Meet Caroline Theobald CBE, SCC North East Chapter Chair

29 June 2023

The North East of England and Sweden have a rich mutual history, cutting across the bounds of culture, friendship, business and trade. Both geographical proximity and a great cultural match have laid the groundwork for a strong relationship to develop. Husqvarna, IKEA and Essity, are only a few of the Swedish businesses employing thousands of people and making a mark beyond economic growth in the region. “I think all of them have brought Swedish culture alive. Through their factories and their stores, they have actually given people an insight of what it might be like to live and work in Sweden,” says Caroline Theobald CBE, SCC North East Chapter Chair and Managing Director of Bridge Club Ltd.

"I have the privilege of being the regional Chapter Chair of the Swedish Chamber of Commerce for the UK in the North East, but my day job is Managing Director of Bridge Club Ltd, which does what it says on the tin,” says Caroline Theobald CBE. “We specialise on connections that make a difference. Those could be between startups and money management or access to new markets. It could be business to business, or business to new opportunities. In my view, all opportunity starts with a conversation.”

On a journey with Sweden

Caroline has been on a journey with Sweden since she was appointed Honorary Consul of Sweden for the North East and Cumbria in 2007. “I have retired from that role now, but when I was appointed, my objective was to create Swedish-British opportunities, specifically in culture, education and business, because that is what I do in my day job.”

In 2008, a collaboration between the North East region and three national Swedish government departments was formed, called the ‘Seagull Project’, aimed to explore cross-border business opportunities in life sciences, digital and ICT, and clean tech. “What I developed was a cultural dimension based on the thinking that culture and creativity is the glue that holds society together – it’s something everyone can enjoy and benefit from.”

It wasn’t before long that Caroline’s relation to Sweden deepened even further. “In 2010, we opened the North East Chapter of the Swedish Chamber, and in 2012, we started what has become known as ‘Creative Links’, which is a partnership led by culture and creative industries in the North East of England and region Västra Götaland in Sweden.”

Strong ties between the North East and Sweden

Sweden and especially the North East region of England have very strong ties historically. “Swedes have been coming here for a very long time, not necessarily always in friendship,” Caroline smiles referring to one of the very first Viking attacks on English soil taking place on the North East coast in the 790s. “But there are historically very strong ties.”

“And if you think about the geography, where the North East is, particularly in comparison to West Sweden and region Västra Götaland, it is no surprise that the groundwork was there for a strong relationship to develop.”

Similarities between the North East and West Sweden

Caroline mentions a study being commissioned in 2009, looking at the socio-economic backgrounds and regional similarities between the North East and Västra Götaland. “Both the North East of England and region Västra Götaland in particular, have reborn from heavy industry and redefined themselves along the lines of the sectors I mentioned before; life sciences, digital and ICT, and clean tech, and I would add tourism to that, which is a big industry.”

Many Swedish businesses in the region

At present, there are more than 30 Swedish businesses present in the North East spanning all sectors, from advanced manufacturing, to digital, cultural and creative. “The Swedish investors are very active here, but outside the region, people just don’t know about it.”

Caroline brings up Husqvarna as one of the major Swedish businesses in the region, headquartered in County Durham where they employ around 800 people. “They call themselves the oldest startup in the world and have a mission driven by innovation and new technologies. They are really making a contribution to the North East.” IKEA, with its store in Gateshead, is another example of a Swedish business leading on culture, values, EDI and sustainability. “And then of course Essity, that has made an enormous investment in Northumberland to create their own future by setting up one of the first on-site apprenticeship schemes in England.”

“It is quite remarkable what Swedish companies are doing here. When you have iconic businesses like these, they can act as a magnet for others who might form their supply chains here.”

Cultural similarities

A recent study performed by Time Out ranked Newcastle the fourth best place to work in the UK. “But that doesn’t take into account some of our wonderful scenery – the beaches, mountains, and the balance between city and rural – something that is quite important to Swedish people,” Caroline says and continues: “I suppose their investment record here speaks for itself. Last year, there were five investments in tech businesses that I know about. Some of them are quite big and interesting, like Swedish Amplifier investing in Silent Games, because the cultures were similar. But they could also see that there's an opportunity to use the North East as a launch pad to other global destinations.”

Bringing Swedish culture alive

Caroline is determined that the value Swedish businesses bring to the region goes far beyond business and profit. “I think it's about people, and it's also about the cultural values which they disseminate in and through the places where they are based and the people that they employ. I think all of them have brought Swedish culture alive. Through their factories and their stores, they have actually given people an insight of what it might be like to live and work in Sweden.”

It's all about people

One of Caroline’s legacies from her time as Swedish Consul, is a Swedish garden in Gateshead, celebrating the West Swedish and East of England coastlines, built with the help of Husqvarna among other Swedish-British businesses. The garden is part of the National Garden Scheme, a UK wide organisation raising money for charity and giving people access to gardens that they would normally not see. “The garden is actually about friendship. What I wanted to do was to create a place which summed up what happens when great trading nations or long-term friends work together. It’s all about people, about sustaining relations. To me, it's just as important as business-to-business ties.” 

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