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What I’ve Learnt: Tom Cunningham, Head of Commercial Operations and Partnerships, Factory International

Tom Cunningham

Factory International is set to open in June 2023, aiming to be a global destination for arts, music and culture in Manchester.

The new cultural space recently announced it was teaming up with Apple and arts venues for a new talent development programme, designed to “address the systemic barriers black creatives face in the arts and creative industries”.

As Factory International accelerates its engagement with commercial partners, Tom Cunningham is tasked with driving forward strategic partnerships with brands that share Factory International’s passion for community, diversity, sustainability and the future of the arts.

Cunningham previously worked at Manchester United as partnerships operations director, where he led the sponsorship department operations, activation and talent teams.

He shared all the lessons he has learnt.


Which single daily habit or practice could you not do without?

Walking my dog! It’s a great way to ensure a bit of exercise first thing in the morning, come rain or shine. I live up in the Pennines so it’s my favourite way to start the day, breathing in the fresh air of the moors whilst planning the day ahead, and an equally great way to clear my head at the end of the day.

What’s been your luckiest break?

Being born into a loving family with two hard working parents who sacrificed a lot for my sister and I, enabling us to be the first in our family to go to university. From there, the lucky breaks kept on coming!

I’ve had the opportunity to work at world class brands like Manchester United across my career and now I’m spearheading commercial strategy at Factory International as it emerges as a global destination for arts, music and culture. I really do feel you are fortunate to be nurtured, supported and given the choices in life to be your best, and I owe my parents a lifetime of thanks for that.

What’s your best failure?

Back in the mid-90s, I didn’t make the grades I wanted for my A-Levels so by default I ended up going to my then second choice university in Manchester where I studied marketing.

It was a great degree and led me to cutting my teeth in the advertising industry, and the very reason I coincidentally ended up in Manchester – which I believe to be the best city in the world and a place I’m proud to now call home. I also met my partner Sara at Manchester University, and over 25 years later we still look back and laugh at that sliding doors moment.

 What is the best investment you’ve ever made, either financial or time?

Without a doubt my 1972 Volkswagen T2 campervan. Perhaps not a ‘good’ investment financially, as a year never passes without significant continued investment! But the fresh air and open road adventures it brings Sara and I, whilst exploring every corner of the country with our dog Macy is worth it all!

Which book would you recommend others to read and why?

‘Let my people go surfing’ by the genius that is Yvon Chouinard. Ahead of its time, Patagonia has always put people and purpose (and well-made, long-lasting products) before profit, and has remained true to its values despite phenomenal global growth since Chouinard founded the company in 1973.

The book proves that doing the right thing and creating a culture built on purpose is not only a great ethos but can be an incredibly successful business model. The importance of purpose is something I’ve honoured throughout my career. It’s especially crucial to my current role, driving meaningful partnerships with brands and local companies that share our vision and passion at Factory International to create a more diverse, sustainable and community-first future that champions the development of the arts.

What one piece of advice would you give your 21-year-old self?

Less stuff, more happiness. As a child of the 80s I was brought up in a world of fast paced consumerism and was captivated by it at the time, Disney, pop culture, MTV, The Premier League. I then went on to study the marketing and philosophy of it at university. However, with age and an increasingly fragile planet I’ve definitely grown to appreciate that less ‘stuff’ actually makes you happier!

Who or what has had the single biggest influence on your working life?

The wonderfully smart and talented Elizabeth Mosley (another fellow Mancunian, although I actually met Bets whilst working together in London right at the start of my career at my first agency). She was my first ever boss and is still my go-to mentor when I need advice and guidance, and is above all, an amazing life-long friend.

Tell us something about you that would surprise people.

My side hustle with my better half, we have an eco-Christmas tree business Rooted Living Christmas Trees we set up to serve the local community in the Calder Valley a couple of years ago, so I am a tree farmer at the weekends!

How will the COVID crisis change work for the better?

Emerging out of the pandemic, I believe there’s more flexibility, empathy and understanding around people’s personal life and work balance, whilst also empowering teams and individuals to be responsible for their own contribution, personal development and success. Ultimately, I think crisis brought us all closer too, and proves that we are stronger together.

What does success look like to you?

Happiness. Being happy in yourself and your team, being proud of your work and enjoying getting up and going to work every day.

I’m grateful to feel this every day at Factory International, as we gear up for the launch of such an extraordinary global venue in the heart of Manchester, working alongside some world-class talent and partners who share our all-important vision. Knowing you’re making a real difference is key to this happiness, and that’s what we’re doing, making a better tomorrow together.

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