North East Times Magazine 462

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Steven Hugill

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As we begin a new year and make our resolutions, Steven Hugill highlights how this edition of North East Times Magazine channels the feeling of change… 4 Hello and welcome to the latest edition of North East Times Magazine and, indeed, to a new year. With the turning of a new calendar, of course, come resolutions for fresh change. No, not the ones we’re all probably going to have broken by the dark depths of mid-January, but the ones that represent meaningful transformation. The ones like Square One Law managing partner Gill Hunter, who, as co-chair of the British Chambers of Commerce’s Workplace Equity Commission, is resolving to radically revise the employment landscape. We all know things are better when we work together, when the full kaleidoscope of society’s broad spectrum unites in a metaphorical colour burst – and that is what Gill’s endeavour is all about. Examining equity, diversity and inclusion from numerous angles, including age, disability, race, gender and sexual orientation, the commission will deliver a blueprint to Government that will serve to unlock the potential of every person across the UK’s workforce. It is no exaggeration to say the venture carries huge potential in creating a watershed moment in the employment sector, and it is one we at North East Times Magazine wholeheartedly support. The Westminster desk Gill’s masterplan eventually lands upon could well, of course, carry a Labour rose, given the Conservatives’ continuing circus. Rather fittingly, this edition features Sir Keir Starmer, who says he’s not only “turned Labour around”, but now has “a positive offer to put to the country”. In a whistle-stop tour late last year, during which he delivered an unapologetic love letter to the region that came complete with everything but a kiss, Sir Keir also pledged “roads, warehouses, grid 8

connections and laboratories quicker and cheaper”, which he said would create conditions for local decision-makers – like the victor of May’s North East Mayoral Combined Authority election – to deliver meaningful change. They’re strong words, especially from a party deserted by swathes of its North East heartland at the last General Election, and which continues to suffer from its own regular bouts of damaging in-fighting. Time will tell if they woo sufficient numbers back, but one thing is certain – whoever assumes control at the next ballot must give the North East the backing it needs, and deserves, to thrive. Elsewhere, change is reflected in our feature with Sola Idowu, founder of Newcastle-based biotech company Hexis Lab, which is working to revolutionise the cosmetic, personal care and pharmaceutical sectors globally by developing processes to replace traditional synthetic and animal-derived ingredients with environmentally-friendlier alternatives. Those moves include a hair care product specific to Indian and African women’s needs, which was inspired by Sola’s 19-year-old daughter – and national swimmer – Grace, from her hours in chlorine-filled pools. It is a wonderful snapshot into Sola’s own story of change, which began in Lagos before traversing to Newcastle via the University of Cambridge and NASA, in California. As you will read, Sola was never one to rest easy – he still isn’t – and his journey makes for a truly inspirational story. The North East is a much better place for having him and his incredibly innovative business. I hope you enjoy this issue. Steven



26 Scaleup North East



Gill Hunter


Homes by Esh

34 46

58 With its North East heartland ransacked by headline Conservative offensives during a meek General Election capitulation, Labour has spent the last five years not just remedying battle wounds but finding a cure for its very existence. Its recovery has been slow but, the party’s leader Sir Keir Starmer tells Steven Hugill, it is now suitably rehabilitated to administer a fresh dose of national political change.



Closing this month’s issue of North East Times Magazine, James Griffiths, managing director at Middlesbrough-based Industrial and Marine Hydraulics, reflects on the firm’s recent 40th anniversary, highlights the importance of staff development and reveals how the business’ global profile leaves it primed for further growth.

BEHIND THE COVER “Gill has a sense of power in the frame, but that is cut through by the eye contact with the viewer and the intimacy of the close crop. I really liked her rings and jewellery, which give an insight into her personality and individuality. “She exudes confidence and authority in her field, yet is personable and does not feel unknowable, which is how I found her to be. “The colour palette is welcoming, which reinforces that feeling. “I selected the vibrant warmth of an orange background to be both eyecatching and signal new beginnings. The gradient of light hitting the backdrop has a sunrise feel; fitting for an issue marking the beginning of a new year filled with possibilities and opportunity.” Christopher Owens, photographer


Sola Idowu



Business Spotlight_

Business spotlight North East Times Magazine throws a spotlight on the latest news, views, trends and technologies shaping the region’s economic and business landscape

Powertrain maker eyes growth with £23 million backing Manufacturing

Nissan to make new Wearside electric models in £2 billion drive Manufacturing

Dr James Widmer, Advanced Electric Machines’ chief executive and cofounder, inside the firm’s Washington factory

Nissan’s Sunderland production line will make electric versions of the company’s Qashqai and Juke models in £2 billion plans Picture: Nissan

Nissan has hailed “a new era” of green motoring after unveiling £2 billion plans. The car maker will build batterypowered versions of its flagship Qashqai and Juke hatchbacks at its Sunderland plant. Its 6000-worker factory will also make a rebooted Leaf, the all-electric model that has rolled off its North East production lines for the last decade. And bosses say it will create a third battery-making plant, which will sit alongside an existing hub and a new site being created by Nissan partner Envision AESC on Wearside’s International Advanced Manufacturing Park. Regeneration officials have praised the moves as “a huge vote of confidence in the city and region”. The investments mark the latest instalment of Nissan’s previouslyunveiled EV36Zero project, which 12

commits the firm to an “all-electric future”. Makoto Uchida, Nissan president and chief executive, said: “We are accelerating towards a new era; EV36Zero puts Sunderland at the heart of our future vision.” In addition to Nissan’s announcement, the Government has awarded £15 million for a £30 million collaborative project led by the car maker, and confirmed the North East Investment Zone, which it says will focus on advanced manufacturing and green industries. Welcoming the news, Councillor Graeme Miller, leader of Sunderland City Council, said: “This builds on our world-leading strengths in automotive and advanced manufacturing, creates high quality jobs, grows our low-carbon economy and further positions us at the heart of electrification on a global stage.”

An electric motor and powertrain systems maker is creating jobs following £23 million investment. Advanced Electric Machines plans to recruit 40 staff and expand internationally after support led by Legal & General Capital and Barclays Sustainable Impact Capital. The company says the cash will bolster development of new passenger vehicle and copperfree motors, and extend its sales footprint worldwide. Officials say it will also strengthen the Washington-based firm’s ambitions of becoming the world’s most sustainable electric powertrain manufacturer, with its products featuring alternative parts to the environmentallydamaging rare earth magnets prevalent in many rechargeable vehicles. Dr James Widmer, Advanced Electric Machines’ chief executive and co-founder, said: “This is a vote of confidence in our vision and our mission to rid electric vehicle motors of harmful and problematic materials.”

Business Spotlight_

Hopes raised over Teesside steelmaking renaissance Manufacturing

An artist’s impression of Crown Works Studios, which will sit on the banks of the River Wear

Plans submitted for blockbuster Wearside studios Culture Plans for a “transformational” £450 million film-making complex have moved forward. FulwellCain has submitted a blueprint for Crown Works Studios, in Sunderland, to council officials. Tipped to create and support 8450 jobs, it says the venture could pump as much as £334 million into the local economy every year. Set for land at Pallion, the 1.68 million sq ft scheme will include 20 sound stages

for feature film and television productions. If approved, building work could start next year and be completed by 2027. The endeavour is led by global entertainment company Fulwell 73 – spearheaded by Sunderland-born Leo Pearlman alongside Gabe and Ben Turner, Ben Winston and TV star James Corden – and Cain International. Leo, Fulwell 73 managing partner, said: “This will reinvigorate the city and region’s economy, and be a shot in the arm for the UK’s creative industries. “We are determined to do everything we can to ensure the impact of the studios are fully understood and supported.”

Skills boost as alliance receives £3.6 million support Skills Education providers have received £3.6 million Government support to boost skills delivery. An East Durham College-led alliance will provide health science, construction, advanced manufacturing and digital training across County Durham, Sunderland, Gateshead and South Tyneside over the next two years. The venture follows recommendations made in the North East Local Skills Improvement Plan, which was headed by the North East Automotive Alliance and focused on marrying post-16 technical education more closely to employers’ needs. East Durham College will lead on

health science training, with New College Durham overseeing construction, Sunderland College heading advanced manufacturing and Gateshead College fronting digital provision. Further support will be provided by NA College, Learning Curve Group and the University of Sunderland. Paul Butler, North East Automotive Alliance chief executive, added: “This industry-led initiative is a vital step in ensuring education and training are better aligned with industry needs.” The scheme has been supported by the Government’s Local Skills Improvement Fund.

British Steel’s name has long been etched into huge structures globally – and the firm is planning new moves to maintain production while lowering carbon output

Steelmaking could return to Teesside in £1.25 billion plans. British Steel is looking to build an electric arc furnace at its Lackenby plant, near Redcar. Described as the “biggest transformation in its history” to cut carbon emissions, British Steel says the furnace, slated to open in late 2025, would provide steel for its Teesside Beam Mill and a special profiles factory at Skinningrove, east Cleveland. If realised, the plans would revive Teesside steelmaking, which ended in 2015 when SSI UK collapsed into liquidation. According to British Steel, its Teesside investment would complement a Scunthorpe operation where the business is seeking to close traditional blast furnaces – which are fired by coke, iron ore, sinter and limestone – in moves that will reportedly put up to 2000 jobs at risk. Meanwhile, the company has erected steel framing on a new £26 million forklift parts factory at Skinningrove, which it says will make it “a global leader” in truck mast steel.

* Steeled for a historic renaissance - see page 19


Business Spotlight_

Drinks deal gives wholesaler taste for expansion Business An independent wholesaler has refused to rule out further growth after taking over a family drinks firm. North Shields-based Kitwave Group has bought Wilds of Oldham. The Manchester operator, which recorded £10.2 million turnover in latest accounts, has been incorporated into Kitwave Group’s alcohol wholesaler HB Clark. Paul Young, Kitwave Group chief executive, said: “Wilds of Oldham is a proven, successful business that will make a strong addition to our foodservice division. “We remain focused on capitalising on the fragmented UK wholesale market, and will continue to identify the best opportunities to deliver the most value for stakeholders.” The deal came just days after Kitwave Group, whose portfolio also includes WestCountry Food Holdings, hailed a “strong” financial and operational performance. It also followed the announcement of Paul’s retirement, with existing chief operating officer Ben Maxted primed to assume control of the business at a March annual general meeting.

Atom aims to further crack market with £100 million support Finance A challenger bank says it will “create an even more compelling proposition for savers, homeowners, first-time buyers and SMEs” after securing more than £100 million support. Atom has been backed by long-term shareholders BBVA, Toscafund and Infinity Investment Partners. Mark Mullen, chief executive at the Durham-headquartered app-based bank, said the cash will help provide “easier and better value than competitors”. The lender was advised by law firm Womble Bond Dickinson on the fundraising. 14

Steel Benders UK is moving to the site of Caparo’s former Hartlepool steel plant

New jobs as Steel Benders UK unveils ‘step change’ Hartlepool move Development A steel processing firm is creating jobs in a £2 million factory move. Steel Benders UK is switching from Middlesbrough to a six-acre Hartlepool site. Bosses say the expansion will deliver at least 15 posts, with its new home – on the footprint of Caparo’s former Brenda Road steel plant – holding scope to “increase capacity and create greater options”. Tania Cooper, managing director

SeAH has wind in sails after £367 million backing Manufacturing A wind turbine parts maker has secured £367 million support it says will help create up to 750 jobs at the largest factory of its type in the world. SeAH Steel Holding has received backing from UKEF and K-Sure to

of the company, which presently employs more than 30 staff from a site on Middlesbrough’s Dockside Road, and counts the marine, defence and renewable energy sectors as key markets, said: “This will be the first time we have had a site that is fit for purpose. “It represents a huge step change, leading to us becoming more diverse and able to work in larger markets.” The factory move is expected to take place over the next two years. The business was supported by Hartlepool Borough Council and a Tees Valley Combined Authority grant to make its switch.

push forward work on a plant at Teesworks, near Redcar. The base, which is already under construction, will be operated by SeAH Steel Holding’s SeAH Wind subsidiary and make turbine foundations. SeAH Wind has a deal with Vattenfall to supply foundations to the Norfolk Vanguard East and Vanguard West wind farms.

Business Spotlight_

Funding adds thrust to landmark green aviation goals Sustainability A waste-to-power firm is “ready to help take the UK one step closer to becoming a global leader” in sustainable aviation fuel after receiving a share of nearly £40 million Government cash, its boss has said. Sarah Ellerby, chief executive at Nova Pangaea Technologies, says the company will write a new chapter in cleaner travel following backing from Downing Street’s Advanced Fuels Fund. Wilton-based Nova Pangaea Technologies – which already has the support of British Airways’ operator International Airlines Group, and is building a “UK first” plant to convert agricultural and wood waste into bioethanol – received £9 million from the central pot. Revealing the cash will drive forward Project Speedbird, which centres on Nova Pangaea Technologies working alongside Lanzajet to make fuel for British Airways, Sarah said: “Our

In Brief A selected round-up of stories from across the region

4 A technology firm behind Sarah Ellerby, Nova Pangaea Technologies’ chief executive

partnership will play a transformational role in decarbonising the aviation sector.” Elsewhere, Arcadia e-Fuels, which is developing a plant to convert biogenic carbon dioxide and green hydrogen into aviation fuel, was handed £12.3 million through the Advanced Fuels Fund, with Alfanar Energy awarded £8.6 million. Abundia Biomass-to-Liquids, known for converting sawmill and forestry residues into fuel, received £4.4 million, and Willis Sustainable Fuels, which is developing plans for a refinery at Teesworks, near Redcar, to turn carbon dioxide and green hydrogen into fuel, was given £4.7 million.

apparatus used to foil terror plots has secured a near £5 million contract. Kromek Group is working with the US Department of Homeland Security Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office. The deal will see the Sedgefield-headquartered company – known for a range of wearable radiation detectors – research and develop a biodetection system.

4 Wealth management firm Fairstone Group has expanded, adding County Durham’s Advanced Financial Services, Hampshire and Wales’ Station Financial IFA, Kings Lynn-based Allen Tomas & Co and Kent’s Goodman Chartered Financial Planners to its stable. The deals add around £660 million of assets under management to the Wearside-headquartered company.

4 A steel flooring and handrail

Blyth’s Harlyn Solutions supported the delivery of substations for Moray West Wind Farm

Harlyn Solutions showcases energy prowess with substation work Energy A heavy transport company has added its expertise to an energy scheme. Harlyn Solutions helped move substations to Scotland’s Moray West Wind Farm. The Blyth-based business provided

engineering, vessel and marine support to shift two units to Cromarty Firth, ahead of installation. Hamish Adamson, Harlyn Solutions’ managing director, said: “We were proud to work alongside other high-quality companies in this delivery.” Pete Geddes, Moray West project director, added: “We are delighted Harlyn Solutions has safely delivered the two topsides, ready for the final journey to the wind farm site.”

maker is toasting double award success. Middlesbrough’s Lionweld Kennedy picked up the manufacturer of the region and energy and sustainability accolades at the North East, Yorkshire and Humberside Make UK Manufacturing Awards. It will represent the region at a national final, in London, in late January.

4 Darlington-based Tekmar Group has won a contract worth more than £2.5 million to send cable protection equipment to a Middle East subsea energy project.

For more news and views across the North East, visit our website @ 15


Playing his cards right? Expecting the unexpected has become the norm with regards the Conservative Party over recent years. But even the most broad-minded of voter would have done well to anticipate David Cameron’s shock return. Here, Steven Hugill assesses Rishi Sunak’s huge gamble to add a former Prime Minister to his top table. Words by Steven Hugill

4When you’ve had losing hand after losing hand,

the populist right seems an incredible act, nay a

despite enough deck changes and reshuffles to

monumental gamble.

give the most experienced casino croupier cramp, the time eventually comes for a fresh approach. Play for matchsticks; play at a different house; play a new game altogether.

But as Ben Stokes’ team showed in last year’s Ashes Test series against Australia, the line

And David Cameron’s return was certainly the

between risk-taking and recklessness is razor-

jokers. Last seen slumped over his Brexit sword, the former Prime Minister’s political career has been shocked back into life as the country’s latest


ultra-aggressive ‘Bazball’ approach.

Or, if you’re Rishi Sunak, play a joker. most lustrous and multi-coloured harlequin of all


Sunak too loves his cricket, previously speaking on record about his admiration for England’s

Foreign Secretary. That’s right; the cricket fan who declared his

blade thin. And returning Cameron to the fold leaves Sunak in grave danger of being irreparably wounded. In constitutional terms, of course, it isn’t too much of an issue. Labour, remember, had ex-Hartlepool MP Lord

innings closed when voters splattered his EU

Mandelson and Lord Adonis as Cabinet members

stumps has taken guard again to bat for the UK

under Gordon Brown.

against, erm, the European Union (among others), vowing to solve the problems he helped create. As scripts go, it is textbook tragicomic farce,

But it’s the look that Cameron’s reprise creates that’s the problem. It shouts of desperate short-termism and,

carrying all the same hallmarks of Theresa May’s

ironically, given Cameron’s austerity past, a leader

slow death, circus ringmaster-turned occasional

broke for ideas.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s fitful reign and Liz Truss’ passing horror show. As far as Sunak goes, it is an extraordinarily bold storyboard. Already managing a Tory party hopelessly

It’s also incredibly head-scratching to see the man who scuttled away sidewards when his EU referendum campaign flopped back to oversee Britain’s place in the wider world. Because things stick.

fractured by member disharmony over policy, to

Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton, as he’s now

prise the crack further with the return of a man

known, never did directly encourage the public to

who sparks provocation from both centrists and

‘hug a hoodie’, despite what lore likes to suggest.


Yet the slogan – bastardised from a speech encouraging greater community cohesion – nevertheless became a defining episode of his tenure, a moment forever gummed to his parliamentary career in the same way the perma-sticky implications of Britain’s European departure clag treaclelike to his every mention. As I watched him ignore the journalists and photographers lining Downing Street to capture his return, the song ‘Without Me’ – by foul-mouthed rapper Eminem – began circling in my head. Now, it sounds a ridiculous correlation, but bear with me. The 2002 hit carries a repetitive refrain that implores the listener to ‘guess who’s back?’, all while the American boasts of his ‘monster’ Slim Shady alter-ego, which has now grown so large it defines and consumes his every move. And that’s why it popped into my conscious. For just like Marshall Mathers III, Cameron, for a good many, won’t ever shed his second – EU and austere – self, the one that still draws shock and awe, no matter how hard he tries. Yes, he’s back, all rested and refreshed, but lurking around his every corner is the


Brexit monster he helped create, which will never be coaxed back into its cage. When I last saw the former Prime Minister in frontline political mode, he was wandering the production line of Newton Aycliffe-based train builder Hitachi Rail in the days before the 2016 Brexit vote. Eyes reddened and face shiny from the strains of a final, whistle-stop voter push, he looked like the party he’s re-joined; still moving, still functioning, but wheezing heavily and ready to run out of steam at any point. Hours later, of course, he ground to a halt, his Westminster chips lost on a massive gamble. And time will tell if Sunak’s latest shuffle of the pack delivers a stronger hand, or, as is more likely, he leaves the table with nothing. 17

Guest contributor

Time for change Entrepreneurship The future may be lived through artificial intelligence, but don’t expect to see too many female-founded organisations at the forefront of change. That’s the stark warning of The Alan Turing Institute, which says that without significant revision of the funding landscape, the ambitions of women business owners will remain stymied by a stark gender divide. According to its recent Rebalancing Innovation: Women, AI and Venture Capital in the UK report, 80 per cent of total capital invested in artificial intelligence was raised by all-male teams between 2012 and 2022. All-female teams raised 0.3 per cent. Furthermore, where femalefounded artificial intelligence startups did secure funding, the paper reveals they received, on average, six times less capital per deal than endeavours established by their male counterparts. A fundamental factor, it says, is a huge gender discrepancy across the funding decision process. As a snapshot, the findings are worrying. But when placed within a wider picture, one which includes the statistic of all-female founder teams receiving just one pence for every £1 of venture capital investment in the UK, they become incredibly alarming. Things must change. And quickly. References: 1: B ritish Business Bank; 2: H arvard Business Review - How the VC pitch process is failing female entrepreneurs; how-the-vc-pitch-process-is-failingfemale-entrepreneurs


Sophie Milliken_

Words by Sophie Milliken Founder and chief executive, Moja Group

Moving the dial on female funding As recent findings from The Alan Turing Institute show female-founded companies account for less than three per cent of venture capital deals involving artificial intelligence start-ups, Sophie Milliken, founder and chief executive of Newcastle-based PR agency Moja Group, calls for watershed revision.

4The findings of the Turing report were sadly not a surprise, for they reflect the wider challenges around funding I hear throughout the UK from fellow female founders. As well as having lived experience as a female founder, I am in my second year of a PhD at Durham University focusing on female entrepreneurship. When writing my initial research proposal, I read widely to understand the challenges faced by women entering entrepreneurship, and found funding was a key barrier. I was shocked to discover how hard it was for women to secure funding, and appalled at the low numbers obtaining investment. Many of us are now aware of the oftenquoted stat that for every £1 of venture capital investment in the UK, all-female founder teams get less than one pence. In contrast, all-male founder teams get 89 pence and mixed-gender teams ten pence1. Despite such increased awareness, though, the funding between male and female entrepreneurs remains stark. One of the best resources for female founders is the Alison Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship, which was created in 2019 with annual updates since. It was commissioned by the Government with the aim of identifying and addressing the challenges faced by female entrepreneurs. Highlighting many of the barriers particular to female entrepreneurship, including a lack of visible role models,

caring responsibilities and access to funding, it outlined a series of recommendations, such as measures to increase access to finance, provide greater mentoring and networking, and promote financial education for women. One of its brilliant initiatives is the Investing in Women Code, which is designed to directly address the lack of investment going to female entrepreneurs from early stage and seed funding through to venture capital investment and bank loans. However, one of its aims is that the level of funding should match the proportion of women-led companies in the economy, which was 20 per cent in 2022. So we still have a long way to go! And what doesn’t help is that venture capitalists are predominantly male, with research showing they tend to ask men promotion questions and women prevention ones. There are several research reports and articles that show this to be key in holding women back; the findings of a Harvard Business Review article2, for example, are particularly shocking. So, what would actually help? I would love to see more visible role models and case studies, which would make securing investment seem more accessible to women starting out. More women-led investment events, groups and accelerators would be positive too. And I’d also love to see more women on investment boards and as angel investors. These are actions that could make real change to that one pence.

Guest contributor

Chris McDonald _

Relighting passions of old Manufacturing It was over in seconds. As the crack-boom of explosives ripped through its innards, Redcar’s blast furnace – the last vestige of 170 years of Teesside steelmaking – crumpled to its knees. On its way, the giant structure’s throat, having roared for decades, let out one final metallic groan in acknowledgement of its fate. From its twisted wreck, thick black smoke filled the seaside sky, a fitting backcloth for the death of SSI UK’s short-lived endeavour in 2015, the thousands of jobs it took and an industry cherished by so many,

including the hundreds who took to Redcar’s beach and dunes to see the furnace fall. But from death may come fresh life. For British Steel has unveiled £1.25 billion plans to build an electric arc furnace – that would revive Teesside steelmaking – at its Lackenby plant, which stands a short drive from the Redcar blast furnace’s resting place. The firm says the endeavour, earmarked to open in late 2025, would provide steel for existing factories across Redcar and east Cleveland.

Words by Chris McDonald Strategy consultant and former chief executive at the Materials Processing Institute

Steeled for a historic renaissance With steelmaking set to be revived on Teesside following a near decade-long hiatus, Chris McDonald, former chief executive of the Materials Processing Institute, looks at British Steel’s £1.25 billion renaissance plans and why the blueprint – which promises greatly reduced carbon emissions – must be the catalyst for wider industry change.

4Industrial-scale steelmaking is to return to Teesside following British Steel’s announcement that it is to build an electric arc furnace, melting scrap metal to produce ‘green’ steel. Based at Lackenby, near Redcar, it will supply British Steel’s adjacent Teesside Beam Mill and a special profiles mill at Skinningrove, east Cleveland, for use in construction, infrastructure and specialist equipment. Due to open in 2025, it is expected

to create around 250 jobs and protect hundreds of other steel and supply chain posts in the region – as well as providing opportunities for a new generation of steelworkers. However, as part of its multi-millionpound investment, the Chinese-owned company is replacing its traditional coke-fired steel plant in Scunthorpe with a second electric arc furnace, which will see the loss of 2000 jobs. While it may be welcome news on

Teesside, many will readily recall the devastation when our own Redcar steelworks closed in 2015. And I fervently hope concerted efforts will be made to transfer those skills now under threat in Scunthorpe into emerging green technologies. Electric arc furnaces are far less labourintensive than traditional blast furnaces, and account for 30 per cent of the world’s steelmaking capacity, offering huge environmental benefits. Blast furnaces, like that currently in use in Scunthorpe, account for ten per cent of the UK’s harmful carbon dioxide emissions, and it is estimated the average carbon footprint of steel is 1.85 tonnes of CO2 for every tonne of steel produced. While electric arc furnaces play an important and growing role in the global decarbonisation of the steel industry, they cannot provide the full range and amount of steel needed by modern industrial economies, such as that required by the automotive and defence sectors. Therefore, it is vital that both the Government and the steel industry continue to invest in primary steel production, steel made with iron ore, by investing in net-zero, hydrogen-powered furnaces. Teesside’s planned electric arc furnace signals the rebirth of industrial steelmaking in the region, although the Materials Processing Institute – based on the outskirts of Middlesbrough – has kept that flame alive with its own pilot plant, used for the research and development of new steels and small-scale commercial production. The British Steel version is likely to be 20 times the size of the institute’s electric arc furnace, but I’m confident it can play a supportive role in its development. British Steel’s plan marks a major step forward in securing the future of a sustainable UK steel industry, but more investment is urgently needed if this country is to achieve true sovereign capability. 19

The Big Question

The Big Question


National Apprenticeship Week returns in February, shining a spotlight on vocational learning and its impact on company workforces and marketplace success. However, despite a push for greater work-based training, many commentators believe a disconnect still exists between industry needs and educational provision. How do you view the present system? Is it functioning sufficiently, or are there areas you would mark for improvement?

MARTIN HASWELL Learning and development HR business partner TMD Friction

Like any national programme, the UK’s apprenticeship system has its supporters and critics. Paying into the Apprenticeship Levy encourages employers to invest in their workforce, particularly organisations where budgets are reduced following rounds of belttightening. The growth of new providers and the broadening of apprenticeship standards available has enabled employers to create opportunities in professions which previously weren’t possible. This has given them more room for manoeuvre, particularly regarding succession planning and workforce futureproofing. Convincing employers the Apprenticeship Levy isn’t just another tax, or can be treated as ‘monopoly money’, though, can be a struggle. Employers who appreciate the benefits of investing in their workforce and developing people really see the benefits. One area where managers feel the pain is the need to commit 20 per cent of job hours for apprentices each week. The most successful get on board and really

commit, as they see the long-term benefits, while some begrudge the lost time in the immediate term. Here is where learning and development teams really need to ensure managers are committed to their succession plans and apprentices. There is also a need to focus on quality when it comes to partnering with an apprenticeship provider; there needs to be trust and confidence between employer and provider, and a focus on the quality of the learning being delivered.

BRENDA MCLEISH Chief executive Learning Curve Group

It’s difficult to get through a single conversation about apprenticeships at the moment without talking about the effectiveness of the system. Of course, as a training provider, we’re well acquainted with the endless benefits apprenticeships bring to employers and individuals. However, there’s a persistent issue that lies in the inflexibility of the levy system, which prevents businesses using their contributions effectively. A significant portion of levy funds remain

The Big Question

unspent, returned to the Treasury, with no clear sight on where it’s invested next. When this happens, businesses can’t grasp the opportunities the initiative was designed for, turning it into ‘just another tax’ on their organisation. Now, I’m not naïve to the realities of these situations – there are some organisations who choose to write it off as just another tax willingly, and even some who didn’t realise they were paying it in the first place. The reality is, the current system is difficult to navigate and doesn’t allow for the flex needed to suit the intricacies of each organisation. If the levy were to evolve to accommodate skills and apprenticeships, perhaps with shorter, more specific courses to support problem areas or skills shortages, we could see the diverse needs of businesses across the UK being met. This would bridge the disconnect that we currently face, ensuring effective use of funding and the sustained success of apprenticeship programmes.

RACHEL ANDERSON Assistant director of policy North East Chamber of Commerce

The Chamber has just completed two Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs), one in the Tees Valley and one for the North of Tyne, and we asked 3500 employers this very question. Employers were generally supportive of the technical and vocational education provided. In subject areas, such as construction, engineering, hospitality and health and social care, there is a feeling the base level of skills provided are the right ones and done to a high standard. But we are not so good at then developing those skills and encouraging individuals to build on that base. So many roles now require specialisms and more advanced skills, which move as technology develops. We need shorter, more focused courses where individuals can develop a suite of specialist advanced skills and fit learning around a job. There is one other really significant thing I would

change. Almost every single employer we spoke to said the first thing on their list would be communication skills. Over the last few years, we have really lost something; it’s intangible, but employers cited not looking people in the eye, being unwilling to have a telephone conversation and not being able to talk to clients. I would add modules on these to every course, not just the customer-facing vocations. Communication is so important, and we have to nurture it – particularly since COVID-19.

DAVID ARMSTRONG Managing director Access Training

The system is under quite a lot of strain at the moment, in various ways. One of the biggest issues is how difficult it is to recruit good staff into trainer roles. This has always been an issue but with a lack of increases in funding for apprenticeships, there’s no way training providers can compete with industry salaries, without compromising quality. Despite the massive cost increases, in many cases we haven’t been able to raise our prices since the introduction of apprenticeship standards in 2017, and it’s just no longer sustainable. In the majority of sectors, individuals can earn far more in industry than they can in education, and this is causing a sizeable barrier to growth. Due to the recruitment challenges across the economy, the appetite from employers to invest in the skills of new and existing employees has grown, but without the necessary funding investments in the apprenticeship system, this is going to continue to stutter and stall. The other major concern is the administration time that is being burdened on employers – which they don’t have time for. Hopefully, the introduction of the Expert Training Provider scheme, of which we are delighted to be a part, is a step in the right direction to moving away from such arduous levels of employer administration. 21

Event_ Advertising feature_River Birch Newman

Wealth management firm launches with unique democratic approach Wealth management firm River Birch Newman was officially launched late last year, promising to provide a fresh approach to financial planning. Here, co-founders David Broom and Richard Hogg reveal more about the venture’s mission. LinkedIn: River Birch Newman

River Birch Newman -

To find out more about River Birch Newman, and how its services could help you, call 0191 323 2010.


Wealth management firm River Birch Newman has launched with a radical new philosophy. Co-founded by David Broom, Gurdit Singh, Richard Hogg, Anthony Broadhead and Abu Ali, the venture aims to “democratise” financial planning. Business leaders from across the North East and beyond gathered at The Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, on the River Tyne, to celebrate the endeavour’s official unveiling. David and Richard spoke passionately about their vision for River Birch Newman, with the former highlighting the importance of making financial advice accessible to all generations, and the latter emphasising the firm’s commitment to helping people at all levels. David said: “At the heart of our mission is the unwavering commitment to democratising financial advice, making it accessible and valuable to everyone, regardless of their background or wealth status. “We seek to challenge the status quo, and aim to remove fear associated with financial planning by changing perceptions.” Richard added: “Our core values are inclusivity and clarity, with a comprehensive approach driving everything we do.”

Event_ Advertising feature_River Birch Newman

Pictured, left, from left to right, are River Birch Newman cofounders David Broom, Anthony Broadhead, Gurdit Singh, Abu Ali and Richard Hogg


Digital_ Advertising feature_Readysalted

Readysalted and ready to grow Newcastle-based digital agency Readysalted has announced ambitious plans to treble its growth after expanding its client base in the UK and Europe. Here, Simon Honeywood, founder and managing director, explains how his business – now celebrating its 20th anniversary – has transformed from a one-man-band to a team developing digital solutions for clients across the globe. LinkedIn: Readysalted

Readysalted -

For more information about Simon and the Readysalted team, call 0191 261 7990.

When I moved to Newcastle in 1997, to study what was then known as multimedia design, it was the early days of web design, and I didn’t know a single person. Now, more than 25 years later, the team and I have had the pleasure of working with some brilliant clients on their web and digital transformation projects, including Newcastle, Durham and Cambridge universities. We have a strong client base across Europe, have recently welcomed a trio of business development and marketing professionals, delivered our biggest digital transformation project to date and achieved our highest turnover yet. If you’d told me all those years ago that what started out as me working solo on a freelance basis would grow into a company that is projected to hit half a million pounds in turnover by 2025, and celebrating its 20th anniversary, I’d probably have laughed. Transforming the way people work Today, Readysalted focuses on UX (user experience) design and digital transformation development, and we combine strong design with a user-focused approach. We take the time to really understand the businesses we work with, what their customers need when they visit a website, and how they behave online. This often means we have no idea initially what kind of website or web app we’re going to build


when we start out; it all depends on the individual business and their end users. We also work with clients on digital transformation, which is something that can save people hours and hours of time and completely change the way they work – it really is transformative. Our client base is incredibly varied, from medical scientists and manufacturers through to the education sector and beyond. Essentially, we can make a piece of software you can run an entire company with, which is bespoke to fit the needs of each client. Staying ahead of the curve We’ve always been ahead of the curve when it comes to new technology, and we use what we’ve learnt over the last 20 years to over-deliver and add value for our clients. This means we get really good feedback, and I like to think that people genuinely enjoy working with us. Businesses often stay with us for many years. In fact, Newcastle University was one of the very first organisations we ever completed work for, and we still work with them today, having created digital platforms for millions of pounds worth of research projects over the years. Clear plans for growth We’ve recently taken on three more members of staff, increased the amount of work we’re doing in London and Europe, and seen the business grow by

Digital_ Advertising feature_Readysalted

30 per cent in the last year alone. We’re projected to hit half a million pounds in turnover by 2025, and I’ve got a really clear plan for continuing that growth over the next few years; with the goal to treble the size of the business and reach a million pounds of turnover by 2028. This year, we’ll be taking on more developers and designers, and will be looking into opening an office in London, as we’re working with more and more clients in the capital. And, of course, I want to keep doing the work we love, continuing to receive great feedback and working with brilliant clients here in the North East too. It’s a really exciting time. And…why Readysalted? People are always so curious about why on earth

we decided to name ourselves after a popular crisp flavour, so perhaps I should explain. It dates right back to my early student days when I was sharing a flat with two other graphic designers. We were drinking pints in a grotty pub, where the only food on offer was ready salted crisps, and we joked about how one day we’d start a design business and that’s what we would call it. Years later, when I needed to create my own brand, the name just stuck. Having undergone a recent brand refresh, our website looks very different, and we have big plans for the future, but we’re still very much the same Readysalted team, with the same values at our core. As steadfast as the crisp flavour itself, we pride ourselves on simply being a great and reliable team, delivering work our clients love. So, here’s to the next 20 years…

Pictured, from left to right, are Malissa Charlton, Raquel Goden, Simon Honeywood, Amanda Stephenson and Steve Connolly



‘A LIFE-CHANGING PROPOSITION’ Partnership is crucial to business. Without collaboration, ideas go unconverted and growth stories go unwritten. Ensuring firms avoid such situations is the Scaleup North East programme, which matches owners’ expansion plans with the knowledge, expertise and insight of entrepreneurial partners. Here, Steven Hugill speaks to partners Angelina Bell, Craig Huntingdon, Jon Symonds and Tony Brooks, to find out more about the RTC North-delivered venture, which, having already helped companies win millions of pounds of work, is now looking to support hundreds more across the North of Tyne area.

4The commercial world is a capricious place. Amid such pitch and roll, it pays to have a steady partner to help turn the wheel. For many companies, Scaleup North East is that trusted right-hand person, the first mate to prospective captains of industry keen not only to steer towards calmer waters, but chart courses to expansion, profitability and wealth. The programme – funded by the Government through the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, with the North of Tyne Combined Authority acting as lead organisation – is delivered by RTC North partners Angelina Bell, Craig Huntingdon, Jon Symonds and Tony Brooks, who use decades of combined entrepreneurial experience to map out growth journeys. Tony says: “We’ve been there; we’ve seen and done it, we’ve had difficult moments and enjoyed successes too, so we know what it’s like. “And coming from such a place of authority allows us to empathise with owners’ situations and ask the

“With our collective knowledge and expertise as partners, we’re able to look at each business individually, assess their situation and properly plan longer-term outcomes” Angelina Bell, pictured, left

right questions to start conversations.” Craig adds: “That is the programme’s differentiating factor. “We use our experiences and apply our knowledge to help owners broaden their strategies for success, by finding ways to overcome barriers and take advantage of opportunities.” And the model has rich form. Previous iterations of the programme – rolled out across the North East Local Enterprise Partnership’s footprint – helped firms create hundreds of jobs, win more than £19 million of new work and raise in excess of £16.5 million over the last two years. Those numbers, though, are primed to rise further still, with the venture offering support to 300 businesses – sole traders, micro, small, medium and large firms and social enterprises engaging in economic activity – throughout the North of Tyne area, across sectors including digital and technology, health and life science, low carbon and green growth, creativity and advanced manufacturing.


SCALEUP NORTH EAST Companies should be: - Businesses, including start-ups, which are scaling or can demonstrate significant growth potential - Based in the areas of Northumberland, North Tyneside, Newcastle-upon-Tyne or the Gateshead Metropolitan Borough

“We use our experiences and apply our knowledge to help owners broaden their strategies for success, by finding ways to overcome barriers and take advantage of opportunities” Craig Huntingdon, pictured, far right

- Ideally in the following sectors, although others will be considered: - Digital and technology - Health and life sciences - Low carbon and green growth - Creative industries - Advanced manufacturing The following sectors are not eligible for support: - Agriculture - Fishery and aquaculture - Banking - Insurance Firms must demonstrate a growth rate of 20 per cent over two previous years, or high growth potential, demonstrating growth of above ten per cent and forecasting future growth of at least ten per cent, with increase in employment. For more information, visit www. scaleupnortheast.


“We’ve been there; we’ve seen and done it, we’ve had difficult moments and enjoyed successes too, so we know what it’s like” Tony Brooks, pictured, right

“The way we help businesses is so very different to other schemes,” says partner Jon Symonds of Scaleup North East, whose parameters include companies being able to demonstrate a 20 per cent growth rate over a two-year period. He adds: “Crucially, it isn’t a transactional programme. “We can work up to 40 hours with a client, which allows us to go far deeper than just surface scratching. “That is a lot of intervention time, and, as partners, we’re also able to use our respective networks of support, across areas like outsourced HR and corporate finance, to further help businesses.” Another differentiating factor of Scaleup North East is its diversity of delivery. Shaped by an initial discovery session between business and programme partner, unique, pliable blueprints are then formulated to flex with every change and circumstance. “Scaleup North East isn’t someone going into a company and telling the boss how to run a board meeting; it operates at a completely different level,” says Tony, who grew an electrical engineering firm from a two-person operation into a multi-million-pound, blue-chip contract organisation. He adds: “We work in many ways, one of which is to agree three areas of focus with a client, which could be anything from organisational structure to business development, HR or finance.


“And then, once those have been fixed, we agree a cadence over a set period of time, signing each off as we go through the programme. “We also host a lot of events, like bootcamps and workshops, and try to introduce companies we believe would benefit from such connections,” adds Tony of Scaleup North East. “The level and breadth of support is so varied,” says fellow partner Angelina Bell, who held senior travel industry management roles from her very late teens and latterly co-founded a building surveying business. She says: “We can meet a company once a month, or work on a more intensive basis to solve a pressing problem. “There are times when a business has formed a strategy but has then come across challenges. “Often, this is because they’ve reached their knowledge and experience ceiling, and it is where the support of Scaleup North East is so invaluable. “With our collective knowledge and expertise as partners, we’re able to look at each business individually, assess their situation and properly plan longer-term outcomes.” And with such relations, says Craig, come closer bonds, which essentially place Scaleup North East partners – and their expert counsel – as de-facto extensions of an organisation.


“We can work up to 40 hours with a client, which allows us to go far deeper than just surface scratching. That is a lot of intervention time, and, as partners, we’re also able to use our respective networks of support, across areas like outsourced HR and corporate finance, to further help businesses” Jon Symonds, pictured below, right

He says: “Managing the cadence of a company’s focus can be quite intense up front, almost projectorientated to a degree. “But from those initial connections, over time, you become a trusted advisor, which provides massive value for a client. “For them to be able to pick up the phone, on something like a lease query, for example, and have a sounding board in the form of a Scaleup North East partner is huge,” adds Craig, whose CV includes the international scaling of a wall covering manufacturer after leading a management buyout in his early 20s, and a decade as supermarket Aldi’s trading director. Furthermore, says Angelina, such intimacy plays a pivotal part in removing potential obstacles between business protagonists and partners, with the latter’s experiences – good and bad – providing compelling and, at times, comforting case studies. She says: “The insight and honesty we are able to deliver is key to the relationships we build. “Many business owners often think, ‘I can’t get to the next level because of ‘x’ problem’ – but, through our experiences, we show them they can. “I learned things the hard way in business, to the point I have quite a lot of battle scars. “I know what it's like to be promoted very quickly at a young age, and to have the responsibility of

overseeing branches and regions as I did in the travel industry. “I was also one of the first women homeworkers and I know too the challenges of starting a business, having set up a building surveying firm linked to energy efficiency with my husband in 2007. “We quickly scaled the latter on a national level, but then got stung and nearly went bust overnight.” Equally critical, says Jon, whose career began in corporate and retail banking in his native South Africa, is how such conversations can spur fresh direction in leaders. He says: “A business owner may sometimes be emotionally unaware of their capabilities, whether that be the reality of an opportunity or the denial of the reality. “And that is where our empathetical approach is so important,” adds Jon, who previously sat on the

RTC North RTC North is a leading provider of business support and innovation services, working with organisations to unlock their potential and achieve sustainable growth. With a wealth of expertise and a commitment to excellence, RTC North empowers businesses to overcome challenges, embrace opportunities and drive success in a rapidly evolving marketplace.

operating board of former FTSE 250-listed energy efficiency product firm Eaga and latterly delivered UK-wide consultancy support for a decade. He says: “By talking to owners, and working to understand the dynamics of their situation, something that might start relatively innocuously, like wanting to access a new market, becomes something far greater around leadership and a complete revisit of strategy. “We’ve done some amazing things with Scaleup North East, and we have genuinely changed the lives of business owners and the people they employ.” Craig adds: “Businesses know what they do – they’re already brilliant at it. “What they need is that extra layer of expertise, which is what Scaleup North East provides. “We show them the art of the problem, and how to find the right answers for success.”

The North of Tyne Combined Authority is a partnership of three local authorities – Newcastle City Council, North Tyneside Council and Northumberland County Council – and the North of Tyne elected mayor. The UK Shared Prosperity Fund is a central pillar of the Government’s Levelling Up agenda and provides £2.6 billion of funding for local investment by March 2025. The fund aims to improve pride in place and increase life chances across the UK, investing in communities and place, supporting local business, people and skills. For more information, visit:


Finance_ Advertising feature_Lycetts

Steering a course to success Founded more than 60 years ago to provide tailored support for the North East business community, independently-operated insurance broker Lycetts has evolved to ensure that farm and estate operators are comprehensively protected against industry fluctuation. Here, Steven Hugill speaks to William Nicholl, the firm’s client director, to find out more about its provision, its personal touch and why the North East will always be home. LinkedIn: Lycetts

Lycetts -

One of the UK’s leading independentlyoperated insurance brokers, Lycetts provides bespoke financial services and commercial, private client, farm and estate, and bloodstock insurance advice.


Life is all about navigating bumps in the road. Relief then for Lycetts. Trusted like a well-thumbed A-Z map and as nimble as a satellite navigation system, the Newcastleheadquartered insurance broker is a market leader in steering clients along a smoother path. And nowhere is its guidance more pronounced than across the rural sector. From farm, agricultural motor fleet, rural business, country sports, estate and smallholding and hobby farming cover, to protection for enterprises spanning areas from renewable energy to dog walking, Lycetts’ support is as broad as its clients’ acreages. “We grew from the rural sector, so have a much greater understanding of the environment than a lot of other insurance providers,” says William Nicholl,

the firm’s client director. He adds: “We are a general insurance broker that has many specialisms, which include the fact we live, breathe and work across the same landscape as clients. “A long-held strapline of ours is, ‘we know your world’ – and we genuinely do.” The intimacy to which William refers is borne out across Lycetts’ extensive catalogue, where its personal touch is underpinned by in-house underwriting capabilities that deliver expeditious support. He says: “In the present environment, with changes to the farming landscape and significant diversification of buildings into ventures like holiday cottages, wedding venues and farm shops, we need to operate in a lot of different spheres. “And that is reflected in the cover we provide. “Thanks to our experience and expertise, we’re able to see moves in the market, like the rise in diversification and the move to environmental schemes, and design packages specific to that. “Furthermore, by doing a lot of our own underwriting, we can make sensible and timely decisions,” says William, who advises landowners, farmers and private clients nationwide. He adds: “But it also means we have the ability to amend policy schedules and wordings in the face of market changes, like the decline of the Basic Pay Scheme (BPS), for example. “At the moment, farmers receive an annual payment for production. “But the programme is changing to focus more

Finance_ Advertising feature_Lycetts

on the environmental, with Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS) – wherein things like carbon sequestration will become important to any landowner – with policies needing to reflect that. “And we are very proud our underwriting team includes many we’ve trained from school age; it is another example of us knowing our clients and their respective worlds. “It’s all very well an underwriter sitting with their computer and virtually shuffling bits of paper from one side of their desk to the other. “But it is far better for them to be learning out on the ground – and that is what we do. “I recently took a group to see a number of clients – we went to a principal house on an estate; farm cottages; a property being refurbished for commercial use; a castle; and a farm shop being extended to include a children’s play area. “Seeing such a cross-section of the spheres in which we work was so much more beneficial for them and their understanding.” While bolstering Lycetts’ insurance provision, though, William says such close relations equally strengthen the firm’s wider support network, not least its financial services division, which is headed by Chris Booth and delivers specialist advice across areas including pension and inheritance tax planning. William says: “Insurance is about protection, whether it be your house, your business or your finance for future generations. “And that is important, because while a client may have originally engaged our services for rural insurance, they may also have an inheritance tax issue, for example, which we can support. “The comprehensive services we provide means a client has one button on their telephone that says Lycetts, which, by pressing, they know will help deal with all their insurance and financial matters.” And providing a firm base for Lycetts to continue delivering such services is the company’s new headquarters, with the business having switched from Newcastle’s Edwardian Milburn House to the city’s Bank House high-rise last summer. William says: “Moving to Bank House is us sticking

our flag in the North East ground. “We have 16 offices around the country, but I’ve always said we are Geordies and are proud of that fact. “A lot of our competitors are based in the City of London, but the North East remains our engine room.” He adds: “Lots of businesses have an office launch, but ours was an office refresh. “We’ve been here for 60 years, and moving to Bank House was a reminder of who we are and a sign that we will very much remain part of the North East going forward.”

To find out more about Lycetts' rural insurance packages, call its Newcastle head office on 0191 232 1151 or email william.nicholl@ Lycetts is part of the Benefact Group, a family of specialist financial services businesses that gives all available profits to charity and good causes.




LinkedIn: Square One Law

Gill Hunter

Photography by Christopher Owens

As co-chair of the British Chambers of Commerce’s Workplace Equity Commission, Square One Law managing partner Gill Hunter is leading the charge towards a more equitable society. Here, she tells North East Times Magazine about her role in laying foundations for watershed cultural revision across the employment sector, revealing how she is drawing on past experiences in the legal world to set a template for lasting change.

LGBTQ activist, vocal feminist, devoted mother, charity champion, fervent business influencer, jovial podcast host and managing partner at Square One Law; there’s more diversity in Gill Hunter’s weekly diary than most businesses. Having seen off cancer (twice) and spent five years turning Newcastle and Darlington-based Square One into one of the region’s most well-known legal firms, she appreciates how precious time is. For Gill, it’s not about ‘the Gram’ or LinkedIn clout, though – there’s nothing performative about the way she operates. On the contrary, she wants to create opportunity for people who don’t currently have it, open doors for those locked outside and demonstrate to businesses the financial and social benefits of “being kind”, embracing change and refusing to “stick with how things have always been done”. It was Gill’s first brush with mortality that was the catalyst to shake off the corporate shackles and align personal values with the hard-earned professional skills that had taken her to the top of the legal world. She says: “Someone said that we spend our lives building a brick wall and then cancer tears that all down. “It’s then up to us, up to me, how that wall is rebuilt. “That moment offered a chance to re-evaluate what I wanted to do, what I wanted for my children, how I wanted to work – it was a chance to reset.



4A dedicated disability rights and



“I researched progressive leadership and benefits of being vulnerable, not being afraid to admit I didn’t have all the answers. “Communicating this, and embracing vulnerability, was liberating.” Gill adds: “I began talking about weaknesses and discussing things like my divorce and its impact. “I could still provide leadership and direction, but expressing vulnerability, being open and honest and being more human, empowered me and others. “It helped build stronger professional relationships, but if it wasn’t something people felt comfortable engaging with, then that was fine too.” Already working with marginalised groups and a vocal ally of LGBTQ communities, Gill has created an inclusive, “kinder” workplace, where people

Gill Hunter

are themselves, dress how they feel comfortable, express and share creative ideas – somewhere they don’t have to adhere to a lawyer stereotype, hide individuality and passions, or present in a way that makes them uneasy. And she practices what she preaches. Gill sports a nose ring, wears a Bullet For My Valentine T-shirt and proudly displays a huge peacock tattoo the length of her right arm. She says: “I want to work with people with creativity, who think differently. “Why stifle individuality and creativity, by asking them to cover up tattoos or wear a suit and hide the things that inspire them or are visual representations of their creativity? “Change can be positive, but many push against it. “Take the effort to make everyone head back to the office, rather than work from home. “Evidence shows homeworking increases productivity, as well as being beneficial to the wellbeing of some. “If it works, why not embrace it? “The pandemic gave us a glimpse of colleagues’ homes and we became tolerant of family appearing in Teams calls or dogs barking – we got on with it and did our jobs. “If there’s a reduction in someone’s performance, it’s probably down to the person or how they’re managed, rather than their environment.” Gill’s desire for positive change recently saw her appointed co-chair of the British Chambers of Commerce’s Workplace Equity Commission, established following the organisation’s own workforce survey, which found 25 per cent of firms had no inclusion plan and less than half had undertaken activity to attract people from marginalised communities. “The findings were concerning,” says Gill, who, in November, gave evidence as a business owner to the Joint Parliamentary Committee on human rights in the workplace.



She adds: “The aim is to help SMEs create fairer, more equitable workplaces. “We have issued a call for evidence to businesses, organisations and the Chambers of Commerce network, and the responses will enable us to understand what works, what doesn’t and how we support businesses to get started, overcome fears of doing the wrong thing and learn from businesses similar to their own about what can be done, regardless of resources. “The final report, with practical recommendations, is due to be issued in September this year, and will hopefully improve participation by businesses, influence policy and spotlight issues we need the Government to address. “I am hoping the work of the commission will highlight the tangible business benefits a diverse, engaged and inclusive workforce can provide. “I have experienced it. “Diversity adds new perspectives, experiences and opinions. “It moves businesses away from becoming echo chambers and allows them to make more robust and informed decisions. “At Square One, we have restructured to provide a greater voice to more people within the business on how it operates and is run. “Through outreach and reverse mentoring, we engage with communities and organisations with different experiences to our own to road test strategies. “We don’t expect our people to conform to any ‘norm’ – we embrace them as individuals and they are more engaged and have greater opportunity to reach their potential. “And with improved engagement comes improved performance and better productivity.” 38

While Square One – which also has an office in Leeds – is the perfect case study for a fully-engaged and committed equitable business, Gill is at pains to point out the journey to enhancing equity is ongoing and not always straightforward. She says: “Addressing these issues can be daunting, but it boils down to doing the right thing and being kind. “Tough decisions can be made in a kind way – working like this can be hugely beneficial to a business’ culture, help improve performance and, ultimately, profitability. “I’m passionate about this from a professional and personal point of view. “I’ve worked in an industry for almost 30 years that doesn’t have a great deal of diversity. “It’s mainly run by men of a certain age, who have been educated in a certain way, who do things in a certain style and who generally haven’t had to think much about diversity or change things in any way, because it has always served them well. “However, I believe what we are doing at Square One can have a positive ripple effect across the sector. “I got into business by putting on a front. “I was the first in my family to go to university. “I’m not from a privileged background, so I moderated my accent and didn’t talk about my background – I wasn’t skiing in France or holidaying in the places colleagues were. “I was a heavy metal fiend, and that certainly didn’t fit the legal persona, nor did the fact I wasn’t straight, but the prospect of coming out wasn’t a consideration. “Behaviour like that was the norm then, but it shouldn’t be now. “Businesses must create cultures where people can be authentic.

LinkedIn: Square One Law

“People should feel free – work is where we spend most of our time, so happiness is essential. “I don’t own a suit anymore, but anyone wanting to work in a tailored three-piece suit should – more power to them. “But being professional isn’t about what you wear, it’s about what you know, how you act and what level of service or experience you can deliver.” Culture change is often discussed, but direct action tends to be less evident. Gill says: “I hear stuff like, ‘we’d love to increase diversity, but we’re in the North East and it’s not a diverse talent pool’ – nonsense. “We have a hugely diverse demographic. “If you’re struggling to engage with marginalised communities, you’re not trying hard enough. “We proactively engage with the LGBTQ community, people of other faiths and diverse backgrounds. “It takes effort and perseverance, but it’s beyond worthwhile.



“It must also go beyond paying lipservice to initiatives like International Women’s Day, Pride or Black Lives Matter. “Real change takes more than the odd LinkedIn post – that won’t change a culture. “But by spending time and engaging with, listening to and promoting opportunity among communities, it will. “And the more businesses do it, the faster it will occur.” Having worked hard to evolve the culture within Square One, become a spokesperson for change within the legal sector and taken on a national role to enhance equity and diversity, does Gill have any concerns about being labelled one of the “tofu-eating wokerati”, to quote the UK’s former Home Secretary? “‘Woke’ is an emotive word – a word that’s been weaponised,” she says. “To me, it’s not negative; it simply means being alert to social justice and discrimination. “But to some, it’s the worst insult. “There are no negatives in engaging 40

Gill Hunter

with diverse groups or working harder to understand and support an inclusive approach. “If it makes people worried about potential backlash, then I think that’s a real shame. “However, I appreciate everyone needs a starting point and it can be daunting for businesses concerned about saying or doing the wrong thing, worried about their language – there’s no shame in not knowing how positive change begins. “That’s one of the reasons I got involved in the Workplace Equity Commission. “Positive outcomes can start with difficult conversations. “I urge businesses to engage with marginalised groups directly and ignore noise from those who have made no effort to listen to views from these communities before trying to influence others. “Quite often, the ‘issues’ people rail about aren’t hard to understand when approached with an open mind and a little bit of kindness.” So, what does Gill hope 2024 will bring? “This year will inevitably bring significant change,” she says. “We are likely to have a new Government or Cabinet and, working alongside business, I’d like to think we can grasp the opportunity for positive change and set a new benchmark for creating a fairer, more equitable economy.”


Business_ Advertising feature_Business Durham

NETPark: A catalyst for job creation and economic prosperity By any standard, 2023 was a landmark year for Sedgefield’s North East Technology Park (NETPark), which embarked on a £62 million expansion that represents a significant milestone in its development. Its growth, led by Durham County Council, is set to have a substantial impact, holding the potential to generate 1250 skilled jobs and contribute £625 million to the local economy over the next decade. @_BusinessDurham

NETPark -

For more information, call 01740 625250.

Pictured, below, steelwork is erected at NETPark as work continues on the site's third phase

NETPark is already a vibrant hub of innovation and collaboration in science and technology. Home to around 40 companies, from start-ups to established global players that cover a diverse range of expertise and work at the forefront of their respective industries, the park has played a pivotal role in driving economic growth and prosperity in the region. A significant milestone for the project was the arrival of the steelwork for NETPark's Phase Three expansion. The sheer scale of the steelwork arriving on-site signifies the ambition and progress of the project. The NETPark team has actively promoted its expansion plans and successes throughout the year, attending key industry conferences and events. This outreach has been instrumental in generating interest from businesses and investors, and it has helped raise awareness of NETPark's position as a leading science and technology park in the UK.

Another significant development in 2023 was the opening of the new marketing suite for NETPark's Phase Three expansion. The marketing suite provides a dedicated space for potential tenants, partners and visitors to learn more about the park and to experience its unique environment with a first-hand look at the new facilities. Pioneering companies at NETPark: A showcase of innovation NETPark is already home to several remarkable companies, each contributing to the park's reputation as a hub of innovation. Notable companies include: Kromek: A leading developer of high-performance radiation detection products based on cadmium zinc telluride, Kromek designs, develops and produces x-ray and gamma-ray imaging and radiation detection products for the medical, security screening and nuclear markets. Filtronic: A leading provider of microwave and radio frequency components and sub-systems, the company's products are used in a wide range of applications, from mobile phones to satellites. Andrew Turner Inventions: An exemplar in innovation, the company propels ideas from prototype to market, providing solutions that make a meaningful impact on industries and communities. The company has developed transformative inventions in partnership with the NHS, Northumbrian Water and other industry leaders.


Business_ Advertising feature_Business Durham

Redditch Medical: The company provides cleanroom contamination control products to the life science industry, with products sold globally from Australia and Japan to Costa Rica. Tekgem: A world leader in protecting critical national infrastructure from serious cyber threats in the niche field of cybersecurity, it helps safeguard the computer systems and technologies of clients, primarily those in the process industry. Wootzano: The start-up is working to advance nanotechnology in the robotics industry with robots capable of sensing and feeling as humans do, using a unique electronic skin. Looking to the future As the new year begins, the momentum at NETPark shows no sign of slowing down. The construction is set to continue and, with significant interest in the new units, watch this space for announcements of new tenants. The 20th anniversary of NETPark is also on the horizon, providing an opportunity to reflect on the success of its tenants and partners, and to celebrate the park's journey as a centre of technological advancement and innovation.

Pictured, top, Tekgem's team of apprentices Below, an artist's impression of NETPark's next phase

NETPark is a shining example of the innovation and entrepreneurial spirit thriving in the North East. The park is playing a vital role in creating jobs, attracting investment and developing new technologies that are making a difference in the world. As NETPark continues to grow and develop, it is set to become an even more prominent hub of economic activity and technological advancement in the years to come. With its commitment to innovation and collaboration, NETPark is poised to continue its remarkable journey of success, shaping the future of the North East and beyond. 43

Insurance_ Advertising feature_Todd & Cue

Leading the charge against cyberattacks Technology and the internet are vital to the daily running of almost every business, regardless of size or sector. But cyberattacks are an ever-looming threat to their existence, posing potentially devastating consequences. Here, Mark Armstrong, managing director of Chartered independent insurance broker Todd & Cue, explains why cyber liability insurance is vital, and why the company is partnering with IT specialists to prepare clients for computer-generated assaults. @ToddCue

Bought a coffee this morning? Sent an email? Sent data to the cloud? Like it or not, almost every interaction you have as an individual or business relies on technology and cyberspace. While the quantum leaps in computing and the internet in the last 30 years have transformed society, they have also opened up new areas of vulnerability for business owners and executives. For in darker spaces of the internet lurk cyber attackers, shadowy figures working to digitally infiltrate businesses systems, networks and programmes, with the aim of accessing or changing key information, disrupting normal operations and holding users to financial ransom. And at an estimated cost of £21 billion to the UK economy each year, cybersecurity is a hot topic. But, says Mark Armstrong, managing director of Team Valley-based Chartered independent insurance broker Todd & Cue, too many businesses are still leaving themselves exposed. Which is why it is vital, he believes, firms of all shapes and sizes create a two-pronged line of defence. He says: “Whether you’re communicating with customers, collating data digitally or making payments through an online platform – there isn’t a business trading that doesn’t have some sort of digital presence that is at risk. “Over the last two years, we’ve engaged with various specialists in the IT sector to discuss cybersecurity and cyber liability insurance to help us deliver a more beneficial service to customers. “We’ve had a real proactive push on our part to increase business awareness surrounding the risks of 44

Todd & Cue -

For more information about Todd & Cue, and how its support could help your business bolster its online security, call 0191 482 0050 or email info@

cyberattacks and advise on the covers available. “Historically, there was some reluctance among businesses to consider it an insurance-worthy issue – they often felt they had sufficient protection through their own IT systems – but we’re now seeing increased engagement, especially at executive level.” And there’s good reason for that engagement; highprofile cyberattacks on a number of UK businesses and Government bodies in recent months saw the loss of personal and financial data, as well as major disruption to operations. Reputations, as well as bank balances, have taken a hit. And the statistics are worrying. Some 46 per cent of UK businesses have been subjected to an attack in the last 12 months. Even more worrying, though, is that just 15 per cent of businesses have a formal cybersecurity continuity plan in place. Mark adds: “Attacks are commonplace, but there are still big differences in how businesses manage the risk and the level of continuity planning in place after an attack. “We are definitely seeing a proactive approach from IT service providers, who are working closely with their clients to actively protect against the threat of cyberattacks. “There is also a very evident increase in the number of businesses seeking to ascertain Cyber Essentials Plus certification. “What that means from an insurance perspective, and for us as brokers, is that we can demonstrate to insurance markets that our clients are taking cybersecurity seriously and have been proactive in their

Insurance_ Advertising feature_Todd & Cue

approach to managing the risk. “It’s a challenging time in the insurance market with regard to the placement of cyber liability insurance. “Pricing can be quite volatile, driven primarily by a significant increase in claims numbers.” Cybersecurity, and the need for cyber liability insurance, applies to every business, from sole traders to plcs. And as part of its push to educate and inform clients of the risks, Todd & Cue has collaborated with IT partners in offering workshops to customers, designed to run potential attack scenarios and advise on how best to protect against those. Mark adds: “Cyber liability insurance as a product is somewhat unique in terms of insurance – brokers work to identify risks relevant to a particular business and all

businesses require different types of cover. “But cyber liability is universal – there is no business trading that shouldn’t consider cyber as a risk to their operations. “We are continually reviewing the marketplace and covers available, as some markets are enhancing their offering more quickly than others, and we constantly seek to provide value-added service as part of any insurance product. “Our role is to best understand the processes and systems our clients have in place to protect their business. “Should an attack breach the defences, then through our broking of the insurance covers, those clients have the safety net of an insurance policy to provide proper recompense for any loss or disruption to operations.”

Mark Armstrong, Todd & Cue managing director




Making a house a home The saying goes that buying a property is one of life’s most stressful undertakings. Relief then for Homes by Esh, whose industry-respected property design and extensive customer support is known the region over for quickly making a house a home. Here, Steven Hugill speaks to managing director Phil Brown; deputy managing director Colin Willetts; technical director Dale Morris; and head of customer services Lynsey Kelly, to find out more.




Phil Brown

Homes by Esh managing director

Colin Willetts

Homes by Esh deputy managing director director

Dale Morris

Homes by Esh technical director

Lynsey Kelly

Homes by Esh head of customer services

“We have in-house architects, an engineer that designs roads and drainage systems, and a team expert in reading land reports and conducting foundation plans, which allows us to move very quickly. And when added to the wider capabilities of Esh Group, like civil engineers in Lumsden & Carroll, it makes for a very compelling offer” - Colin Willetts, Homes by Esh deputy managing director

Colin Willetts climbs a kite winder staircase, the soles of his black shoes leaving small imprints on its lightly-treaded beige carpet. At the last return, he springs to his right, into the master bedroom of a show home, stopping directly beneath the head jamb of its en-suite bathroom’s door frame. Beyond, pristine white fixtures gleam under downlights as ponderous dark clouds bounce from nearby mirror-fronted fitted wardrobes. Spontaneous it may be, but it nevertheless makes for a hugely symbolic scene, given how light and shade pervades every Homes by Esh property. In this case, the contrast begins with the room’s layout, specifically the location of the bathroom and its entry way, which was the subject of great conversation – and conversion – to help maximise storage space. As a solitary act, the measure marks an appreciable nod to life’s practicalities. But when allied to further considerations, such as the replacing of traditional white window frames with light grey casements to complement softly marbled exterior stonework, a deeper picture emerges – one of a company dedicated to helping turn every one of its houses into a home. “As a regional housebuilder, we’re competing against national operators a lot of the time,” says Colin, deputy managing director of Homes by Esh, which sits within the wider Bowburn-headquartered Esh Group.

He adds: “And we do that by selling in a more natural way, which includes a commitment to finding out what people want and need.” Dale Morris, the firm’s technical director, emphasises the blueprint further, using two developments delivered in joint ventures with Darlington Borough Council – West Park Garden Village and the 155-home Elder Brook Park estate, which lies within drop goal distance of the town’s rugby stadium by the A66 – as notable case studies. He says: “We’ve created different elevations, used different bricks, fitted contemporary coloured windows – black, light grey and light green – and used a mixture of tiles across the 14 house types at West Park. “And we’ve also created a mix of walls, hedges and iron railings, which maintain the garden village theme while highlighting our adaptability. “It’s the same with Elder Brook Park. “Fitting light grey windows to properties wasn’t part of our standard specification, but when we introduced a grey-tinged stone, we could see they would provide a far better contrast.” Such changes owe a great deal to Homes by Esh’s suppleness. Where some national housebuilders find progress checked by internal bureaucracy and London boardroom summits, the company’s streamlined structure of 26 directly-employed staff makes for far more expeditious operations. 47


“When it comes to specification, we are constantly conducting reviews on potential changes,” says Phil Brown, Homes by Esh’s managing director. “And we can make decisions very quickly; we talk things through in my office and, if everyone is in agreement, we push it out.”



Dale adds: “It can take as little as an hour to make a change to a specification; if something is right for us, and the customer, then, as of the next plot, plans are updated.” And decisions are not made in isolation, with buyer input a crucial additional factor. “My team meets with Dale and his team every week, and we talk about what homeowners are telling us,” says Lynsey Kelly, Homes by Esh’s head of customer services. Those conversations are having great

works together until it is resolved, and it was a key reason why we reshaped our care journey. “Everybody in the business has a part to play, and the training we have provided to our sales, customer care and technical teams has made a real difference to the buyer experience. “We focus hard on the pre-completion phase, with the aim of delivering defect-free homes. “Before we hand a buyer their keys,

effect, with latest figures showing 95 per cent of buyers across the last 12 months – more than ten per cent above industry average – would recommend a Homes by Esh property to their friend. Equally fundamental to the numbers is a refreshed customer charter. Spearheaded by company-wide training, it melds purpose with pragmatism to improve efficiency across the entire purchase and after-sales process. Lynsey says: “If a customer has an issue with their property, then the whole team

my team inspects every house ahead of a demonstration with the site team. “And if anything is identified during that process, the team then actions necessary changes, so when it comes to the homeowner, we are showcasing the finished product.” Those measures, though, are augmented by a second line of support that acknowledges the actualities – and anxieties – of the home moving process, with traditional face-to-face relations bolstered by technological ties.



We have a very strong safety-first culture – which is delivered through our Esh Safe (Everyone Safely Home) campaign – that cascades across the whole business. All of our sites are more than compliant, with our accident rates well below national averages - Phil Brown, Homes by Esh managing director Instagram: homesbyesh

Lynsey says: “Many housebuilders give a buyer two days to complete their snag list, but we extended ours to seven because many are still knee-deep in boxes at that point. “Customers also have access to our residents’ portal, so they can log defects – with videos and images – at any time. “Not all housebuilders provide that level of service.” Neither, says Phil, do many of Homes by Esh’s peers apply the same depth of attention to supply chain relations. Where post-completion works need to be carried out, they are done so by companies carrying North East postcodes, with existing relationships across its West Park Garden Village and Elder Brook Park schemes having already re-invested £38.2 million into the local economy. When split across developments, the figures stand at £23.6 million for West Park Garden Village and £14.6 million for Elder

Brook Park, with 90 per cent of the total scheme procurement cost re-invested locally from the former and 97 per cent from the latter. The headline number, though, is primed to rise further, thanks to a meet-the-team event at Darlington’s Blackwell Grange Hotel last year, which attracted more than 85 businesses, the first of which will begin working with Homes by Esh on its Hurworth Meadows development, the impending sister phase to Elder Brook Park. Phil says: “The philosophy of the whole group is to do things locally. “It makes sense economically, but it also makes sense to work with local people who know Homes by Esh and the area. “And we are very supportive of the companies we work with. “For some, it can be difficult to work with other firms, around areas like payment for services, but we are very strict on that.

“We ensure our contractors and suppliers are paid on time because we know the consequences it carries. “For some contractors, that money could be people’s wages for the month; it is vitally important.” And that focus, says Phil, will continue across 2024 and beyond, with Homes by Esh actively pursuing opportunities to further develop its portfolio. He adds: “Our work in Darlington showcases our ability to provide good quality, well designed, sustainable developments. “And we’re very much open for business to continue doing that across the North East and beyond.” Colin adds: “We’re always looking out for the next opportunity. “We’re passionate about what we do, and will always remain committed to doing the very best for homebuyers.” 49

Five minutes with…

Dr Phill Bell is co-founder and chief executive of ART Health Solutions, the Newcastle-based firm that uses data to optimise employee wellbeing and performance. Here, he tells Steven Hugill about the impact of its work, how he and business partner Dr Paul Smith are channelling past experiences with elite athletes to deliver unique support programmes, and the potential for further company growth following a recent office move.

Dr Phill Bell

4ART Health Solutions prides itself on ‘bringing science to workplace wellbeing’. What does that mean? Supporting employee wellbeing and creating healthy workplaces are rapidly becoming key areas of focus for business leaders. However, the delivery of effective, impactful support is often lacking. While Mindful Mondays, Walk to Work Wednesdays and Fruit Fridays are well intentioned, the likelihood of them providing a consistent return on investment (both commercially and to personal health) is low. We provide health and wellbeing services that are founded on a scientific evidence base, are data-driven and robust, and are effective in delivering improved employee health.

The One Wellbeing app is a flagship of the firm’s support suite. What does it do and how does it benefit users? One Wellbeing is a personal wellbeing coach in a person’s pocket. The app allows a user to focus on four pillars of health – movement, mindset, nutrition and recovery – and links seamlessly to a wearable device, collecting subjective reflections of mental wellbeing. This creates a holistic and rich data set, which is used to identify where personal health strengths and weaknesses exist. In real-time, the app then directs the 50 LinkedIn: ART Health Solutions

user to bespoke and engaging health challenges that

athletes including Tour de France victor Chris

gamify their journey to better wellbeing.

Froome and major championship-winning golfer

And as people progress their wellbeing, they

Rory McIlroy. How are you using those experiences

contribute to real-world sustainability efforts via the

to shape ART Health Solutions’ offer?

virtual growth of a sapling – and every time they grow

Our sport and exercise physiology background

a virtual tree, we plant a real tree on their behalf.

provided the genesis for our business.

The app delivers so much more than a tick in

Our fundamental expertise is the ability to

the box. Employees benefit from bespoke support,

accurately, robustly and effectively ‘measure’ the

which removes the feeling of generic and transient

human, deriving insight that drives performance.

initiatives, which are often costly and ineffective in isolation.

In our previous guise, this meant helping the likes of Chris, Rory and others become faster, stronger and more attuned to higher performance. We felt this data-driven, scientific approach to

The business recently expanded to AirView Park, on

improving performance could be equally applied to

the outskirts of Newcastle, to write a “new chapter”

health, but much more broadly across society, both

in its growth story. How will the office strengthen

inside and outside the workplace.

its offer?

Our experiences with such household names have

This is our third premises, having originated in the

allowed us to shape our business offer, through the

NatWest Accelerator Hub, by Newcastle Quayside,

understanding that every single person has unique

before moving to Gateshead’s PROTO.

needs, preferences and goals, and that a one-size-

Our moves have mirrored our growth, from starting with two founders, to now having a team of 21. The AirView Park office is ideal; it gives us the space we need while allowing us to display to the

fits-all approach doesn’t cut it. Our business really allows us to apply this philosophy in the real-world, and drives our vision of healthier, happier and higher performing people.

world what we are all about – creating workplaces that are health enablers and places where staff want to work.

Attitudes to workplace wellbeing have arguably never been in sharper focus. Has the emphasis now overtaken more traditional factors such as annual

The move was supported by significant backing

leave and pension support?

from the North East Venture Fund. Just how

Attitudes have changed for the better, particularly

valuable has its support been?

since the COVID-19 pandemic.

The North East Venture Fund and Mercia Asset

However, how this is translating into effective

Management have been incredibly supportive on

action still feels like a slow-burner, possibly due to the

two occasions now, with an original investment in

feeling of knowing employee health is of paramount

December 2021 backed up in March 2023.

importance, but not necessarily having the tools or

The capital has enabled us to accelerate our growth plans in several areas, including product

expertise to deliver support. With regards a change in emphasis over traditional

development, marketing, recruitment and our move

employee benefits, I’m not sure it has overtaken such

to AirView Park.

support, but it is certainly being talked about with equal importance (and rightly so). We truly believe in holistic support, where all

Both you and business co-founder Dr Paul Smith

areas are covered and treated equally, giving our

previously worked in sports science, supporting

workforces the best chance to thrive. 51

Powering towards further growth After a stellar few years of growth and a sharp eye on getting the basics right behind the scenes, family-founded Powertool World is now a three-time alumnus of independent law firm Ward Hadaway’s North East Fastest 50 list. Here, Andrew Pickersgill, the Newton Aycliffe-based firm’s new managing director explains, alongside a group of key colleagues, how the business is looking to continue its trajectory and why it’s the best kept secret in retail.

52 @WardHadaway @PowertoolWorld

Buying online has become a way of life for almost everyone. A couple of clicks today means a knock on the door tomorrow, purchase completed with little to no effort; a smooth and simple process that belies the extraordinary amount of work that goes on behind the scenes to make shoppers’ whims reality. And while most would consider online retail the domain of the domestic shopper, the professional skilled workforce now relies on online portals to buy the tools of their trade – searching for the best kit for the job as quickly as possible, without losing time to travel and in-store browsing. A key player in the shift is Newton Aycliffe-based Powertool World. One of the UK’s largest tool distributors, it was set up by Chris Guy in 1998 when he spotted a gap in the market. Already the successful owner of CG Fixings, which largely supplied fittings and fixings to sites, Chris realised trades workers were often frustrated by a lack of quick and direct access to vital power tools. So, Powertool World was born, in the process becoming one of the first dedicated e-commerce sites for top-end power tools in the UK, selling to professionals across every trade, from electricians and plumbers to landscapers and general handypeople. Initially operating alongside CG Fixings – with a separate website – it soon overtook its older sibling

thanks to surging demand. Now, 25 years on, the company is still owned by Chris and wife Suzanne, but has much of its day-today running handled by a wider team, including two new faces around the boardroom table. Managing director Andrew Pickersgill and finance and operations director David Quinn started within a day of each other towards the end of 2023, just in time for Black Friday and Cyber Monday, two of the busiest days in the online trading calendar. The company has seen some of its fastest growth in the last half decade, earning three appearances on independent law firm Ward Hadaway’s North East Fastest 50 list – in 2019, 2021 and 2022. From £7.5 million turnover in 2016, when the firm moved to its current premises, to £34 million revenue and an anticipated jump to £41 million by the end of 2023, the firm is flying. Speaking to North East Times Magazine just six weeks into his new role, Andrew asked a number of long-serving colleagues to join him to share their insight into Powertool World’s basis for success. He says: “The growth has primarily come from our ability to be better at e-commerce than a lot of people, particularly our rivals and other people doing similar things. “And as that's developed, the customer service part has become really important, particularly when things go wrong, which is common in a retail environment.”


“We want talented people to come here and help us build something that’s going to be even greater”

Pictured, from left to right, are Powertool World's Gillian Nelson, Mike Wile, Liam Clarey and Aiden Gibbon


Head of digital Kyle Mitchell, who is responsible for the strategic operation of the retail website, and Jelena Vukovic, the company’s graphic designer, who oversees the presentation and description of each product sold on the website, have each been with the company for more than seven years. Alongside Richard Ross, responsible for managing customer returns and warranties, they have helped deliver a strategy that focuses on getting the basics right behind the scenes, to drive repeat purchases and deliver growth. Next-day deliveries, spearheaded by Kyle, and managed through a ten-year partnership with DPD, have proved a vital component in making Powertool World stand out among the dizzying array of choice online. David, who joined to look after operational excellence, says: “Our customer base is probably 80 per cent tradespeople. “They are the same as anyone else, they come home at the end of the day and they may have broken something, or run out of something they need the next day. “Continuous workflow is vital on sites,

and our ability to get something to them the next day has really driven our sales forward.” While the company was already seeing its growth curve upwards by the time the COVID-19 lockdown hit, the pandemic and the accompanying surge in home improvements and house building led to an unprecedented rise in sales and turnover. With £8 million of stock available across three warehouses on Newton Aycliffe’s Millennium Way, and 40 staff working to fulfil orders, the company has its eye on continued growth. Reflecting on his own appointment, which means owners Chris and Suzanne handing over the reins for the first time, Andrew, says: “They’ve done exceptionally well and overseen tremendous growth over the last 25 years to get the company to where it is now, and I relish the challenge of continuing that success. “We’re honoured Chris and Suzanne have the confidence to allow David, myself and the wider team the autonomy to take the business to the next level. "It’s a real boost to be recognised on Ward Hadaway's Fastest 50 list for three years, appearing alongside many

Laying foundations for long-term success Powertool World has enjoyed fantastic growth thanks to the technical expertise and excellent customer service provided by its staff, writes Gillian Chinhengo.

well-known and successful regional businesses, which is testament to the foundations laid by Chris and Suzanne. “And, as a team, we’re committed to building on those. “One of the biggest things for me is increasing our brand profile. “Although the business sells £41 million of tools each year, I had to Google ‘Powertool World’ when I was first asked if I’d like to speak to them. “We achieve what we achieve now thanks to the great work by Kyle and the team on the digital strategy and working with search engines. “Our website is increasingly successful because of the work done in terms of the level of detail and tool specifications on each item we list, because the information available from manufacturers can be relatively low.” Andrew adds: “It’s a huge team effort to provide that great customer experience from start to finish. “But developing our employer brand is an area we need to look at – we need to keep doing what we’re good at but get better at telling people about it, and we’ll be looking at expanding our workforce to achieve that. “We want talented people to come here and help us build something that’s going to be even greater.”

Pictured, above, Michael Thompson, Powertool World warehouse supervisor

And, like all successful businesses, it isn’t resting on its laurels, with plans in place to expand yet further. A key driver in achieving those goals, as managing director Andrew Pickersgill alludes, will be its employer brand. As a topic, though, it is hugely important for every company. The employment landscape has changed exponentially, with worker trends and expectations constantly shifting. It means firms must be forward-thinking to attract and retain staff, going far beyond simply pushing up salaries. Workers today, particularly those at the younger end of the spectrum, want a lot more from their employers. They want to know about a firm’s corporate social responsibilities and what it is doing in the community. They want to know about its commitment to wellbeing and equity, diversity and inclusion. And they want opportunities to carry out volunteering days and have the flexibility of hybrid working. It is crucial, therefore, that businesses don’t just keep an eye on the market but adapt to the changes they are witnessing. By creating an environment that both attracts and retains talent, companies gain crucial competitive advantage, which provides deep foundations upon which to build lasting success. Gillian Chinhengo, pictured, left, is a partner in Ward Hadaway’s employment team. An experienced and trusted employment lawyer, Gillian is skilled at providing commerciallyfocused advice, working closely with clients to provide solutions tailored to their circumstances and needs. 55





With its North East heartland ransacked by headline Conservative offensives during a meek General Election capitulation, Labour has spent the last five years not just remedying battle wounds but finding a cure for its very existence. Its recovery has been slow but, the party’s leader Sir Keir Starmer tells Steven Hugill, it is now suitably rehabilitated to administer a fresh dose of national political change. Words: Steven Hugill Photography: Christopher Owens

Sir Keir Starmer 58



Leader of the Labour Party Sir Keir Starmer Feature 60

4As an Arsenal Football Club devotee, Sir Keir Starmer knows all about the value of a strong red wall. From George Graham’s defensive pragmatism to Arsene Wenger’s ‘Invincibles’ and Mikel Arteta’s present reboot, when the club founded by munitions workers succeeds, it does so with a heavily armoured backline. And it’s a fact not lost on the Labour leader. Torn asunder at the last General Election, its once impregnable North East barricade wrecked by historic Tory advances, Sir Keir has spent the last five years with metaphorical trowel in hand, rebuilding Labour’s scarlet shield brick by brick. But it’s been far from an easy task. Graham, Wenger and Arteta, for all they had tough assignments in reviving a team in decline, at least had a club in the top division. When he stepped into a dugout vacated by Jeremy Corbyn, though, the Arsenal season ticket holder was met with an outfit carrying all the qualities of a Sunday morning Dog and Duck XI. And for a good while, the party’s performances remained more Hackney Marshes than House of Commons. Politics, though, just like football, is a dramatically fluctuating landscape. And on a Parliamentary pitch where Conservative ministers continue to net appalling own goals while VAR-style inquiries further weaken public sentiment, Labour finds itself ready to challenge for honours again. “We have turned Labour around; we have changed the party and have a positive offer to put to the country,” Sir Keir tells North East Times Magazine. That proposition, he says, is spearheaded by a blueprint that will hand “Britain its future back” through a decade of national renewal as the country’s “party for business”. Launched as the trumpeters were clearing their throats to herald the King’s Speech, it leads with a pledge to “get the North East building again”, by creating “roads, warehouses, grid connections and laboratories quicker and cheaper”. It also promises to introduce a fresh industrial strategy – complete with new national wealth fund – and transform vocational learning with technical excellence colleges that will “end the years of missing skills”. But Sir Keir says it will go yet further, telling North East Times Magazine the party will commit

to measures focused on catalysing regional transport improvements, such as the mothballed County-Durham-to-Gateshead Leamside Line rail link, which was slated for revival in the Government’s recent £36 billion Network North programme, only to be scratched hours later. He says: “We have a well thought through plan, which will be felt in the living standards, jobs and skills we need for the North East. “It will also help fix infrastructure and transport, which isn’t working as well as it should be. “The Leamside Line, for example, is a sign of complete chaos, where the Government’s right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. “The Prime Minister tried to pull a fast one, and everyone in the North East called him out – and rightfully so.” In a nod to the devolution plans laid down by the present Conservative regime, Sir Keir says Labour, should it be victorious at the next election, would empower local leaders to fashion such change. “The proper way to do things is to sit down with the mayors and talk through plans,” says Sir Keir, whose party has chosen Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner Kim McGuinness as its candidate for May’s North East Mayoral Combined Authority election, which promises the victor significant skills, transport and housing cash. He adds: “And they must be workable plans; this cannot be done from Whitehall, it has to be done from the North East. “Decisions about the North East are best made by people with skin in the game, by those that know the workforce, the skills, the drive and the partners for a project far better than I do. “My job, and that of the wider party, is to create the conditions for that to happen.” One of those conditions, says Sir Keir, is skills development. According to Labour forecasts, £120 billion of economic output could be lost by 2030 if an existing fracture between education provision and business needs is allowed to deteriorate into a full-on break. Against such a stark backdrop, Sir Keir says the party’s plans for new technical excellence colleges – which he says could specialise in areas such as construction, clean energy and health and social care – would deliver “a new direction for skills”.


Leader of the Labour Party Sir Keir Starmer Feature 62

He says: “A future must be trained, as well as built. “Our technical excellence colleges would have a stronger link to local economies, form connections to local skills improvement plans and have universities and businesses around the table.” Additionally, he says Labour gaining the keys to Downing Street would open the door for watershed recalibration of a flagship national training machine. Pledging to reform the Apprenticeship Levy, whose limitations around training methods and course durations have long frustrated employers, he says: “Businesses should have more say over how they invest in their workforce. “At the moment, the Apprenticeship Levy isn’t flexible enough. “We would transform it into a new growth and skills levy, which would give companies more power over the training their money could buy,” adds Sir Keir, who spoke to North East Chamber of Commerce members at a Wynyard Hall event, and staff at Sunderland beverage maker Clearly Drinks, during a whistle-stop regional tour late last year. The revision would be joined by a 20 per cent VAT hit on private schools, which would, says the Labour leader, fund the addition of 6500 teachers to comprehensive classrooms nationwide, putting new spring in the strides of state establishments presently “limping along”. He says: “Early years attainment is just as good in the North East – if not better – as the rest of the country. “But then there is a drop off. “Something is going on that has nothing to do with children and more to do with the provision they are getting. “We don’t have enough maths or physics teachers, for example, and we have to fix that. “Too many young people are leaving education without basic skills – maths, digital, communication and teamwork – which every business needs. “We would deliver higher standards, with every child taught by expert teachers across a broader curriculum, to make sure they are ready for work and ready for life.” He adds: “But there isn’t a magic money tree, and ending the tax breaks on private schools would help us deliver opportunities for all, skills

for business and growth for the nation. “And this isn’t intended to punish parents sending children to public school; I want a system where, whether you go to private or state school, you are getting the same opportunities and qualities.” Similarly catalysing, says Sir Keir, would be Labour’s introduction of a “modern industrial strategy”. This, he says, would include a national wealth fund capable of reigniting investor interest by marrying necessary infrastructure spending with longer term planning to grow “Britain from the grassroots”. He says: “We need a new business model. “I talk to no end of investors, who say they don’t want to invest in the UK right now because it is too short-term and doesn’t have the stability they need. “We would provide that stability, working hand-in-glove with the private sector and investing in the potential of regions like the North East. “In a world where challenges like climate change, artificial intelligence and scientific advances like gene editing are constantly overturning the economic applecart, you need a Government that offers the hand of partnership. “Our wealth fund would work with business to invest in the crucial infrastructure the North East needs, like the gigafactories to protect electric battery manufacturing in Sunderland; the hydrogen and carbon capture technology that will provide an industrial future for Teesside; and ports’ abilities to handle larger parts, to enable the east coast to lead the world in offshore wind.” And with such longevity would come an end to the senior minister merry-go-round and associated “sticking plaster politics” Sir Keir says have infected UK growth over recent years. He says: “We’ve had three Prime Ministers in three years, and had four Chancellors. “Every time we knock on the door of a department, there is a different person sitting behind the desk, which is so bad for our country. “Yes, it is a five-year term, but some things are going to take longer than that to fix – if we try to make a quick fix, we won’t get where we need to be.” He adds: “Too many people walk around a problem in politics without fixing it. “But I’m a person who wants to fix things.”


Recruitment_ Advertising feature_Jackson Hogg

A blueprint for growth Specialist recruitment and outsourced talent services partner Jackson Hogg is known the North East over for helping clients across the science, technology, engineering and manufacturing sectors find their next generation of workers. And with such solid foundations in place, it has now opened an office in Leeds to further bolster its industry presence. With NPIF-FW Capital Debt Finance backing, it aims to expand across Germany and the US, and take its 110-plus team to around 500 over the next five years. Here, Colin Young meets recruitment director Fern Couchman and director Matthew Robertson, to discuss the company’s plans in detail. @JacksonHoggRec

Jackson Hogg -

To find out more about how your business could benefit from Jackson Hogg’s suite of specialist recruitment and outsourced talent services support, visit www. jacksonhogg. com, email info@ or call 0191 580 0495.


There’s no place like home. And not all companies who are successful and comfortable in their surroundings are prepared to venture into new horizons. For those that do, though, the rewards can be great. Take specialist recruitment and outsourced talent services partner Jackson Hogg. A trusted ally to businesses across the region for more than a decade, with its support helping countless firms in the science, technology, engineering and manufacturing sectors secure highly-skilled staff, the company is on a growth journey. Alongside its Newcastle headquarters, it recently moved to a larger base in Billingham, near Stockton, and has also opened offices in central Leeds. And with backing from NPIF-FW Capital Debt Finance – secured with support from WilliamsAli Corporate Finance and FW Capital through the

Northern Powerhouse Investment Fund – it has its sights on international expansion. Aiming to extend its expertise into Germany and the US, it also hopes to grow its 110-plus team to around 500 over the next five years while redefining standards across recruitment, HR, Talent Partnerships and training services. But for all the change, says recruitment director Fern Couchman, it will remain true to its roots. She says: “The most established part of the company is the Newcastle office, in Cobalt Business Exchange; we’ve got an incredibly strong brand in Newcastle. “But we still have a remit and market share we’re not fully tapped into, and have an opportunity to grow from a recruitment headcount. “We're securing more Talent Partnership conversations, which will facilitate more growth in the Newcastle office, and we’ve literally just moved to the other side of a business park in Teesside. “Now based in a self-contained building, it’s a fullyfledged home for us and gives us the space to grow into an office for at least 40 heads. “We've got some really passionate Teesside recruiters and specialists, who have fantastic relationships they’ve built with organisations we've been working with for a long time. “It feels like the final piece of the puzzle for the North East. “There's so much investment in the Teesside area.” Fern adds: “We've put a lot of legwork into becoming a known entity in Teesside, and it feels like this year will be the year where we become the go-to for the STEM

Recruitment_ Advertising feature_Jackson Hogg

industries, in particular. “And in Newcastle, in 12 months, we aim to be a fully-fledged regional recruitment set-up, where the growth from that point should be outside of the region. “We've already started to secure some wider conversations with clients spread across the UK, and we've secured some exciting conversations in Scotland too.” As it expands internationally, many of Jackson Hogg’s resources and benefits will be replicated; the introduction of JH Industrial, which connects blue collar manufacturers with the temporary labour market; an executive search function, which has been piloted in Newcastle; and its Talent Partnerships – a model recruitment process outsourcing (RPO) programme. Director Matthew Robertson says: “As Jackson Hogg grows, we need more Talent Partnerships to support our growth, and we’re looking to do that and secure more across the UK, Europe and overseas in the US. “As a partner to business, we take away the headache. “A company might outsource recruitment because

they've got a big, centralised team, and they say, ‘can you manage all this for us?’ “We are talent and recruitment experts, so we do all that, facilitate other agencies as well, deliver faster and save a company money.” At the heart of the move to Leeds, Matthew has spent much of his recent time in the firm’s Park Square offices, based in the centre of the city. He says: “We’re looking to grow a team that is built on international search, and build a regional presence like we have in Newcastle, so we are recognised in the Yorkshire markets. “We're looking to heavily grow our blue collar business; that's a big focal point nationally that will attract new staff, new systems and new capabilities to help people. “And we've brought in some excellent people that have started to open doors there, hiring experts in international search across the STEM sectors.” Matthew adds: “The people are very similar, so the strengths are there and there's a talent capability too. “The North East is a small pool; Leeds and Yorkshire are ten times the size of the North East, so there are more recruiters, more clients and more industry. “It’s all new to us. It's all growth.”

Pictured, above and left, Jackson Hogg director Matthew Robertson and recruitment director Fern Couchman, in the firm's Cobalt Business Exchange headquarters


Law_ Advertising feature_Muckle LLP

Charity experts spotlight trending topics in latest podcast series Leading law firm for business Muckle LLP has launched a new podcast series to highlight the latest trends across the voluntary sector. @MuckleLLP

Muckle LLP -

For legal support for charities, contact Samantha Pritchard, partner in Muckle LLP’s charities team, at samantha. or call 0191 211 7905.


Leading law firm for business Muckle LLP is lining up charity experts to feature in its new podcast series Charity Matters, which is dedicated to exploring the most talked about topics within the charity sector. The podcast series, hosted by Muckle LLP’s specialist lawyers, delves into crucial subjects and trending topics, covering everything from financial challenges to cryptocurrency donations and sustainability. In each episode, Muckle’s legal experts will discuss important matters with guests who have first-hand experience of topics under discussion. The first episode features Samantha Pritchard, partner in Muckle LLP’s charities team; senior associate Alison Jones; and Charlotte Campbell, director of fundraising and operations at the Children’s Heart Unit Fund (Chuf). Chuf supports children and babies throughout

the North who are diagnosed with heart conditions, and was among the first UK charities to accept cryptocurrency donations. In the episode, Charlotte talks about the charity’s involvement with cryptocurrency, detailing the process of accepting crypto donations and the accompanying risks. She also highlights the advantages of cultivating a diversified income stream and its role in the charity’s growth and current success. Charlotte says: “A huge thanks to both Samantha and Alison for inviting me on the podcast to discuss Chuf’s experience with cryptocurrency donations. “We’ve been accepting cryptocurrency donations for more than six years now, and it’s becoming a growing focus area for charities across the UK. “Despite being a small charity, we pride ourselves on our forward-thinking approach and resilience in the crypto world. “Hopefully, this discussion will be beneficial for other charities considering crypto donations and different fundraising avenues.” Samantha adds: “Our discussion with Charlotte was incredibly enlightening and provided useful insights into what charities need to think about if they are considering accepting crypto donations, as well as how to form wider fundraising strategies to raise vital funds for their cause. “The primary goal of our new Charity Matters podcast is to hear first-hand from guests who have direct experience of topical issues, and to add legal and governance insight to the topics under discussion. “Podcasting is a great way for us to engage with our audience and share our expertise more widely.” Chuf works closely with The Giving Block, an

Law_ Advertising feature_Muckle LLP

Pictured, from left to right, are Alison Jones, senior associate at Muckle LLP; Samantha Pritchard, partner in Muckle LLP’s charities team; and Charlotte Campbell, director of fundraising and operations at the Children’s Heart Unit Fund

Picture: Mike Smith Photography

online, not-for-profit US-based platform that enables the charity to convert cryptocurrency donations into traditional currency. Charlotte says: “We’re fundraising experts, not cryptocurrency experts, and The Giving Block makes it easy for charities to fundraise in this way. “A donation is made in cryptocurrency, we receive it in cryptocurrency and instantly turn it into money, so we aren’t making any decisions about when to buy and sell. “We spent a lot of time researching as to whether this was the right thing for us. “We had to make sure our financial governance was in place and relevant to cryptocurrency, and documentation, such as our donations policy, had to be updated. “But it became clear cryptocurrency could revolutionise the way we fundraise, despite the risks and restrictions.

“It was always in our plan to diversify our income, this just sped up the process and helped us bridge the gap between the conventional fundraising we continue to do and other methods, of which cryptocurrency is one.” Charlotte says she’s seen the number of enquiries from other charities wanting to learn more increase over the last few years, as publicity around cryptocurrency donations has increased. She adds: “I would encourage anyone thinking about this approach to do their research and decide whether this is the right space for you. “This is a strategic direction for your charity to take, so you need to make sure you have internal buy-in.” Episodes of the Charity Matters podcast will be released every other month. The first episode is now available to listen to by scanning the QR code, right. 67

Event_ Advertising feature_ Perspective (North East)

National scale with a local feel Scores of clients attended an event hosted by Perspective (North East) at Hexham Mart, which marked the company’s merger with AYP Financial Planning and laid out its future plans. @perspectivefgl

Perspective Financial Group -

Operating from more than 40 bases across the UK, including sites in Newcastle, Darlington, Hexham and Harrogate, North Yorkshire, Perspective’s local offices provide financial planning advice on matters including retirement, later life and long-term care planning, inheritance tax, investments, protection and corporate planning. If you would like to speak to a member of the Perspective team, call 0191 217 3340, 01325 289400, 01434 607808 and 01423 810210.


Perspective (North East) was delighted to welcome more than 80 clients to an event at Hexham Mart in late November. The evening introduced its growing team in Hexham, following the merger of AYP Financial Planning in September 2023. Kim Alexandra, AYP founder and now office principal of the Hexham office, introduced the evening, thanking her clients for their loyalty across nearly two decades. Ian Wilkinson, managing director of Perspective’s Northern operations – who is also chief executive of the national business and Hexhamshire born and bred – said: “While Perspective has the scale of a national group, we retain the feel of a local firm. “The combination of AYP and Perspective promises to bring something different to Hexham, with access to national-level specialisms and expertise on the doorstep.” Also during the event, Marta Alberti, deputy director of excavations at the Vindolanda Trust, gave a fascinating talk about how their excavations have uncovered insights into money and attitudes to wealth, particularly for women in Roman times.

Event_ Advertising feature_ Perspective (North East)

Pictured, left, from left to right, are Stephanie Ryder, Sarah Chandler, Kim Alexandra, Alex Mason, Helen Pluskal and Suzanne Gould






Sola Idowu

Hexis Lab

Biotech company Hexis Lab has secured nearly £500,000 to “revolutionise” the cosmetic, personal care and pharmaceutical sectors’ green credentials across the globe. With the backing, from Innovate UK, the Newcastle Helix-based firm is developing and scaling manufacturing processes to replace traditional synthetic and animalderived product ingredients with environmentally-friendlier alternatives. And with a number of exciting collaborations in advanced stages, including work alongside Teesside University and BiBerChem, Hexis Lab is ready to help meet ever-growing consumer demand in an international market expected to be worth more than $600 billion by 2025. As he gets ready to launch new products in India, founder Sola Idowu takes Colin Young on his own incredible journey from Lagos to the labs of the North East.

Words by Colin Young Photography by Mike Sreenan


Sola Idowu

LinkedIn: Hexis Lab Limited

4Sola Idowu walks into West Barn Co’s offices. His beaming smile is rewarded with hugs, high-fives and handshakes. He casually reaches into his rucksack, pulls out two small plastic containers, and places them on the table. His actions receive a small round of applause and one little shriek of delight. Layla & Kays is a new brand, and what is in the white and purple bottles is also very new, very fresh, innovative and game-changing. It is shampoo and conditioner straight from Hexis Lab’s Newcastle headquarters that is heading to mass production in India. After nearly a decade of research, experimentation and studying the data science, and thanks to nearly £500,000 from Innovate UK, Sola is ready to see what the influencers and celebrities make of the green cosmetic, personal care and hair products specifically catering for black, Indian and South East Asian women who, as he knows only too well, have been neglected for far too long. “I wasn’t sure whether to bring them,” he tells me later. Judging by the delight around the table, which quickly spreads around the building, Sola made the right decision. He makes many of them. He’s a genius. From their Durham base, Kim and Kirsty Cattin and the West Barn Co team have been sending their own ethical cosmetics and make-up across the globe for a good while. 72

Sola, just back from the UK Department of Business and Trade-led sales conference in Dubai, is happy to leave them to the social media world they inhabit. “This is a very exciting time for me,” he admits. “It will be so interesting to see where we can all go from here.” Sola has studied in the universities of Lagos, Cambridge and Newcastle, is a postdoctoral fellow at Stamford and counts a fascinating stint working for NASA, in California, on his CV too. He has always been most at home in the lab. He came to Newcastle to study 26 years ago and, by his own admission, has only just reached the stage where he is ready to venture out of his comfort zone and into the commercial world. “I came to Newcastle University and never really left,” he says. After gaining a first-class mathematics degree in his home town of Lagos, in Nigeria, Sola was working in accounts for Shell when he met Stewart Brown, a Newcastle University graduate. He says: “The only thing I knew about Newcastle as a child, was they had a football team,” says the man who is now friends with former Newcastle United striker Shola Ameobi and his family. (Their Christian Yoruba names are pronounced the same). He adds: “In primary school, we had football betting newspapers, which were used to serve fried fish in, and one of the

teams I remember was Newcastle United. “After my degree, I started working for Shell during the Ogoni crisis; Stewart was the kindest boss ever and he talked a lot about Newcastle. “I mean, a lot. It must have planted a seed. “In those days, black people, local workers, were a minority at Shell Nigeria’s SNEPCo venture. “It was full of ex-pats, and I was one of the few black people who could work with them; Stewart was just so different. “He was interested in me, in my development and my career. “He did not see the colour of my skin, or where I was from, and that was an unusual attitude, even in my own country. “And it wasn’t just me, it was all the Nigerian workers. “It made a real impression on me.

“There were big differences between local staff and expatriate staff. “I worked in cost accounting in deep sea exploration, and that was a major motivation to get out of the country and get the same degrees as the ex-pats. “I could see no reason why I shouldn’t get the same opportunities and the same – or better – wages.” After doing exceptionally well in his undergraduate degree, Sola undertook a scholarship at Cambridge, in the department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, headed by Professor Stephen Hawking. He says: “I cannot describe it. “It was a crazy time and pure hard work, but I got through it. “One day, I was walking down the corridor and I saw an advertisement for a PhD in Newcastle in theoretical physics; it 73


was very, very complex stuff, and right up my street. “I came up for the interview, got the job and that was it.” Sola had found his home – Newcastle and its labs. He would also meet his future wife Elizabeth – the couple now have four teenage children – and, after a sojourn into space research in the States, he returned to the city to embark on a project which is set to revolutionise hair care for more than 70 per cent of the female population. It is all a world away from his first few weeks in the North East. He says: “It was so cold and dark. It was painful. “I went to my GP and said, ‘is something

Sola Idowu

Hexis Lab

wrong with me? I can’t wake up in the morning.’ “She was very kind, and said there was nothing wrong with me. “But in Africa, you see the sun from six o'clock every morning until late, every day, up and down, and I was like, ’where is the sun?’ “I’m used to the cold. You know what to do – wear more clothes. But it was just so dark. “My body was just not dealing with the lack of function. It took a while. I couldn’t do anything and that’s when I discovered coffee…” he laughs. Sola adds: “Nigeria is not a coffee culture – we drink tea. It is too hot to drink coffee. “Now, I never stop drinking it.”

Once the coffee and the routine kicked in, Sola got to work. He says: “I finished my PhD three years on the dot. I enjoyed it too much. I had to stop myself. My final year was really amazing and I enjoyed every bit of it. “The challenge, the exams; I like curiosity. “I like finding new things, and this was all about discovery and coming up with new ideas, really complex stuff. “We had so much fun, and everybody did really well.” He met Elizabeth, who was studying law at Northumbria University, when the pair both volunteered in a coffee bar for international students. After they were married in Newcastle (by Shola Ameobi’s dad), Sola was one of 30 academics from across the world invited to apply for a scholarship at Stanford University in 2000. But the experience was to be very different for Sola and Elizabeth, who is now a business lecturer at Teesside University. While he thrived in world-leading research and was offered a role at NASA, where he studied “the behaviour of gas and dust in gaseous nebulas; how stars and planets are formed at the early stages 74

of creation”, Elizabeth was not allowed to work under the visa rules, and could not wait to return to the UK. He says: “It was a great opportunity to stretch the mind and meet and work with some of the gods in the field. “I was working with some of the brightest people I've ever met in my life; some phenomenal geniuses. "I enjoyed it, but Elizabeth struggled and it was very difficult for her. “There was a lot going on, but coming back wasn't a disappointment because we could get a mortgage, live a normal life and plan for a family. “It made a lot of sense to come back to reality. "When we came back, we didn't have jobs. “We chose Newcastle simply because we knew the city and had friends here. “I got a job in computer science at

Newcastle University and Elizabeth returned to the charity she had left, working at Aquila Way. “That was when the genome was sequenced, so there was a lot of data. “Suddenly, biology had a data science problem.” In 2005, Sola was appointed head of the discovery team when the university spin-out e-therapeutics was formed. He says: “It was just playing around with data. “Making hypothesis, making predictions; we got lucky so many times. “That was when I got the transition to go all the way to biology into what I'm doing today. “What you realise is the organisation and structure of that data in isolation is not really massively different from any other data you see in any other context. “You just have to understand the

language in a biological system to make predictions and analysis. “That's where it started. I led the discovery team for about eight years, and when they got the big money, they decided to go to Oxford. “But I said, ‘I’m not going anywhere’.” After selling his shares and “moonlighting for two years”, Sola founded Hexis Lab in 2013. He describes “a project meeting in Scotland with a wealthy backer”, which led to the formation of the company and the successful delivery of a “particularly personal project”, which has ensured continued investment and the ability to do what he does best. He says: “One of the mistakes we learnt from the previous company was everything was done on computers. “It was still a mystery to a lot of people that machines cannot predict everything. 75


“Actually, you have so much data that no matter how clever you are, you cannot work out all the solutions in your mind, you have to use data modelling or data science. “The validation, which later evolved through collaboration and partnerships, and with academic partners, was quite crucial. “I wasn't happy to start a company just doing predictions, we needed validation and I didn't want an office where people sit at computers all day modelling away. “You’ve got to smell and feel the experiment and what is going on in the lab. “That’s why I'm in the lab every day. “I want to understand what assumptions they're making, what they're doing, how they're doing it. “Because from that, I'm learning how to improve the systems and assemble them. “We have access to some brilliant students, and they know they come here to work. “We are constantly bombarding each other with information. “A lot of the time, I have to keep stopping myself from doing new things all the time, because I haven't finished the other stuff. “And I've gotten distracted with all the new ideas, which is not very good for business. “One of the disciplines I’ve had to learn over the years is to stop the curiosity, otherwise we just stop. “Elizabeth and the kids have to remind me of that.” It was eldest daughter Grace, 19, who proved the inspiration behind Hexis Lab’s serious expansion into the hair care market, and women in India and Africa who, Sola says, have been ignored and neglected by the same big companies who are now watching developments and studying papers from the Newcastle labs with interest. An accomplished swimmer, who has represented England and is currently studying and training in the US, Grace has been in the pool on an almost daily basis since she was eight. Sola can’t forget the early wake-ups, the journeys to every baths in Newcastle, and the pounds wasted on finding the best hair products for his daughter. He says: “One of our key unique

distinctions that we've done, which we're really passionate about, is to make sure we have a way of testing ingredients and formulations in different skin and hair types. “Because, until now, the majority of products that are developed globally have been tested on Caucasian skin and European hair, which has a lot of different issues. “My daughter started talking about it as she got older, because having good hair means something, and we were buying all these products. We tried everything. “My wife has blonde straight hair, and I have tight curly black hair, so Grace’s hair is a mixture. “It’s recommended black women shouldn’t wash their hair every day to protect it, but because she is swimming every day, she has a high need and we had to find a solution. “We created something, which was the best product she had ever used, and she said, ‘are you going to do this?’ “That was a moment of germination. “And now we are on the journey. “I’m excited; I’ve spent all my life in science, and now it is not just about me and interesting ideas, it is about everybody else.” Sola adds: “We need to communicate that and expose them to this opportunity, and the funding really is about creating next generation skincare and haircare ingredients in the laboratory, creating new technology. “You can do a lot of simulation and prediction in the lab. “You don't need animal testing. “The industry is phasing it out, but when it comes to clinical testing we are already there, and we know we will get the right answer because we know what the answer is going to look like because we created the modelling. “It has been ignored. “It is one area people have overlooked as needed or necessary, but there is a shift in the industry and we need to make it fairer and clear for everyone. “There are times in life when you can make a real difference to the world and create something new and brilliant, which will help people. “We are at that point and ready to see where that journey takes us.”


James Griffiths Feature 78

Closing this month’s issue of North East Times Magazine, James Griffiths, managing director at Middlesbrough-based Industrial and Marine Hydraulics, reflects on the firm’s recent 40th anniversary, highlights the importance of staff development and reveals how the business’ global profile leaves it primed for further growth. 4The business celebrated its 40th anniversary last summer, having been founded as a home-based endeavour. How did its journey begin, and what does it mean to have reached the milestone? The journey began with my father Paul Griffiths. Having started his engineering career as an apprentice, working with a number of companies and key industry players, he wanted the flexibility to work for himself. Initially, there was no real intention to build what we are today. But, through his technical ability to deliver a great job, and desire to always do right by people, he built up a strong customer base. He was then approached to do a nine-month project, which would take him away from delivering to his regular customers. Never one to say no, he employed someone to complete the project, so he could continue with his regular work. At the end of the project, he didn’t want to see the person he’d employed out of a job, so he found more work for them. And as he won more work, he took on more employees. The company was formed from the desire to service the customer and be a responsible employer – and that hasn’t wavered. We want to be an employer of choice and are proud to be recognised internationally for our quality and technical knowledge. The milestone is a great reflection of how much we’ve grown as a company and, over recent years, how we have worked hard to modernise the company. We never stand still and we’re always looking to improve. The firm places great emphasis on staff development, highlighted chiefly by an apprenticeship programme LinkedIn: Industrial and Marine Hydraulics

and training centre. Just how beneficial has the creation of a regular talent stream been to its progress? Extremely beneficial – we wouldn’t be where we are if we didn’t have it. There are very few formal qualifications in hydraulic engineering, so we rely on being able to pass on that knowledge. And our ability to grow and maintain relationships means that the people we work with and train, even if they move company, enable us to grow our customer base. The strong company culture we have is embodied in each of us, and we’re really proud that the staff feel like a family. The company is known globally, with its order book including work to fit parts on Pioneering Spirit, the world’s largest construction vessel. What do such contracts say about its prowess, as well as the manufacturing heritage of Teesside, and how will they hold the business in good stead over future decades? The contracts we’ve won show the complex technical ability of the team, and we hold each project in high esteem. We’re often able to solve challenges others can’t, which fills us with great pride and demonstrates the quality of our work. We’re based in Teesside, but we work on these global projects because people have confidence in our reputation and quality. We all believe in a core set of values, which include delivering to the highest standard, that we achieve through our gained experience and being hard working and trustworthy people. These values are part of the heritage of Teesside, and so our team naturally fits very well with our company values, which gives us a good base from which to grow.

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