Image of the graduation procession inside the Liverpool Cathedral

Councillor Gary Millar

Oration

Presented by: Ian Meadows

Honourable Chancellor, I have great pleasure in presenting Gary Millar for the award of an Honorary Fellowship from Liverpool John Moores University.

Councillor Gary Millar, computer whizz, serial entrepreneur, public servant, and champion of charitable causes, is one of Liverpool’s leading citizens. His biography to date is a remarkable story that has taken Gary from the slums of Edinburgh to wearing the chains of office as Lord Mayor of what he regards as the ‘best city in the country’.

A Scotsman by birth, Gary was raised in a Leith tenement room in the shadow of Edinburgh’s Hibernian Football Club, with an outside toilet shared with neighbours. Upstairs his bed was an alcove with a curtain slung over it. There was devastating family tragedy, a brother’s disability, a Mother’s illness, hardship and foster homes to get through, various primary schools for a few lonely months at a time and heartless teachers who questioned his intelligence and mocked his poor clothing. To put it mildly, Gary did not have the best start in life. Hardship, however, led to Gary becoming entrepreneurial and supportive of the needs of others.

After a stint as a civil servant in London he moved to Liverpool over 30 years ago and enrolled as a mature student at what was then Liverpool Polytechnic. He was accompanied then, as he is today, by his civil partner, Steve MacFarlane, and together Gary and Steve have had a greater impact on the recent history of this city than any other domestic partnership – starting businesses, raising funds for charities, and representing the modern city of Liverpool as a place of enterprise, optimism, tolerance, diversity, and social responsibility. 

After growing his own IT and marketing businesses with Steve, they then went into partnership to acquire Parr Street Studios - it being the UK’s largest recording studio outside London. Over the past decade Parr Street businesses have broadened out from the recording studios, where Coldplay recorded their first three albums, to include bars, serviced offices, and a recently launched mini bedroom hotel concept. The project has engaged all of Gary’s many skills and interests. 

Having achieved business success, Gary then turned to politics, determined to address the needs of his fellow citizens and to promote a city he had come to love. He was elected to the City Council in 2008 as a Liberal Democrat Elected, and he soon made his mark. But when he stood for Labour in 2011 for the Old Swan Ward, I challenged his party loyalty, and I well remember his response. “I’m in local politics to make a difference, and I can only do that if I’m voted in”. How refreshingly honest, for worthy motives do transend politics. He held city cabinet office for Culture, Tourism and Enterprise between 2008-10, becoming Deputy Lord Mayor in 2012-13 and Lord Mayor in 2013-14.

During his ground-breaking and successful year as Lord Mayor, Gary emphasised the themes of ‘diversity and equality’ and raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for charitable causes. He supported homeless and cancer charities, vulnerable children and those with special educational needs. He also worked tirelessly to promote the city as a safe and tolerant place for gay and lesbian people. One of Gary’s chosen charities was the Michael Causer Foundation, set up in memory of the gay Liverpool teenager who was killed in 2009 in a gang attack.

The first Lord Mayor in the country to be in a civil partnership, his term of office was remarkable for his indefatigability – and I can testify to this, as his year coincided with mine as High Sherriff. At our first official engagement together I naiively allowed him to speak first. Well briefed, he listed every possible fact and figure about the charity involved, leaving me nothing to say. I knew then that he was a speaker to be respected – and if possible avoided. That proved difficult as he carried out some 1600 engagements – often as many as half a dozen a day.

He was only non plussed on one occasion that I remember. At the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic he was determined to have a proper conversation with the Royal Visitor, The Princess Royal. He told her that she had really made his day, this being one of his very first offical engagements. She looked at him and asked him where he was from. “Edinburgh” ma’am. “Then you’ll have to do something about that accent”! By the end of his year his accent hadn’t changed but he had become Liverpool’s first social media Lord Mayor, tweeting and Facebook posting wherever his diary took him. 

At the conclusion of his term of office, Gary was invited by the elected Mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, to take a Cabinet portfolio role in Business, Enterprise and Investment. He has thrown himself into the task with characteristic energy and enthusiasm, presenting a city that is entrepreneurial and inviting to investors, with a population learning new skills, determined to meet future global challenges. Indeed at the recent International Festival for Business, which was attended by over 26,000 people, I sought to have a word with him. Courteous as ever, he explained that he was hosting a group of potential investors from China. Minutes later I saw him addressing them enthusiastically, and they were clearly enthralled, for he has learned to enunciate very slowly and clearly! Gary brings the same enthusiasm and clarity of thinking to his Chairmanship of the Liverpool Commonwealth Association and his constituency surgeries. And as though that isn’t enough, he hosts regular business clinics at the Central Library for Start Up businesses.

Throughout his career in business and public life Gary has  maintained a close relationship to the University. He was University Alumnus of the Year in 2008 and served for a number of years as Trustee of the Liverpool Students Union. Elsewhere in the city, Gary is a trustee of St. George’s Hall Charitable Trust as well as the Michael Causer Foundation, and he’s also a board member of the Arts Council NorthWest.

Gary has won a number of awards including the Liverpool ECHO Enterprise Champion; the local Business Personality of the Year; and the Sir Stirling Moss award for “an invaluable contribution to motor sport.” I won’t even go there! Known in Liverpool for his sharp suits and elegant style, and his ready smile, there is no better advocate today for our tolerant, diverse, and enterprising city.

Thus, it is with great pleasure that I present Gary Millar, this most distinguished graduate and adopted citizen of Liverpool for admission to our highest honour, as an Honorary Fellow of Liverpool John Moores University.