Sir Graham Wylie is a successful entrepreneur, good samaritan and a local hero in his own right. During a recent conversation with Nicole Wood, his devotion to giving back is a reminder that when you look closely, the world is filled with kind people who are looking to make a positive change…
It appears that whenever we switch on the TV, turn on the radio or pick up a newspaper, we’re met with sadness and despair. It almost feels impossible to find kindness and positivity in the world when the media we consume is at our fingertips and is broadcasting an abundance of sorrow.
Now don’t get me wrong, it’s important we’re aware of what’s going on in the world, but we need balance. In the hope of injecting a little light, love and positivity into the start of your new year, I bring you the story of entrepreneur and philanthropist, Sir Graham Wylie, or as I now like to call him, the kindest man I’ve ever met.
It’s a drizzly Thursday afternoon when I meet Sir Graham Wylie at the Nordoff and Robbins Music Therapy Centre in Newcastle, just one of the many places the Sir Graham Wylie Foundation is responsible for… but more on that later.
Laughing, smiling and making jokes as the photoshoot is underway, I can already tell how humble and kind-hearted Sir Graham is. Post-shoot, I strap myself in for one of the most heart-warming stories I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to, as we sit down and dive into how it all began.
Local Hero: Sir Graham Wylie
In the world of success stories and exceptional journeys, Sir Graham Wylie’s tale is a testament to determination, gratitude, and giving back. Born and raised in a modest background, Wylie’s path traversed from humble beginnings to the pinnacles of success, all while nurturing a fervent commitment to charitable causes and family values.
“I’ve got a very humble background,” Sir Graham begins, reflecting on his upbringing in Whitley Bay.
His parents, deeply entrenched in hard work, set the foundation for his values.
“My father was a coal miner and spent 50 years down the mine and my mother ran a boarding house. I never left the area because I didn’t want to leave my parents,” he recalls fondly, a testament to his strong family ties.
Educated at Whitley Bay High School and Newcastle University, Sir Graham’s academic journey was one he defines as ‘ordinary’, but little did he know that his ‘typical student ways’ would lead to the spark that ignited the vision for what would become the start of his legendary career.
Right Place, Right Time
“The truth is, I was just in the right place at the right time. I was a typical student, I had no money at all and applied for a summer job as a programmer. I got my first assignment which was an accounting package for an American entrepreneur and that actually became Sage Accounts,” he begins to explain.
“So I was actually still at university when all of this started and I’d go to my lectures dressed in a suit and tie because afterwards I’d be going straight to the Quayside to meet with clients. I wasn’t an accountant and I think that’s why Sage became so popular because I didn’t understand debits and credits at the time so I treated it how a normal person would and made it simple to understand,” he adds.
In 1981, Wylie, along with David Goldman and Paul Muller, co-founded Sage Group, after initially programming the initial Sage accounts package himself.
The company swiftly burgeoned into a globally successful financial software entity, uniquely holding the distinction of being the sole software company listed on the The Financial Times Stock Exchange 100 Index (FTSE 100).
In 2003, Sir Graham sold his stake in Sage which led to his future business endeavours. The triumph of Sage opened doors for Sir Graham to give back.
The turning point came with his daughter Kiera’s health challenge, inspiring his involvement with the Children’s Heart Unit Foundation (CHUF).
Sir Graham Wylie and CHUF
“The success of Sage allowed me to help out with different charities quite a lot. But in 2009, one of my twin girls, Kiera, had a heart defect as a newborn and needed major open heart surgery.
“When she was born, we only saw her for a few seconds before we were on our way to the Freeman, she was put on life support and operated on. Now, if you were in this room with her and her twin sister you’d say which was the heart patient? She’s had four major operations and you’d never know unless you saw the scar on her chest. She leads a normal, happy and healthy life and that’s something we’re eternally grateful for.
“The hospital asked me if I would help out CHUF and I said of course I would. I’d do anything to help them out, they saved my daughter’s life. So I became a patron and I helped raise the profile, raise money and we did a lot of great work. It’s extremely important for me to give back.
“CHUF is a charity very close to my heart, so it feels quite personal to me. I’ve been there. I know the stress and the worry of being a parent of a child undergoing major heart surgery. If I can do anything to make their lives slightly easier or take any of that stress away, then that’s what I want to do.
The Sir Graham Wylie Foundation
“They have a goal they’re trying to reach to raise more money and buy equipment and that’s why I agreed to match the donation of what we raised at the Have a Heart Gala this year.
“I get asked all of the time to donate and help out charities and various other things, so I thought, well instead of focusing my efforts on one thing, why don’t I start my own foundation where I can help lots of different charities.
“And now, for every pound I put in… I like to raise five pounds and every penny raised goes directly to charity. I cover the costs of fees, salaries, office space and everything else to ensure that everything we raise goes to a good cause.
“This here where we’re sitting now in Nordoff and Robbins Music Therapy Centre Newcastle is one of the ways the foundation helps out,” he explains.
The Sir Graham Wylie Foundation stands out as a beacon of charitable commitment, promising that 100 percent of donations will directly benefit noble causes. This distinction places the Foundation among an exceptional few worldwide, dedicated to channelling the entirety of contributions towards deserving causes.
Sir Graham’s unwavering commitment to helping others is at the forefront of the Foundation as he covers all of the operational expenses, ensuring that every single donation is devoted to his vision of supporting, inspiring, and educating children throughout the region.
With an inclusive approach, the Foundation invites grant applications from diverse groups, organisations, and charities spanning the entire North East. These grants aim to nurture projects that will positively impact underprivileged or vulnerable young people for years to come.
A symbolic representation adorns the Foundation’s logo: Sir Graham’s handprint intertwined with a Sage leaf, visually articulating the helping hand that Sage had in setting up the Foundation and extending a supportive hand to those in need.
“That’s a very good question,” he says when I ask which charities the Sir Graham Wylie Foundation chooses to work with.
“Deciding on charities to support is a meticulous process. We prefer things that are helping more than one child, and which are tangible and sustainable,” he tells me, explaining that this strategic approach ensures maximum reach and lasting benefits.
“It’s important for me that we try to help as many people as possible. For example, I’d rather have a building like this music centre where hundreds of people can benefit from it. We get a lot of requests and we have to think about which are sustainable and will help more than one child.
“We have meetings every three months to six months to go through what we could put the money into. Angie, my CEO, is great at helping and deciding where the money should go.
“The aim is to help, educate and inspire children. Helping and educating is quite simple and we can do that, it’s now the ‘inspire’ aspect that I’m working on.
“We’ve got lots of young kids who come through here and I say, if they’ve got a special talent and we can then help raise their profile, let’s do it. Let’s pave the way for future generations. That’s what I’m trying to get off the ground.
The Sir Graham Wylie Foundation And Its Vision
“I came from humble beginnings and believe I was in the right place at the right time and now I want to create that opportunity for someone else. I’d like to try and find the next me or the next Ant and Dec or Sam Fender,” he says.
Reflecting on the Foundation’s core aspirations, Sir Graham shares his vision:
“The ultimate goal for the Foundation is continuing to do what we do. It’s extremely rewarding to see the work we do pay off. Going back many years ago, one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen was down at a hydrotherapy pool in Wallsend.
“It was a place for children who wore braces and used aids to help them walk and this hydropool allowed them the opportunity to take them off and completely relax in the water and that was great to see the smiles on their faces.
“And that was a simple thing, it wasn’t expensive, but it helped bring joy to so many. I want to keep being able to do that for people.”
Sir Graham’s aspirations extend beyond financial contributions.
“It’s not difficult to donate money… what is difficult is saying, let’s transform someone’s life. I want to provide these kids with the helping hand they need,” he asserts.
Be it music, IT, business, or sports, Sir Graham aims to nurture talents and passions into meaningful careers. With a heart brimming with empathy, he continues to pave paths of hope, showing that even in the face of adversity, kindness and compassion can illuminate the way forward.
Getting Knighted: Twists And Turns
Sir Graham was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2003 New Year Honours list and was later knighted for his services to business and charity in 2020, a story he tells me with great humour as he explains if it wasn’t for his friend Jeremy Kyle, it might have never happened.
“Are you ready? It’s quite a funny story,” he laughs as I ask what this honour means to him.
“So, what happens is you usually get a letter in November from the Prime Minister to say that you’ve been recommended for an honour, but you have to accept it in writing.
“In November 2019, I was on holiday and on 6 December my phone rang but it had No Caller ID, which I never usually answer but on the odd occasion I do as it’s usually Jeremy, so I picked up the phone and said ‘hello Jeremy, how are you doing mate? To which they responded ‘Is that Mr Wylie? We’re calling from the Cabinet Office to check if you’ve had a letter from the Prime Minister?’ and when I said no, they confirmed my address, told me the Prime Minister had recommended me for a knighthood but the deadline for accepting had passed.
“He said because it’s so important I thought I’d ring you to make sure you’re okay but you’ve got five minutes to say yes or no. I of course said I was honoured and would be delighted to accept.
“He then had to email me a form which I had to fill in and have back to him by 4 pm. At this point, everyone was in panic mode in the office trying to get it all done. So after one mad rush, you hear nothing.
The Jeremy Kyle Phone Call
“It wasn’t until 30 December when BBC Look North rang me and said can we come interview you? I said what for? And they said for your knighthood? I said, oh I did get it then. So if it wasn’t for Jeremy Kyle often ringing me with No Caller ID, I would have thought it was a sales call and would never have answered,” he laughs.
Sir Graham Wylie’s journey to knighthood was not without its hilarious twists and turns. His long-awaited ceremony, initially delayed by the pandemic, was finally set in motion in October 2021 at Windsor Castle.
However, the dilemma of choosing just one guest among his twin daughters added a comedic touch to the affair.
“When you have twin girls, it’s impossible to pick just one,” Sir Graham laughs.
“I had to make a choice for the ceremony. Kiera, my daughter who inspired the Foundation and charity work, was the logical choice. But the thought of a formal dress made her decline my invite faster than I could ask again!”
Faced with this predicament, Sir Graham turned to his other daughter, Zhara, who initially mirrored her sister’s reluctance to don formal attire.
“I thought, ‘Okay, let’s try Zhara.’ But she had the same reaction!”
Yet, Zhara eventually agreed, leading to a last-minute frenzy to ensure everything was picture-perfect.
“I was on the way to Windsor when I was reminded to sort out Zhara’s hair,” he recounted. “Luckily, a call to Jeremy Kyle – yes he saved the day again – and we agreed to stay at his house the night before and a hairdresser would be on standby the following morning.”
An Unforgettable Moment
The unexpected fashion crisis wasn’t over. Sir Graham found himself facing an outdated suit, resembling what he called ‘huge penguin trousers’.
“I couldn’t risk looking ridiculous in the photos,” he jokes. “Jeremy came to the rescue once again, providing tailored trousers that fit perfectly. Now Jeremy likes to say that if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have been knighted and the only thing that he’s had knighted are his trousers,” he laughs.
The day at Windsor Castle, despite the amusing mishaps, turned out to be an unforgettable and honourable experience for Sir Graham.
“Standing in line, meeting the Princess Royal – she was as lovely as ever – number seven in line that day, it was all quite surreal,” he reminisced, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
The journey to becoming knighted for Sir Graham was a mix of laughter, unexpected turns, and ultimately, a deeply humbling experience he cherishes.
Reflecting on the honour, Sir Graham admitted: “It’s an absolute privilege, but it can also be a bit embarrassing. Sometimes my friends will say ‘Oh, Graham, if you use your correct title you might get a better table at a restaurant’ but I couldn’t do that. I just can’t bring myself to say it. It’s great for the charity work I do, but I’m very humble about it.”
Sir Graham Wylie And His Free Time
Sir Graham Wylie’s time outside the professional sphere is for things that he loves. As we delve into his hobbies and passions, it’s clear to see how he combines his interests and goals with his business endeavours and good deeds.
“Outside of work, I actually really enjoy playing golf. The irony is that I own a golf course and have five professionals at my fingertips and I’m rubbish,” he chuckles.
“I love football, I enjoy horse racing, fine dining and a drink or two. Spending time with my family (or playing taxi to my two youngest) is a big thing for me, I’ve got four children and three grandchildren who I love dearly,” smiles Sir Graham.
His love for horse racing stands as a hallmark of exhilarating highs and a smile beams across his face as we discuss this exciting chapter in his life.
“Winning big races early on in my career was a mistake that sparked my passion for horse racing,” Sir Graham reminisced. “I’ve had the thrill of victory at prestigious tracks like Aintree, Royal Ascot, Punches Town, and York.
“Over time, I’ve had 750 wins across various races. Now, I’m meticulously cataloguing every horse and race they’ve been in – a task that’s taken me through 1,200 races from just the first 70 horses I owned.
“I’ve dabbled in breeding, and nurturing foals into champions – it was a joyous phase in my life and now it’s creating quite the spreadsheet,” he laughs.
Sir Graham Wylie And Close House
Another significant chapter in his life story unfolded with the acquisition of Close House, a move infused with gratitude toward Newcastle University, which kickstarted his journey with Sage.
“Buying Close House was my way of expressing gratitude,” Sir Graham shared.
“But then I faced the challenge of transforming it into a viable venture. It took 15 years, but now it’s thriving. Hosting high-profile events and getting figures like Lee Westwood, the world’s number-one golfer at the time, to open our course truly put us on the map.
“It’s become the North’s top golf course – something we’re immensely proud of. And now, as crazy as it sounds, I’ve now got the North’s best golf course in my front garden.
“With dining options and places to stay, we’re always working on the next thing for Close House but golf is always the focus. I’ve just acquired High Close House which is a big house on the edge of the estate which I’m hoping to transform into a stay and play experience which I think would be great for private parties.
“We have tons of ideas, but I think golf is predominantly what we do, what we’re good at and what we will always strive to maintain such high standards for,” he adds.
The Importance Of Work-Life Balance
With a schedule as jam-packed as Sir Graham’s, switching off and enjoying time away from work is something I’m keen to know how he does. In a world where our office is based on our phones and there’s a certain amount of pressure to over achieve, it’s refreshing to hear Sir Graham’s take on a healthy work-life balance.
“I think getting the balance right comes with learning to delegate. Putting your trust in others is a huge milestone when it comes to owning your own business. When I was in my 20s, I learnt that you have to delegate to people who can do a job better than you.
“So, for example, I wasn’t great at HR, so I employed a great HR director. So, if you take all the businesses I own now, I don’t run them. I’ve got some great people who actually run the business for me and I oversee it and make sure I employ good, trustworthy people who are capable of running things.
“There are people out there who are better at doing certain things and it’s just about accepting and appreciating that. Once you do, everything becomes simpler,” he smiles.
“I have a busy schedule but I try to get the balance right. I tend to work nine to five, Monday to Friday and anything outside of that is for me and my family. Even when I was at Sage, I always made sure my weekends were for relaxing and for the family.
The Nature of The Modern World
“Back at Sage there was no internet, emails or phone calls, we had to write letters, so leaving work at work was a lot easier. Whereas now, I try but don’t get me wrong, the truth is, I might check an email every now and then but that’s the nature of the modern world.
“We have everything at our fingertips in our phones, so it’s almost hard not to. But switching off is something that’s extremely important to me and I think it is for all of us,” he acknowledges.
As with every aspect of our conversation, another hilarious anecdote is on standby as we chat about how much these little digital devices carry our entire world.
“It’s crazy how much we rely on our phones these days, isn’t it?,” he begins.
“The other morning, I woke up at home, on my own, without my phone and I’m thinking, well, how do I get it back? It’s not like I can call anyone. So luckily, the cleaners came in and they knew someone who knew my friend, so they managed to track it down for me.
“But in that moment of blind panic, your whole world falls apart. And then the other day, I was driving to pick up my daughters from horse riding, and I left my phone in the house and was stuck in traffic and I thought ‘oh I can’t even tell them I’m running late’,
I had no way of getting in touch with them and I ended up being half an hour late to which they were not impressed ‘Dad, where have you been?!’ was the initial response,” laughs Sir Graham.
As we laugh and reminisce, I’m in awe of Sir Graham Wylie’s achievements. His journey from modest beginnings to becoming a driving force behind positive change is inspiring.
From co-founding Sage Group to his philanthropic endeavours through the Sir Graham Wylie Foundation, his commitment to giving back remains at the core. With each hilarious tale and heart-warming story throughout our conversation, Sir Graham reassures me that even in life’s most trying times, each act of kindness and generosity contributes to a brighter, more hopeful future for generations to come.