AN INTERVIEW WITH DAVID COTTAM – Growing up with Cottam Bros Ltd
I grew up with the company being part of my life. My father, George, was the Managing Director and during the 50sand early 60’s my grandfather, Thomas Ernest, (known to all the staff as Mr Ernest) was still active in the business. My grandfather had started losing his hearing during the First World War and by this time was totally deaf. As you can imagine trying to run a business when you’ve got no hearing at all is a big ask for anyone, and it was largely because of this that my father, George, got involved in the business. Ernest remained a director right up until his death in 1981 but ceased to play any active part in the business from around 1962.
From 1959, and for a few years after that, we would have a week’s holiday in the Lake District staying on a farm. We would spend at least an hour every day parked outside a telephone box with my father locked inside, talking to various members of staff, issuing instructions, or sorting out problems. There wasn’t a lot of management backup!
It was also at this time that my father decided that the building was quite unsuitable, and so, in 1960, the old factory came down and a new factory was built over a 2-year period. In its time it had been a farm and later a kipper factory before my grandfather took it on in 1926 and started making brushes. It was a ramshackle building and totally inefficient for any form of modern production. When this rebuild started I was a child, but I remember it well, the bulldozers coming in and pulling the old place down. As the old place came down, the new factory was steadily getting built. And during that time, there was never a time when production ceased. Nobody was ever laid off. Production continued – I wouldn’t say as normal, of course, but manufacturing continued all the way through that period of rebuilding. It was my father’s proud boast that we never closed.
In around 1963 the council cleared the houses to the east side of the factory and my father purchased the land in order to allow for future expansion of the business. Six years later he used that area to expand the production area and to provide a new finished goods warehouse. This was completed in 1970. The factory now covered around 20,000 sq. ft.
My father had never planned on coming into the business. He had started working as an engineer at Vickers Armstrong and at the same time studying at Durham University. In fact, he was awarded his Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering by that University at the age of 19. It was the war years, so things were very intense. He was then called up and because of his engineering ability was interviewed and subsequently chosen to join the Corps of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) and sent to Sandhurst for officer training, passing out in November 1946 at the age of 20, as a 2nd Lieutenant. He was immediately sent overseas to Singapore and soon after arriving was promoted to Captain. After leaving the army, he returned to Vickers Armstrong. It was at that time that my grandfather was finding it more and more difficult to run the business. My father was subject to some intense pressure to help. He felt he had to come into the business even though he didn’t particularly want to.
Starting work at Cottam
Jumping ahead to the 1970s, I never planned, and was never pushed, to come into the business. I was qualified and working as a Chartered Accountant in South Shields. Amongst our clients were some very interesting companies such as J. Barbour & Sons Ltd, as in the famous Barbour jackets. I enjoyed that time, working with people like that. Even though I was working for a small firm of accountants, we had some fabulous clients.
By 1976, Cottam Bros Ltd (as it was known then) was relying on outside help for any financial information. My father was mainly an engineer, and he was pretty good on the financial side, but he felt that the firm would benefit from some extra help. So, it was then that I joined the company, but just on a part time basis. I remained as a full-time accountant working in South Shields but would now work evenings and weekends looking after the finance side of the business.
Sam’l Woodcock and Sons Ltd
In 1978, my father heard that a long established (1752, if you believe the notepaper) brush manufacturing company in Sheffield – Sam’l Woodcock & Sons Ltd – was up for sale as the owner wanted to retire. We both thought that this could be an opportunity to further expand the business and allow me to enter the company on a full-time basis. I contacted them, got all the financial information I needed, thought the company seemed sound, so subsequently went down there and negotiated with the owners. It was an excellent meeting and within a couple of hours we’d agreed a price and shaken hands. Not so with our respective lawyers! It took another four months for them to draw up and agree the terms, which was somewhat frustrating. We did the deal in the June and, thanks to our respective dilatory lawyers, it wasn’t until the October that we owned the company. I was still living in Sunderland, not far from the factory, married with a very young child (Ben). The plan was for me to run the company in Sheffield and align it with the Sunderland business but also keep it as a separate trading entity as it did have a very different customer base.
I rented a one-bedroom unfurnished flat about 2 miles from the Sheffield city centre business, which meant leaving my home in Sunderland very early on a Monday morning, to be at Sheffield by around 9am, then hopefully coming back to Sunderland on a Friday night. For the first month or two in that flat I slept in a sleeping bag on the floor because I didn’t have any furniture.
It was especially grim at first, as I didn’t even have any carpets. One of my first jobs was to buy some cheap carpets which I fitted myself and then some basic furniture so that I had at least a bed & table & chairs. Getting to grips with a new business meant that I was so busy I would often stay over for the weekend. Sometimes Margaret and Ben would join me as Margaret wasn’t working at the time, having taken maternity leave from her job as a teacher.
From my initial visit I had realised that the factory was like something out of Charles Dickens’ time, and it just wasn’t viable to update. My plan was always to close the manufacturing area and rely on the Sunderland business to supply our needs. Most of the product they sold was produced elsewhere so I already knew the actual factory was not a critical part of the business. I gradually swapped production to Sunderland, and after 12 months closed the factory but retained the warehouse and office functions.
Woodcocks didn’t just supply brushware, but was also a supplier of catering equipment. For this side of the business its main customers were councils, and all that work was achieved by tender. Every time a council required catering equipment we were invited to tender. Anything from wooden spoons to apple peeling machines and goodness knows what in between. It was a constant filling in of tenders, frequently covering hundreds of items, and the frustrating part was you might only be awarded 4 or 5 items out of all those products. However, we had one exceptional customer and that was the Central Electricity Generating Board which covered every power station in the country. They all bought their brushes (brooms & paint brushes) from Sam’l Woodcock. That was easily our biggest customer. Every three years that tender came up and somehow we managed to keep hold of it, although there was a lot of competition. The margins were very, very tight. At that time there were coal-fired power stations all around the country, all massive like little townships. They took a vast amount of brushware. It was a brilliant contract albeit with tight margins.
In 1979 there was several major industrial strikes and things got very tough. We had the steel strike first, then the miners’ strike. We’d already been through strikes in the early seventies, just before I came into the business. For instance, in ’73, industrial action had led to the government imposing a three-day week, which was where you were only allowed to have electricity for three days a week. I wasn’t in the business at the time, my father was still running it. But, because we were doing a lot of Ministry of Defence work, we managed to get an exemption and we were one of the very few factories that were able to work without interruption.
If you were to ask Margaret’s opinion about that time, she would tell you it was very tough. I was working in Sheffield, and she was bringing up a young child in Sunderland. During that time, she also gave birth to a second child, Charlotte. And I’m haring between Sheffield and Sunderland all the time. And you had major strikes going on which gave both the Sunderland & Sheffield businesses severe logistical and financial problems. Councils stopped ordering to save money and many of our larger industrial customers couldn’t operate properly or accept deliveries because of picket action from striking workers. Inflation was running at 13.4% which meant controlling costs was nigh on impossible There was a lot of pressure – it was a very intense time.
So intense, in fact, that in 1979 both businesses went into substantial loss. We made the decision that, in order to save the Sunderland business, we needed to close Sheffield and move all the work from Yorkshire to Sunderland. In August 1980 we permanently closed the Sheffield business. In one mad weekend I hired a three-tonne wagon and with the existing company van I and our Sunderland Production Manager – David Irving – drove multiple times between the 2 businesses. It was the bank holiday weekend and over those 3 days we hardly stopped. We’d start at about 4:00am each morning and then just drive back and forth until we emptied the warehouses and the factory of all the stock & equipment and brought it up to Sunderland. Moving the Sheffield business cut our overheads substantially and saved the group. We had two years of trading losses, but then moved back into profit the following year.
At that time, in Sunderland, we had a board of three working directors – my father, myself, and a man called George Taylor who unfortunately was giving us a lot of problems. He was a brilliant organiser and a good engineer, but a not so good man manager and we regularly had staff walking out because of his attitude. We had tried to improve his management style by mentoring him with other external experienced managers but to no avail. A very difficult choice had to be made and we knew we would have to part. He had significant service with the company, and we felt that the least painful way for him & us was to make him redundant with a generous payoff. Sadly, he didn’t see it that way, and it was one of the most unpleasant days of my life. I ended up having to escort him off the premises. I’ll tell you the exact time, it was 10:00 on the 1st of October 1980. Bad memories like that stick in the mind.
George Cottam partly retires
In late 1980, rather to my surprise, I took over as MD from my father. My father continued in the business, but he became more part time. He said to me, as I said to Ben years later, ‘you’re now in charge. I’m just going to help.” He had a brilliant engineering brain and help he did. For the next 16 years he effectively mentored me whenever I was quoting for technical work. The maths I could do, but sometimes the details on a complex engineering drawing required his specialist help. He also advised whenever asked, but always left the final decision to me. He worked part time, often leading on specific projects, until May 1996 when a very serious heart attack forced him away from the business. He did return some 6 months later but restricted himself to acting as our credit controller which had the benefit of keeping him in contact with customers he had known for years. This he did for a further 10 years. He stayed on as a non- executive director until his death at the age of 93 in 2020.
We had an excellent member of staff in the business, – David Irving. He was our production manager (and had helped me move Woodcocks up from Sheffield), and I made him a director. The two of us then ran the business covering all management and frequently the non-management tasks as well. David ran everything to do with the factory and I ran the office, sales and purchasing. We didn’t have middle management or anything close to that. I freely admit that we were both very poor at delegation. For example, as well as no middle management, for a long time we two were the only first aiders, and only forklift truck drivers. We also opened and closed the factory & offices each day.
In the late 1990’s we had up to 60 members of staff but every time a wagon came in that needed unloading by forklift it would always be one of us that would be called upon because we were the only two who could drive the forklift. Our first forklift had a one tonne limit, and when ordering I would stipulate maximum one tonne pallets but of course they would regularly come in way heavier than that. I’d have people hanging on the back of the forklift to stop it tipping over as I was lifting it up. Slightly scary, and this was on a road – the timber yard was on one side of the road and the factory was on the other side of the road. We were lifting off, there’d be cars driving past, and there’d be three people hanging on the back of this forklift, trying to keep it from tipping over. Eventually we bought a bigger forklift – that was a good move.
In the early 1990’s our neighbour (& customer) Innerglass, moved to alternate premises and put their warehouse & offices up for sale. This was the nearest building to our premises and although not exactly adjoining, it would mean that if we were to take it on, it would free up our existing warehouse and offices and we would be able to expand the production areas. The factory was in Easington Street and these premises were in Wilson Street North. We raised the money, bought the property and moved our offices & finished goods. The old sales and accounts office became a staff canteen (a facility we had never had before) and the previous finished goods warehouse became a production area.
In 1996 I tended for a Russian pipeline contract – Transneft – the state-controlled pipeline transport company headquartered in Moscow. When I saw the quantities, I was totally shocked – the initial quote was in excess of £2 million. It didn’t just scare me – it took a lot of persuasion for our material suppliers to quote once they saw the quantities involved. My quote was accepted and frankly I wasn’t at all confident that we could meet their requirements, so any elation was rather muted. Shortly after accepting my quote, they realised that their total costs of the whole project were over budget, and they needed to find savings. Consequently, we redesigned the brush units using fewer but larger clusters which worked just as well but brought the price down. The final order when it was finally agreed was still in excess of 1.7 million. This, at a time when we had just achieved a record 2.0 million turnover for the entire year. Now we were going to take on an additional 1.7 million with a 12-month delivery schedule.
It was exciting but also very scary. If we got it wrong, it might finish the company. Planning started immediately and it just so happened some premises across the road from the factory had become available. We made an offer which was accepted, and we set about turning the building into a dedicated workshop area kitted out with an array of new equipment all of which stretched our bank resources substantially. Had the contract been cancelled at this point it would have left us with severe financial problems. We hurriedly employed an extra 20 staff and trained them and then worked seven days a week. Even so, it was about a year and a half to deliver that contract, although that was mainly because they increased some of the quantities.
We worked long hours of overtime nearly every night. That year turnover increased from 2 million to 4.4 million. We’ve never since hit anything like those numbers. Of course, once the contract was finished, I had to pay all those staff off, which was not a great thing but there was no other way.
Oil and Gas Industry
We started working in the oil and gas industry around about 1979. We helped (in a small way) in developing the intelligent pig work. At the time it was with British Gas – they were the forerunner of PII. They were given a brief and a massive budget and told that they had to sort out how to inspect pipelines. They knocked on our door because their business didn’t exist at that point so we can’t claim it was our marketing efforts! They had the idea that magnetic flux carried by wire brushes could be the best way to inspect oil & gas pipelines. The first brushes we made for them were just made in the normal punched way and that didn’t work. But we kept going at it and found soldered wire in a metal cup was a product that worked – in fact, it was the only product we came up with that worked. We didn’t have the facility at that time to make those brushes. We were quite open with them, and we did tell them that we could supply but that it wouldn’t be us that did the actual manufacturing. Fortunately, they valued our involvement and were happy with this arrangement, although we didn’t go so far as to tell them who it was that was doing the actual manufacturing!
We went to a company in London called Gem Brush, who, with us, developed the brushes and then made them for the first few years. At that time, we were only asked to supply the individual brush clusters and British Gas were employing someone else to glue them into rings or plates.
Gem would send the clusters to us, usually by train. It was always last minute and there was many a time I would dash across to Newcastle station with David Irving. We’d drive into the goods yard, and load everything out of the train onto the back of the van. David would then climb into the back and whilst I was driving, he would be trying to remove all details from the packaging as to the origins of the brush clusters. By the time I got to Cramlington, David had been thrown about in the back so much he would come out totally green.
Gem of London were taken over by a big group that decided to close them down and move production to Wales to the new owner’s factory. We got maybe two or three deliveries, I think, from the Wales factory and always way, way overdue. And we thought it’s time we did something about it – it’s time we started manufacturing them ourselves.
Amazingly, just as we had come to this conclusion, somebody turned up at the factory who knew how to solder, and what equipment was required for this. Unlikely as it sounds, he turned up at our door and declared that he knew how to make soldered clusters and would show us how if we employed him. He had worked for a local engineering company who had seen what we were supplying to British Gas and had set up a department headed by him to try to take the business from us. As our deliveries had sometimes been late, British Gas had placed some orders with this company, so he really did know the product. He had, however, fallen out with his employer, and I believe was looking to get some revenge by joining us. We quickly realised his motives were not the best but nevertheless employed him on the spot! And then we set about buying the equipment which at the time were old-fashioned gas burners just like the sort of thing you would put a kettle on. And blowtorches! And it worked. He stayed long enough to give us the confidence to manufacture then decided it wasn’t for him and left.
We managed to locate somebody who would make us the caps. At the time there were about three wire manufacturers in the country that could supply tinned wire. They’ve all gone now apart from one, and that company has changed hands a few times. And as time went on, we started to turn to induction heating where we really could regulate the temperature. When the big contract for Russia was awarded, we had a good idea as to what equipment we would need.
I think we’d brought in the first induction heater not that long before, so we bought several more. To degrease the components before manufacture and then coat the finished units with a protective oil, we used buckets and rubber gloves. Even for the big Russian contract, we used buckets for the first few months before we could buy automated tanks.
We had rubber gloves, buckets, blowtorches & open gas rings – that was how it started. But that’s how things develop, really – that’s how you work things out. A few years before the Russian contract, we had gone on to supplying the full finished units – the plates and the rings. Initially, we used to just make the clusters, then we would send them up to Cramlington and they would subcontract to somebody else to glue them into the plates. And then they said, look, if you want to continue this, we need you to do the whole job. And that’s how we got into making pipeline inspection and cleaning units.
If you go back to my grandfather’s day, it was mainly brooms and brushes that we were making. Wood backs, all made in our wood machining department, filled with natural materials either vegetable or animal hair. It was really when my father came into the business that we started manufacturing technical brushware so that would be from about 1949. That’s when we started quoting the Ministry of Defence and what was then known as the Royal Ordnance Factories (now British Aerospace). We manufactured various brushes for artillery cleaning from rifles through to tanks and large guns, and that’s how the technical side of the business started. We also manufactured specialist telecom duct brushes for British Telecom – although in those days it was the GPO (General Post Office). The cylindrical brushes that you now see haven’t changed much in design since those days although the method of manufacture has.
In the 1990’s I contacted RS Components who up until then hadn’t really offered brushes. I noticed they were supplying an engineering parts cleaning bath which came with a particularly unsuitable (albeit very cheap) pair of brushes. Talking to their buyer he totally agreed with me and asked me to design something better. This started a conversation regarding offering not just that but a range of brushware from artist to paint and sweeping. Over many weeks a range was agreed, and a relationship formed which seems to have worked for both of us. So, in this case, it was our ability to make an engineering product that led us to expand that offer into more standard brushware.
One of our biggest areas of business was the North Sea oil fields. This was general supply to the oil fields via traditional ships chandlers going back to when oil & gas were first discovered in the North Sea. We employed an agent in Aberdeen in the early 1970’s who went round all the ships chandlers and ships merchants. We copied brushes that were used in the American oilfields – for instance, the dope brush was a straight copy of a brush that was being extensively used in the U.S.A. oil industry. We started making that and a few others and selling into that market. Aberdeen, for a long time, became one of our biggest areas of business. But of course, that has declined considerably since those days.
Ben joins Cottam Brush
Ben had always shown an interest and always loved hearing about the business. When he left university, it just seemed natural that he would join the company. I always swore that I would do exactly as my father had done, and that I would hand over to him soon as he was ready. He took over about 18 years ago though has since relinquished his role as MD of Cottam Brush to Alan Crook in order to lead our now group of companies.
When Ben joined the company David Irving mentored him and I think that was a great introduction. Much better than if I had done it!
When David announced his date for retirement, we set about getting a replacement which I knew would be difficult. However, we were incredibly lucky in finding Alan Crook. David also mentored him for a short while which made for an orderly hand over. Alan has since proven his worth and is now our very first non-family Managing Director.
One of the many things that Ben and Alan are good at is delegation. And I was very bad at that. We never had middle management until very late in my day, and that was a mistake.
I said earlier, there were two forklift drivers and two first aiders. The same two people that could open the building and lock up the building. So, when one was on holiday, if the other had not turned up, the factory would not have opened.
One morning I was coming to work for about 7:20 to get the place opened – my colleague David was away on holiday – when a car shot out of a junction and almost collided with me. That was when I started to think that perhaps we should have cover for the unexpected. One time David and I were siting having a rare coffee break – we’d been working incredibly long hours and my wife, Margaret called in and gave us a dressing down about the way we were running the business. We both looked at each other and said, she’s right. And I used the example of when he’d been on holiday, that if that person had crashed into me, the factory wouldn’t have opened. From that day onwards we made the decision to develop people who could be trusted to take on responsibility. And Ben has been very good at that.
He’s brought people on and given them responsibility and I think that’s been brilliant for the company. It’s been brilliant for the people involved as well. But that was one thing that I freely admit I was very poor at. Every decision came through one of the two of us, even minor things like problems with customers or whether to charge somebody carriage. It was ridiculous really! Ben’s certainly not like that – but you learn.
When I first came into the business, there were literally dozens of other brush makers, mostly family businesses, dotted all around the country. And there were two business organisations devoted to our trade. These were the British Brush Manufacturers Research Association (BBMRA) and the British Brush Manufacturers Association (BBMA). The BBMRA had full time staff based permanently at Leeds University. They had a laboratory at the University and at one time three staff, although by the time I came into the business it had only one full time research scientist who could call on other University staff when required.
The BBMA had offices in central London and, when I first knew it, three full time staff – a secretary (who ran the organisation) and two assistants. Cottam Bros (now Cottam Brush) had always been a member of both associations and my father George, and I had both recognised the value in that. Every time you went to a meeting you were sitting around the table with twenty brush makers and every one of them was either a customer or a supplier – there was an awful lot of inter-trading. I quickly saw the value of this.
Soon after I joined the industry, I became the treasurer of both and then later I was the president of the Manufacturing Association. Whenever possible, I went to all the meetings. It meant a day in London or a day in Leeds, but I would get to talk to maybe six or seven major customers at least and maybe see three or four more quickly to say hello to. The amount of extra business we did that way was remarkable. Neither of these organisations exist now although there was and still is a European Brush Makers Organisation which we were a member of by being a member of the British organisation.
There was an annual brush conference every year which could be anywhere in the country. The year I was president, I had the conference in Durham as by being the president you got to choose. It seems strange now to think there were so many bush makers to justify two manufacturers’ organisations.
In Sunderland and many towns around the country, in addition to the commercial brush makers, there were workshops for people with disabilities that made various items. Some had a brush making department and I always felt a little guilty when I was preparing quotes and I knew I was up against them.
Leeds was a hotbed of brush making. The largest paintbrush manufacturer in Europe was based there. There were at least another two independent paintbrush manufacturers in Leeds. They are all long gone,
In our archives is a copy of the 1966 Brush Directory which lists almost 500 businesses that classed themselves as either a manufacturer of brushes or a specialist supplier to that trade. I guess that is why we could fund two manufacturers’ associations.
In the Northeast, even in the 1990s we had Team Valley Brush Company, which was a manufacturer of artists brushware. They employed a lot of people, and they were incredibly profitable at their peak. We had Lion Brush Company, which was also mainly artist type brushware. There was a similar sized company to us – Herrewege Brushes – based in Stockton, which was a major competitor but also one of our biggest customers. None of them exist now.
It’s very, very different now. There was an awful lot of heavy industry. If you looked along the banks of the Tyne or the Wear, there was substantial shipbuilding. There were coal mines and huge foundries. They were all massive users of brushware.
If you’d joined our business in 1980, you’d have been selling not just brushware, but also pots and pans and catering equipment, apple peelers, aka., a full range of catering equipment (the latter down to our purchase of Sam’l Woodcock & Sons Ltd.) Then 10 years or so later you’d have been selling engineers files as well – all sizes, from those used by British Rail to file the actual line to needle type files for delicate work. Close to our factory in Sheepfolds (Sunderland) was a company called Cook & Nicholson Ltd which also went back to the 1800s and made engineers files. It was the noisiest place I have ever visited and included a small foundry. File manufacture involved cutting teeth into hardened steel so you may be able to imagine the level of noise.
To help, I joined that company as a part time director, as my father did back in the 1980s. We were both non-executive directors and we just got a nominal salary, a few hundred pounds a year. When the company ceased manufacturing, due to a drop in demand, rather than let it go completely, we decided that we would take it on and sell files, but we would buy them in. For quite a few years we sold engineers files but ceased as demand gradually tailed off. We got out of catering equipment also – we were too busy in other areas to give it our full attention.
So, files and catering were dropped but we kept some of the products that go back to our Sheffield business. In Sunderland, we had never stocked items like buckets or dustpans, but because the Sheffield business stocked a full range of cleaning equipment, we continued to offer that.
The move from Sheepfolds
The factory, raw materials stores and timber yard were now on both sides of Easington Street with the offices and finished goods warehouse in Wilson Street North. What had been quite modern premises in the 1960’s was anything but suitable for the present day. We now had around 40,000 sq. Ft but spread over a wide area which involved crossing roads. Also, the maintenance of older type properties was proving both problematic and expensive.
Early in the new century One North East (a government quango) funded the formation of Sunderland Arc with the brief to improve the central area of Sunderland including Sheepfolds. For several years they kept saying they intended to purchase the Sheepfolds area, including our land, for redevelopment as a sports village. Just as we had stopped believing them, they came to us in the summer of 2006 and said that they now had the funds to buy our land, but it would all have to be agreed and we would have to vacate no later than March 2007. We immediately entered negotiations, employing Chris Lofthouse of Lofthouse & Partners as our agent and a price was agreed which was probably higher than we could have hoped for on the open market. In addition, they agreed to pay all our moving expenses and any reasonable additional costs in adapting any new premises we might acquire. Our search for alternative premises covered most of the immediate northeast but easily the most suitable was our current factory in Hebburn which was available to rent but not to buy. A fifteen-year lease was agreed and signed but the building had been built as a warehouse and needed significant internal alterations and additions to make it fit for our purpose. This took until the autumn of 2007, so it was necessary to negotiate a short-term lease on our Sheepfolds property as that was now owned by One North East.
The move and alterations cost £1.3m which would have been unaffordable. However, after much negotiation, One North East agreed to pay £1.15m of this which brought our cost to an affordable level, and we now had purpose designed modern premises. It was around this time (December 2007) that we changed our name from Cottam Bros Ltd to Cottam Brush Ltd to better describe the company. We had started as S. Cottam Brushes in Hendon, Sunderland in 1858 and would now celebrate our 150th anniversary in Hebburn in 2008 as Cottam Brush Ltd.
What would have been your dream job if you hadn’t worked for Cottam?
As a child, I was obsessed with aeroplanes and I wanted to be a pilot; I could have told you every type of aeroplane ever built. By the time I was 18, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do, although I was becoming more and more interested in the world of business. I think I chose accountancy having realised many leading industrialists had started out that way, and I guess I was quite good with figures.
After completing A-levels I applied to what is now Northumbria University for a 1-year course which was an introduction to accountancy. To be accepted I applied to a firm of Chartered Accountants to be articled to a principal for a 4-year period (what you would now call an apprenticeship), and then I went off to America on my own for the summer. I was still there when I got a telegram from my mother saying, ‘college started last week –come home’ I’d kind of forgotten about it. And I thought, do I come back, or do I stay? But I came back.
Tell me about your greatest achievements.
It’s keeping the company running. We have had good years and bad years. I think my greatest achievement was keeping the company afloat and hopefully improving it during that time. From a personal point of view, it was and is family. They’re the most important things in my life to me. But business wise, it was keeping this company afloat. It was a big responsibility. When you’re fifth generation, are you going to be the one when it all falls apart? And I was very conscious of that. More so when so many in the brush trade that I had thought highly of were forced into closure. I was always prepared to put in whatever hours were needed and do whatever was necessary to keep it running but I also knew that is not always enough. I was prepared to make difficult decisions but realistic enough to know that whatever I did might not be enough. Happily, we’re still here!
What’s your favourite place that you’ve visited?
That’s the Langdale Valley in the Lake District. I managed to buy a property in the Valley back in 1999, which I rent out as a holiday home. But just going there, escaping, you know, just for a weekend, kept me sane. I still love going to this day, 23 years later.
It’s the freedom of the hills and the fells. There are pressures that come with running a business. The Langdale Valley is somewhere where, as soon as I arrive and I have the hills around me, I want to get out, get my boots on and walk. The pressures of the world lift off me. It’s such a beautiful place, anywhere in the Lake District is beautiful. It so happened I stumbled across that house in 1999 and managed to raise the money to buy it. It was somewhat damp as it was built around 350 years ago. I’ve spent a lot of time and some money on it, and it’s now a very comfortable place. It’s my escape place.
I love travel – I’ve travelled a lot of the world. I think this part of the world is fantastic. I love Northumberland and the Borders area. We are also close to the Lake District, Yorkshire and County Durham so there are lots of lovely places.
What are your plans for retirement?
I want to spend more time with my wife, family and grandchildren. I have five grandchildren who I love to bits. My daughter and her family live in Scotland in the Aberdeen area and I hope to spend a bit more time visiting them. I am hoping to have the freedom to go where and when I want to go.
I love the theatre. I’m a trustee of the Customs House (in South Shields) and I like going to the Edinburgh Fringe in August each year.
I never thought I would retire. I think it was covid that made me start to think again, and I’d rather back out with an orderly changeover. We’ve taken on Chris on the financial side and Alan has also taken on some of the things I did. If I’d just gone overnight, I think it would have been a bit more disorganised. However, I’m staying on as a director of the company for a little bit longer. But purely in a non-executive role.