Bit of a chat
The musings of BQ's backroom boy, Frank Tock
The mystery of the missing stats
When national bodies package up regions for their own PR or research purposes, it is not unheard of for the North East to be lumped in with its hilly cousin Cumbria, or, on occasion, Scotland.
Banks and housing market groups are also particularly guilty of blandly referring to ‘the North’ as they spoonfeed us the latest gloomy stats drawn up by their marketing people.
But manufacturing, it seems, sees an entirely different national picture. This week the latest Manufacturing Advisory Service (MAS) Barometer revealed that 43% of companies questioned have seen an increase in their order books over the past six months.
This was +4% on the previous survey, with 62% expecting sales turnover to grow between now and June 2013.
“Our Barometer is the only one dedicated to collecting the results, views and opinions of English manufacturing SMEs,” MAS said.
In Yorkshire and the Humber, meanwhile, two thirds of manufacturing SMEs are expecting sales turnover to grow between now and June, according to MAS.
And, BQ asked MAS, what about in the North East?
But, like a frozen burger firm pondering the authenticity of its ground sirloin, ‘we don’t know’, was their response in not so many words.
You see, while Yorkshire is afforded its own status as a kingdon unto itself, the North East is bundled together with the West Midlands and the North West.
This, we are told, is because MAS is delivered through four partners including WMMC, which covers the West Midlands, North West and North East. The South West has its own partner to itself, while Grant Thornton covers the South East and London.
I’m sure MAS does some excellent work here in the North East, but surely such an influential body, which works closely with government, should have at its disposal a true up-to-date picture of how our factories in this region are faring in these tough times?
We’re all familiar with the “smoker’s mafia” in the office, and the sense of well connectedness and confidence it brings to those of your staff who still can’t get through the day without a tobacco fix. But how do you engender the same sort of feelings among those of us who would rather keep our lungs pink? Larry Gould, chief executive of Leeds-based translation company The Big Word, thinks he has found the answer. He is offering his non-smoking colleagues a similar seven to eight minute break by a sweet and fruit counter instead. What’s more those who wish to take up the service don’t have to suffer the same sort of pain to their wallets that ardent smokers do. They can have what the want for free, although they are asked to consider making a donation to the company’s chosen charity, Martin House Hospice. It all sounds perfect. I just wonder which will go first – the fruit or the sweets? If I know anything about office staff, I can only guess. One person who might well benefit from this is the local dentist.
Rarer than space travel
He may have long since gone south to the Big Smoke, but Yorkshireman Dan Howie knows who to come to when he’s seeking sponsorship money – those good old business people in God’s own county. Dan, currently working for chartered surveying firm Edgerley Simpson Howe in London, is hoping to race across the Atlantic in December 2013 with his friend Will North. Yes, the pair will not be the first to do it. James Cracknell and Ben Fogle (who, contrary to popular myth, were also not the first) have already lent Dan and Will their ‘Spirit of EDF’ boat for promotional use. But it is still the case that more people have travelled in space than rowed across the pond. Dan and Will, who have been inspired by the courage of their fathers, both of whom have been diagnosed with cancer, and by the sudden death of one of their friends last year in the middle of another challenge, are hoping to raise £200,000 for cancer charities and small charity St Anna’s, which houses and schools underprivileged children in Ghana. www.atlanticrow2013.com.
Time for a spin
When a Yorkshireman like, say, John Swain, sales and marketing consultant with Brighouse-based Siddall & Hilton Products, says something, he means it. So when he says he will cross the Atlantic to carry out an important duty, one that has been required for the past 64 years, then he’ll damn well do it, and he won’t let something like a mere hurricane stand in his way. Even if the duty in question is nothing more than winding a clock. So it was that our very own John made it to the headquarters of Wire Association International in Guilford, Connecticut, to wind up the said clock, even if Hurricane Sandy was raging all around the US east coast. The clock in question is an elegant eight foot specimen which was given to the company by a group of 32 British wire companies in 1948 in recognition of the help given by the American wire industry to its British counterparts in World War Two. Every autumn since then a British wire industry professional has crossed the Atlantic to wind the clock up, so it can keep running for another 400 days. [Not to remind our American cousins to be on time for the next war, surely? Ed]. Three of these august individuals, have, like John, worked for Sidall & Hilton. However it was a particularly poignant journey for John, because on his return he retired from the wire products company. As they say in clockmaking, they don’t make them like they used to.
Ajazzing it up
One long-standing myth that has been doing the rounds for a good decade or so was well and truly demolished this issue. Remember that saying that one third of all the internet traffic in the UK is routed through Leeds? Turns out it’s rubbish. Ajaz Ahmed, founder of Freeserve, says he made up the statistic back in the 1990s when he was trying to promote his Leeds-based ISP. “It’s amazing how many people have spouted it back to me since then,” he told an audience at Marshall’s Mill in Leeds in November. “Including probably me,” his fellow panellist Leeds City council chief executive Tom Riordan quipped. In fact, if you look at the announcement about AQL’s data centre in the commercial property pages of this issue, you will see that such a claim is anything but true. For the past few years, internet traffic in Leeds has been held up by – shock horror! – having to go through London. But it turns out that even back then, Ahmed was right about something. One day he went along to see Terry Duddy, who was then running PC World, to see if he would be interested in backing his Freeserve venture. By all accounts, Duddy said he couldn’t see the point of this internet thing. Fast forward to this year, and Duddy is now chief executive of Home Retail Group, which owns Argos. The store chain has just hired a group of consultants that has told them – guess what? – that they need to be online more. You can forgive Ahmed a wry smile for this.
Big is creepily beautiful
I’ve just driven without pre-tuition a 25 ton, six-wheel articulated Volvo dumper. That may not turn you on. For me, it’s a schoolboy ambition achieved. Amok, so to speak, 55 metres down in Marsden Quarry at Whitburn, I had misgivings at one point trundling up a 60º incline of loose aggregate that it could be the end of a beautiful dream. But no, we reached the top without mishap, I reassured that Richard Rutherford sat behind, poised to pounce on controls if things did go wrong.
Richard, from Hexham, has been instructing in heavy construction and demolition vehicles for 13 years. He never turns a hair when one visiting novice after another climbs into the cab to test their skill on days when Owen Pugh Group opens its quarry and facilities to key stakeholders.
He’s equally sanguine when trainees of the group, for which he also works, clamber aboard. Group chairman John Dickson, present chairman also of the Civil Engineering Contractors’ Association (North East), is stressing the sector’s need to infuse an ageing workforce with young entrants, ready for an eventual recovery in infrastructure work.
“Only by engaging young people early can our industry attract talent and enthusiasm and build a skilled workforce of the future,” he tells me. Indeed, his group recently linked with the Institution of Civil Engineers and Northern Counties Builders’ Federation to raise young people’s awareness. Their Discovery Day for 14 and 15-year-olds made headway. Pat Gibson, who teaches at St Hild’s Church of England School, Hartlepool (specialising in engineering) said afterwards: “Getting out of the classroom and into a working environment with a chance to speak to industry professionals sparked their enthusiasm and creativity.”
And George Hodgson, who teaches at the Joseph Swan Academy in Gateshead, said: “Pupils have said to me they didn’t realise such a wide range of jobs was available to them.” I’d say some mums and dads, too, ought to give this much modernised industry some thought for any of their offspring seeking job guidance. John Dickson’s colleague at CECA (NE), regional director Douglas Kell, stresses at every public opportunity all that the industry can offer thinkers and doers alike. It’s a helpful industry too, I learned from Liam Corbett. Liam, 20, studied at a Teesside training centre after leaving Manor College of Technology in home town Hartlepool. But the centre couldn’t find him a sponsor or an employer. C&A Pumps at Bowburn learned of his disappointment and gave him work experience. Now Liam has been named the North East’s Most Promising Apprentice in civil engineering and construction by CECA (NE).
Alan Roberts at C&A Pumps tells me: “We soon decided we should employ him. We estimate that in ability and maturity he’s 12 to 18 months ahead of other apprentices for the same time scale.”
Having worked hard for it, Newbiggin and Stockton deserve to be “Portas pilots”, getting state funding and expert advice from retail guru Mary Portas to help regenerate their high streets. Their own suggestions put them among 12 successful bids out of 371 places competing. It’s less than a £100,000 average each gets – enough, though, to encourage.
Newbiggin deserves to be aloft; didn’t John Braine get the aptly named idea for his novel Room at the Top there? Seriously, though, it’s in an area of Northumberland that has been really badly hit by recession and its aftermath, and was low waged even before. A favourite seaside resort among Victorians, its fortunes plunged in 1967 with the closure of its coalmine, and 36% of its shop premises have been vacant recently. But also recently its beach has received TLC and its transformed maritime centre is a little gem of a visitors’ attraction.
Champions of the recovering resort, like Crystal Hinds the maritime manager and Norma Thompson, who chairs Newbiggin Traders’ Association, now want improved transport to make it easier for shoppers to visit the high street from outlying areas. Stockton had been highlighted nationally as one of the worst places in the country for empty shops. But the local council already has a £20m revival plan under way for its famous high street and surrounds over the next five years.
I just hope neither Portas pilot suffers the fate of Morpeth – shopping improved beyond recognition only to have its town centre torn apart by prolonged, trade-damaging roadworks. Incidentally, why did the Government need a marketing consultant like Mary Queen of Shops to rescue our high streets? Couldn’t those on the front line, local chambers of trade, give the answers? Or wouldn’t they have been listened to? Is the Government too proud to draw on local expertise? Or is it because chambers are often associated with carping rather than creating? Either way, other towns with troubled high streets unlucky enough not to feature in a second batch of 15 pilots to be announced shortly should watch and learn.
Timing is everything when it comes to promoting your business, just ask Ernst & Young. On Saturday The Telegraph reported on court claims that senior figures at the accountant alledgedly "covered up allegations" that the firm bribed a judge to obtain a favourable result in a tax trial. Two days later the company issues a press release on its latest study into - you guessed it - bribery. As much as three quarters of middle managers in Yorkshire, for example, have never heard of the UK Bribery Act the report lamented. The results indicate a lack of preparation by many organisations, it warned. It will be interesting to see what the results of the firms current legal wrangle indicate.
Diversification in the XXXtreme
For many an entrepreneur, the ability to find a new use for an old product is what keeps them well-heeled and king or queen of their own growing empire. Fair play, then, to the science business which issued a press statement this week to champion its eureeka moment - the relaunch of its technological anti-incontinence device as a sex toy. Talk about penetrating new markets.
If George Best was known as The Fifth Beatle, it wouldn´t have been unfair to
refer to now retired Black Sheep head brewer Paul Ambler as The Seventh
Python. He delighted in all of a brewer´s eccentricities (they´re a rare breed), coupled with an acute sense of humour marinated in an encyclopaedic knowledge of Monty Python´s Flying Circus. For example, to mark the 30th anniversary of television´s most anarchic comedy series in 1999, he developed Monty Python´s Holy Grale, which he claimed had been “Tempered Over Burning Witches”. At the time he said: “It has a very, very pronounced hop flavour and citrus character, with more hops than a killer rabbit.” He also claimed Python Terry Jones, who owned the Penrhos Court Brewery in Herefordshire, was the driving force behind
the anniversary beer. “At first, we didn´t have a name for it, so I just called it
Mr Creosote´s Ale. You know, he had one too many wafer-thin mints...”
A trifling sum
There are some companies out there for whom the loss of £230,000 would
probably be a death knell. But Leeds marketing agency Brass is not one of them. In March Kay Fearnley, the company’s former accounts clerk, was convicted of stealing that amount of money from the firm over the course of the nine years she worked there to fund her gambling habit. But almost immediately the company issued a statement saying such a loss “does not affect our financial position, and nor will it affect us adversely in the future.” There is obviously more money in marketing than a lot of people – including some marketing agencies themselves – like to make out.