Alan Holmes, chairman of Buy North East

FROM wine to cycling holidays and even a spell running a department store, Alan Holmes has packed a lot into his career, as he tells Peter Jackson.

Alan Holmes
Alan Holmes

ALAN Holmes greets me at the entrance to the reception area of Durham’s Ramside Hall Hotel where we conduct this interview. We last met some years ago and it strikes me how little – if at all – he has aged. He looks a good decade younger than his 62 years.

He reminds me that one of his current duties is as a judge for the Local Business Accelerator competition organised by newspapers throughout the UK including The Journal. Not that there’s anything of the Dragon about him. In fact he is quietly spoken and thoughtful – more academic than entrepreneur. This is deceptive because in fact he has a highly impressive business CV with a range of interests which take him the best part of a quarter of an hour to catalogue.

He co-founded the business consultancy Wood Holmes and, before he sold it, had helped build it up to an annual turnover of £1.2m with 18 employees.

Something that is clearly a labour of love now is his directorship of, and shareholding in, Portovino, a wine importing business he set up three years ago. It imports wine, largely from Portugal, the seventh largest wine producer in the world. He is a self-confessed wine buff and, using his extensive business contacts, introduces Portuguese wine to the corporate market.

He is non-executive chairman and a shareholder in the Newcastle-based cycling holiday company Saddle Skedaddle. He is also a director of the social enterprise the Cycle Hub in Ouseburn where Saddle Skedaddle is based. The Cycle Hub, which has a shop, café, repair workshop and bike hire, has been set up to promote and facilitate cycling.

Leaving the cycling theme – and no, he admits, he’s not a cyclist himself – Holmes is the chairman of Buy North East, a pressure group set up by the North East Chamber of Commerce to encourage the public sector to adopt strategies and policies which don’t disadvantage smaller and local businesses when choosing suppliers.

“In these economic times it’s a tough call. We all know they need to save huge amounts of money and it’s our money at the end of the day that they are saving. But they also have a potential positive impact on the region’s economy,” he says.

“We have great businesses up here and can supply most of the things public sector and local authorities require. We just have to encourage them to ensure we get every opportunity to supply them.”

Holmes is also a governor of Sunderland College, which has some 14,000 students and is involved with Routes to Investment, a series of workshops for businesses looking for finance, run by North East Access to Finance. The workshops were designed by him when he worked for North East Access to Finance on a temporary contract.

He also works with the Experience Bank, a group about 90 individuals who have volunteered to give time to businesses looking for help to grow.

“It’s fantastic, it really is good. I invented Experience Bank as part of my work at North East Access to Finance,” he says.

Apart from Experience Bank, Holmes business coaches and mentors a number of individuals, organisations and owner managers of SMEs. He also jointly chairs the Rise Up panel for Newcastle University which gives feedback and helps graduates on their business ideas and can award £1,000 of Santander’s money to particularly worthy candidates.

The thing that ties all these interests together, he explains, is his interest in enterprise. “It’s an interest in helping businesses get started and helping businesses thrive and survive. The people I mentor who are senior people in corporate organisations are in that enterprise world because they are in enterprise agencies and all the others are SMEs that I work with.

“I’m just very keen that we get as many businesses up and running as we possibly can in this region because that’s going to be the saviour of us, small businesses that grow into bigger businesses.”

Born in Leeds into a family of entrepreneurs, his father, grandfather and uncles having had shops or other businesses. He, however, initially took a different route and started out as a commis chef, which seems unlikely for this mild-mannered man and indeed didn’t prove the ideal choice.

“I had a go at it briefly but it didn’t work for me. It was just the culture.”

So he too moved into retail and worked for Debenhams on a graduate management trainee programme in Scarborough where the family was then living. In the 1970s he became one of Debenhams’ youngest department managers. But he had other ambitions.

“I saw these guys coming into the store in their smart suits and with their company cars outside and I thought: I want some of that.”

He made the decision to leave retail and become a salesman, covering the whole of the North of England for a gift and glassware importer, driving around in a 1961 VW Beetle with the back seats removed to make room for his samples.

“I got the bug for selling and decided the best thing I could do was to get myself properly trained and the food industry had the best reputation for training people so I went to work for Cravens in York.”

He did well there and he became responsible for training new people. Then he moved to a company in the flooring business selling to retail and the construction sector, still based in Scarborough “as assistant sales manager cum field trainer”.

A key move came in 1978 when his boss, who had moved to Formica in North Shields, asked Holmes to join him in the North East. He joined the company as sales training manager. He went on to become construction sales manager, selling to architects and the building sector and then moved to the new product development group, known then as Skunkworks and then became head of marketing.

By this time he had met his wife Jacki, who had her own interior design business, so when there was pressure on him to move south he turned it down, even though it would have meant promotion. Instead he joined an SME manufacturer.

“It taught me a hell of a lot about the challenges of running small businesses, although I’d had quite a bit of that by watching my father and grandfather and my father had some hard times,’” says Holmes.

Then he became an freelance associate consultant for a management consultancy that specialised in sales training and sales management systems.

All through his career he had been consciously acquiring new skills and seeking training in new areas. “I took myself off on a lot of courses and I did an accredited coaching course and I’m a member of the Association of Coaches and I got myself full membership of the Market Research Society. I’ve been in training and management roles and I’m a great believer in teaching and learning, but it needs to be grounded in practical experience.”

He also experienced some hard times during his period as a consultant, when he was working from home with Jacki, who was running her interior design business.

“We nearly had to cancel one Christmas because we were so short of business,” he recalls with a smile. “But Jacki saved the day, she got a couple of really good commissions and some money came in.”

During this time he met David Wood and, with Jacki, they set up Wood Holmes in 1989. The original work was marketing consultancy for small businesses under the Enterprise Initiative programme to improve the skills of small businesses in management techniques and create reasonably priced consultancy for small businesses.

For the first two years the business was run from home before they took a tiny office in Gosforth High Street.

“We pretty quickly decided we couldn’t be dependent on government handouts to businesses and started to build around Jacki’s skills particularly in market research and then recruited around those skills and built up a pretty substantial regional business.

“We increasingly found we could add value to our research by offering consultancy around the research – ‘You have this information, so what are you going to do with it?’ That differentiated us from straightforward market research and also gave us really interesting work to do, which I particularly loved doing.”

Setting up his own business coincided with the death of his father.

“I was able to tell him just before he died that I’d started out on my own and he was chuffed to bits for me. He thought it was the right thing to do, even though he’d had a tough time himself.”

The business grew through years of boom and recession and Holmes is proud that during that time it never had to make any redundancies.

“We grew it to be a strong, successful business with a reputation for quality work,” he says.

Six years ago two of Wood Holmes’ directors made an offer for the market research side, bought it and set up Bluegrass Research. Holmes became chairman of the remainder of Wood Holmes and three years ago he and Jacki sold the business to the management team. The business has gone on to become an international innovation consultancy.

Why did he sell? “I decided it was time someone else got the chance to take the business forward.”

Was it a wrench to let go of the business? “No. I’m delighted that it went to safe hands. I’m not a person that looks back, I try really hard not to think about what ifs. There’s so much to do now and tomorrow.”

The Questionnaire

What car do you drive?
Audi A5

What’s your favourite restaurant?
Six at the Baltic, David Kennedy’s Food Social and Sa Punta in the Costa Brava

Who or what makes you laugh?
Peter Kay

What’s your favourite book?
Catch 22, just about any Sebastian Faulks and Alan Bennett

What was the last album you bought? Richard Hawley, Standing at the Sky’s Edge

What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
Professional musician (I can’t play any instruments but I can dream)

If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?
Please let me go back into the wild

What’s your greatest fear?
Family illness

What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Face reality as it is not as it was or as you wish it to be

And the worst?
Don’t go into business with your wife (I did and it worked brilliantly)

What’s your poison?
Obviously Portuguese wine (it is genuinely a hidden treasure) and gin and tonic

What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?
Sunday Times and on line news

How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
A Saturday job for about £2 demonstrating and selling Scalextric in a department store, great job getting paid to have fun

How do you keep fit?
Gym and Yoga

What’s your most irritating habit?
Acting as food police for my family: "Do you really want a biscuit? Have some fruit instead"

What’s your biggest extravagance?
Probably holidays but I don’t really see them as an extravagance, more an opportunity to spend quality time with the people I love

Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire?
Can’t say I identify with anyone except maybe Inspector Clouseau: frequently clumsy occasionally lucky. I admire The Dalai Lama (which I guess is more than one person) given quotes such as "Old friends pass away, new friends appear. It is just like the days. An old day passes, a new day arrives. The important thing is to make it meaningful: a meaningful friend or a meaningful day." Just brilliant.

Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Well one would be my (late) father but he’d probably be playing the piano in the background, otherwise Stephen Fry, Joanna Lumley (pictured), Kate Bush and Jeremy Paxman.

How would you like to be remembered?
As a good friend.


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