“All I left school with was a B in graffiti,” jokes Gavin Richardson.
Gavin is the founder and MD of one of the region’s most successful electrical contracting companies, but he admits his path to the top certainly didn’t begin in school.
But rather than being condemned by his failure to pass anything other than his art GCSE, his lack of success at school continues to spur this workaholic to greater and greater heights both in the business and athletics worlds.
Now at the helm of Boldon-based Opus Building Services – a company specialising in electrical and mechanical engineering, providing heating and plumbing services across a range of sectors – he steered the firm to a turnover of £8m in 2013/14 and it’s now targeting an ambitious £12m in the current financial year.
Where the classroom couldn’t deliver stimulation, applying himself to practical courses certainly could.
“I just wasn’t stimulated at school and the environment certainly wasn’t suited to my character traits,” said Gavin. “But my failure was the spur I needed to sort my life out, and it continues to drive me on now.”
Gavin, 39, was born and bred on the Hylton Castle estate, Sunderland, where he went to school at the local comprehensive.
“I left at 16, as soon as I could and with the intention of being an electrician.
“I’d attended electrical wiring and motor vehicle maintenance classes at school and enjoyed them, so an electrician seemed to be the right career for me. The difference was that I was now really focused.”
So much so that he attained a distinction on the year-long BTEC in engineering course he completed at the then Wearside College.
This success gained him a four-year apprenticeship at Gateshead company ABB Steward.
His commitment and drive was noticed by the company who gave him the responsibility of running large construction sites, all while still an apprentice.
And his talents were also recognised and rewarded further afield, when he was won a local award by the Electrical Contractors’ Association, swiftly followed a regional award by the electricians’ body.
Then he was asked to travel to the House of Commons to accept the National Apprentice of the Year award for 1997.
“That was such an honour for me, and was proof that if you put the work in you will be rewarded,” he said.
As he continued to ‘put the work in’ success continued to come his way and was soon promoted to an estimator and then a project manager.
“I was always learning, spending time to get to know the jobs and the roles properly. But I was also always looking at the next option and I realised that education and more qualifications would help me achieve my ambitions,” he said.
And it was to fuel his ambition that he left ABB Steward to join firstly William Stewart and then Syncro, becoming regional mechanical and engineering manager.
“I worked so hard to progress. The lesson from school was that not putting the effort in led to nothing but failure, so I really was 100% committed,” he said.
After three years at Syncro, Gavin joined Lorne Stewart PLC as project manager, and it was here that his thirst for self-improvement through further education really started.
“The company put me through my Professional Management Certificate, through the Open University and this opened up a whole new world to me.
“Engineering is very black and white, things are right or wrong and on the job there isn’t really the need for the softer managerial skills, but the certificate taught me motivational skills, communication skills and more and I was really interested,” explained Gavin.
“I was really outside of my comfort zone and I was having to study at nights and at weekends, but it was enjoyable and I learned so much.”
It was just as he was completing this qualification that Gavin took the decision to leave Lorne Stewart and set up his own business.
“The time just felt right, it was time to go my own way, do things the way I wanted to.”
So he and friend Ian King set up Opus Building Services in 2006.
“I’d known Ian for some time, we’d met at the gym and shared the same interests and goals. He was the founder of King Brothers builders in Sunderland so our experiences and skills complemented each other too.”
The firm started at the Business Innovation Centre (Bic) in Sunderland, but after less than three years, the fledgling firm had outgrown its premises and moved to bigger offices at the Quadrus Centre in Boldon.
He recalled: “At the start there was just me, but by the time we moved to Quadrus there were 20 of us.”
Since then the firm has rapidly expanded and currently employs nearly 100 people.
Opus was based at Quadrus for five years before once again moving into bigger premises at Boldon Court.
“We’ve just kept on growing, taking on more and more people,” said Gavin.
The company has enjoyed year-on-year growth since it was created and was relatively unscathed by the recession.
“It didn’t really affect us, we were working solidly throughout those years,” he explained.
“It was a combination of hard work, having a good reputation for providing top quality work, sensible pricing and some great teamwork, but we did well during challenging times.
“We were certainly ready when things started improving.”
Although the downturn did prompt a major decision: “I could see things slowing down and everyone was talking of recession so I decided to take an MBA.
“I thought it would give me greater insight, help me come up with solutions for the business – to diversify, remodel or recheck the business,” he said.
So he took two years to study for an MBA in business administration at the University of Newcastle: “It was painful, tourturous even, but worth it in so many ways.
“I learned to look at the business differently, how to come to better decisions, find new solutions. It helped me see the bigger picture and how so many things can impact on each other.”
And it was while studying for his MBA that Gavin’s other business, Opus Green, was created.
“We were given an assignment to create a credible business, but one which was not connected to an existing business,” he said.
“It was at a time that renewable technologies were being discussed in-depth and I started talking to an old colleague, Chris Cassells, about founding a green energy company.”
Opus Green, a renewable energy consultancy and contractor, now based in the Newcastle Business Village in Benton, was born.
Opus Green has had local and national success in installing renewable energy in projects ranging from private homes to multi-million pound schemes for local authorities and housing authorities.
“It’s a great company, Chris runs it really well and I just offer strategic support. Of course there is synergy between the businesses but they run independently and separately,” he added.
The MBA was also responsible for Gavin’s entry into the world of athletics. He’d always kept fit and was a regular attender at his local gym, but after so long with his head buried in text books, he needed a way of unwinding completely.
“I’d won a regional fitness competition which involved lots of different disciplines and it just progressed from there.”
Indeed, he progressed to the point where Gavin represented Great Britain in the Triathlete European Championships in Kitzbuhel earlier this year, and is hoping to qualify for the national team again for meetings next year.
He trains every day, often completing a 40-km bike ride before work and then going to the gym or a swimming session after work.
“Triathlons are perfect for zoning out,” he said. “I love the training, I really put the effort in and then I’m left with the post-exercise endorphins, leaving me totally relaxed.
“I’m sure keeping fit helps me with Opus - small percentages in triathlons can have a significance on the race result. This translates into the business world - work hard and results will come.”
Thankfully, Gavin is supported in his interest by his family – wife Joanne and children Camille, 11, and Eve, nine.
He met Joanne at school and they’ve been together for 23 years.
His daughters often accompany him to training with the Coalfields Racing Team, a local multisport racing team that Opus sponsors.
His MBA failed to quench his thirst for knowledge, and he accepted a non-executive role with partner insurance companies ECIC and ECIS and a trustee role with the Chartered Management Institute where he is on the main board.
“They’re hard work and regularly take me down to London, but again they give me a different perspective on Opus as well as giving the business a national platform, and I’m continuing to learn and develop.”
These roles have also improved his profile, high in any case thanks to a recent major business award win – an Open University achievement award and winning a contractors’ award from the University of Newcastle.
So what of the future? Despite his undoubted success, Gavin is still driven.
He’s already got a presence in Teesside, and is getting more and more business in London where he’s keen to expand further, but money is not the motivating factor.
“I don’t think I’m particularly successful, I don’t suppose I will do until I’m number one in the UK,” he said. “The spur is to be known as the best, for providing the best service for our clients, it’s not the financial reward.”
And a big part of that is his team. And it’s hardly surprising that one of the things he’s most proud of is developing and training his workforce – particularly the apprentices.
“Because of my background I can do all the jobs I ask of people and they know that. I don’t ask for the impossible and I respect all of my team – and I hope they respect me in return,” he said.
“I’m firm but fair and I’m sure we have a reputation for being a good, popular employer. We certainly keep our staff – hardly anyone leaves!
“Part of the privilege of being MD at OPUS is being able to help work colleagues develop and grow. We offer staff the opportunity to study whenever we can, and encourage them to do so.
“So far, we’ve seen the development of 16 apprentices and an adult trainee, one of whom won Regional Apprentice of the Year in 2010. We’re also putting our own guys through their Professional Management certificates,” he added.
“I know how transformative these qualifications can be, so it’s only right to give my team these opportunities,” he explained.
An attitude you can well understand from a man who left school with a GCSE in graffiti.