I had no idea what to expect when I went to meet the High Sheriff of East Sussex, writes columnist Andy Winter. I didn’t have a clue what a High Sheriff did. I later discovered that the High Sheriff is the monarch’s judicial representative in the county. They have a ceremonial role in overseeing judges, magistrates and others. It is a non-political role and is appointment by the monarch for one year and is unpaid.

And so I met Hugh Burnett, that year’s High Sheriff. He was waving off charity walkers who were raising money for advice and legal services in Brighton and Hove. He and I went for a coffee while waiting the walkers’ return and thus began a friendship that has lasted to this day.

Hugh has had an extraordinary life. He was born in Monte Carlo and lived in Marseilles until his family were evacuated back to Britain at the outbreak of war when he was six months old. After the war the family returned to France before he was sent to school in England. Later he qualified as a chartered accountant but never worked as such, finding a niche in early computing where he worked as a salesman and trainer. He worked for various companies in Brighton including Gross Cash Registers and Cash Bases where he was part of a management buyout. In business he specialised in taking companies with a £2 million turnover and building them to have a £15 million turnover.

He has twice been awarded the Queen’s Award for Enterprise, the first time as part of Cash Bases and then in a personal capacity. In 2001 he was made an Officer of the British Empire for his services to the community in Newhaven. He was a member of the Newhaven Economic Partnership and was vice chairman of Lewes Tertiary College. After his year as High Sheriff, he became a Deputy Lieutenant for East Sussex where he assisted the Lord Lieutenant and his friend, Sir Peter Field, in his role. It is the duty of the lord lieutenant to arrange visits of members of the Royal Family. They also seek to promote and encourage voluntary organisations and charities, and to take an interest in the business and social life of their counties. Both Peter and Hugh excelled in these duties.

The Hugh Burnett I know is a most generous man, giving his time freely and has shared his wisdom with a number of charities, including BHT Sussex where he was a trustee for almost a decade.

He became my unofficial mentor and I have many reasons to be grateful for his encouragement and wise counsel.

When he became a BHT trustee it was in response to an article in The Argus. I explained to him that there was a process that had to be followed, including an interview. He seemed delighted, saying that he hadn’t had a job interview since 1964. At the interview itself, we were assisted by a friend from London, Brenda, a large Jamaican-born woman with an infectious laugh who was a trainer in equalities. In response to an equalities question, Hugh said that in business “one would be foolish not to appoint the best man for the job.” Hugh and Brenda then the most delightful exchange of views. After Hugh had left, Brenda said that we had to appoint him, saying: “That man doesn’t have an ounce of prejudice in his body.”

Hugh has no time for consultants, saying: “Why pay someone to steal your pocket watch so that they can charge you to tell you the time?” He also was outspoken on the ever-increasing trend of boards to focus on process rather than on entrepreneurship and outcomes, a view with which I wholeheartedly agree.

They used to say that behind every successful man is a strong woman. In Hugh’s case there is Tessa. When my wife and I first went to their home for dinner, we expected the raconteur Hugh to dominate the evening. But we hadn’t accounted for Tessa who kept us royally entertained while Hugh looked on, adoringly. Tessa herself has served the community as a dedicated charity trustee and a long-time volunteer at Citizen Advice. The last year hasn’t been easy for them but they have been sustained by the love and support of their two daughters and their grandchildren about whom both Hugh and Tessa speak with such joy, love and pride.

So when I met the High Sheriff, I didn’t expect to meet such a generous friend and wise mentor. Hugh Burnett was truly the best man for the job.

Andy Winter is a former councillor who worked in social care and homelessness services for 40 years