Amid the plethora of awards with which North East business entertains itself, one for the most welcoming smile - if it should ever come about - would surely see Marion Bernard favourite for the prize.
More than her smile and ready humour, of course, it’s sound judgment that has had her listed as one of 50 top players in the nation’s growth company sector.
Bernard, chief executive of venture capitalist NorthStar Equity Investors (NSEI), is the only person from the North East, and one of only five women in the country, to break into this latest Power Top 50 list.
She does it with a demeanour totally in contrast to the flaming nostrils of TV take-offs like Dragon’s Den. Business XL, a magazine for entrepreneurs, compiles the chart yearly, highlighting private equity’s most influential movers and shakers.
Bernard had no idea she might be nominated, but she’s proud that people in the national venture capital/PE arena have recognised her, and by doing so, recognised the entire NSEI team, she says.
And, she adds, it raises the profile of opportunities for venture capital and big international funds in the North East. A report accompanying the list says NSEI is: “Helping fledgling businesses in a part of the country where venture capital often fears to tread.” Bernard laughingly agrees that it does make her sound something of a monetary Mother Teresa, “but whatever’s said about this region,” she suggests, “we know the knowledge economy is burgeoning here.
“That offers the opportunity to be involved at the inception of new science and technology start-ups, investing funds early when private investors may be hesitant. It’s a hotbed of talent; a great place in which to do business.” NSEI, based in Newcastle, has two funds of £42m in all under management: a North East Proof of Concept Fund (POC) and a North East Co-investment Fund (CoIF). Its 10-strong team manages these for the European Regional Development Fund and One North East. Investments are made on a strictly commercial judgment to help establish and grow companies with a technology bias.
“The biggest misunderstanding about NSEI is that we invest government money rather than investing funds on a commercial basis. We take a rigorous and commercial approach to every investment we make,” she stresses. Her best advice before a proposal is made: “Take a step back and decide if you would back this proposition yourself. And would you back yourself to fulfil it?” Bernard, still in her mid 30s, has 15 years’ experience in debt and equity finance. These include four years with Barclays where she started, and six years with 3i, where she focused on regional investing (from 3i’s Newcastle office), global technology sector investing and portfolio management (from its London operation). Then, prior to NSEI, she managed an equity gap fund for the environmental finance group Impax, supporting the recycling sector. She’s one of only a few women heading a venture capital company and investing public funds commercially along with private sector funds.
Her involvement at the inception of new-tech start-ups, and the opportunity to invest when private investors might hesitate, makes her job the most satisfying yet.
“We’re making a real difference to the local economy. Our achievement at NSEI is beyond most people’s expectations when I first took this job in 2005.
“The day-to-day, deal-by-deal activity of our team, backing world-class technologies, creating new and stronger businesses, makes it so rewarding. NSEI’s work also forms part of a bigger strategy for the North. It makes a hub for high-growth technologies, and is a major component of the Northern Way initiative.
“Collectively, NSEI is having a powerful effect on the region. It has completed nearly 300 transactions since starting in 2004, backing more than 200 high-potential companies.” She stresses again, though, that this duty to invest public funds alongside private sector investors (on a pari passu basis) calls for equally strict rules of commerciality and rigorous due diligence to test new businesses.
Proposers who are accepted get, besides financial support, lots of help to form the right offering, the opportunity to appoint a hand-picked team, and the right connections for raising further funds.
Bernard graduated from Newcastle University, returned south to work, but was then posted back to Tyneside by 3i. She returned south to Impax, then returned again on her present appointment - “the best decision I’ve ever made,” she says - and set up the family home in Hexham with her husband Mike, a senior lecturer with Northumbria University’s bar vocational course.
Mike is from Essex, Marion from Reading, and the couple sealed their affection for the North East by marrying at Chillingham Castle. What drew her to venture capitalism? Her degree was in economics, as too one of her A-Levels.
From studying global markets, the switch to finding out how finance can help people became engrossing.
“Venture capital has a multiplier effect on the economy, through direct employment, new business activity, and also the positive effect on infrastructure surrounding a business as, for example, with suppliers and customers.
“Investing in regional venture capital deals has a major positive impact on a regional economy. It’s the impact of money and the support a venture capitalist provides around money that attracts me.” Why not be an entrepreneur herself? “I’ve asked myself that. I’ve thought about it. But I’ve always pulled back up to now. I find my job really rewarding, and feel lucky to work with so many inspirational entrepreneurs.
I also recognise my strengths as assisting entrepreneurs, not trying to be one.” What’s the greatest pleasure of the job, then? “Seeing small and medium enterprises grow, and having a part in that.” Worst business mistake? “I’d prefer not to say! Of course there have been deals I’ve regretted, but if you don’t take risks as a venture capitalist you’re not trying hard enough.” She relaxes by playing the piano – classics, jazz and now gems from The Jungle Book to the delight of daughter Charlotte, who’s three.
Looking now at her 40th place in the national rankings, Bernard observes: “With some of the most experienced and successful industry players featured in the Power Top 50, I feel especially privileged to be in there; an ambassador for North East England.” ■ See the full Power Top 50 list at www.businessxl.co.uk