He's the successful entrepreneur whose managerial and leadership skills really shine. An astute, assured and authoritative man, Bryan Bunn has a passion that burns brightly for the North East and its people.
Bunn is an engineer at heart, but with substantial experience on an international scale. His rapidly expanding firm, Nortech Solutions Ltd, was established two years ago with just four people. Now it employs 80, serving the process, offshore, onshore oil and gas, steel and iron industries with its project management and design engineering capabilities.
It’s the sort of growth that doesn’t go unnoticed – with a multi-million pound offshore oil and gas contract win with Aberdeen-based EnQuest last year, and becoming North East Newcomer of the Year at The Journal’s 2013 North East Business Awards.
Speaking from the company’s headquarters at Wynyard Park, Teesside, Bunn said: “At the end of the first year, our turnover was ï¿½1.1m, and the accounts for the end of the second year, which end in March 2013, are around ï¿½8.2m. We’ve also expanded our office space twice on the same business park. I’d like to think turnover would be around ï¿½10m to ï¿½12m next year. We are an independent company, we have no financial backers and we’ve been able to reinvest in the company.”
And Bunn now has another ambition – to help as many young people as he can to get into engineering, promoting apprenticeships along the way.
He said: “An apprenticeship brings so many life skills, responsibility, accountability, training and education at a crucial age. It shapes you. It’s a great start in life.
“I am currently trying to organise an apprenticeship scheme to take on two people ourselves this year. I totally buy into that, we’ve got to reinvest. I’m passionate about it and I’m also passionate about the skills of the North East workforce. We massively undersell ourselves.”
And his view of the education system? “I think that we have been churning out people with degrees that add no value to life with no job prospects. As an employer it becomes very difficult to filter out those people because everyone has a degree, eight per cent of them may be meaningless, so it becomes harder to filter out the gems.”
It’s doubtful any of Bunn’s own achievements would have come to fruition if it wasn’t for his background as an engineering apprentice.
His initial interest in industry arose through a geographical perk – growing up on Teesside back when young boys either headed for heavy industry or down the pit. Back then, a job really was for life.
Bunn attended Brunner Comprehensive School in Billingham, but he wasn’t interested in the academic side, his passion was sport.
He said: “I didn’t like school, I was a typical boy and just loved sport. To be fair, I wasn’t very academic. It was only in later life I realised I’d wasted the opportunity and so I had to supplement it with studies.
“As a 15-year-old when you had to go to the careers teacher and they asked you what you wanted to do, I had no idea. I said plumbing and pipe-fitting because I knew someone in the year above who’d done it. At the time, more or less everyone got a job, so it was a case of which job did you want. No one went to university and for those that did it was like – wow!”
Bunn left school at 16 and started a technical engineering apprenticeship with ICI in Billingham, Teesside.
He said: “The technical training apprenticeship at ICI was fantastic, I worked my way up on the tools. If I hadn’t had that opportunity I don’t know what I would have done. At the time, as a 16-year-old lad, I never really had a burning ambition to be my own boss. I had two passions – one was rugby and the other was ice-hockey, so I either wanted to play professional rugby, ice-hockey or I wanted to be a policeman.”
Bunn’s father was a process worker at Tioxide in Billingham, now part of the Huntsman Group, which makes the pigment base for paint. His mother was a housewife and later became a PA at a local college.
“My dad had a number of jobs, but predominantly he was a process worker. If you look back at Teesside at the time, ICI Billingham used to employ something like 27,000 people, while Wilton employed 45,000 people. The North East has a legacy of heavy engineering, so you could say it was in the blood!
“I never considered working in the same job as my dad though. He worked shifts and used to come home covered in this white pigment, which was all over his skin, he didn’t look healthy,” recalled Bunn.
Things took a turn for the worst during the Thatcher era when Bunn found himself at a crossroads. However, it’s a time he now believes allowed him to make crucial business decisions.
He said: “I thought my world had ended when I was laid off by ICI at 21. It was the Margaret Thatcher ‘get on your bike’ era. It was a shock and I had a rough couple of years. Looking back, it sent me in the direction that led me to where I am now, so it was probably a good thing.
“I never gave in. I tried to get jobs. I went back to college to get some experience on computer-aided design, and I even sold Hoovers. I did anything I could to make a living and prove myself. I was always looking for that work back in engineering and I finally got an opportunity with a company called John Brown & Company (now Kvaerner) in Portsmouth, so at the time I moved my young family down there,” he recalls.
He moved on to DuPont and Day & Zimmermann before the idea of setting up on his own came after working for technology and engineering company Paul Wurth as the firm’s general manager for the UK.
Bunn said: “As a rule of thumb there probably isn’t a blast furnace anywhere in the world that doesn’t have their technology.”
He set up their UK operation but the work was eventually moved to China and Japan which could do it cheaper. The UK office closed but Bunn was offered the chance to be Paul Wurth’s presence in the UK. “I had the inside knowledge,” he says.
Bunn’s career as an entrepreneur had begun, but he realised that just working as a UK agent for Paul Wurth was not going to be a viable business option on its own. He needed other things.
He said: “It’s one of those things that you often look at ‘If this was mine, I’d do it differently’. I went back to what I knew which was engineering, design and project management services, and that really formulated the strategy around setting up Nortech.”
The Paul Wurth contract was his safety net as the company picked up more contracts, taking the staff from four to 20 in the first year.
Bunn stressed the importance of having a strong team of engineers and designers across a range of departments, from process and mechanical to piping, electrical and civil.
He said: “It’s all about scope, schedule and cost. It can be intense, but it’s a good living as an engineer. You are expected to deliver, so there are some stresses that go with it, and that’s magnified when it’s your own business – but I’ve never been shy of hard work.”
Bunn, who is married to wife Elaine, has two daughters, Stephanie, 28, and Kendra, 24, from his first marriage, and also has a 13-year-old son, Josef, with Elaine. Josef says he wants to be a professional golfer or an engineer like his dad.
Bunn also believes the concept of engineering has become somewhat diluted in the UK compared to other areas of the world.
He said: “I remember working offshore when I was younger, and you had to wear different coloured hats with your title on them. The tea guys used to have ‘liquid replenishment engineers’ written across theirs – sort of sums it up, I think.”
Bunn says that looking back, he realises just how important it was to have the technical knowledge and experience to build his business, but also an education.
He returned to education between 2001 and 2004 and it had a profound effect. He saw the potential of combining his technical experience with an MA in business administration at Teesside University.
He said: “When I first embarked on the MBA I felt inferior because I didn’t have a qualification, and they had technical degrees, but no management qualifications. I had massive technical experience, but no management qualifications, so in adding the MBA to it, it feels like a trump card, truly fantastic.”
About his role, Bunn said: “My role is the MD in the business – or at least that’s what it says on the business card. I am here to manage, steer, grow and support the business, so my role is very much as a facilitator internally to ensure we have the right people able to deliver our contracts, and also externally as part of the team that goes out to identify bidding when new work comes in.
“We’ve been quite fortunate that we were in the right position and had the right offering at the right time and presented to the right people, so that’s supported the growth.”
Bunn believes the key to success now lies in further expansion.
He said: “Our next step for the business is to expand to 120 people. Our big thing is we’re new, we’re fresh, but we give our clients a bit of love. It may be a bit old-fashioned, but it’s all about the quality of the service. Once you get to a certain size, there is a danger of losing that when you become an organisation with remote head offices.
“We work across a diverse portfolio but we have to, because one thing I’ve learned over the years is that everything we do is cyclic, so when oil and gas is big it’s really big, but when it’s down it’s absolutely dire.
“Petrochemical and all the others are no different, so you need to spread the risk across a number of sectors because they are not all up at the same time, and they aren’t all down.”
What car do you drive?
Land Rover Sport HSE
What’s your favourite restaurant?
Cleveland Tontine, down the A19
Who or what makes you laugh?
My wife Elaine and Keith Lemon – for totally different reasons
What’s your favourite book?
The Bourne trilogy – originals – take some beating
What was the last album you bought?
Probably an audio book to break up the long business journeys I make. Other than that it was an 80s compilation
What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
I always wanted to be a policeman when I left school.
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?
Good morning, please, thank you and good night – manners are very important.
What’s your greatest fear?
Letting people down.
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Always trust your instinct – be positive and surround yourself with like-minded people.
What’s your poison?
Has to be Jack Daniels over ice with a dash of Coke – fantastic….
What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?
The local papers (Gazette) and the Sunday Mail (if I get 10 minutes spare time)
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
About £25 a week as an apprentice pipefitter at ICI Billingham starting in 1978.
How do you keep fit?
Not very easily these days but I have a long standing love/hate relationship with ice hockey. I still train – very occasionally – and play in games at a recreational level with the Cleveland Comets ice hockey team, more at the old timers level these days. I love the game but hate the after-effects for the next couple of days
What’s your most irritating habit?
I bite my nails – I’m not an overly nervous person but I do it without realising – more so when I’m deep in thought or contemplation mode. I wish I could stop
What’s your biggest extravagance?
Watches – I love watches. My current best watch was a 50th birthday present from my wife Elaine and son Josef – a lovely special edition Breitling
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire?
No one comes to mind
Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
A combination – Freddy Mercury and Kenny Everett – music and laughter along with the not so famous, Elaine and my business partner Willie O’Neil – just looking at him makes me smile
How would you like to be remembered?
Someone who cared and was willing to put in what he only hoped to get out. Passionate about living, a loyal friend and good person. Can’t get much better than that.