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1983 Ian Gregg, chairman, Greggs, Newcastle

IT was no accident that the North East Business Executive of the Year - or Businessman of the Year, as it was called initially - was launched amid economic gloom in a year not unlike this.

Not even the flamboyance of Durham Miners' 100th Gala that year removed the penumbra of the looming coalfields strike signalling an end, almost, of the entire industry. Or the imminent closure of the 151-year-old Shildon wagon works, where most of the nation's freight wagons had been built and now 2,000 jobs would be lost.

Jobs eliminated, firms crumbling, were already endemic in the North East. Two years before, the Consett steelworks had closed, the town's staff of life: 9,000 jobs giving way to 36% unemployment, more than double the national average. In the shipyards orders and jobs diminished. Welding there would end too.

Amid the wretchedness it was decided a regional executive of the year award would signal the skills and talents of senior management still prevalent. It would reflect on the hard work and enthusiasm of their workforces. And it would, if nothing else, be one damn good evening where the region could show that its many talents and enthusiasms were ready to be redeployed.

The first winner was from the bakeries, one of the oldest trades in civilisation. Yet Ian Gregg had been, by inclination, neither a baker nor a trader. He had been studying to become a lawyer. Family bereavement was his catalyst. His parents John and Elsie ran a tiny baker's shop, the acorn of an oak eventually Britain's largest independent bakery chain.

Their business started in the 1930s still had only three assistants in one little shop on Gosforth High Street, and five in its bakery behind. When John died, and Ian had to pick up the doorkey, that was the sum total of the business.

Unlike today, sweet tooths were main targets. Ian, who did not take easily to it, initially helped to bake the cream cakes, eclairs and apple turnovers, and did the messy shaping of chocolate snowballs. "terrible to make".

Ian realised change was vital. Within four years the shop had been sold to help finance a centralised production bakery on Gosforth Industrial Estate. By opening numerous outlets served by a common bakery, savings could be achieved to benefit customers too. More customers, bigger business.

The bakery, astoundingly, had to be expanded three times in six years; shops were opening at a rate of six a year. "Eventually you get sucked in. The business takes on its own momentum. It carries you with it," he recalled.

In 1972 he expanded into the Glasgow area, buying a bakery and 18 shops. More openings followed there, as did a bakery. Next, Leeds (1974) and Manchester (1975) Then Cleveland and the Midlands. Soon after being judged the North East's top boss, Ian was planning to float his success on the stock market. Now he showed his acumen for talent spotting.

He needed someone in the new financial environment to handle daily management, someone not only steeped in the business but gifted in handling it. He picked Mike Darrington who, 22 years after Ian's title success, would follow suit. But that's another tale, told some pages on.

Quite a team - Ian chairman, Mike managing director - and one of the outstanding executive partnerships over a quarter-century of North East business. Having picked Mr Right, Ian gave him independence and every encouragement to exercise his talents. He installed him in his own office and he worked from home.

Result: Greggs plc today has 1,399 shops, 19,000 employees (2,000 in the North East), and sales of pounds 586.3m in a business where many customers spend less than a pound a time..

Ian excelled dealing with staff and unions. He encouraged union membership. "A fair man," is how one union leader saw him. A dispute or strike was the last thought on your mind when you negotiated with him, he added.

Ian welded staff relations with share options, the scheme being trebly oversubscribed at launch. Nor did he forget his public. On the 17th anniversary of Greggs' Charitable Trust, which had already distributed millions, he quietly cashed in shares to give another half million pounds - one of the biggest one-off personal donations known in the North East.

In retirement Ian can contemplate that while bakeries were not his first choice, they probably earned him more than solicitor's fees. His personal fortune at one point was put at pounds 75m - a lot of bread - and on retirement he still had pounds 14m staked in the business.

As first ever North East Business Executive of the Year he showed how even an age-old craft within a small business could be transformed, later to be a favourite stock with analysts and investors alike.

"Ian was planning to float his success on the stock market. Now he showed his acumen for talent spotting

1984 Peter Cussins, chairman, Cussins Property, Newcastle

FROM bread to bricks - a starker contrast of interests between the first North East Business Executive of the Year and the second, Peter Cussins, would be hard to imagine. But the judges' decision was well received.

What the two did share was an effectively low-key approach to management. Many top executives are trained accountants. Peter was a banking economist who decided to create wealth more visibly.

It is now 37 years since Peter turned to building. He was with merchant bankers Hawtin and Partners when he decided, at 22, to follow his father Philip's footsteps. Philip had been a builder in Newcastle since 1922.

When a heart attack forced Philip's retirement, Hawtin bought his firm, Cussins Contractors, selling it on to Teesside housebuilder Moore & Cartwright. Later Philip joined the board of son Peter's maiden company, Lemmington.

In 1974 doubling oil prices ended Britain's post-war housing boom. But Lemmington sub-contracted extensively and, by 1977, was showing profits of pounds 31,000 by its build of houses, sheltered accommodation and commercial property. It had investments too.

It evolved into Cussins Property Group. When that floated on the stock market in 1981, Peter and his family took a pounds 3m stake and Peter overnight became the North East's newest millionaire. Local public-sector pension funds were among 15 City institutions taking around 75% of the 1.4m shares.

The group, employing 130, had sales nearing pounds 4m, pre-tax gains of pounds 470,000. Peter at 32 enjoyed acclaim for running such a vigorous listed enterprise, and for having built it within 10 years to a point profit nearing those of benchmarkers Bellway and Leech.

Profits hit pounds 1.25m in 1982, then pounds 1.3m while rivals struggled. During three years of recession, Cussins achieved further gains.

The Journal's City editor of the time speculated that Cussins - "arguably the most exciting small housebuilding company in Britain" - might become the next Barratt. Its fewer than 400 shareholders must have felt gratified that the firm, in 18 months, more than doubled in market value, to pounds 9.7m.

How? By three-prong attack. Peter avoided large land banks. He built houses mainly in the North East, and where good profit margins existed. Also, unlike volume builders erecting houses in their thousands for first-time buyers, Cussins built maybe 200 homes a year, and in the higher price brackets for second or third-time buyers. Peter's stake in the firm by mid-1983, was pounds 4.58m.

His commercial landmarks included Derwent Shopping Centre, put up after Consett steelworks closed, the Denmark Shopping Centre in South Shields, and development also around the BBC headquarters at Fenham in Newcastle.

In the year of his award Cussins opened a London office, whose many developments ranged from a shopping centre at Peckham - where Peter's loyal Geordie following of artisans camped on site for 18 months - to offices in Edinburgh New Town's Queen Street development.

Peter, like his father, upheld standards by giving job security not pay-off at the earliest, which was then widespread. He became Business Executive of the Year at 34 against finalists who included John Hall and Peter Vardy, both subsequent winners. Peter saw the award as "a tremendous boost for the men on the sites".

Shares worth 82p each on flotation were nudging 260p by then. Judges said: "The ability to earn profit through good and bad times is the acid test of business. On that score Peter Cussins was chosen."

It was not bad times but fickle times that ended Cussins Property Group. By the early 1990s, City attitudes changed as property values slumped. Ironically it was property in the South-East that was worst affected.

Big institutional investors such as pension funds scrambled among the dotcom boom and other 10-minute wonders for instant returns, disregarding now many steady but smaller firms. Investment capital dried up. When Miller Homes of Edinburgh, Britain's biggest privately owned housebuilder, bid for Cussins in 1999, Peter was not overjoyed. But shareholder interests take priority over sentiment.

The pounds 24m offer was accepted. Miller too represented quality, and wanted a housing presence in the North East, where it was already involved in the rebirth of Newcastle's Quayside. Cussins had built about 15,000 homes in the region by then.

But as they say, you can't keep a good man down. After six months' "gardening leave" Peter launched PIC Homes, fellow directors including ex-colleagues. Initial builds included one at Greenside in the Tyne Valley and a pounds 7m development near Peter's Belsay home.

In 2003 PIC Homes became Cussins Ltd, which today operates from Belsay, his home village with Peter's son Jabin as land director. Cussins builds in Northumberland and Tyne and Wear: modern executive homes and apartments, traditional family homes, and homes within refurbished buildings. Cussins is also in a joint venture with Adamson Developments called Regent Homes.

While Peter at 59 widens buyers' options once more he also serves as non-executive chairman of Metnor, the AIM-listed Killingworth company active in property, construction and contracting services.

"The ability to earn profit through good and bad times is the acid test of business

1985 Bent Henriksen, managing director, TSL Thermal Syndicate, Wallsend

WHAT tougher test of mettle exists in business than trying to sell sets of encyclopaedias? Answer: trying to sell them in English as a second language. But that's just the kind of challenge Bent Henriksen thrived on.

Such salesman's determination played a big part in his becoming the third North East Business Executive of the Year.

Bent applied his knack to turn round one of Tyneside's oldest companies from pounds 1m losses to pounds 2.5m pre-tax profits in just two years in 1985.

The commercially astute and personable Dane came to the North East initially to set up a UK operation for the American firm Elmwood Sensors at North Shields in 1971. By the time he left there, the mainly exporting business had been built sufficiently to employ 700 people in four factories. Small wonder that by 1983, he had an honorary OBE.

That year, another irresistible challenge arose, and he took over as managing director of TSL Thermal Syndicate in Wallsend. By the time he won the North East Business Executive title, he had saved or created, one way or another, nearly 4,000 jobs.

Thermal specialised in vitreous silica, a single-ingredient glass of quality invaluable to many industrial products. Understandably, Bent's predecessors there had been mainly production specialists. There had been one previous exception, a scientist. Then came Bent the passionate salesman, a description that still befits.

It was clear as crystal to him that the losses there stemmed from undervaluing sales and marketing; it was a common mistake in British manufacturing at the time. After 12 comfortable years leading Elmwood, Bent now had to take unpopular measures, worst of which was halving the workforce to 600.

On the other hand, he wheeled computers into administration. He then flooded the marketplace with salesmen and reinvigorated or replaced agents as necessary. "You have to push agents regularly or they just sit back," he said.

It was sell, sell, sell. But of course that came as easily to Bent as when he sold those encyclopaedias on first leaving school in Jutland. A valuable early lesson he had learned there was never to spend too much time chatting up potential customers.

At Wallsend he relished abandoning office routines to join his sales regiment on the road. But he never failed to keep everyone back at headquarters briefed on progress and problems. About 600 staff would be briefed half yearly and 100 perhaps every fortnight.

In 1988 the board of TSL Thermal Syndicate, when asked to make a takeover, decided to be taken over instead. Time to move on. The French company Saint Gobin was established there subsequently.

Bent thought to retire at 51, then instead went on to silica for vitamins and nutrients that still motivate him today at 70. "They affect one personally after all," he has pointed out. The Danish firm Pharma Nord, seven years after start-up, planned a UK operation.

Bent became their UK managing director providing for UK hospitals, chemists and health food shops online from Morpeth, near his Mitford home.

On the research side Bent has worked with hospitals to seek an alternative to surgery in treating chronic pancreatitis, which affects about 12,000 alcoholic and other sufferers in the UK. Scientific trials go on at seven hospitals in the UK and one in Holland.

Pharma Nord's dietary supplements, natural remedies and medicinal drugs are vouched for by independent researchers, and attested by relevant scientific literature. The business, including Bent's operation, employs 300 employees and is agency-represented also in many countries.

Back in the TSL days Bent declared of industry in the North East: "We must sell ourselves better to academics and young people, do more training at all levels from boardrooms to shopfloor.

"We have to change our attitude from being production or research and development orientated to being market-led, and have customer service as highest priority."

Today, 22 years later, you will find companies where that caveat still applies.

"It was sell, sell, sell. But that came as easily to Bent as when he sold encyclopaedias on leaving school

1986 Sir John Hall, chairman and managing director, Cameron Hall Developments, Gateshead

FUNNY how total outsiders can sometimes move in on a sector and show it a thing or two. It took a chartered surveyor, Sir John Hall, to put a feelgood spring into the step of shoppers and football fans and give North East retail and football, at the same time, makeovers they badly needed.

Entrepreneur and regional visionary, he was named North East Business Executive of the Year for his development of the MetroCentre at Gateshead, a citadel of shopping that became Europe's largest indoor retail and leisure complex - and the first out of town in the UK.

He then acquired and reinvigorated a famous football club that had got trapped in mediocrity on and off field. His Newcastle United became a business model for many other clubs; for its ground development, its provision of catering and corporate entertainment, and its role in turning football attendance into a family outing. He persuaded the average fan to fork out more for 90 minutes of entertainment than would ever have been imagined before.

His proudest achievement? He could not decide whether that was the MetroCentre or United. "They're so different," he said. "Both have contributed to the region, and hopefully both have given many people lots of pleasure."

Born into a mining family near Ashington in 1933, he left Bedlington Grammar School at 15 only to spend the next six months on the dole and on his bike chasing jobs. He got one, studied and became a chartered surveyor in the coal industry.

Later, as a deputy estates officer at Killingworth, he found property development exciting. He became a partner in a Sunderland estate agency - chief executive by the time it was sold to Northern Securities. At 40 he set up Cameron Hall Developments, a family firm he chaired until 1993.

Many big stores went into terminal decline during the North East's 1980s. In 1983, still little known, Sir John disclosed he would turn 35 brownfield acres of Gateshead riverside into a pounds 150m shopping mall and entertainment centre.

Despite sceptics and opponents his dream became reality. The 1985 opening in tandem with the Church Commissioners earned him pounds 70m and a national name. Today the MetroCentre, though Sir John has long since sold out, continues to have one multi-million-pound expansion after another. Many similar ventures have been built elsewhere, usually on a smaller scale.

The MetroCentre and the contemporary but separate Eldon Square complex in Newcastle, took Tyneside to the level of retail seen in London, Manchester, Glasgow, Leeds and Edinburgh. Shoppers travelled hundreds of miles to experience it - even from abroad - and still do.

He spread confidence and optimism. The MetroCentre, now through Capital Shopping Centres, generates wealth, jobs and retail therapy. It rejects parking charges and encourages opening hours convenient to customers rather than shop owners.

Sir John, knighted in 1991, saw a second neglected opportunity in Newcastle United, a Rip Van Winkle of soccer. He believed sincerely it could make Newcastle a "European City of Sporting Culture". Despite long sedation by under-investment of myopic managements, slummy facilities and threat of relegation to the old Third Division, it kept the loyalty of one of the nation's biggest fan followings.

Sir John battled four years before wresting control of the club and its pounds 6m debt. An 88% stake gained him chairmanship, and from 1992 the club was transformed by revenues from merchandise, catering, television royalties and smart marketing. With him and manager Kevin Keegan the club got into Europe and almost won the Premiership.

But a Newcastle Sporting Club by 2001 proved a Tyne bridge too far, despite his further investments in rugby, ice hockey and basketball. Grafting facilities for these on to public parkland beside St James's Park proved unacceptable.

The lesser sports went their own way. A share flotation in 1997 disappointed long term. The club realised a value of pounds 193m (its ground is rented) and as the 139p shares dropped to barely 30p, investment expected did not come.

Sir John quit the board and later sold his personal stake back to the club more cheaply than expected of a former Bank of England director. He remained a figurehead president but, blaming old fashioned attitudes, he suggested: "Newcastle Sporting Club was ahead of its time."

He had already bought Wynyard Hall, the 70-room, 18th Century former seat of the Londonderry family for him and his wife Mae to enjoy, and spent pounds 8m refurbishing it. He used part of the Sedgefield estate to develop a compound lifestyle for nouveaux riches of the North East and for commercial development.

Despite his peaks of success, though, Sir John has suffered personal disappointments. In retirement also he had to address pounds 74.7m of losses by Cameron Hall. He failed to find an pounds 8m buyer for Wynyard Hall. He led a campaign for regional government in the North East which a public referendum in the end opposed.

Today he may have some regrets about having sold his family's 41.6% stake in his beloved United, albeit for pounds 55m, to Mike Ashley, whose attitude differs so obviously from his own.

But he did pioneer Tees Valley's first out of town blue-chip business park, eventually taken on by joint venture company Wynyard Park. Sir John, today worth about pounds 75m, still actively promotes North East business and will go down for sure in North East business history as a visionary achiever.

"Sir John saw a second neglected opportunity in Newcastle United, a Rip Van Winkle of soccer

1987 Sir Peter Vardy, managing director, Reg Vardy, Sunderland.

THE North East may have one of the UK's smallest ratios of cars to population, yet its car retailers form a buoyant sector indeed. When Sir Peter Vardy became North East Businessman of the Year in 1987, however, the Reg Vardy company was not even in the North East's Top 20 firms.

Yet for more than 15 years after that, until its sale to Pendragon in 2005, it was a leading car dealership in the listing, indeed the top one in fourth place at the end. And, as a sharelisted plc, its 200,000 new and used car sales yearly made it one of Europe's leaders in the field. In the UK it was second only to Pendragon in size until the takeover.

Reg Vardy was a small and efficient business when Sir Peter's father Reg set it up at Houghton le Spring in 1923. Even after moving into car sales after the Second World War, it remained a single outlet.

Sir Peter, 61, was born at Hetton le Hole and entered the business in 1963, took over after his father's death in 1976 and expanded a network which, under his eventual chairmanship, sold Aston Martin, Rolls-Royce, Mercedes and Jaguar, besides Ford, Vauxhall, Nissan, Rover, Renault, Alfa Romeo, Audi, BMX, Citroen and Fiat. You name it - Reg Vardy plc over the years probably sold it.

As the company doubled in size every three or four years, Sir Peter became a multi-millionaire. His personal wealth has recently been assessed at pounds 150m, placing him and his family 525th equal in the nation's assessment of the rich. "I never foresaw such success, though I knew it was starting from a good foundation," he says.

He had been 11 years in the driving seat when he was named North East Business Executive of the Year - a satisfying feat for someone who had left Durham School at 16 with one O-level, and who often ponders his good fortune. His pounds 2.2m a year earnings in the group's heyday gave him this region's fifth-highest pay packet.

In 2001 he was knighted for services to business and education in the North East. He was made a deputy lieutenant of Tyne and Wear and given an honorary doctorate in business administration from Sunderland University. When AM magazine named him Industry Personality of the Year it was for his example set as a regional retailer with ambition and drive enough to expand into a nationwide business, and with a group that was one of the most respected - by competitors as well as carmakers.

He similarly gained a MotorTrader award for outstanding achievement and was made a Companion of the Chartered Management Institute for his leadership and innovation. A multi-million-pound group scheme to gauge customer satisfaction was considered the biggest investment of its kind by any motor retailer.

Publicly sharelisted from 1989, the group became a national barometer of car retailing. It also adapted from the USA lease-purchasing for private motorists. Through its support centre in Sunderland, 5,700 people connected with the business were given career development.

With 93 dealerships between Aberdeen and Reading the group's turnover hit pounds 1.6bn - against pounds 58m when Sir Peter became businessman of the year. But, relatively, Sir Peter has never been a spendthrift.

He restricted himself to an annual salary of pounds 120,000 when running the business and distributed his annual dividend among educational and other children's causes through the Vardy Foundation set up in 1989.

He plays piano and could regularly be seen leading a 14-piece band in worship at the Bethany Christian Centre, an evangelical church near home in Houghton le Spring. Through the foundation, he ardently supports by word and donation the Government's development of business-supported academies and colleges. While this has led to spasmodic controversy over teaching of creationism, Sir Peter has never appeared dogmatic or tried to conceal his Christian aspirations within education.

Sir Peter also donates to higher education, arts and sport. The group sponsored Sunderland Football Club and North West Durham's brass band champions, and a donation to Sunderland University is marked by its business school's location in a Reg Vardy Centre.

To Sunderland itself he added a Reg Vardy Gallery of contemporary art.

In 2006 he and his family trusts made pounds 126m selling the group to its main rival Pendragon, a pounds 506m cash deal despite which Pendragon, though the nation's number one dealer, finds further growth elusive.

The Vardy family are now engaged in a new car business and property development. Sir Peter also encourages young business talent voluntarily through a role in The Entrepreneurs Forum.

"He restricted himself to a salary of pounds 120,000 and distributed his annual dividend among children's causes

1988 Bernard Robinson, chief executive, Tallent Engineering, Newton Aycliffe

LOYALTY and leadership were among Bernard Robinson's attributes already evident as North East Business Executive of the Year in 1988. All told, he stayed with one company throughout a 46-year career - developing it from a jack-of-all-trades small regional manufacturer to a first-tier global supplier of key automotive parts.

Tallent under him was one of the first North East firms to bring in robots as welders. He used automation to create - not shed - jobs, and innumerable parts made by Tallent (now Thyssenkrupp Automotive Tallent Chassis) have gone into Fords, Austin Rovers, Land Rovers, Jaguars, Nissans, BMWs, Hondas and Volkswagens.

Bernard joined Tallent from St Mary's School, Darlington, in 1956. The firm was then a "tuppeny ha'penny outfit" - his words. Today, and since 1993, when it was acclaimed one of the only 2% of UK companies with global quality, Tallent has remained outstanding.

He joined a mere 60 other employees as an apprentice engineer when the firm was bringing in pounds 300,000 compared with pounds 216m today.

At his retirement as managing director at 62 in 1993 - after 23 years at the helm - the business had become part of an operation with two bases in the UK and operations in Belgium, India and the USA. Turnover had topped pounds 250m, and of its 2,500 workers, 1,172 were at Newton Aycliffe.

At the start in 1948 the firm made fancy goods - cosmetic compacts, lipstick and cigarette cases, anything for a bob or two. Then, ahead of Bernard joining, it became part of the family-owned Charles Colston group, making dishwashers, other domestic appliances - parts for John Bloom too before his washing-machine empire collapsed.

Born and raised in nearby Ferryhill, Bernard had intended to follow his father down the coalmine. His father demurred; the colliery closed in 1964. Bernard had taken some convincing though; his factory apprentice wage was 30s against pounds 10 pitmen pals got.

Bernard had been mechanically inclined since he tried to repair a faulty corn binder on a local farm at the age of eight. His grammar school education got him into a higher workstream, and when career development came in during 1960, he was sent on a course combining industrial engineering with management skills.

It ignited his enthusiasm. He became a methods engineer, and climbed the career ladder: chief industrial engineer, production manager, factory manager. By 1974 he was a director and works manager. By 1980 he was chief executive, and two years later got a chance to sell the waning domestic appliance side and concentrate on automotives. Ford, supplied by Tallent for more than 25 years, asked Tallent to show how it would manufacture a specific part.

Bernard's experience as a fitter enabled him to visualise robots and 800-tonne computer-controlled power presses working together. With pounds 3m investment, Tallent got the job - supplying rear suspension arms for Sierras.

The robots had increased from 12 to 360 by the time Bernard left - the most under one UK roof outside car assembly plants. Tallent applied itself to design and manufacture for export, and to design for overseas manufacture in the USA, India and Taiwan. In 1989, shortly before winning the region's business executive title, Bernard and fellow directors Simon Flundy and Alex Worrall (who later became the first UK chairman of what was later a German controlled group), led a successful pounds 11m management buyout. Bernard was also made OBE. Tallent won a regional company award in the same year.

The following year automotives totally dominated. Strategies were revisited and refined until Bernard felt Tallent could be one of the most specialised operations of its kind anywhere.

In 1992, the MBO team sold Tallent to Thyssen of Germany to gain critical mass. Then Thyssen merged with Krupp in 1998 as Tallent was named Northern Business of the Year. Now the UK is Thyssen-Krupp's third biggest European market, and Newton Aycliffe became UK head office for 50-plus divisions.

Is he confident about North East manufacturing, long term? "Yes - provided it remains innovative and creative."

At 68 he is still active. He has served on Durham Training Council, chaired the Digital Factory at Bishop Auckland, and in 2006 was chairman for 18 months of a young North East company. He is a trustee and past chairman of Durham Foundation, past chairman of County Durham development Company and vice-chairman of Bowes Museum.

Soon he will be High Sheriff of County Durham. You can't keep a good man down.

"Tallent under Bernard Robinson was one of the first North East firms to bring in robots as welders

1989 Ian Harris, managing director, Bonas Machine Company, Gateshead

IF ever a company has relished speaking in tongues, that company must be Bonas. The Bonas Machine Company under Ian Harris surely sounded sometimes like bargain basement in a casbah.

Its outstanding sales performance overseas - 87% of total - was due in no small measure to its sales staff working in seven languages besides English. As a team they drove deals in Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, German or French.

What a shining example to others keen to upgrade their overseas business. It makes a far greater impression, and probably wins more orders, than shouting into a foreigner's face in pidgin English. Ian strongly upholds the principle of learning languages to make the extra effort in exporting.

Its exemplary endeavours in these and other aspects of the business brought considerable recognition, both around the time and after Ian was made North East Business Executive of the Year. In 1988 it received a Company of the Year award, and in 1989 a national award by the British Council of Productivity Associations.

Such successes went on into the 1990s. It received a regional exporting award in 1993, a Queen's Award for Exports in 1994, and a national exporting award on top: the NatWest/Financial Times Export Excellence Award.

Ian acknowledged throughout the company's need to endorse progress and change. A textile machinery company, Bonas became remarkably different after he gained control through a management buyout in 1984.

It had been an ailing family business until then. New technology was the key to a new door that opened the way for a turnover up to pounds 22m. A computer-aided design system, an electronic jacquard, looked perfectly natural once installed, a mechanical punchcard control that pre-determined weaving patterns.

Unspectacular it may have looked, but unbelievably efficient it proved to be. At peak the company was able to employ more than 300 people at its Team Valley factory. What gave Bonas an edge over rivals? "Our sales force. Besides their fluency in foreign languages, they were better trained, better motivated," he says.

As usual in the North East Business Executive of the Year Award, the title winner is usually singled out by judges from more than 50 nominations in any given year. Within a year of his success Ian had to make painful decisions: 51 staff cuts had to be made.

A few years later Ian reluctantly decided to sell. He felt he had taken Bonas as far as he could. Business at home was declining and, even globally, markets were moving on to the Far East. "The North East was no longer the best place from which to run that kind of business," he says. "Frankly, it was difficult to persuade people in business then even to visit the North East."

The buyer, in the end, was a Belgian licensee of Bonas that Ian respected, Van Dewile.

Ian, 65, subsequently became chairman of the Consett-based engineers Grorud. Grorud was a Norwegian-owned company that agreed to a management buyout, for which 3i came in as venture investor. Ian agreed to work the buyout team at chairman level and also represent 3i's interests.

Grorud was associated, among other things, with stairlift manufacture. When this activity in 2004 became the business of Bison Bede, also in Consett, Grorud focused on press, paint and assembly engineering, its major customers being Xerox, Nissan and upchain automotive suppliers TRW and Takada. Ian said of Grorud: "As bottom link in a supply chain, you are driven by whatever demand is being made for the top-of-the-chain product."

Even so, the new Grorud became profitable on sales of around pounds 11m and employed more than 200 people. Bonas, meanwhile, may not be the North East force it once was, but lessons it offers should not be forgotten. And the first of these?

"I would have no hesitation in saying that fluency in foreign languages is vital within any company that seriously seeks to sell in non-Anglophone countries," Ian says.

One more thing. He would like to see more highly-qualified engineers in North East manufacturing.

He observes: "Manufacturing, if anything, is even tougher now, and attracting specialists can be difficult in some areas. Many good engineers can be attracted to this region but usually the business has to have some glamour and be able to pay higher wages."

Who's going to lead the way round that one?

Ian now lives in Switzerland.

Ian strongly upholds the principle of learning languages to make the extra effort in exporting

1990 Dr Ralph Iley, managing director, Cookson Group, Newcastle

RALPH Iley with his competences could have been boss in many parts of the world. He had offers. Instead, the son of a North Shields fishing family chose to lead on Tyneside throughout. After all, where better to race pigeons and grow leeks? Those were Ralph's passions outside office hours.

But he was, primarily, an outstanding North East manufacturer too. It is questionable whether there was ever a more popular winner of the North East business title, certainly among workforces.

He had the extra quality the competition judges admire: an achiever for business at large, as well as for his own firm. Ralph strengthened, integrated, progressed - all these to the good of North East business generally, as well as running an international business in chief executive capacity.

That he still found time also to tend his 200 pigeons and prize leeks in a North Shields allotment tended since he was 13, should perhaps serve as an example to those over-wrought directors today who fear business will collapse if they don't work 24/7. Had there been fitness gyms then it's doubtful Ralph would have preferred them.

Cookson links with Tyneside cover more than 200 years. Some might have joked Ralph had been there throughout, given his loyalty to Tyneside and the group.

For many years now Cookson has been headquartered in London, its shares quoted on London Stock Exchange. And though Tyneside takes backseat it remains a matter for pride that this global star of materials technology should have sprung up in the North East first. Today it provides more than 100 countries with its materials, processes and services in electronics, ceramics and precious metals.

Its workforce tops 15,000 people in more than 35 countries and secures annual revenues of about pounds 1.6bn. Ralph always politely declined Cookson's invitations to become an expat for them.

Instead he filled additional roles in the North East: with directorships in a previously public-sectored Northumbrian Water, in Northern Development Company (forerunner of One NorthEast) and in Tyne and Wear Development Corporation, catalyst of the Tyne and Wear waterfronts. He chaired the regional CBI delicately during the miners' strike, feeling bound to fight for their gainful redeployment.

"I had shared a lot with them both beforehand and throughout," he says.

He was educated at Tynemouth Grammar School, and King's College, Durham (now Newcastle University). In 1949 he started work as a research chemist with the Associated Lead Company, part of Cookson eventually.

Later he researched broadly for the group, developing industrial plastics and metals to stay competitive. He chaired and was managing director of Anzon, a subsidiary.

By 1976, when Cookson was still a-buzz at Willington Quay in Wallsend, Ralph had been made a group director. He persuaded the board to set up Cookson Entek at Killingworth and Cookson Fukuda at North Shields.

From 1987 he was managing director, the business executive title coming to him one month from retirement. His outstanding feat, admirers said, had been to break new ground by appointing young managers at Cookson.

On pigeon days he was the fancier in the Jaguar. But fellow contestants knew also that as president of the Up North Combine, he would readily transport thousands of birds for 3,000 clubs affiliated.

Of the many letters he could put after his name - PhD, BSc and MRSC - he used only PhD, if any.

He was invested a CBE in 1992 and in retirement remained active, chairing Tyneside Training and Enterprise Council.

He was also executive chairman of Parkdean Leisure for some time. Cookson Fukuda, which made copper foil for printed circuit boards, closed in 2004, sadly, with a loss of 74 jobs. Chinese competition was largely blamed.

Ralph, though, still lives in Tynemouth and has remained active in business as chairman with a 52% stake in International Syalons, a Wallsend specialist in advanced ceramics.

He still has his pigeons too. But the bottom, he says, fell out of prize-leek competitions. "It wasn't worth continuing." He switched to other vegetables instead - nothing if not versatile.

Dr Iley, now 82, is in hospital after an operation, and his many friends and colleagues past and present will wish him a full recovery.

"I've been very well backed by a solid team, from shopfloor to management

1991 Karl Watkin, chairman and managing director, Crabtree, Gateshead.

KARL Watkin is, to date, one of the most colourful among North East Business Executives of the Year. The world is his investment oyster, developing nations and particularly China his stamping grounds.

A far cry, that, from the initial salesman's experience of running a market stall in Morpeth. That was rung one on his ladder up to millions - and some heavy losses too. Grammar school educated at Wallsend and King Edward VI, Morpeth, he at 21 promoted the pop group Child to ninth spot in the hit charts in 1978.

He was named businessman of the year following a management buyout and restoration to health of Crabtree at Gateshead. He was also made an MBE. He had joined Crabtree - then part of Vickers - in 1979. By 1986 it was losing pounds 8,000 a day, despite the presses it built turning out 40% of the world's metal containers. His own job was among 270 on the line.

To raise pounds 3m, Karl - married, with three children - put his home on the line, as did his MBO colleagues. They sealed the deal, made economies and developed new machinery.

By 1990 there was a pounds 2.8m profit. The firm won the Queen's Award for Exports, and Exporter of the Year in Northern Business Awards. It acquired a Gloucestershire firm. When eventually Crabtree was sold to a German rival, then made subject of another Crabtree MBO, Karl had moved on, He calls himself an optimist - not, as he puckishly told The Journal recently, "a one-hit wonder, a fat cat, a has-been or an old man".

In 1995 he bought Newcastle's then troubled Tyne Theatre, which he sold on for others to revive. He turned to the dotcom boom in 2000, with a B2B internet company J2C (Just2Clicks). This offered local authorities and transport firms a materials marketplace.

Its shares, floated at pounds 1.50, peaked at pounds 2.44. But within two years, and dotcom's decline, the best course for over 5,000 investors, it was decided, was to liquidate, returning pounds 32.97m out of pounds 50m left from flotation - a 35.5p a share loss, hitting many investors for thousands. Karl and other board members got out in profit, as did other early investors, especially the financial institutions. But much grief was expressed before, during and after the winding-up.

He said the result for shareholders in the circumstances was excellent. The directors had not drawn salaries for some time, he for nine months. They profited, he added, because they had invested up to seven months before flotation. Critics retorted that all had also sold before a crisis meeting.

Karl said later: "I am satisfied we did a decent job, coming as it did three weeks before the market's total collapse."

The Independent said however: "No wonder Mr Watkin wants to wind up the company. It beats working for a living any day." Analysts said that while websites alongside an established company gave potential, stand-alone websites were insufficient.

Karl turned eastwards. He became a director of Dealcommunity, a network of business-to-business exchange portals for Euro-Asian commodities.

Also his RedComm, a partner of Global Point satellite business group, formed a joint venture with ZTE, China's largest sharelisted manufacturer in telecoms, and ZTE (UK), employing 40, set out to enter Europe's market of third-generation telecoms from London.

When renewable energy entered the Government's agenda, Karl masterminded D1 Oils, to run plantations in Africa and Asia providing the feed for bio-fuel refineries. The company, floated on the stock exchange, also had refineries - on Teesside and Merseyside - and operations in London, Boston, Johannesburg, Delhi and Manila.

Two misfortunes befell not only this venture but another totally unrelated North East biofuels business. A Government review urged a slowdown because of effects on costs of food. Also, American producers were cornering markets through double subsidy.

Karl criticised the Government's inaction, and denied D1's crops would affect food prices because an inedible plant, jatropha, was used.

He quit as a non-executive director, attacking also City reactions and environmentalists who said any D1 difficulties were self-inflicted, since jatropha brings other problems including lower yields and unsustainability. Refineries were He reportedly took a hit on D1, as too on China Goldmines, which he helped found but from whose board he resigned. Latterly he has set up a joint venture to reprocess mine waste in China. He acquired gold, copper and nickel mining interests there too.

It has been said, more in admiration than dismay, that had Karl been on the Titanic, he would have found a lifeboat.

"It has been said, more in admiration than dismay, that had Karl been on the Titanic, he would have found a lifeboat

1992 David Goldman, chairman, Sage Group, Newcastle.

THE late and sorely missed David Goldman bridged old and new technologies to create Sage, one of the North East's great business success stories of the past three decades. This software specialist beloved of small and medium-size industries remains, nine years after his death, one of the UK's most exciting growth stories, the only high-tech survivor of the FTSE 100 index since the dotcom collapse.

Sage succeeded so spectacularly in its formative years, many believe, because David amid excitement of new technology, always made marketing a priority. "The Customer is King," said a poster above his desk, and he let no-one forget it. His astuteness in identifying market gaps, then focusing on products and services to remove them did much to create Sage's dominance in its field.

His death at 62, after a long illness, saddened not only this region but the entire IT industry in 1999. Countless firms across the world have reason to appreciate his Sage-driven contribution to the success of their business.

He, Graham Wylie and two other talented participants started Sage, Britain's most successful software company, in 1981. David's entrepreneurial insight drove phenomenal growth - particularly from 1985.

For more than a decade he was a titan of the UK's PC industry. At a trade show at Olympia, he spotted the Amstrad 8256. On return to Newcastle, he ordered Sage's accounting software to be adapted immediately.

This was lift-off. Next year, when Amstrad launched its first PC range, small business users needed Sage's software more than the Amstrad's.

David drove acquisitions from 1988, taking Sage to mainland Europe and the USA. Its share flotation in 1989 was one of David's proudest moments.

Born in Sunderland in 1937, David left school at 16. He took accountancy articles but moved to sales promotion, advertising and public relations. In 1963 he joined Campbell Graphics, a family-run printer, and rose to managing director on pounds 12,000 a year (about pounds 100,000 today).

Business instincts showed him a need for dedicated software. He discussed with Paul Muller, a visiting American consultant, about computerising of estimates, job-costing and invoices. Paul had worked on Apollo moon shots and was lecturing on astronomy at Newcastle University

In 1981, he and Graham Wylie, then one of his students, devised an integrated hardware and software package. This "sideline" led to 80 systems being sold in two years. David, Graham, Paul and Phil Lever founded the company. David marketed, Muller directed technically. David was adamant though: "Sage is a marketing company that happens to sell software."

Intensive branding took the business ahead. Amstrad's PCW launch in 1984, and Sage's adapted software, raised sales tenfold. Tom Maxfield, today a leisure entrepreneur, joined as sales director, formalising with David the wealth-creating reseller network.

Meanwhile Campbell Graphics had been crippled by a print union's resistance to change. David, a life-long Labourite, first warned, then closed that business. Sage now had his total attention.

Graham Wylie rose to managing director, and pounds 300,000 of backing from Grosvenor Developments funded a launch of Sage's low-price popular software. In 1989, the company of 50 employees floated. Turnover: pounds 9m, profits pounds 2m. At 130p a share the firm valued at pounds 21.2m. Money raised funded overseas growth.

Sage became North East Company of the Year, David an MBE and national Entrepreneur of the Year - "in classical mould," judges said. He received an honorary doctorate from Sunderland University.

By the time he was North East Businessman Sage employed 500 worldwide. In 1994 David retired as chief executive and Paul Walker, a 1984 recruit from accountancy, succeeded him. David remained as executive chairman until retiring, ill, in 1997. Sage sales then were pounds 152m, pre-tax profits pounds 38m.

David had also become chairman of an Israeli telecoms firm sharelisted in London. Its market capitalisation, from pounds 35m in 1996, rose to more than pounds 2.5bn when David, battling with cancer, withdrew.

While canny, David still reckoned that entrepreneurs must always spot and exploit opportunity. Paul recalled: "He was such a charming man, so enthusiastic about what we would do with Sage."

One holiday he asked Paul, still a relative newcomer, to look after his new Aston Martin DB7. Paul, to his dismay, scraped it against a wall. David, on his return, didn't seem to care. "Nothing fazed him," says Paul.

David once thought he would buy two cars, three yachts "and all that". But: "When we floated I discovered it wasn't to do with that," he said. "It was to do with security and peace of mind."

Paul Muller, having wisely persuaded David not to sell Sage to Thorn EMI for pounds 1m, left the organisation in 1985 and later moved to France. Graham at 42 left more recently with around pounds 150m worth of shares to pursue his own interests.

David meanwhile served with Business Link Tyneside and held some unpaying directorships. Today he is remembered at Newcastle University through a chair of business innovation, and a visiting professorship/fellowship both in his name.

At Sunderland University there is a scholarship and an infomatics centre in his name, while the Sage runs David Goldman activities reflecting his love of music.

He would have loved the group's present pounds 60m headquarters in Newcastle and turnover now of more than a billion.

"I discovered it wasn't to do with material possessions, it was to do with security and peace of mind

1993 Chris Thompson, managing director, Express Group, Gateshead

EXPRESS Engineering Group's latest success, acclaim as one of the region's 50 fastest-growing companies, bears out continuing achievements by Chris Thompson - 15 years after his individual title success. Chris says: "The group growth comes from identifying business opportunities and matching them with good people."

Besides his responsibilities now as group chief executive of Express - called The Greenhouse by head office staff because businesses keep blossoming there - Chris is a shareholder, investor, director or chairman of more than 20 enterprises in the North East.

A serial entrepreneur, relaxed and down to earth, his knowledge and skills are also appreciated in the public sector where he promotes regional regeneration. At 51 he is a leading figure in the region's public life.

Chris has grown companies, launched successful start-ups and made several acquisitions, some of which have remained within the pounds 35m turnover Express Group or his own personal portfolio, while others have been sold to management or third parties. He is identified with more than 40 new enterprises and several international joint ventures.

His talent lies in ability to read the market and respond fast to opportunities. Express was once a sub-contractor in precision engineering. "We are more into design and higher value-added activity now," he explains. "Express has become an international design and project development concern. It makes and designs components and develops products, often in international collaboration."

To achieve this ongoing success he has outmanoeuvred low-cost competition from China and Eastern Europe.

Born at Walker in Newcastle, Chris later lived at Chapel House in the city and attended Walbottle Grammar School (now Walbottle Campus). He then studied in London, and trained to be a quantity surveyor - "not clever enough to be an architect," he says.

But as a youngster he had haunted the family business (the foundation of Express Engineering) at weekends to gain insights. He then spent later years acquiring detailed knowledge. He worked alongside his father until his father retired.

After Chris took over, sales trebled in five years. Chris - "only worry about things you can do something about" - was already taking the firm into leading-edge technology ahead of rival workshops. He entered total quality, giving 3% of turnover to training, made the business more transparent and instilled a no-blame culture.

Express Group exports about 40% of its work to more than 30 countries, anything from razor blade advancements to parts for subsea equipment and the Javelin anti-armour missile system. To nurture the growth of his firms, later he set up a pounds 2m technical centre.

With Karl Watkin he was a main instigator of Manufacturing Challenge, a self-help network.

The pounds 100m brainchild Knowledge Campus, with the world's first product development portal, is largely his brainchild. The campus on 17 acres will harness collaborative work on global product development. It will link manufacturers of original equipment, benefit local supply chains and inspire other design and technology firms.

This campus will anchor Gateshead's pounds 250m Baltic Business Park, and a prospect of 2,500 jobs with 200 firms in the joint project involving Express Group, developer Terrace Hill, regional development agency One NorthEast and Gateshead Council.

The object of the country's first Innovation Academy there is to see the commercial adoption of new technologies.

Chris's public appointments past or present include: deputy chairman, One NorthEast; chairman of the North East Employer Coalition; founder member of TDR training group for young scientists and engineers; and of the Entrepreneurs Forum. In finance support he was a co-founder of Alchemists, NStar and NSE1.

Express Group was the first private donor towards creating the Angel of the North. Proud of the region and its response to enforced de-industrialisation, Chris made considerable contributions during his term as David Goldman Visiting Professor of Innovation at Newcastle University's business school.

He jointly published a paper on the challenge of worklessness - retraining the region's long-term unemployed and guiding them back into work - which showed inadequacies of existing policy. The Government took stock.

What pleases him in business? "Knowing that through my own development and success a lot of other people working with me have also achieved their aspirations."

"A serial entrepreneur, relaxed and down to earth, his skills are appreciated in the public sector

1994 Rob Kilsby, managing director, Edwin Trisk Systems, Sunderland.

ROB Kilsby was 37 when he won the businessman of the year award for what judges called his capability, determination and flair.

He had revived limp company Edwin Trisk and made it one of the North East's most successful exporters, which it remains today though part of another group. Now Rob at 51 - like another winner of the award, Bent Henriksen - applies his skills to something quite different.

Having set the Sunderland industrial coatings firm on track for international success, he switched to childcare management and creative photography, which he had first taken up as a student. he and his wife Kaye now run Tynemouth Nursery Group and Zone4Kids, he as a managing director. His photographs have appeared in newspapers and the British Journal of Photography and are commissioned by book publishers.

One of his pictures exhibited at The Lowry has since been bought by the Professional Footballers Association, which has a reputation for making sound artistic investments.

"Quite a contrast," he agrees. "I took Edwin Trisk as far as I could. I only had a 15% stake in the business. I wanted something new to get into where I could enjoy full control.

"I saw in nursery schools a gap in the market, and every entrepreneur looks for a gap in the market. I discovered the gap when we tried to get our daughter Natalie into nursery school on North Tyneside. We couldn't find a place."

As the Kilsbys were bringing up five children in Whitley Bay, the matter became pressing. Now they supervise children up to the age of 11 themselves. They have five nursery schools and three holiday and after-school care clubs in North Tyneside and Newcastle.

Apart from gaining Ofsted approval the group has won numerous local awards. The group employs 60 and has a turnover of pounds 1.5m.

Meanwhile, Edwin Trisk was taken over in 2006 by Hedson Technologies of Sweden, a specialist in cleaning and curing equipment for the automotive industry and after market. The acquisition enabled it to sustain a claim of global leadership in its field, with 95% of production exported.

Edwin Trisk, retaining its own management, remains a strong global supplier of curing equipment for car refinishing in Europe, North America and Asia. Products feature largely infra-red dryers and air moving systems for paint shops, and further developments are planned. Trisk continues to have its own management.

Rob's strength while there lay in management expertise. He disciplined financially, and with a new management transformed the business. A graduate of Aston University in marketing and finance, he had been a chartered management accountant with Go-Ahead Northern, Bristol Street Motors and Associated Co-operative Creameries, which led the North East top companies list at one point.

He also headed the country's only remaining (yet failing) maker of English antique glass. He had never heard of the firm before and was amazed it commanded global esteem. He rejuvenated the century-old business, grafting advanced technology on to traditional methods of working. He promoted training. As with Trisk later, he saw exports as critical. He got these to record levels.

Then, on business in Japan, he met Ted Lenahan, an entrepreneur who had recently acquired Edwin Trisk. Lenahan, on return to England, also read a magazine article about Rob. He headhunted him.

Rob, though, had a shock on joining as financial director. The firm's innovative product had great growth potential but did not equate with brochure claims.

It was losing money and financially slack. There was no structure, no plan. Trading was worse than accounts indicated - by pounds 200,000 in net profit. After many months of work, problems were isolated, new financial safeguards imposed. After five months more Rob was made managing director to restore profit. He was autocratic, but ensured the company worked within means.

Cumulative losses for five months to September 1992, prior to his new regime, were pounds 148,000. To get final net profit beyond pounds 300,000 for the next year gains of pounds 450,000 plus within the next seven months were necessary. Rob beat the year's target by pounds 61,523.

The next year, profits almost doubled. An infrastructure was created to sustain 33% growth in net profit over three years. A new building was provided. Soon the firm was selling in more than 40 countries, earning a regional exporting award. 'Export, export and export' became Rob's mantra. It paid.

And Rob's creative flair goes into his photography now. The difference between his earlier success and those now is that one championed exporting while the others champion importing. Satisfaction now, as then, must be immense.

"Rob had a shock on joining as financial director. The firm's product did not equate with brochure claim

CAPTION(S):

QUALITY COUNTS Russell Croisdale, managing director of Encore Envelopes, of Washington.; FIRST WINNER Then industry minister David Trippier, left, with Ian Gregg.; PASSED THE ACID TEST Peter Cussins, front left, was voted North East Businessman of the Year in 1984.; DRIVEN Bent Henriksen turned round one of Tyneside's oldest companies from pounds 1m losses to pounds 2.5m pre-tax profits in two years.; VISIONARY Sir John Hall's MetroCentre has been much imitated, but never on such a scale. It attracts shoppers from overseas.; TALENTS PUT TO WORK Sir Peter Vardy took turnover from pounds 58m to pounds 1.6bn.; TURNAROUND Margaret Thatcher presents the North East Business Executive of the Year award to Bernard Robinson, as Paul Nicholson, left, and Joe Logan, right, look on. Mr Robinson stayed with manufacturer Tallent throughout his 46-year career.; EXPORTS Ian Harris of Bonas employed a well-trained, multi-lingual workforce.; POPULAR WINNER Dr Ralph Iley, right, North East Businessman of the year 1990.; SURVIVOR Karl Watkin receives his trophy from then prime minister John Major.; CLASSICAL MOULD David Goldman, North East Businessman of the year 1992.; BUSY CV Prince Philip was the guest of honour at the Businessman of the Year ceremony when Chris Thompson took the overall award. As well as chief at Express Engineering, Chris is involved with more than 20 enterprises in the region.; VISION Robert Kilsby took over the limp Edwin Trisk company and made it one of the North East's most successful exporters.
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Oct 31, 2008
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