Nicky Barr: Racing against time

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Three months after Nicky Barr started as Director of the International Bomber Command Centre, she sat down for afternoon tea with a veteran who told her of his life and experiences. From that moment on, she was fully invested in the project, putting the business that she created for herself on the back-burner.

What started out as a one year, £1 million project to create a self-sustainable International Bomber Command memorial and education centre dedicated to those who served Bomber Command, has since turned into a minimum of seven years and £16 million.

Nicky is now more determined than ever to get the Chadwick Centre open by the end of June 2017 to make sure that surviving veterans will have the chance to visit the memorial, but this wasn’t exactly what she had planned for her career.

Nicky’s parents travelled the world for business, so much so that she and her three brothers were all born in different countries.

“I was born in Nairobi. My oldest brother was born in Uganda, the next one down was in Tanzania, and my baby brother was born in Basingstoke. He has never, ever forgiven us for that!” Nicky said with a cheeky laugh.

Originally thinking that she was destined to work in the hospitality industry, Nicky obtained a Catering Management degree but soon realised it didn’t lead to her dream job.

“I decided that having got my degree and having worked in the industry, you had to work far too hard, with too many long hours, live in appalling conditions and nobody gave you any pay. So I decided that, actually, that wasn’t for me.

“I got a job temping with Sky. I went on the sales team and absolutely loved it. I have to tell you, I have never been more wealthy than when I was 21 and working for Sky,” she said smiling.

Nicky went on to work in a variety of sales and marketing roles including with the Daily Mail and General Trust Group and then spent 15 years with CLA Game Fair where she project managed whole areas of the show.

But when the company moved to London, Nicky had to choose whether she moved with the job. With a four-year-old daughter at the time, who was just about to start school, she decided it was time to break out on her own, creating Essence Event Solutions Ltd in August 2011.

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

A royal affair

Unlike many people, Nicky didn’t start out small. She dived head first into the deep end with her first contract – organising the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations at Burghley House.

She had been contacted by Tony Worth, a trusted friend and Lord Lieutenant of Lincolnshire at the time. “Tony had rung me up and said, ‘Now you’re not working for the Game Fair, I have a little project you might be interested in’,” Nicky laughed.

“That was a picnic in the ground of Burghley House for 10,000 people, two stages and, of course, the Queen in attendance, which was just an amazing day.”

It wasn’t long before Tony also provided a second ‘little’ project for Nicky to work on either.

“Tony invited me for a cup of coffee. I have now learned not to go for a cup of coffee with Tony,” Nicky said with a cheeky smile. “Because when you do, you come out and he says ‘I have a little project that I want you to take on’. I was to build a memorial to Lincoln Bomber Command. He said, ‘It’ll be about a year and you need to raise £1 million and do the PR.’

“I was like, ‘OK, that’s fine.’ – That was June 2012,” Nicky laughed. “We’re now talking about a £16 million project, to the extent where I have effectively closed my business down because once you’re into this project, you can’t put it aside. It’s more than a full-time role.”

When the project was first discussed, no one had any idea how big it was to become and how much support it was to receive.

“It seemed much smaller in June 2012. It’s gradually building. It took a while to take over my entire life,” Nicky smiled. “So as contracts ended [at Essence Event Solutions Ltd], I just didn’t renew them so I could focus on this full time. It’s the best job in the world.”

It was very different to what Nicky had been used to. She went from trying to turn a profit to fundraising and she hasn’t regretted it for a second despite challenges along the way.

“If you’re within a business, it’s within your control to drive forward the income. As a charity and a fundraiser that isn’t necessarily the case. You are always beholden to systems.

“That memorial will stay up there for at least 125 years. Certainly beyond mine and my children’s lifetimes. But also it’s built up a consciousness. People all over the world want this to happen, are interested in its progress and by whatever means they have available, are supporting it. What an incredible privilege that is.

“Weighing up both sides, there’s no challenge. Standard project management contracts and running a business don’t compare.”

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

An overwhelming inspiration

When Nicky met with her first veteran for afternoon tea, three months into the role, she became unequivocally committed to the cause.

“From that moment on, inspired is all I can say. They are incredibly modest but a lot of them share a sense of humour, which I am told is quite common for Forces humour. But what fascinates me is that actually most of them spent no more than four years in service, but it has formed who they are and their outlook on life. They have a genuine attitude that life is precious.”

Having already raised £6.5 million since May 2013, £3.1 million of which came from the National Lottery Fund, Nicky still needs another £2.5 million to get it into a working order so that the International Bomber Command Centre can start running as a business and become self-sustaining.

“It’s the thing that keeps me awake. People in Lincolnshire particularly have been so inordinately generous but this is a big project.

“The memorial in London took £10 million to fund. So our £16 million to build the full education centre and the two peace gardens and for all the names is not outside there, but it sounds a lot of money.

“If you’ve spent time with the veterans and you’ve heard their stories, you understand how important this is to them because nobody has done it before. That makes absolutely every minute that you put into it pain-free,” said Nicky.

“I’ve had a veteran in tears saying to me, ‘Thank you for fighting to get the money to make this happen, because someone has to tell our story. We’re not going to be here for long.’”

Around 100 veterans have passed away this year already and Nicky is determined that she will get the centre open by the end of July next year so that the remaining veterans can come and visit.

“It will be open by the end of July next year, because the problem is we are losing veterans at such a rate that there will be none left if we leave it much longer. This is about their stories.

“The training centre is the biggie. The reason that it’s such a biggie is not just because it’s important in terms of education and exhibition, but it’s the only way to make this project sustainable. There will be a restaurant in there, corporate hire facilities, a shop, an exhibition that people will pay to go and see. The gardens and the memorial are all free.

“We have to make this project sustainable long-term, so the Chadwick Centre is of key importance. Otherwise, I’ll be fundraising until I’m 80,” Nicky laughed.

Once the project is complete and sustainable, Nicky plans to stay on for another year or two and then depending on her family situation at the time, she has a dream of taking her business across to New Zealand and starting fresh.

This feature interview was first published in issue 93 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.