BQ Newsletter
Chris Thompson

Engineering a brighter future

Thursday 1 January 2009 7:00

A financial world in paralysis is no reason for an entrepreneur to stand still, as Chris Thompson shows through continued investments and contributions to the regional economy.

So what’s a buzz-a-minute serial entrepreneur to turn his mind to when the economy is in seizure? The future, as usual. Chris Thompson is one of the North East’s most prolific company creators, responsible for 40 and more start-ups during the past decade.

They range from training and consultancy to highvolume automotive manufacturing.  Many, he has sold on, too; part of his ethos.

Some entrepreneurs launch one enterprise after another wholly for personal profit and satisfaction, but Chris also gets pleasure creating career openings for others and knowing that his own development and success enables many around him to achieve their goals.

He gives time and talent unstintingly, in addition to working within the public-private sector for the good of the region he cares so much about.

The words ‘Chris Thompson, engineering’ roll naturally off the tongue in this region, and have done for two decades and more, even before 1993 when he was named North East Business Executive of the Year.

He is now pressing ahead with an investment of £3.5m over two years in his Express Engineering company.

This will create 40 more jobs while many other businesses hesitate as they wait to see how the financial wind blows.

Chris says: “Express Group has withstood the recent pressures in manufacturing because it has majored in growth sectors - defence, oil and gas – and these appear to be holding up.” He could have added, but did not, that acumen and foresight have also played a part.

Instead, he says: “We are cautiously optimistic and shall continue to invest and increase capacity. Even so, we are monitoring the situation monthly. Our plan is incremental and can be altered.

That £3.5m investment represents a big commitment on our part.” The Express Group of manufacturing companies, he points out, represents a brand.

It comprises his investments, but not all the component firms are necessarily under his complete ownership.

He holds controlling interest, however, in a number of the specialists of process engineering, contract manufacturing, and rapid tooling activity.

With the group turning over some £35m, and around 40% of its work for clients in 30 countries abroad, there are hopes the national economy will be fitter for manufacturing purpose by the end of 2009 and early 2010.

Meanwhile, Chris Thompson also invests in some unexpected areas turned up by his twin passions of fishing and sailing.

He has acquired a stake in the premium fly fishing rod manufacturer, Thomas and Thomas, of Massachusetts, and in the Caribbean, where he sails, he is building an eight-bedroom boutique hotel in the Grenadines at Bequia (pronounced Beckway, meaning ‘island in the clouds’).

Back home, like many investors disillusioned at present with stocks, shares and property, he has turned to fine art.

Alongside some business partners, he is evaluating investments in contemporary art in the region, specifically a six-figure sum in Matt Forster, who is pioneering his Uberpainting technique from The Art Works Galleries in Newcastle.

Matt explains his watercolour Uberpainting technique as: “A portrayal of stunning ideas involving the reflection of both real and super landscapes, reducing subjects to essence, and characterised by distinctive forms and an original palette.” Chris Thompson says simply: “I like his work.

He is not only a talented artist, butentrepreneurial, having sold about £1m worth of his work already,” he adds.

He is also working to transform the appearance of some of the remaining stretches of industrial dereliction on the Tyne’s riverbanks.

In partnership, he has designed a site for 1,000 houses where Smith’s Dock once stood in North Shields, and this has been sold to Places for People, which is one of the UK’s largest property management and development groups.

Chris and associates have also been working with South Tyneside Council on a plan for the council to sell on or develop itself.

He is involved principally in redeveloping 13 acres of the former Middle Docks at South Shields.

This is part of a central regeneration to set up a new mixed development near the Customs House arts venue, close to where BT and South Tyneside Council are creating an advanced support facility for local authorities that could mean 1,500 new jobs.

These activities enable Chris to stimulate job opportunities and fill existing vacancies.

He is trying to get people back into work and he encourages others to do likewise through his activity in other capacities, such as his deputy chairmanship of the regional development agency One North East and his chairmanship of North Star Equity Investors, a venture capital firm specialising in early-stage high-growth opportunities.

NorthStar handles £22m of funding through a Co-Investors Fund and £10m through a Proof of Concept Fund.

The former assists high-growth technology opportunities in the North East, and will lead or participate in syndicates.

The latter invests in pre-start, earlystage or more mature science and technologybased firms.

Both funds were due to end in 2008, but Chris says: “We have secured funding for 2009 so are able to continue.

An experienced team, largely brought in from London and the South East, decides in which companies to invest.

They look for business quality rather than quantity and are helping particularly where pioneering technologies are locating gaps in the market.

“North Star equity supports where there is no conventional route to funding, and we have so far been able to help more than 100 companies through the Proof of Concept Fund.

We have also invested nearly £60m with co-investors in 35 of the region’s technology SMEs.

One of the firms now has a public share listing.” Many entrepreneurs are in permanent standoff with the public sector and government.

Chris’s closer involvement, however, gives private enterprise power through interface, a current example being his New Year meeting with Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Chancellor Alistair Darling and Secretary of State for Business Peter Mandelson.

As vice-chairman of One North East, he was deputising on the occasion for the chairman, Margaret Fay, at a regional economic council gathering.

He expects 2009 to be ‘both interesting and challenging’ for the agency.

With its investment target of £250m a year to create 22,000 more businesses and get 70,000 more people into work by 2016, his cautious assessment is understandable.

“Until the crunch came we were making great progress,” he says.

“As a region, we have been improving in comparison with other parts of the country, and the region’s percentage improvement in gross domestic product has shown it.” He also chairs the North East Employer Coalition, which again involves an interface with non-commercial parties such as the Department for Work and Pensions, local authorities and the Learning and Skills Council to get people back into work.

He has been a prime mover nationally in this objective, not least through his paper on the subject, prepared jointly while he was David Goldman visiting professor of innovation at Newcastle University’s business school.

His paper highlighted the plight of families with up to three generations out of work in an economy considered prosperous, and indicated how existing systems were failing such people.

“The landscape has changed in three years,” he says, however. “We do now have people tackling the problems.

Over the next couple of years there will be new government policies, similar to those proposed in the Leitch Report.” The Report said the UK must spend significantly more on boosting skills at every level, and that employers should have much greater say in what should be funded.

This, Chris says, gave credibility to the proposals. “Now, with more responsibility passing to local authorities through government changes, and with the eventual demise of the LSC and growth of the green economy and other economic drivers, we are going to see a lot of change.” He is scouring renewables for his own business interests beyond manufacturing, hotel building and patronage of the arts.

He has invested in a training company, Trade Training Associates, which specialises in heating and ventilation in renewable energies.

He has set up trade training with Fenhams, the Gosforth family firm of heating and ventilation contractors, running integrated training and qualification programmes to City & Guilds standards for work in solar panels and photovoltaics.

“The solar panels can generate electricity, but you need integrated training of craftsmen with specialist plumbing, electrical and installation skills, and training until now has been disjointed,” he says.

He is also into online marketing and waste recycling, through the Newcastle firm Media Works and a medical waste company in Nottingham that recycles clinical refuse from hospitals into plastic products.