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Delivering a Vision with Military Precision! | Simon Gerry

Delivering a Vision with Military Precision! | Simon Gerry

Simon Gerry


A former senior military officer, Simon Gerry was initially appointed as a disruptor and change maker and has since led the charity from a position of significant weakness to being one of the leading and most respected in its field.

During a 20-year military career, Simon developed a diverse skillset across key business functions, finance, corporate governance, project management, and HR, but he believes it was the broader aspects that helped shape his character and build his tenacity and drive to succeed. He will tell you that he thrived on challenging himself in all aspects of life, and after learning to fly jets, he then threw himself into a range of adventurous activities ranging from hang gliding, downhill skiing, and parachuting to rock climbing, abseiling, and white water rafting. He also took up a range of very challenging operational and diplomatic peacekeeping roles overseas with the United Nations (UN), North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is where he realized that helping people was becoming a passion. 

It was a natural step when he finished his military career and moved across to the charity sector, where he thought he could make a real difference.

Simon’s philosophy for success is simple – it is about great people, great planning, and great teamwork. As a leader, he is a great listener and inspires his team to turn his vision and strategy into innovative and creative ideas at a practical level. Analytical by nature, his attention to detail and focus on formulating clear and meaningful plans to create the greatest impact with the resources available is what makes him stand out from the rest. He is also convinced that if you formulate key performance indicators that are actually ‘key,’ carefully monitor and improve them as best you can, then success will follow.

NUSU is now a multi-award-winning charity underpinned by a strong financial plan and supporting commercial elements. At a national level they have won the ‘Best Students’ Union of the Year Award’ at the Educate North Awards for 4 out of the past 5 years which is unprecedented.  However, it was not always so, and it would be an understatement to say the charity was going through a challenging time when Simon Gerry arrived. His initial challenge was financial turnaround as the charity was struggling financially, had a little brand identity, and commercial services were failing to bring in a sustainable income. The charity trading activity which brought in income for the charity was struggling across all aspects: 6 bars; a nightclub; marketing revenues; several catering outlets; and a vending machine business. Simon recalls some tough decisions early on and the need to restructure the staff base and decrease the number of staff by 30% to ensure the charity was sustainable moving forwards.

Simon Gerry brought a business-minded approach to the charity sector. While retaining focus on values and culture, he transformed how the charity looked and operated, created a new brand identity, set up new partnerships and collaborations, and then went about securing new funding.

He gained an £8M grant for the charity to completely redevelop the facilities and take the services to a whole new level. He aimed to provide “a 21st-century Students’ Union for 21st-century students,” and boy did he deliver. Having closed the main facilities for what turned out to be a 10-month major capital project, he was delighted when it won the ‘Best Educational Development’ in the North of England at the LABC Awards in 2011.

Creating a 1st Class Student Experience

NUSU looks to have a positive impact on every student’s experience at Newcastle University, whether they be studying in Newcastle or at their campuses in London, Singapore, or Malaysia (NUSU was the first UK students’ union to go international when they based staff at overseas campuses). That experience can take a variety of shapes and forms and NUSU recognize that every student is different. NUSU want their experience to be the best it can be, and before rankings ceased in 2018, NUSU were consistently ranked in the Top 12 in the UK for student experience and Top 5 in the elite ‘Russell Group’ listings. Newcastle, as a city, was also voted number 1 student experience in the UK 3 years running.

The charity’s main aims revolve around: representation and empowering students; student personal development, providing opportunities for students to expand horizons and try new things; and supporting students’ well-being through the provision of timely information and advice.

In terms of representation, NUSU very much empowers students to change and improve their academic experience themselves in the first instance. It trains 1,400-course representatives annually and has processes to escalate major issues. It also has an officer team who represent locally and regionally to city councils and nationally to government.

As an educational charity creating opportunities for student personal development is core. Students can develop skills by participating in the volunteering schemes with one of their 200 partner charities or on internal projects which 100 student project leaders lead; examples include ‘NEST,’ which focuses on teaching asylum seekers to speak English and help them settle in the UK, and ‘First Responders’ where medical students support the North East Ambulance Services in attending medical emergencies.

Students can also join or lead one of their 63 student-led sports clubs or 200 societies. At the elite level of sport, they have around 5,000 sports club members and are consistently ranked in the Top 10 in the UK British Universities & College Sport League; they also provide sporting opportunities to all with a further 5,000 students participating in intramural or campus league sport, and an additional 500 students in their inclusive and disability sports programmes. Participation in sport is particularly good for student well-being, which dovetails nicely with NUSU’s well-being agenda.

Societies are big part of University life and NUSU can have up to 12,000 students join their societies. Students can start any society they like and NUSU will provide training and expertise to get ides off the ground; one example is Stu Brew which developed the first student led fully recyclable microbrewery in Europe, and went on to win the prestigious ‘Reimagine Education overall Enterprise Award’ in Philadelphia USA.  In doing so they beat off competition from academic institutions around the globe and the panel of international judges commended them on achieving outstanding standards for innovation, effectiveness and originality.  Stu Brew then went on to produce the first guest bottled beer in the House of Lords in the UK parliament.

“This shows that if you can give students the training, opportunity and some seed funding, they can come up with inspirational ideas; their creativity is endless and it is NUSU’s job to help harness their ideas and help them fulfil their dreams.”

Supporting Student Well-being

In terms of well-being, NUSU’s Student Advice Service is a professionally accredited independent service, as the citizen’s advice bureau but for students. They can effectively provide advice on anything, but there are core aspects such as when students are struggling with their studies or feel wronged by the University when they have problems with housing contracts or unscrupulous landlords, or just general financial difficulties. “We must remember many of these young people may have moved hundreds of miles away from their families and support networks or even to another country, so we need to be there for them in some different ways. Our advice service consistently scores 90%+ for satisfaction by the students who use it.”

Last year during Covid, NUSU provided a range of extra support measures for students. It gained agreement for a ‘safety net’ so if their studies were interrupted or grades suffered, they had fallback options; it provided 5,000 food packages from their NUSU Coop franchise store for isolated students due to Covid. They also agreed on blanket rent reductions for students locked down at home unable to use University accommodation, and recouped over £75,000 in returned rents for students in private sector rental agreements; advice service moved online and increased appointment provision to deal with the increased demand linked to Covid.

NUSU is now looking at the impact the Covid pandemic has had on student attitudes and needs as they look to formulate the next 3-year strategic plan. They are working towards the need for improved mental health and welfare support to adapt and develop services to meet growing demand. NUSU is currently reallocating and redeveloping space to form a new welfare and support hub and hiring new staff to provide a one-stop-shop for students covering all welfare-related aspects. “We are also looking at a more comprehensive wider refurbishment project to ensure our facilities continually improve.”

Simon Gerry Award

“If you can give students the training, opportunity and some seed funding, they can come up with inspirational ideas; their creativity is endless and it is NUSU’s job to help harness their ideas and help them fulfil their dreams.”

Simon Gerry

CEO of Newcastle University Students’ Union

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