When Norman Peterson was construction director for an American cable company, he had to supervise the digging-up of Leeds pavements to lay 3,600km of underground network for the internet in less than four years.
"Imagine the logistics," he reflects on his 1994 task for Bell Canada. "Like a military operation. One of my jobs was to meet interest groups to detail what we were doing and why, standing up in a packed church hall perhaps and explaining the internet to maybe 100 people.
"They'd say: 'We don't want the internet. We're happy with our telephone from BT.' I explained how they'd be able to shop online, plan holidays and all that. They'd reply: 'We don't want to do that.'
"I'd dearly love to ask them now what the internet has done for them. It has done so much, it's one of the wonders of the world. In future history, it'll be seen as one of humanity's main events. It's transformational...and constructive. There are one or two negatives. But it won't go away. So we can do everything streamlined, using technology to connect people."
Right now, significantly for Norman, brother Craig and anyone anxiously seeking funds to grow a business, or struggling to buy a house, the internet looks like a friend indeed. In the US, crowdfunding has been triggered on the internet by legislation that's stepping up job creation and economic growth through better access to public capital markets for emerging growth companies.
Centred previously on New York, crowdfunding is now globally mainstream via the first Silicon Valley crowdfunding conference. Independent monitors of subsequent web traffic describe the interest as exploding at a rate rivalling anything before.
In the UK, where Business Secretary Vince Cable sees it as "a very important new initiative", platforms such as Crowdcube and Seedrs have already been officially accredited by regulatory authorities.
Global business consultant Deloitte predicts that crowdfunding portals - putting people with money in touch with people who need money to accelerate business - will raise £1.9bn this year, more than double the 2011 total. Nesta, the UK's innovation foundation, believes within five years crowdfunding could provide up to £15bn of finance a year in the UK alone.
It even suggests it may eventually capture a hefty slice of the £115bn financial services cake. So in Newton Aycliffe the Petersons are combining personal expertise, intensively honed over two years, with a crowdfunding launch enabling their company Carlton & Co to collate gap funding for growth-hungry firms - as well as for housebuilding and public sector projects.
It's an electronic leap for the award-winning firm started in 2000 simply to regenerate housing and commercial property, and which has also emerged since as a one-stop facilitator for young and growing businesses. Its crowdfunding will go along two avenues - one for straightforward financing, the other for growth funding.
About growth funding, they explain: "Bank lending for large capital projects such as housing, commercial property and infrastructure projects is scarce. But funding solutions are available if we think differently, and consider alternative sources of private sector finance to match the reduced levels of public sector funding now available."
They've more than 50 years' experience between them in commercial and residential property and infrastructure, and 13 awards in five years affirming their competence.
They also run a successful workspace hub on Aycliffe Business Park for a score of small businesses, where they not only represent the developers Gladman Group in an agency role, but are also strategic advisers, funding partners and development specialists in support of the tenants.
Before Carlin & Co, Norman had enjoyed building homes for his family. Craig was regional production director at Bryant Homes.
Craig suggested they should themselves design and build quality homes for sale. While they couldn't compete against volume players, for eight years they built distinctive upmarket homes, their awards including best luxury home, best small builder, best town house and even reaching national finals out of 18,000 projects.
They remediated land, building on sites such as a defunct petrol filling station. Every project won a National House Building Council award, and Craig himself lives in a house developed beside Aycliffe Village green.
Town houses at Eaglescliffe gained regional acclaim. Glebe Farm Court, at West Boldon, was converted into nine distinguished homes from a derelict farm steading. Houses developed there from existing buildings slightly resembled courtyard stables, while the main farmhouse fronting became a Georgian residence that quickly sold for nearly a million in 2007.
The sum of the parts won a "best in the North" award for the company, then with a workforce of 85. When the market turned the brothers were well prepared and switched to a commercial portfolio.
Craig also gained an MBA studying alternative sources of finance, particularly long term investing via pension funds. Norman at Oxford did a course on private equity, met fund managers there and in London, and assimilated what drives them.
"We've stitched all that now into an offer, looking at 30 to 45 year funding for housing," says Norman. They fitted out a workspace hub at Chester le Street for Gladman, then from the same client got the chance to build up the hub at Aycliffe. They offered to turn it into one of the "buzziest" places and fill it - which they did, and now operate it also on the client's behalf. Tenants increasingly asked for ideas on raising finance, and also now get advice on strategy and growth.
"We now offer anything upward from a virtual office and an address - plus service, planning, strategy, training workshops, support, finance systems and a funding platform. That's what differentiates us from businesses simply offering space to let," they point out.
They also now have housing associations in their sights, a sector eager for long term finance. With banks short-term orientated, Carlton & Co intends to crowdfund a bridge linking association with institutional pension funds looking, as ever, for havens where their considerable investments can lie safely for up to 45 years.
Norman explains: "Banks previously lent on 30 year terms and a housing association could develop confidently. Now banks must match liabilities so really only want to lend for two to five years, leaving a big gap. And whereas pension funds previously invested in long-term government gilts, values there have come down.
"So pension funds and housing investment can make a perfect marriage. The pension funds need their safe haven and housing needs long-term investment.
“Despite the critical housing shortage, you can't rely on housebuilders now to deliver volume. Associations, such a powerful player, are the biggest opportunity to get us out of the difficulties.
"There are billions in pension funds looking for a home. Associations provide such a home in the USA and Europe, but there was never such need before in the UK because housing associations got government grants. With grants severely depleted the associations have lost their two main inputs.
"A platform like ours will help pension funds enable associations to refinance their portfolios. There's a pyramid of about 1,400 associations in the UK. Maybe the top 20 or 30 are big enough to raise finances for themselves in the bond market. Among the rest, many may only need £10m. You can't go to the bond market at that size.
“On our private placement platform they'll be able to send out their requirements quickly without bond documentation. Also, we'll offer with a private placement the knowledge of what the deal is before they commit. If they don't like it they don't need to do it. On the bond market they don't know what the deal is until the deal's done. So they don't know the rate until it's all bid up.
"You wouldn't want to do a commercial scheme like this because you don't have the guaranteed income," Norman points out. "But housing's so much in demand. If we could drop a million houses onto the UK today we'd only be realising demand. The Labour government planned to build 250,000 a year. We're nowhere near that and getting worse off with every passing year.
"Housing associations appeal to pension funds since they're almost like a quasi-government operator. The associations have waiting lists. The minimum offering from a fund manager will probably be £10m, but that's 100 homes. Commercial property already provides a home for pension fund investing. Housing's the last big asset class yet to be tapped in the UK."
Carlton will similarly proposition local authorities and other asset developers. Schools and hospitals need finance and offer a good revenue stream. In growth funding, Carlton will look to present local opportunities initially, with Newton Aycliffe already a promising launch point. "You can imagine the need for smaller companies around here to support Hitachi's train factory opening here soon. Job numbers are already rising at this hub, and we'll aim to get supply chain companies in on a full service one-stop offer."
Existing occupiers at the hub, currently full but capable of expansion to 900 jobs, include a web design firm and a software specialist in steel stockholding. A recent crowdfunding seminar Carlton held drew two "really good" leads from an attendance of 30. Two investor presentations are now planned.
"If we can make this work in Newton Aycliffe we can then make it work around the UK," Norman suggests.
"We'd like to open hubs like this in London, Manchester and Newcastle. We can help with the business plan and we've the experience needed to draw financial support from banks and elsewhere." The firm's already working with a local entrepreneur who's opening a five-a-side indoor soccer-drome nearby.
"But planning in ones doesn't always excite outside investors," the Petersons say. So now we're working towards opening up to five more in 10 years. We have potential sites in the North East."
For equity stakes in growth businesses, fund managers can consider Carlton's platform for private sector investment, see what they like and perhaps make a heads of terms offer. The internet should attract interest far beyond the North East.
The online investors will put up £1,000 upwards initially and, as a platform member, exercise their own judgment with investments of £100 upwards. Encouraged by recent Budget incentives, and the fact that crowdfunding's already at work in Poland and India, Carlton & Co is now entering its official request for regulatory permission, and talks are being held with three parties with a view to finding a strategic partner. The firm is also creating pre-marketing awareness, building a customer base and working with four companies that will raise funds.
To be close to fund managers it has opened a London office, in Berkeley Square no less, and if response matches enthusiasm a nightingale should sing there before long.
Norman says: "There are crowdfunding platforms already out there that will let anyone list anything. But that can be damaging for a platform. Our view's that anything on our platform will be fundable. and we should close the deal. “We'd rather have two to four good investable opportunities than a whole load, some of which just won't get going."
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