trust, and what role have they played in your philanthropy?

All successful enterprises rely on people, and my Charitable Trust is no different. I am blessed with some wonderful Trustees who bring my work to life. My solicitor creates the contracts between the Trust and the recipients of our funds to manage the progress of the Appeal – for example, building a Concert Hall might take two or three years. Then my accountant, who is also a Trustee, needs to ensure that the money gets to its destination on time, and our project manager oversees the progress of the Appeals during their development. This team is essential and they do a fantastic job. Another of my Trustees joined me at Seton in 1972 and became my deputy chairman. He brings the comfort of a colleague who has worked with me for a very long time, and my wife Sheila is also a Trustee. She brings a valuable female viewpoint to our discussions.

 

What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out in philanthropy?

It’s no different to any other activity: it’s people; it’s management; it’s planning, and it’s performance. You need the same structure, whatever you do.

There are very few things that are really substantial that one can do successfully on one’s own. There is a lesson in life in this, because it isn’t a negative to say, “I can’t do everything on my own”. But there is also a bonus, because of the joy of doing things successfully with other like-minded people.

 

What do you enjoy most about your philanthropy?

The joy … and the tears. I’ll give you an example: I support Annie Mawson’s Sunbeams Music Trust, which is the brainchild of a lady who teaches music to children with learning difficulties. She lives in Cumbria and over the years she’s helped a lot of kids. A major funder had promised her a grant to build a school, but a week later they folded and the grant was dropped.

I met her at a fundraising lunch, and listened to her story, and what she wanted was a bedroom for a little girl (because that would be another room in the building – that’s how she was trying to raise money). We had lunch, and on the back of a business card I wrote, “She will get her room”. I heard that later, when everyone had gone home, she said to her colleagues, “Oh I got this” and pulled my card out of her pocket, and having read it, she broke down into tears. When I heard that, I broke down into tears. So it’s that. It’s a joy that I have the privilege of giving.

In another example, I visited the Seashell Trust in Manchester and, if you go there, I guarantee it will change your life. They help children and young people with complex and severe learning difficulties who need round-the-clock care – some of them have no sight, no hearing, no speech. There are such dedicated people there who give their lives looking after these young people. It’s a privilege to help them.

 

What more could be done, in your opinion, to encourage more people to give to charity?

That’s a very difficult question, because the fact that they need to be persuaded at all is an indication of the problem. Giving to charity should never be valued by the quantum – one gives from the heart in recognition of the needs of others. Surely the pleasure of giving is in the act itself and a joyful understanding of the relief and benefit it provides. If that doesn’t give total self satisfaction, I just wonder what will?