Mitten’s for the frozen wastes

Mitten’s for the frozen wastes

Even business rivals are moved to sponsor Michael Mitten on his fundraising adventure to the North Pole. He updates Brian Nicholls on his Polar expedition preparations.

What sort of boss, in extreme times like these, flees in-trays and workforce to scuffle, ski and drag a 50kg sled in temperatures of -90C at the North Pole? In this case a far-sighted one, who has had to ensure his business is top order before clumping onto the Arctic snows in a climate even more frigid than the economic bleach-out here.

Michael Mitten’s True North challenge, which he completed two days ahead of schedule saw him ski for six days from a floating ice station in the Arctic Circle to the Geographic North Pole. He skied for up to ten hours a day, pulling a 50kg sled.

Temperatures of -50C were compounded to -90C with the wind chill factored in. It could hardly be described as a holiday, and he has been fully cognisant from the outset that he had to meticulously plan both the expedition and his £3m-turnover business to ensure it could withstand his absence.

That he considered his charity mission for Macmillan Cancer Support at all has rested on the blood, sweat and tears he has poured into Newcastle-based Houghton International over the last three and a half years.

Michael has an easy manner and talks with the wisdom of someone two decades older than his 30 years.

His energy and enthusiasm were crucial in pulling the business successfully through a financial crisis as potentially de-stabilising as any Arctic blizzard. It occurred when 9/11 devastated the market and Enron, representing half the firm’s business, collapsed.

The loss of a second major customer drained revenues a further 15%, but the company pulled round, and if grit is what walking on top of the world calls for, then grit he has.

He succeeded his father Ron in the family business at 27 and became the main shareholder. Sadly, Ron was diagnosed with cancer a year later.

“My dad put up the bravest of fights,” he says.

“He was still golfing after four bouts of chemotherapy that would have floored many people. On the day he died, I decided to do something extraordinary to mark his life and to raise money for Macmillan, who had helped my dad and our family throughout.” Meanwhile, Michael was working to ensure that Houghton International was renowned among specialists in electric motor and alternator repair. Be it small automation motors or power-station sized alternators, the company can respond to emergencies. It serves on and offshore, and imparts knowledge and expertise in 10 countries. Because its four divisions embrace 10 sectors, Michael believes any further difficulties can also be faced with confidence.

“I can go on this expedition because we work across the piece like this,” he says.

”Presently, we are being hit terribly by the automotive downturn - our general industrial motor repairs at Nissan, Komatsu and Caterpillar and their suppliers, for example.

But we are seeing massive growth in the rail industry, power generation and oil and gas.” The business works also in wind power, industrial, water, new and reconditioned motors, marine, mining and coil manufacturing.

Twelve new appointments have increased the workforce to 66, with two more to come as the company looks for additional workspace close to its Walker base.

Another reason for Michael’s confidence in leaving the business to take on the challenge is the development path he has taken management and staff along.

His lieutenants now lead day to day, enabling Michael to concentrate on longer-term strategy.

“I am handing over production in phases. I felt a need to do that anyway, and as I had to spend so much time training and fundraising, I knew if I also continued to try to make all the business decisions the service and quality levels would drop.

That’s no good for anyone.” Major investment has gone into development for managers and supervisory staff through the Institute of Leadership and Management.

“Within the firm, confidence has grown, so we have grown as a business. A management team underpins our success now.” And Michael practises what he preaches.

“Besides coaching and guiding the team, I’ve also spent a lot to develop myself. I’ve had a mentor and coach for six years.

I’m part of Vistige, a chief executive organisation that exposes me to new ideas and thinking.” The company was set up by his mother, Christine, whom he describes as ‘an amazing woman’.

“In 1984, she started with one customer - my dad. We were in Nigeria.

Dad had been seconded there to set up a company doing what we do here in motor repairs, but for the massive Blue Circle cement plant.

“My dad grew that shop into the biggest of its kind in West Africa. After a fall out with his employers, customers urged him to set up a business. My mother jumped on a flight home, set up Houghton International Services and shipped equipment out to my dad.

“They ran that for years, did quite well, then decided to set up a repair company here, and also a manufacturing side.” Michael, born in Guisborough and now living in Heaton, Newcastle, was head boy of Houghton le Spring’s comprehensive school, leaving at 15 to be an apprentice in the business.

He studied on day release at college and entered university with an ONC. At Salford University he read business economics unhappily, but emerged from the University of Central Lancashire with a degree in journalism.

“That taught me a lot – more than anything, how to communicate effectively and how to listen.  I learned how to question people. If I didn’t think something was right, I would always ask why.  Those journalistic skills stood me in great stead for business and will help when I write a book about the expedition.

“During university holidays I was always back at the factory learning skills and doing night shift, or whatever - to pay for term-time drinking! I got a rounded and broad education, and skills to pull on.” At 22, he persuaded his father to let him join a trade mission to Hong Kong.

“I’ve always loved travel. When dad was a tax exile our holidays were spent globetrotting. I was incredibly fortunate.

“I had been as a kid to Hong Kong, where an uncle lived for 25 years. I fancied going back. When I came back from the mission with orders for £60,000, dad said, ‘right, where are you going next?’ I became the firm’s de facto salesman.” He brought business from the USA, Asia and Europe.

“I had a knack for forming good relations. I learned from other people, agents particularly, to be customer-focused and flexible.

It’s alright going out to sell something, but if they don’t want to buy that exactly, you have to tailor it to what they do want.” There are some cheques in support of Michael’s expedition on his desk the day we meet, including one for £1,000 from one of his main business competitors. It is one of two large donations cheques from sector rivals.

“These are people we compete with day to day. Things like that have blown me away,” Michael says, with high hopes that as sponserships continue to come in he will secure for Macmillan Cancer Support a sum beyond the £15,000 that awaited him on his return.

What do his employees think? “Well, a couple raised an eyebrow as if to say, ‘oh God, what’s he doing now?’, but when I explained what it was about, and why, they were really supportive of me.” Crucial timing To complete the True North challenge, Michael skied for six days, dragging his 50kg sled behind him, from a floating ice station in the Arctic Circle to the Geographic North Pole.

Michael’s moneyraiser is no mere impulse. He had the opportunity to tackle the South Pole some time ago, but felt the timing was wrong in terms of the management restructure at work. Last November, however, the geographic North Pole became a possibility, and training began in earnest.

“I was very clear, and had thought a lot about it beforehand. Now the expedition has coincided with the company’s move onto its next level.” The furthest north Michael has been before was Iceland – on a coach tour.  He has done the Great North Run three times (best time 1hr 59mins) and he has also skydived and bungee jumped for charity.  His sole companion for the challenge is Doug Stoup, an expedition leader who had made the gruelling journey eight times before and is an expert camper in exacting conditions.

“The journey is 80 miles as the crow flies, but far longer actually, since you may have to walk round or paddle through splitting ice and climb or ski around snow ridges up to 40ft high,” he says.

“There are different kinds of ice and snow you must know how to approach.  It’s not like pulling a sledge on an ice rink.” He had the support of both the women in his life, his fiancée Dorcas and his mum, Christine.

“She, like my dad, has been a real inspiration. She has suffered from multiple sclerosis for 12 years and almost died from it.

“She was confined to a wheelchair, but she pulled herself round and can now walk three miles or more through sheer bloody will power.

She has raised more than £30,000 heading up activities in the Sunderland area for the MS Society.” Besides spending 10 hours each week fundraising and publicising the trip in recent months, Michael had got into shape with up to 12 hours a week training, arriving at the gym at 7am and visiting twice a day sometimes, and doing lots of endurance walking.

At weekends, to the curiosity of onlookers on the North East’s beaches, he dragged a mock sled made from an old conveyor belt along the sands.

At 25kg, it was half the weight of the one he took on the trip and which bore a canoe, his tent, food and supplies on this journey of a lifetime.

Up in the Cheviots on the Sunday before this interview, he clambered through 5ft deep snow – “It was really good training … I was knackered!” On the following Sunday, it was a five-mile run between Beadnell and Craster, then a 15-mile hike to the top of Cheviot.

He planned a long weekend in Chamonix for final cold weather training, getting used to pulling the sled while on skis. And what did he think about on the march? “A nice hot bath!”