The new CEO of the Watford Chamber is a man with a ‘conscience’ plan

By Razi Hassan and Shakeel Esoof

It was mid-morning and I’d barely slept the night before. I kept playing the scenario through my head over and over. Anxiously, I peered over my desk into his office, he was alone – this was the moment.

Plucking up the courage, I rose from my desk carrying what felt like a swarm of butterflies. I inched closer with each step, and what should have taken 10 seconds felt like a lifetime. Eventually, within a metre of his door and my hand outstretched ready to knock, the inevitable happened, “hello Chris Luff speaking”. I turned, sighed and waited.

He had hired me, invested in me, trained me and supported my development, so as I begun to tell him that I was leaving just as the groundwork for a return on investment had been laid, I braced for a barrage…. Instead, in the moments that followed, Chris lay down a benchmark for what it means to be a real boss.

Ten years on as I reconnect with my old gaffer, a lot has happened. The last few years, in particular, have been trying, with the loss of his father, and the unwinding of his stake in Freedom Communications, the multi-million-pound turnover telecommunications business that he helped build. But some things remain firmer than ever, Chris is still the serial dot connector whichever hat he’s wearing, be that as a trustee of the Watford FC Trust, or CEO of Watford Chamber of Commerce.

Now, with the commercial shackles of running a business easing, ironically, Chris has his ‘freedom’ back. But, with that comes a whole row of shiny new hats, which he’s placing one on top of the other.

A field of opportunities on the horizon

We meet at Vicarage Road just two weeks into in his tenure as the newly appointed CEO of the Watford and West Herts Chamber of Commerce to find out why doing business in Watford will never be the same.

Watford’s new ‘Chamberlain’

If you’ve met Chris, then you’ll know that any meeting involving him will probably go on longer than planned, during which you’ll be told that you need to do more, and by the time it’s over you’ll be convinced that you hold the key to changing the world. So when the opportunity of driving Watford’s business community forward presented itself, it was a match made in heaven for the gentle-giant, no-nonsense businessman.

“I’ve made lots of good friends through the Chamber of Commerce over the last 20 years. Typically, Chambers are considered a bit ‘old school’, ‘old boys club’, and in fairness they are a little dusty, but we can change that. We will be different from now on, more inclusive, more diverse, with special interest hubs and a focus on addressing modern business issues. We will engage with Better Business for All (BBfA) programs that bring together businesses and local councils. What’s more, we plan to include, and where possible, sponsor charities and community organisations to create a stronger, wider network.

“After all, networking is all about creating an environment where relationships are established, nurtured and turned into business opportunities. The Chamber is a B2B membership organisation, and charities are also businesses that spend money, with infrastructures that require services and support. So, the more organisations that join, the more opportunities we will create locally – it is that simple, oh… and we will have fun along the way!

“Get a great bunch of people from different businesses working towards a common objective and things can happen – that’s a fact. And as with anything in life the more you put into it, the more you get out.”

‘Putting in’ has never been a problem for Chris. Born and raised locally to Jeff and Jan Luff, he was instilled early on with an attitude to work hard and to “do the right thing”, no matter what the cost to personal or business interests.

Strip away titles and Chris believes that every employee of every business is in the sales team – “you are representing the credibility of your company”. Chris is a salesman and proud of it,  but not the type that you want to club around the head because he won’t leave you alone. “Sales is a credible career choice for school leavers; if you are authentic, honest and trained correctly you will go far. Regardless of the final career choice you make, sales is a great way of learning to communicate properly and to understand people’s needs.”

Talking to people and making connections

Waltz to make a happy home

Following the passing of his father in early January 2016 from cancer, after a period of recollection and regrouping, Chris was to become even more determined. “Jeff was a great guy, we all loved him dearly and he was like a father to me” said Chris’s wife Lizzi, during a long warm conversation, outside Fred and Ginger on Kings Langley High Street. This was civil espionage at its finest, my well-trained ears gathered intelligence on ‘Luffy’, as my darting eyes shot from Lizzi to the High Street for any sign of a grey smart car, with a burly driver.

“Jeff was looked after by Peace Hospice Care, Watford. They were so amazing and did an incredible job, so we wanted to do something to show our gratitude to them, but with Chris, it’s never as straightforward as just donating money. Before we knew it he had persuaded a group of family and friends to enter the ‘Strictly Come Hospice’ event – in fact, come to think of it, he didn`t ask us, he just signed us all up… He said he thought he had entered us into a darts, not a dance competition!

“We have never laughed and argued so much at the same time, as we did then, it was really challenging as we had to focus on working together. Looking back it was terrifying at the time, but great fun. Doing the Argentine tango with my husband wearing wellington boots, and covered in fairy lights on a stage in front of 500 people was not my idea of a good night out – but it was all for a good cause.” Lizzi goes on to tell me how Chris would prescribe dancing as an excellent form of marriage therapy – “waltz once in a while to make a happy home.”

Everything has to be a bit different in the Luff world

So, although his dancing days may be over, it is building meaningful relationships with like-minded people that really gets Chris moving. “This role fits perfectly with what he enjoys most: meeting people, joining dots, and realising opportunities and potential.”

“During my time with Freedom, I used technology as an enabler to make connections. Now with the Chamber, I’m using my relationships across the public and private sector, as well as local and central government to connect people, join dots and help grow business and develop opportunities.

“Ultimately, the objective is a simple one – ‘make a difference’. We have over 5000 businesses in West Herts and circa 500 charities. The bigger the network gets, the easier it is, and the more effective it will be. So the message is don’t just join in – become active!

“We already have an amazing network of really active organisations doing great work – organisations to be really proud of. From the Watford Community Sports and Education Trust inspired by Graham Taylor and Elton John serving all our community, to Watford FC a Premier League football club with huge ambition and one of the first to invest in a pitchside sensory room. Not to mention the club’s 1881 fan club who collect food on match days for local food banks.

“Then there’s the Hilton Group and their Global Week of Service, as well as Warner Bros who are making a massive impact by celebrating the ability in disability and promoting environmental improvement. The Grove Hotel is another great example; by pretty much sponsoring every raffle, auction and breaking down barriers, developing work experience programs for special educational needs and disability (SEND) and mental health first aiders.

“On the sustainability front, the Building Research Establishment (BRE) is inspiring sustainability programs and advanced methods of construction, while VWV, KPMG, TJMAX , Clock, NBM, Landmark and many, many more are contributing every day to this town.  But it’s not just the big businesses. Our sole traders, micro businesses and SMEs all play a critical role in making the town the best place to do business.

“I should also mention the Palace Theatre, the Pump House, and the Colosseum. There’s so much going on and our local council is involved on every level, so it is simple – the more people get involved, the better it will get.”

The goal – a role model town for equality, diversity, inclusion at work

The connected town

Watford holds a special place in Chris’s heart. “My family grew up here. My parents met in the town hall at a dance, when my mum was 16 and my dad was 17. So the town is special to me – it’s special to a lot of people. Just the other day I was in a taxi on the way to a ‘Big Business Connect’ event that the council hosts.” Suddenly, in classic Chris Luff style, he underlines the critical message. “It is important to stress here that the council is doing a great job to position Watford as a town really on the up. There’s huge investment flowing in, we’re extremely well linked, we develop highly skilled professionals, and have a really strong focus on business and the community.”

Getting back to where he’d left off. “So, I was in the taxi and asked the driver, what do you think of Watford, why is Watford good for you, and he said ‘it’s a place that you want to bring your kids up’. Of course, we have our problems like any town up and down the country, but ask anyone who spent their childhood summers splashing around in the paddling pools at Cassiobury and you’ll soon see where he’s coming from.”

Chris and Jeff

A Chamber of Commerce with a Conscience

Chris’s parents were always involved in community activities, a trait passed down from generation to generation. Chris’s grandfather used to open his cafe in Harrow every Christmas day with free meals for all.

“Mum is 82 years old, still helping at jumble sales and still visiting elderly people in the hospital that are younger than she is!”

“Chris’s maternal grandmother, ‘Magic Mary from the Dairy Johnson’ as she was known, was a sheer force for good. She lost her arm in an accident when she was 16 and went on to raise five children, ‘single-handedly’ she would say. She had a wonderful sense of humour – when she was given her compensation she bought a piano, Chris tells people with a subtle grin.

“She was full of love and great advice, but it was her straight-talking ‘get on with it’ ethos that has had a lasting impression on Chris” says Lizzi.

So with the “good seed” firmly planted, Chris’s track record for leveraging business to drive social change is clear as day. Whether it was building orphanages in Romania in the 80s and 90s, mobilising Freedom employees to build community gardens, or embarking on a trip with his daughter Lucy and close friends to help refugees fleeing war – he has “gotten on with it” and enjoyed every minute.

Now, as he sits in a position of even greater influence over the business community, Chris is chomping at the prospect of doing more.

“You can always do more. The idea for the Chamber of Conscience came around not long after dad passed away. I knew what I wanted – ‘a catalyst for action’ something that wouldn’t be restricted by governance and bureaucracy. So, it soon became clear it was a catalyst, a movement to make things happen.”

Since its inception, the idea has generated a lot of support. “A lot of people are interested in the concept, I’ve even been approached by other chambers of business around the country to find out how they can get onboard. Essentially, it’s a vehicle linking people that want to do the right thing. There are thousands of great people out there, some actively working with good causes, some not so active but desperately wanting to find the right match, and some that just need a little inspiration, which is where the Chamber of Conscience comes into it. By joining the dots between people, care, development and progression, the environment, energy, waste, pollution and social capital, we can weave these strands together to deliver a positive outcome.

Chios refugee camp – donated clothes storage unit

“We want all businesses in Watford regardless of shape or size to begin developing ED-i (equality, diversity, and inclusion) plans, and we’ll help them. There are lots of people passionate about highlighting the ‘ability in disability’ so to this end I want businesses to start offering work placements, part-time and full-time employment to people with special needs. We are all wired a bit differently and have different abilities but no one is broken. We just need to be more aware and more confident.

“Beyond that, looking at the environment and the sustainability of our town is all our responsibility. Let’s focus on waste and energy awareness by introducing zero plastics policies in the workplace. Let’s start encouraging carpooling, cycling and walking to work – and let’s facilitate it.

“On the whole Watford is safe, clean, welcoming and with a great business community that leads from the front. There is so much opportunity and lots happening collaboratively between the private/public sector, with aspirations to make Watford one of the most people friendly and greenest towns in the country – even our football team has a green kit now!”

Making magic

Chris himself is contagious, in the most uninfectious way possible. When you’re in his company you really don’t want to leave his conclave. So, as we start to wrap up the interview, and the transformation from hard-nosed businessman to gentle-giant unfolds before us, we ask him what advice he’d give to his previous boss.

“I’ve only had one boss my whole life, and that’s my wife. She’s made it all worthwhile, along with our beautiful daughters, they are my world.”

On the subject of a family, I ask Lizzi about Chris Luff the husband and father. Smiling, she starts. “He’s modest, doesn’t like blowing trumpets and certainly doesn’t blow his own. But what I can tell you is that he blows me away and makes me proud with his kindness and humility every day”, raising her head and wiping her eyes with a nervous laugh. Visibly emotional, she continues. “We are obviously incredibly proud of our daughters, they have adopted the Luff ethos to work hard and play harder – we spend a lot of time together doing both. We wouldn’t change a thing apart from Luffy’s love for Chas and Dave!

Chris’s world

“Chris made the girls’ childhood magical. He’s always been very creative, so instead of reading them the classical fairy tales and stories, Lucy and Rosie grew up hearing the tales of (breaks into laughter) Prince Luffy and Conker as his trusty steed – stories he would make up as he went along!

“There were lots of walks in the woods together, where the children would search and find lollipop trees. Chris even made a fairy house in the roots of a large tree, with a tiny door and a hanging basket outside. He told our girls that a real fairy lived there and she would reply to any letter they may leave for her. This went on for years until the children got wise to it!

“There is so much that I can say about my wonderful husband, safe to say, he lives to help people and enrich lives – he is my world, my confidant… my conscience.”

Beyond Business is a special series of interviews with the changemakers using the power of business to make a difference locally. Find out more about the Watford and West Herts Chamber of Commerce today.