Peter Taylor-Whiffen 5 Dec 2017 01:52pm

Opportunities for all

Through his charitable trust Gordon Horsfield has made a difference to hundreds of lives. He tells Peter Taylor-Whiffen why education means so much to him
Caption: Gordon Horsfield. Photography: Richard Ansett
Everyone should have opportunity,” says Gordon Horsfield. “But sometimes that’s not enough – we need to help them take that opportunity forward.” The Holbeck Charitable Trust, which he founded in 2006, has given away £8.5m to numerous charitable enterprises; he’s also helped mastermind York University’s sizable expansion; chaired or had director roles at a dozen organisations including the city’s Museums Trust and York Minster; and turned around the fortunes of western Europe’s largest power station. All since retirement.

“If you have the skills to help things happen, you should use them,” he says. “My accountancy training, the fundamental idea of understanding how to run a business efficiently, is the foundation of everything I’ve done.”

Horsfield, 71, began to build those skills when he left university to join Price Waterhouse, where he stayed for the next 34 years – including a brief tenure in Melbourne, appointment as receiver of the iconic Swan Hunter shipyard and, following the Coopers & Lybrand merger, a seat on the PwC management board as director of operations. “I enjoyed my work,” he says, “but I’ve gained the most satisfaction from the things I haven’t been paid for.”

Which probably explains why he’s been so busy since stepping down in 2002. A year later he became executive chairman at Drax Power, which was on the ropes after its main customer went into administration. Eighteen months and a leadership restructure later, Drax was listed on the Stock Exchange. “I knew immediately it was a fundamentally sound business,” says Horsfield. “It had just been smacked in the face.”

But as a Yorkshireman – he lives just outside York – he is prouder of his service to the city’s university, where he became chair of Council, helping develop an expansion strategy. “They want new buildings but were only on the threshold of using cash-flow intelligently to support growth. Working with the director of finance, I helped them see that new student accommodation wasn’t just a capital outflow, it yielded cash income streams; a development profit that in turn could be returned to fund future growth.”

Education is also a main driver of the Holbeck Charitable Trust, which Horsfield and his wife Francesca established with their share of proceeds from the Drax flotation. “We want everyone to not just get a good education but have the benefit of it. Many underprivileged kids now go to university but can struggle to make the best use of that degree and can slip back,” he says.

The Trust’s grants have supported young people in music, opera, ballet, theatre, art, travel and sport, as well as larger charitable organisations such as Breakthrough Breast Cancer. “It comes back to that opportunity,” says Horsfield, awarded a CBE this year for services to young people and charitable giving. “You see someone on the ladder, but you don’t just pull them up. In doing so you must give them the momentum and confidence to carry on the journey by themselves.”