‘I think we’re at quite a pivotal decision point for the North East,’ explains Jeremy Middleton, a high profile investor and entrepreneur based in Gosforth who heads up Middleton Enterprises, a £50m enterprise fund that backs developing North East businesses. ‘We [as a region] have historically tended to hold out a begging bowl to London and say ‘give us more money’ which sounds like a good idea, but I’m not convinced.’ Jeremy believes we have an economy too reliant on the public sector and work must be done to help grow the North East’s private sector, something he is actively doing via the investment company he setup in 2000. ‘We invest in a range of asset classes and it’s largely North East focused. Generally it’s us looking from the outside and forming a view on whether a business is going to work or not. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we don’t.’
An example of Middleton Enterprises getting it right can be found in the case of D-Line, a company based in the North East that sells decorative trunking for concealing wires. Grown from scratch, a combination of investment from Jeremy’s company and Newcastle based investors Northstar Ventures has helped D-Line’s creator, Paul Ruddock grow the company into a global exporter with multimillion pound sales. ‘They export heavily into South Africa and lots of European countries and they’re starting to sell in North America. I think it’s got a lot of growth potential and is a good example of a company that’s helping our trend on exports.’
Though originally from the Midlands, Jeremy has called the North East home for almost 30 years now and is keen to see the region fulfil its potential but believes a lack of cohesion between the way our local authorities operate holds us back. Pointing to the example of Manchester, who have created a £2 billion infrastructure fund by acting as one local authority, Jeremy believes that were the North East to follow suit, we could create a billion pounds worth of infrastructure investment. ‘We ought to be making the case to government, as a group of seven local authorities, that if we make a big investment and create a thriving area for business we get a cut of the tax produced.’ He paints a tantalising picture that shows the North East fixing its own infrastructure problems without use of a ‘begging bowl’. ‘We can sort out our marketing and skills by operating as one area, we ought to be number one in education because we control the education system here and we have a chance to be competitive and number one for finance in early stage business development. There’s plenty we can do but if you spend your whole time not sorting out your problems and simply saying “give us more money because we’re poor,” that’s not the way to go.’
Establishing a competitive edge is key to future prosperity and Jeremy believes we have a platform in place to become world leaders in advanced manufacturing. ‘We’ve got great clusters of fantastic automotive businesses here: Nissan in Sunderland, Hitachi in Durham, offshore gas is booming on the banks of the Tyne and we could be the world’s leading sector for wind power in due course. If you add those together you have a huge advanced manufacturing opportunity.’ To capatilise on this potential Jeremy believes that education is key, ‘We’ve got to put education at the heart of it because that’s how we get a skilled labour force, take advantage of all the apprenticeships and grow them so we have a better workforce than anywhere else.’
Jeremy is well placed to offer an opinion on the shape of the region’s economy. As well as heading up Middleton Enterprises, he is a business representative on the North Eastern Local Enterprise Partnership, a philanthropist on the board of a number of local charities and a leading Conservative, having been Deputy Chairman of the Party until March last year when his term in office came to an end. ‘I hold no official position in the Conservative Party anymore but I do know quite a lot of ministers, so that is something that is, on occasion, helpful. We work well together on the LEP Board with local authority leaders of different political hues because we’ve all got the same objective.’
Despite working extensively in the investment and political sectors Jeremy has always looked at marketing as one of his main strengths, particularly after an early attempt to forge a career in finance got off to a false start. He worked in clearing banking for Barclays on their graduate programme, ‘I wasn’t any good at it and they didn’t like me much,’ he recalls. Turning his attentions to finding a role in marketing he spotted an advert for a job at Proctor & Gamble. ‘I came up for the interview and thought ‘blimey, I’m not going to come and work in the North East, it takes forever to get here,’ but they offered me a job and I was bowled over by it.’ Falling in love with the region and his new role at P&G, Jeremy started as a graduate again, only this time in brands, becoming a brand manager in due course and looking after marketing for the likes of Zest and Fairy Liquid. ‘Marketing suited me much better because banking was, in those days, about not making mistakes and I don’t think I’m particularly good at not making mistakes. In marketing there was more opportunity to make the positive things count.’
Jeremy’s role at Proctor & Gamble took him to Egypt where he was tasked with introducing detergent to a country where, at the time, the majority of the population didn’t have electricity. The turning point came at 27 when he realised his career was turning increasingly international. Ultimately he wanted to work for himself rather than someone else, so he made the decision to return to the UK and the North East, taking a consultancy job with PricewaterhouseCoopers. ‘The idea was to be in consultancy and look at a lot of different businesses with a view to trying to start up one of my own.’
After gaining experience at PricewaterhouseCoopers, Jeremy partnered up with Richard Harpin, a colleague from his time at Proctor & Gamble, agreeing to go into business together, splitting any earnings 50/50. ‘First of all we bought properties together and set up a letting agency called Professional Properties. Then we opened a mortgage broking business and tried lots of other businesses linked to property.’ From lettings to interior design and domestic cleaning, Jeremy and Richard succeeded in creating businesses with lots of turnover, but were still losing money. ‘There was lots of activity going on because we were very good at marketing but we weren’t very good at handling money!’ Desperate for cash to fund their various business interests, Jeremy began pitching to public utilities with the idea of setting up a plumbing business in the wake of water privatisation. He got ‘a bite’ from water provider South Staffs Water who Jeremy and Richard persuaded to invest in their idea for a national franchise model focusing on home emergencies. The pair had already setup an emergency plumbing business of their own as part of a growing business portfolio but, backed by the financial clout of South Staffs Water, were able to roll this out on a far larger scale.
‘Over time the business became bigger, but after a while we realised that selling plumbing emergency services to the 15 percent of people who have emergencies is a tricky way to make money and if we sold something to the 85 percent who didn’t, it would generate more revenue. So we sold warranty schemes against accidents happening.’ Claiming money from people who weren’t using the service changed the economics dramatically and, applying marketing skills honed at P&G, Jeremy and Richard grew a sizable business that became Homeserve which they eventually floated and is now a FTSE 250 company with a turnover in the region of £800 million.
The success of Homeserve allowed Jeremy to setup Middleton Enterprises in 2000, a company that invests in a range of asset classes: listed stocks and shares to private equity and commercial property. It has also left him in a position to indulge his passion for philanthropy, and take on a range of challenges he calls ‘adventure-lite’ that have seen him raise hundreds of thousands of pounds for charity. ‘I started out like many others, I never used to really do exercise until somebody challenged me to do the Great North Run which I did in a time I won’t tell you!’ After the Great North Run, Jeremy upped the anti significantly and took on challenges that took him to the summit of mountains, reaching the heights of Kilimanjaro, Mont Blanc, Mount Elbrus and take on the ‘Everest’ of polar expeditions when he travelled the last degree to the North Pole, raising over £25,000 for St Oswald’s in the process. ‘The North Pole challenge was very unusual and pretty hard work, then I climbed Mont Blanc which I thought was the highest mountain in Europe but on the way down I found out that it wasn’t, it’s actually Mount Elbrus in Russia so we had to go and climb Mount Elbrus after that!’
The difficulty and danger of these challenges were epitomised last year by Jeremy’s attempt on Mount McKinley in Alaska which, at 6,194 metres above sea level, is the highest mountain in North America. ‘It’s a month-long trip and pretty cold so you have to train for it.’ Jeremy’s preparation for McKinley saw him dragging tractor tyres around Newcastle’s Town Moor for three hours at a time whilst wearing a weighted backpack to prepare his body for the challenge of climbing 12 hours a day, carrying 80 lbs worth of essential kit. ‘I’m quite slight so I had to put on weight to be able to do it. Training on the Town Moor was a) knackering and b) intimidating because the cows kept on trying to mate with my tractor wheel. I’d have about 50 cows following me around which was a bit weird – I looked a very odd sight. People would regularly stop and have a laugh.’ However, when Jeremy got to Alaska and began the challenge, it became no laughing matter as a spate of avalanches wiped out all but one of the Japanese climbers on the trip ahead of them. ‘We met the only survivor coming back down: that makes you think. Everyone is tied together on ropes and there was an avalanche, it caught five of them and it pushed the sixth guy into a cravass, and that pulled the next guy into the cravass, and the next one and the next one and when it stopped there was just the one guy left and he was half buried. He dug himself out, cut the rope and walked out, everyone else is still there. Half a mountain’s fallen on them. That’s why I’m not planning on doing anymore adventures like that.’
While mountains may now be off limits, Jeremy describes his next challenge as a ‘modest bike ride’ from Paris to London. ‘I do them because I can, it’s challenging and I enjoy it. I like the outdoors and I like a challenge: I do it more to try and keep fit than because I am fit. I’m just a middle aged guy just giving it a go.’ As well as putting his body, and at times his life, on the line for good causes, Jeremy has lent his business nous to St Oswald’s commercial company. After voluntarily offering his expertise in 2001, Jeremy is now a Director of St Oswald’s promotions company, which run the charity’s network of retail shops and very successful regional lottery. More recently he has joined the board of the Cyrenians, a high profile North East charity that focuses on the socially excluded.’ It’s challenges and work like this that led to Jeremy being awarded a CBE from Her Majesty the Queen in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace in the New Year, an honour he described as ‘exciting and unexpected.’
Giving back to the area where he has established a successful career and life for himself with his wife Catherine and three children: Jessica, Lucy and James, is clearly something that is high on Jeremy’s agenda. ‘I’ve lived in a few places over the years but I just think the North East’s got everything. It has enough infrastructure to be connected to the world, which is important in business, but it’s sufficiently small to be quite intimate, so you can get to know the business community very well. It would be nice if it was a few degrees warmer but apart from that I think it’s hard to beat.’
With people like Jeremy in the North East’s corner, the region will always have a fighting chance.