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The big feature: Do-it-yourself regeneration as the big firms wind down; Two of the biggest firms on the banks of the Mersey are behind projects to create new business parks in space that is now surplus to requirements. And all without a penny of subsidy, reports Larry Neild.

Byline: Larry Neild

IT WAS a cradle-to-grave employer and thousands of families relied on its continued success. But when ICI finally pulled out of one of its key home territories, Runcorn, it marked the end of an era.

The Heath office complex was the purpose-built European headquarters of Mond Division, the largest within the once extensive ICI family.

Around 1,600 people worked at The Heath in its heyday, ranging from senior executives to office staff, technicians and research and development scientists.

The gradual exodus over a number of years placed a major question mark over the future of a sprawling office and research facility built on a prime greenfield site in the 1960s.

Not only were there fears of a brain drain as the scientists left, but also concerns about future job prospects for the army of loyal ICI employees.

Thanks, though, to a team of ICI executives The Heath is a thriving community of 75 small businesses, employing well over 1,000 people with the prospects of hundreds more joining them in the next year or so. It is expected that the number of firms will grow to over 100 within a year.

The team raised money through bank loans and their own resources to buy the entire complex for an undisclosed sum, running into several million pounds, beating off around 20 rival bids for the prestige site.

They have never sought or received any grants of public funding for their enterprise which has seen The Heath rise like a phoenix from the ashes of ICI.

It is a perfect example of how private enterprise, entrepreneurship and a business idea has paid off.

Not only is The Heath once again a hive of activity, but it is one of the biggest job generators in Runcorn, a town with an unemployment level of 5.4pc compared with the North West average of 3.6pc.

It is a similar story along the Mersey coastline at Ellesmere Port. There Associated Octel, a company based at Newark, New Jersey, has opened up the gates of its 85-acre site to outside tenants.

Octel has created, alongside its petrol additive plant, the Cheshire Manufacturing Park, again without any grants or subsidies.

In less than two years it has attracted 17 tenants to the park, with more expected to arrive in the coming months.

Both sites say that their costs are highly competitive, but direct comparisons with grant-aided business parks is difficult because individual packages are created depending on the needs and level of services required by customers.

It was in 1998 that The Heath dream was launched as a result of an idea to turn a business concept into a reality by Peter Cook and his team.

Cook was a member of a specialist managerial team, Site Operations Group, the people responsible for running and looking after a vast complex of offices, laboratories and other facilities.

He said: ``When ICI took the strategic decision to pull out of general chemicals into specialist chemicals it was obvious that the vast facilities it had in Cheshire and the North East would no longer be needed.

``The Wilton Centre in the North East was the first to be put up for sale by ICI and was bought by a financial investment company who did not need any of the ICI staff at the site.

``We realized that we would be next when The Heath was put up for sale. Our group managers held a meeting and we discussed what to do; wait until somebody bought the site and then risk losing our jobs, or take charge of our own destinies.

``We were all convinced that there was risk of The Heath going the same way as Wilton, with us having to leave our jobs. We decided to put in our own bid for The Heath.''

They formed a consortium - SOG Ltd, taking the initials of their own old group name - brought on a management expert, John Lewis, and a finance expert Carol Thomas, on board and won the race to buy the entire complex.

At first they tried to persuade ICI to agree to a management buy-out, but the chemical giant wanted to sell the site outright so that its interests could be drawn to a complete close.

``We were told that we would have to put forward a competitive bid, and we won preferred purchaser status and then an exclusive contract,'' said Cook.

When SOG finally took charge of The Heath in 2000, there were just a dozen businesses operating there, legacies of the old ICI operations.

Today the number of ICI employees on site is down to 150, a number that will gradually diminish as ICI relinquishes its interests in the Cheshire town. ICI is now a tenant of SOG.

Cook is managing director of SOG, the company he helped launch to run The Heath as a business and technical park.

He successfully combined his background in chemical engineering with a career as a business leader. In his days with ICI he was part of ICI's petrochemical design team, working in places such as Turkey, South Africa and Australia.

From plant manager to project manager, his ICI days ended in the role of site operations group manager at Runcorn Heath - the site he now partly owns.

There are now more than 70 businesses based on the 54-acre Runcorn site, attracted from as far away as the USA and Belgium.

Firms who have moved into what is a business village community range in size from one-man operations to companies employing 70 staff.

Cook added: ``We are literally a village, offering small and new businesses corporate facilities without the cost. We have restaurants, meeting and entertaining facilities and it means that our tenants have everything they need without ever leaving the site. That makes it good for efficiency. We have 84,000 sq ft of laboratories and specialist technicians on site, and we have flexible packages to suit our customers.

One person impressed by the re-birth of The Heath is former Conservative transport minister Steven Norris.

He said: ``The Heath is an excellent example of business regeneration. Small and growing businesses increasingly need the kind of space that The Heath has to offer. I think the SOG team has done a brilliant job with the site.

``What The Heath shows most of all is that Runcorn is no longer an ICI town, although ICI is still a significant benefactor to the region. The Heath is moving with the times.''

Details on: www.sog.ltd.uk

Team at the heart of the new-era Heath

Managing Director: Peter Cook. Spent 35years with ICI. Chartered engineer and a member of the Institution of Chemical Engineers. His final role with ICI as operations group manager at The Heath gave him responsibility for managing and operating what was ICI's major North West business and technical centre.

Alan Houghton: Specialist Services Director.Joined ICI in mid-1960s as a polymer chemist, becoming a health and safety specialist for the company. He worked as safety adviser at The Heath, ultimately becoming the centre's safety, health and environment manager. He is a member of the Institute of Safety in Technology and Research.

Tony Banner: Customer Services Director. Quali-fied instrument engineer and chemical plant controller, he used to manage a team of contractors when The Heath was part of ICI. As part of the core group that transferred the site to SOG, he is responsible for a budget running into millions of pounds.

Bob Moore: TechnicalDirector. A former marine engineer, he spent his early career training as a mechanical and marine engineer at sea. He joined the Royal Fleet Auxiliary in his 20s and became an engineering officer on a number of passenger and cargo ships. He took shore-based jobs at shipyards in Japan, Australia, Norway and India before joining ICI. The two directors who have not worked for ICI are John Lewis and Carol Thomas. Mr Lewis is Marketing Director. His first contact with The Heath in its ICI days was as a carpet fitter for a family-run business. He rose to become managing director of RJ Lewis Management Services and played a pivotal role in helping SOG purchase The Heath from ICI.

Carol Thomas is financial director. She is a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants and spent more than 10 years with Ernst & Young in London and Manchester.

CAPTION(S):

PETER COOK: `We had to take charge of our own destinies.'; KEY PERSONNEL: SOG's founder-directors, from left, Bob Moore, Tony Banner, Peter Cook, John Lewis and Alan Houghton
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Sep 25, 2002
Words:1425
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