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Helping change the region’s economic landscape

by Iain Laing, The Journal, January 16 2013

The search has begun to find the directors in the North East who have done more than most to change the economic landscape of the region for the better.

THE Institute of Directors North East has teamed up with The Journal and business angel investment company Middleton Enterprises to launch the North East Investor Director listing. Each year it provides an overview of dynamic and determined business leaders, who are delivering a substantial contribution to the region’s wellbeing.

The IoD wants to turn a spotlight on those who are investing money in their organisation or the area’s infrastructure, who are expanding their company, coming up with innovative ways of doing business, instigating research and development, creating new products and services or generating employment in the North East.

Alastair Thomson, the IoD’s regional chairman, sets the scene:

People with the passion, acumen and ability to set up and successfully run their own companies are vital to the future prosperity of the region.

It is also crucial that these individuals act as an inspiration to others who are deciding which direction their career should take. This is because we need to further build on the number of entrepreneurs that exist in the North East. It is for these reasons that the Institute of Directors North East has organised a project to pinpoint directors whose commercial endeavours are making a real and positive difference to the region’s economy.

Today’s North East Investor Director listing demonstrates how business leaders, from a wide range of sectors, are helping create solid business foundations by investing in their organisations, or attracting funds and finance to the area, or improving the area’s infrastructure or creating much-needed jobs.

The aim of the listing is to celebrate the range of motivated and talented directors that there are in the region who are making a significant contribution to the North East economy.

The shortlist demonstrates that, in spite of the current tough economic climate, go-ahead business leaders are making their mark and helping boost the fortunes of the North East.

It is imperative that independently-led companies continue to thrive as they are needed to step in and fill the employment gaps that are being left as public organisations contract and reduce their workforces. The skills and knowhow of all the talented individuals, who have made it to the shortlist, are contributing to the region’s worth thanks to the value of the goods their businesses produce or services they provide in the region.

By highlighting their endeavours, we hope to encourage and inspire a future generation of North East entrepreneurs.

The more people we can spur on to become their own boss and, hopefully in time, generate employment opportunities the better.

The IoD is grateful for the support of Jeremy Middleton, whose leading angel investment company Middleton Enterprises Ltd has made the project possible by sponsoring the listing.

Today, we are saluting these directors’ ambition and drive and will be further recognising their achievements at the IoD North East’s annual Business Leaders Dinner on March 20.

At the dinner, which will be attended by more than 200 leading business representatives and entrepreneurs, one of those featured in this listing will be revealed as the outstanding leader and declared the North East Investor Director of the Year.

Last year, we had a very worthy winner in the shape of Bill Scott, chief executive officer of Wilton Group, and looking at today’s shortlist it is going to prove a difficult task to choose his successor.

Stuart Anderson – managing director – Wilkinson Maintenance – in Durham

Company Activities – Wilkinson Maintenance specialises in the reactive maintenance and refurbishment of commercial properties, operating a 24-hour call out service.

Investments – Wilkinson Maintenance is on track to break its record turnover of £5m in 2011/12 after demand for its services increased as a result of the recent floods. The company has seen a 20% increase in demand after a range of businesses including pubs, retail outlets and schools were badly affected by the poor weather that hit our region. The company has expanded its workforce from 29 to 45 over the past two years.

Matt Boyle – president and chief executive of Sevcon, Gateshead.

Company Activities – Sevcon is a design and manufacturing company that produces specialised controllers for electric and hybrid vehicles.

Investments – In 2012 Sevcon launched a £200,000 undergraduate sponsorship scheme which aims to secure a pipeline of first-class future engineers, helping ensure Sevcon is at the forefront of the industry in the future. Sevcon was founded in 1961 and now specialises in hybrid and electric vehicle engines and operates globally with bases in 15 countries – only 2% of Sevcon’s sales are domestic.

Mark Easby – managing director of Better Brand Agency in Stokesley

Company Activities – Better is an award-winning brand agency launched in 2008. It works to improve how businesses communicate with their audiences across their marketing channels through our brand, design, marketing, social media, web and digital services.

Investments – Easby launched the business using personal funds four years ago. It has since set up has grown to nine full-time and two part-time members of staff, most of which are graduates from Teesside University. He has invested privately in the business to develop a private online market research product in partnership with a North East-based market research company.

Ian Gilthorpe – senior partner of Square One Law in Newcastle

Company Activities – a new commercial law firm working with national, international as well as regional clients.

Investments – Gilthorpe, along with his founding partners, says there is a real opportunity to create a new more agile legal model by stripping out rigid corporate structures and investing in new client based technologies. The firm is now 18 months old and has established a team of 36 people – nine experienced partners from leading regional and national firms and has an impressive client list including: Vardy Group of Companies; Shepherd Offshore; Able Group; Aker Solutions and Miller International.

Alison Guthrie – managing director of Ipse Paro in Sunderland

Company Activities – Ipse Paro Ltd is a professional and personal development company, offering services both to business and to the general public. Investments – Guthrie established Ipse Paro in April 2012, she personally funded the £8,000 start-up as part of her career break from a national level leadership development role, as well as funding her NLP specialist training (around £4,000) to further enhance the service she provides to businesses. She is not taking any salary from the business. All income is committed straight back into establishing Ipse Paroas a viable, successful North East business.

Steve Hale – managing director of Shutter Media in Middlesbrough

Company activities – It provides vinyl graphics for outdoor shop shutters and windows. The service enables branding and advertising opportunities on the shutters, as well as security.

Investments – Hale started Shutter Media two years ago and has since developed a strong awareness of the product throughout the North East and London. Carrying out work for clients like the Virgin Media Group, Middlesbrough Football Club and Middlesbrough Council. He has had to expand the workforce to deal with demand, taking on three employees from the local area as well as taking part in a job centre scheme to recruit an apprentice.

Doug Hart – managing director of Hart Door Systems in Newcastle

Company activities – A specialised engineering company which has pioneered the development of sophisticated industrial doors.

Investments – The company has recently invested £400,000 in a 6,000 sq ft extension to its factory to create office space on the first floor and a ground floor store and workshop as well as a research, testing and product development area that also serves as a demonstration area for clients. This has allowed the company to increase staff from 35 to 42 within the last 12 months and there are plans to add a further seven to ten staff within the next 12 months.

Tony Marmont – founder of Air Fuel Synthesis in Darlington

Company activities – Produces low-cost synthetic fuel from air and water by extracting the carbon dioxide from air and hydrogen from water.

Investments – Marmont has invested hundreds of thousands of pounds into this project and is now seeking investment to put the business in a position to move forward and build a full scale carbon neutral refinery. Marmont has dedicated the last 20 years of his life to researching renewable energy, having bought a wind turbine company and funding research at three universities. He came up with the formula for creating fuel from air and water several years ago and the company has so far created recognisable small quantities of the fuel.

Brian Palmer – chief executive of Tharsus Group in Blyth

Company activities – Tharsus offers service that brings together final assembly with full electro-mechanical product design and development, technology integration, certification, in-sourced material conversion – sheet metal and fabrication – and supply chain management.

Investments – Palmer implemented a growth strategy to counter the effects of the defence spending cuts which was underpinned by more than £3m of investment in people and manufacturing capacity. He has assembled a strong management team to support the growth and introduce new management and manufacturing techniques, with the opening of the a 31,000 square foot high tech facility.

Neil Robbins – managing director of Silverbean of Newcastle

Company activities – digital marketing agency working with clients to increase their revenues from the web by driving website visitors and revenue from the search engines and partnerships.

Investments – Robbins’ investment programme has created 8 new jobs as he brought more of Silverbean’s service delivery in-house and increased in sales and marketing investment to increase new client acquisition. This is extended into 2013 where Robbins will be doubling investment into the agency which it is anticipated will create another 10 – 15 jobs.

Rob Stevens and Chris O’Connor – joint managing directors of the Michael O’Connor Furniture Group in Sunderland

Company activities – A furniture retailer that has been established for nearly 30 years

Investments – Michael O’Connor Furniture Group is ploughing £50,000 into refurbishing its store in Holmeside, Sunderland, which will see three jobs created. The new-look store, which opened on December 27, was renamed Home Interiors to reflect its wider product range. This is a family business established in 1983. It has a showroom in Stockton, a distribution hub in Sunderland and also embraces Race For Furniture and Homes Interiors, both based in Stockton.

Geoff Thompson – chief executive of Utilitywise plc in South Shields

Company activities – Helps businesses get more value from their energy contracts, reduce their energy consumption, and lower their carbon footprint.

Investments – When Utilitywise was formed in 2006, it had a total of four employees. In June 2012, the company became the first North East business in five years to float on the London Stock Exchange, with a listing on the Alternative Investment Market (“AIM”). The flotation raised almost £7m, capital that is now being used to expand the business in the UK and Ireland, and further afield. The workforce has increased by more than 120, bringing the total number of staff operating out of South Shields to 380.

Tony Thompson – managing director of ALM Engineering Solutions in Newton Aycliffe

Company activities – A full flexible provider of precision machined components mainly for the aerospace, nuclear, defence, rail, subsea and automotive industries.

Investments – Thompson started the business in 1994 and mainly served the architectural hardware industry before diversifying into precision machined components in 2004. The company employs 35 people in Newton Aycliffe and turns over about £2.5m. ALM has recently secured £200,000 worth of investment which it is hoping to use to double its turnover. More than £500,000 has been invested in new plant and equipment over the past three years.

Tony Trapp – chief executive officer of OSBIT Power in Riding Mill, Northumberland

Company activities – It provides innovative engineering solutions in offshore markets, with emphasis on offshore handling and subsea trenching. Investments – Nearly £1m has been invested in OSBIT Power since Trapp launched it two years ago. The team has long experience in the concept development, design and build of many kinds of engineering systems in the offshore wind, wave and tidal stream, oil and gas, submarine telecom and defence. It is applying this to the development of effective, commercial solutions for marine and offshore markets with emphasis on wind power.

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