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Aberdeen & Aberdeenshire

Why Bob Keiller could be the man to bring sparkle back to Union Street – and convert Abermoaners to Aberdreamers

Our Union Street has had around 2,000 people reach out with ideas for how to transform the Granite Mile in mere days. reports.
Rebecca Buchan
Bob Keiller has committed the next two years of his life, unpaid, to the task of regenerating Union Street. Image: Our Union Street
Bob Keiller has committed the next two years of his life, unpaid, to the task of regenerating Union Street. Image: Our Union Street

I first met Bob Keiller at the Gleneagles Hotel.

We were both attending a fairly fancy dinner with guests from around the world who had one thing in common – entrepreneurship.

I was a somewhat green business editor and I had been placed next to this man who, before I met him, I might have been intimidated by.

He had been CEO of  FTSE 100 company. What could I possibly have to say to him for the whole course of the evening?

As it turned out, Aberdeen was something of a specialist subject for both of us.

And after many hours of good conversation, I came away thinking one thing: ‘that man cares’.

Not only did he care about the city but he cared about entrepreneurship, and about passing on the skills he had learned through his hugely successful career.

So when I heard he was leading a new group formed to ensure Union Street’s survival, I was excited.

I hadn’t seen Bob in a while and when he turned up at our offices in Marischal Square to chat about it, I told him just that.

As warm as ever, he shook my hand and I said “I’m excited, how are you feeling?”

“Trepidatious” was his response.

A trepidatious Bob Keiller and I reunited on the balcony of Marischal Square, just a stone’s throw away from Union Street, to talk about one of his biggest challenges to date. Image: by Scott Baxter/DC Thomson 22/03/23

I was surprised by this. This man has one of the most impressive CVs I have ever seen, so this, I thought, would be a drop in the ocean.

But he said what they were about to embark on was a “massive, massive” challenge.

I too wondered just how involved he would be in the day-to-day.

Was he just a ‘weel kent face’ who could act as a poster front – and whose calls would surely be answered by the right people?

No. He is in this for the long haul.

For two years he has vowed to commit to this, unpaid, along with some of his colleagues.

Of all the projects in all the world, why Union Street?

In order to do that he has had to turn down work and involvement in other projects. I wanted to know why.

“I’m doing this because I care,” he said.

“And because I’ve seen the level of frustration that people have got, the disappointment they’ve got when they come to Union Street.

“The north-east is a fantastic place to live and do business and visit. And the part that seems to be most frustrating for people at the moment is the city centre.

“And when I see that energy of people that are desperate for something to change… I figured maybe I could help.”

Bob had attended the emergency Union Street summit I hosted in November.

It was held in an attempt to come up with ideas to raise the city centre from its knees after years of decline.

He arrived slightly later in the day due to other commitments and missed out on some of the panel sessions. But he took little time in getting stuck into the roundtable discussions.

Council co-leader Ian Yuill said taking on the liability for the empty John Lewis department store made little "financial sense". His SNP counterpart Alex Nicoll did not comment. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson.
Council co-leaders Ian Yuill and Alex Nicoll took part in discussions on the day of the summit. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson.

As he walked around the room he was keen to share his thoughts but he listened intently too.

“It comes down to people maybe feeling like they’ve not been heard,” He said.

“So that will be my key focus from the start, just engage with everyone who has a view and an idea to try and improve our industry.

“From the people who spend almost every day there as they walk down on their way to work, or even those people further afield, we can treat those ideas with respect and pick out the gold.”

Our Union Street, the organisation he will be running, was established following the summit and is being funded initially by Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce, Aberdeen City Council, Opportunity North East, Shell and Aberdeen Inspired.

It is hoped that in time more private sector funding could be secured, but for the moment there’s enough in the pot to get the organisation off the ground.

Firstly there will be the hiring of “a couple” of junior staff members, purchasing of some equipment – and enough money to secure premises on Union Street itself.

Time can be more precious than money if it’s used in the right way

Bob says it’s important Our Union Street has a visible presence so people know where they can go if they want to help.

Volunteering, by people who care, will form a big part of the organisation’s rescue mission.

Bob himself is not taking a wage and he has also managed to convince his colleague Derrick Thomson to come along for the ride.

The public will be asked to help in “any way they can” which might even see them roll their sleeves up with a bucket of soapy water and a hard wire bush.

He said: “I hope I can engage other people that will see I’m prepared to give my time without expecting anything back and see what can be done.

“That way we can keep the cost down and concentrate on any money we do have translating into efforts that will really make a difference.”

The wealth of experience within the organisations already signed up will also be drawn upon.

He added: “I think what some of these partners have is specific skills.

“So if you take the problem of vacant units on Union Street, well, all these teams have skilled marketers within them.

“For a start, they can come together as volunteers, and hopefully try to build a better narrative for the street and sell the future vision of what we have to offer.”

Bob hopes that with the money they do have, they can start to be more proactive.

He cites Six by Nico as a perfect example of the type of business they should be looking to attract.

Nico Simone opened his Aberdeen branch in April last year and shortly after submitted planning a application for yet another venture in the Granite City following the success of his Union Street launch. Image: Chris Sumner/ DC Thomson

The Glasgow-based firm opened the doors to its first premises on Union Street last year.

Following its success, the group now wants to open another restaurant in the city centre.

It is hoped that through ideas, contacts and cash Bob and his team of marketers could reach out to similar firms across the country or even the world and sell them the story of Aberdeen.

“It’s about attracting people by starting conversations and bringing the right people to come to look at the talent already here.

“We can show them what it’s going to look like, not just today, but in five years’ time when Union Terrace Gardens is blooming and help them imagine what those big public investments will translate into.”

Efforts have been ongoing for some time by the business improvement district Aberdeen Inspired to try to breathe some life into the city centre.

Festivals like Nuart and Spectra go some way to helping bring footfall in on specific weekends but there is a limit to what they can do.

Crowds gather on Union Street to look at the Nuart street art last year. Image: Wullie Marr/DC Thomson

Bob says they have been, and continue to be, an important piece of the jigsaw, but they are just one part and complete transformation can not lie on their shoulders.

“Aberdeen Inspired unambiguously represents the kind of business community in the city centre, but it doesn’t represent the general public who use the city centre.

“It doesn’t represent necessarily the charities that operate out of the city centre. It doesn’t represent the people that have got a history with Aberdeen, it doesn’t represent the landlords of the buildings, it doesn’t represent the owners of the infrastructure, you know?

“So it’s because it’s just a segment of the whole picture it doesn’t have the reach to be able to legitimately do what we plan to do.

“And you can apply that to each party involved. That’s why it’s important that with Our Union Street, all of the parties are to be represented and are coming together in some way.

“This way I believe we’ve got a hope of actually making a real difference.”

Can we move from Abermoaners to Aberdreamers?

Since the public launch of Our Union Street, the organisation has had almost 2,000 suggestions submitted through its new website.

Since I first broke the news on The Press and Journal on Thursday morning, I too, have been inundated with people asking how they can help.

The state of Union Street has long been something people have lambasted. It is so emotive because, like Bob, they care.

Our Union Street may not have all the answers to all the questions, and it may take years before we see any real significant change.

But Bob’s palpable enthusiasm, collective approach and determination have, it would seem, galvanised an uprising from the general public and the Aberdmoaners have become Aberdreamers again.

We can only hope through this common goal we will one day see our Granite City sparkle once more.