The light switcher

The light switcher

Alastair Waite, who has the experience, tells Brian Nicholls how switching on the light with an entrepreneurial flick can be just what’s needed to turn a hesitant company around

udges for the Institute of Directors who considered Alastair Waite for this year’s North East Director of the Year title will have been busy indeed. He has a 30 strong portfolio of business interests, built over two or three years, and requiring close consideration to understand fully his attainments.

He imparts immense expertise and guidance to speed progress for young companies and their creators. A prime example of his catalytic quality is MicroDat, a brewery equipment firm in Leeds whose latest board meeting he’d attended the day before meeting BQ. When he’d first invested in the firm, its order book stood at about £250,000. Now, only nine months later, it’s around £7.4m.

“It was a turnaround opportunity,” he explains. “They’d got stuck...had a pretty bad year. They had cash flow issues. Businesses with cash flow difficulties spend more time managing the cash than managing the business.

“When you unlock that – my investment was alongside that of a capital investment business – and when you’ve said ‘we’re not going to get here again, what went wrong, and what do we need to do?’ – and when you see the light go on, you also see management teams realise they’ve a potentially valuable business.

“The company now is flying. It’s relocating to much larger premises. You raise some funds. You show the way. That then has a momentum of its own. Often the need may have been someone to bounce ideas off. Someone to instil confidence... Discussing issues or problems, and developing strategies, is what I really enjoy.”

And look at his range of portfolio. About a score of investments are small high-tech digital start-ups. Others are longer established, like the Bowburn, Durham, engineering firm Altec, which his father set up 30 years ago and in which Alastair is major shareholder now. As he talked about this, news was emerging elsewhere of a £600k-plus investment in new machinery and £800k to expand premises. The other businesses range through IT, project planning solutions, call centre analytical software, book publishing, literacy training, and a social media website (You Gossip) involving reality star Katie Price and former footballer Ian Wright - “all different business models, run by people I love to spend time with,” says Waite.

In addition Waite, a board member of the Entrepreneurs’ Forum, has for some years mentored there. “With these businesses I probably spend more time saying ‘no, don’t do that. I think you should just look at that’. A little grey matter helps at times,” he suggests.

“I’ve heard Clive Woodward the former England rugby coach speak on mastering a skill. If you dedicate 10,000 hours to a particular sport or discipline, he said, you’ll become really good at it. After my 35 years in business – 2,000 hours a year, say, and the fact I work more than a 40 hour week - I think businesses I work with get the benefit of about 100,000 hours of expertise and many examples of how NOT to do things.”

Little wonder aspirants often approach him directly. Remarkably, Waite’s a mentor who at 52 is inspired by ongoing mentoring himself. “I’ve been fortunate throughout to have some great mentors. At 19, I had a role requiring me to review around 126 profit and loss accounts every month. The person who taught me to read P&L accounts, understand ratios, numbers and bring everything alive was then a 68-year-old retired gentleman, Jack Johnson. He was patient, methodical - had a keen eye for detail. I’ll always be grateful he saw something in me, and invested his time to help me in my first job.

“I’ve had many mentors since and still have a mentor, Peter van den Haspel. He’s a Dutch guy living in south east Netherlands. I see him about three times a year. He forces me to stop and think about what I’m doing, to focus my energies in the right areas. He challenges my thinking on personal and work areas. It’s exhausting but hugely beneficial. I understand the value of mentoring, which is why I do so much of it now for others. It’s also why I chair the mentoring sub-committee at the Forum.”

Remarkably, given his input barely covered above, his IoD nomination he’d just been told about was his first ever award nomination. “Quite a surprise,” he says. “It’s a nice feeling knowing someone appreciates what you do.”

His manner and conversation, for someone with so many commitments, is relaxed. It’s evident why he’d be welcomed as a boardroom colleague and a mentor. Outstanding to date has been his contribution over 13 years to Onyx Group, the Stockton based specialist in data centres, business continuity and systems disaster recovery. Its erstwhile parent Trade Zone made Waite managing director, impressed by his financial and development acumen.

But within six months that parent hit financial buffers. Onyx was sold to a US business that 15 months further on went bust. Unperturbed, Waite led a management buyout at the worst possible time, when money had to be raised over Christmas. But more than half the staff backed him by investing in the company - one that eventually paid off for all employees.

Today Onyx, in which Waite remains the largest individual shareholder, has six data centres across the UK including one at Gateshead. Clients include Tesco, Sky and other majors for which reliable IT is essential. Onyx attracted private equity and a deal worth £42m in 2011. Today the business is still growing strongly.

Five years ago, determined to grow the company faster, he stood down as chief executive, making time to effect several acquisitions and major projects. He then stepped down as a director in November
but retains his stake.

Many of us need a daily workplace ritual, however many bobs we’ve stashed away. Bowing out ahead of any new commitment could be scary. But for Waite, albeit dedicated to work, this is his third respite from routine. He says: “My approach wouldn’t work for everyone. I’m a glass half-full person, but everyone’s different. Some people seem to have a permanent cloud over their head, like Eeyore the donkey in Winnie the Pooh.”

So here he sat, in the gloaming of the lowly lit lounge at Jesmond Dene House Hotel in Newcastle, already with ‘one or two really interesting opportunities’ to ponder, and an earlier meeting that had thrown up a North East business that, to him, looks ‘really interesting’. He’s now lunching on coffee and two biscuits that he kindly offers to share as he tells how involvements in manufacturing and service please him equally.

“In both it’s nice to be able to grow a successful business. But one frustration,” he admits,
“is that in services you can’t see what you produce. It’s all in the internet or the cloud. I get a kick on engineering visits going to goods-outward and seeing the quality of parts – the very smell if they have a bit of oil on them. Then going home at night and getting the iron filings out of your shoes before they get into the carpet...”

He’s proud, though, to be part of Katy Parkinson’s literacy training firm, Sound Training. She started it after 16 years of delivering literacy in schools for Middlesbrough Council. He’d heard how she developed a broader concept for secondary pupils who mightn’t have grasped rules of grammar in primary school and who, consequently felt handicapped trying to learn subject matter later.

“Because secondary schools haven’t time to go back to basics, such youngsters don’t grasp the information they’re getting,” Waite elaborates. “In a group session of six weeks for one hour a week, Katy’s programme delivers a two year plus improvement to a literacy age. That’s maintained throughout the secondary school and can be life changing for the individual.“

In her first year Katy won Tees Valley New Business Award, and last year’s profit was £100,000. Working down the East Coast, she now has about 150 schools. She has a staff of eight plus teaching consultants, retirees and teachers who have gone part-time.

Waite’s digital investments have been made through schemes at Newcastle and Teesside. On Teesside he founded Searchcamp Ltd - a partnership with fellow entrepreneurs Andy Preston and Bobby Paterson, and Teesside University represented by Professor Cliff Hardcastle, deputy vice-chancellor (research & business engagement).

Waite earlier helped Mark Elliott establish DigitalCity at the university, following a coaching network called First Wednesday. Helped by regional development agency One North East, Elliott got Digital City operating as an incubator.

Searchcamp, a 12 week programme, then began last year for handpicked start-ups needing an accelerator programme, and help with developing a wide range of business. Participants fine-tune their business plan and pitch their projects to venture capitalists and ‘angel’ investors.

While the entrepreneurs and others mentored, the university gave accommodation, facilities and some of the funding. Each company received up to £15,000 of seed capital and Searchcamp got up to 10% stake in the business. The successful businesses had a prospect of follow-on funding - up to £150,000 - and a place within Searchcamp’s incubator in Middlesbrough’s Boho zone.

Among the eight companies selected out of 100 entries, four were foreign - from South Korea, Romania, Spain and Italy. Two parties merged, one dropped out and six new companies resulted. “You’ll be able to put a value on that in years to come,” says Waite.

A knack with numbers.

Hard work has made Alastair Waite. He attended three different primary schools and three different secondary schools in Spennymoor, Willington and Chester le Street, always fighting to catch up.

At 18 he ‘blagged’ his way to an interview with Safeway, convincing them that while they wanted someone with A level maths they really needed his O level maths. His ensuing job disappeared a year later with 60 others.

But two weeks on, he was put in charge of reviewing and analysing - with pencil, paper and calculator - profit and loss accounts for 126 Lipton stores monthly. He reported on an area covering the North East and Cumbria.

He was adept with numbers, percentages, ratios, trends – had a knack of spotting perhaps the only incorrect figure in many pages of accounts. When his boss fell ill he presented a budget report to the main board of directors in London.

Asked if he was chartered or certified, he replied: “Chartered or certified what..?” He was advised to study accountancy and appointed to the firm’s small team in London looking after
650 stores – three years after starting his first job.

In the final year of his six years’ study he returned north to switch to day release at Newcastle Polytechnic. “Trying to do it all by correspondence had been like trying to get a first class honours while spending three hours a day commuting and holding down a responsible job. It got a bit too much. When I decided to quit my job the reception was icy at first. Dad didn’t speak to me for a fortnight because I’d given up a well paid job. I think he’s ok with it now – just!”

Then Dad asked if Alastair could look after the business accounts. Shortly after, Bede plc, also at Durham, asked him likewise. When he’d qualified, he joined Bede, a semi-conductor instruments business full time. He was part of a small team which subsequently brought in three rounds of venture capital funding, helped grow the business to 100 staff and win several Queen’s Awards.

“When I left Bede I‘d been nine years its finance director and company secretary, and also looking after quality and manufacturing. We’d prepared the company for sale. We didn’t get an exit but I’d done all the tidying up necessary and thought it a good time to turn to something else. For the second time I decided to quit a well paid job without anything lined up. Within three weeks someone told me there was an interesting business in Middlesbrough, an internet service provider. I said I knew nothing about technology.

They said ‘well actually they just want a managing director with knowledge of business.’ So there I was with Onyx.”

His inspirations throughout? “Mum and dad are really hard workers.” His father set up two companies, one while he still worked full time at Durham University. His parents also ran a pub at Tow Law and had mobile catering facilities they took to motorcycle scrambles. Dad has built a replica 1935 Bugatti and now, at 76, visits the gym four times a week.