Show steward to chief executive: Phillip’s new role at the SAA

Phillip Ainsworth, the incoming Chief Executive at Suffolk Agricultural Association.

Phillip Ainsworth, the incoming Chief Executive at Suffolk Agricultural Association.

A long-time fan and supporter of the Suffolk Show says he’s “thrilled” after being chosen to head the organisation which runs it.

Ex-Army officer and Suffolk Show steward Phillip Ainsworth, 55, who has also worked for the National Health Service (NHS) and is currently deputy chief executive of a UK medical society, takes over as the new chief executive officer of the Suffolk Agricultural Association in January.

The father-of-three, who lives at Polstead, near Hadleigh, spent 12 years in the Army, and continues to serve as a reserve, providing support to Brigade and Divisional headquarters.

On getting married to wife Mandy in 1993, he left to join the NHS, and went on to take up main board posts based in London and north Essex. He led a team that founded and developed a cancer network in England and managed both acute hospital and community NHS services.

He was one of 12 candidates considered for the prestigious SAA role, which became available after Nicola Bateman, the SAA’s first woman chief executive, stepped down earlier this year after five months in the role. She succeeded Christopher Bushby, who ran the organisation for two decades before deciding to stand down in 2014.

Phillip, who was tapped on the shoulder by a head-hunting organisation, Wild Search, just a few months ago, was surprised and delighted when it later asked if it could put his name forward for the job. He was one of half a dozen candidates to make it to interview, and hopes that his enthusiasm for the SAA’s flagship event, the Suffolk Show, shone through.

“I said I would be absolutely delighted to even be considered. I never thought about it because I never thought the opportunity would ever arise,” he said. “It’s a fantastic opportunity for me, and you never know what’s going to happen.”

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Born in Ndola, Zambia, he left Africa, where his parents were farmers, in 1968 at the age of seven. His parents set up home in Dartmoor, moving to Oxfordshire on their retirement. Phillip was educated in the West Country. On leaving school, he joined the Army, rising to the rank of Captain, with his final posting at the Colchester garrison. On leaving, he became a member of the Army Reserves and continues to serve in the rank of Major.

“I loved it – the idea really appealed to me when I was at school. I had a very good 11 or 12 years, finishing up in Colchester from a posting in Berlin in 1991,” he said.

“I was lucky because I was able to do what I had hoped to do in terms of joining the Army and had a lot of fun doing it.”

It was while at Colchester that he met his future wife, who has lived in the area all her life and has a keen interest in equestrian sports, and he decided to settle down.

“Things change in your life so I left and I’m very happy that was how it all occurred because getting married became the number one priority,” he said.

On leaving the Army, he went straight into the NHS in Colchester working with the hospital trust.

“I definitely didn’t want to be commuting to London, so the idea of working locally appealed, and I was used to working for a big organisation,” he said.

Nevertheless, moving to the NHS was a “culture shock”, he admits, although he found it “very interesting work”.

During his long career with the service, among other things he was asked to set up a cancer network – the Mid Anglia Cancer Network – with a small team, as the UK tried to bring its outcomes for cancer patients into line with similar economies. He later became director of commissioning at Tendring Primary Care Trust based at Clacton, working around the Tendring Peninsula for about three years before moving to a similar role at Havering in London.

“Having spent circa 18 years in the health service I decided to look for a new challenge and took up a post with the British Society for Rheumatology,” he said.

“What’s very nice for me is I retained a direct interest with the health services through the members but I’m not part of the system any more.”

His work, through the society’s 2,000-strong membership, is based in London and has been focused on supporting them, shaping policy and improving patient pathways.

He is now in the process of handing over to his successor, but his new role will offer quite a contrast.

However, he is not new to the show, as from 1991, he started attending it with his future wife. Since then, he has only missed two years, having immediately become a keen fan.

“I came originally to support because she had always come to the show. Long before she had met me she had been coming to the show,” he explained.

Mandy, whose family was very involved in the Essex Show, would also compete in equestrian events at both events and he would support her.

“My life has been spent basically in the country rather than in towns and I was brought up with ponies and horses and we also went to shows in Devon,” he explained.

Coming to the Suffolk Show at Trinity Park in Ipswich once a year became a highlight of the family calendar, he said, and he would try to get two days off work in order to cover as much of it as he could. Becoming a steward, which happened about eight years ago, was a natural progression.

“I decided if I was going to live in the area I wanted to volunteer my services because I enjoyed it so much,” he said. “I think everyone looks incredibly smart, which is all part of what makes it such a great event.”

One of his highlights working on the vice presidents’ gate was ushering in super-model Claudia Schiffer – although he admits he didn’t realise who she was until later.

“I have always had a great love of this place because I think it’s such a wonderful experience, and I really enjoy being a steward. It’s a great way of saying ‘hi’ to people. It’s great fun to catch up, and you are still able to walk around and see what’s going on at the show but also you are giving something back to it.”

The interview process was “very thorough”, he said. He had an informal chat with SAA chairman Robert Rous prior to an hour-long interview, which included an interview panel of four and a number of others in observational roles.

“This felt absolutely a straight race on a very level playing field,” he said.

The army of volunteers who run the show, assisted by the office team of about 20, are the backbone of the event, he says.

“The show is absolutely reliant on the volunteers and the volunteers range from the chairman right the way through to someone like me as someone who turns up on the day and everyone in between,” he said.

“They are the lifeblood of this place – without them there isn’t a show.”

He added: “I always try and come to the stewards’ dinner the night before the show opens and you do get a very special sense of something really exciting that’s about to happen. Somebody did say here the other day: ‘Whatever we have got here you need to bottle, because it’s quite unique’.”

Dealing with 800 exhibitors takes a huge amount of organisation, he said, and the hours and days and months that go into the two days is “a massive effort”.

He hopes that his previous roles, using organisation and leadership and “understanding how people tick”, will stand him in good stead for the challenges ahead. He doesn’t think that not owning his own farm will be an issue, as he has a “great passion” for the countryside and everything that goes on in the rural environment. “I’m sure I have got a steep learning curve, but it’s incremental,” he said. “I think in terms of the role itself it’s not about knowing how farming works, it’s knowing how a business works.”

He understands, he says, that charities work differently to companies. “It’s important to understand the functioning of a charitable organisation because charitable status does enable you to operate your business in a slightly different way, because you don’t start with how much is the dividend this year.”

One of his first tasks, when he arrives in January, will be working with show chairman Bill Baker in the run-up to the show on June 1 and 2 and supporting him in putting it together.

“I have got to get under the skin of all the different aspects of what goes on here,” he said.

Phillip and Mandy have three children, Ollie, 20, who is studying agriculture at Writtle College, Sophie, 19, who is at St Andrew’s studying management and psychology and Millie, 16, who is studying for her AS Levels at Royal Hospital School.