To say Paul Stonebanks entered the business world at an early age is something of an understatement.
At just 12 years old, growing up in North Tyneside, he was already working on the local milk floats.
“It was ridiculous, looking back,” he recalled. “I was getting up at two or three in the morning and I kept that up all the way through to leaving school. I must have had the entrepreneurial spirit even back then.”
Indeed, noting that his line of work was much-sought after among the younger crowd, he built up a team of workers, prepared to return half of what they earned to him.
With the money he made, he set up a window cleaning business, which expanded to the point that, aged 16, he was able to sell it for £5,000.
“I grew up in Percy Main, which was good fun, but tough,” he said. “And it’s that that gives you the hunger.”
It’s fair to say that, throughout his working life, Paul has maintained that hunger, and now, as managing director of AIS Training, he’s responsible for 120 employees, turning over more than £12m from its UK operations alone and aiming to more than double that figure within the next couple of years.
Working with customers from pretty much every section of industry, the business - which has plans for further expansion - trains between 10,000 and 12,000 people annually on 90 or so different courses at its 120,000 sq ft training village at the Tyne Tunnel Trading Estate.
“I’d never have thought seven years ago, when I set the business up, that we would be were we are now,” Paul said. “I don’t like looking back, though - it’s always about what’s next. The key is not just focusing on one little part.”
AIS could hardly be accused of short-sightedness in that department.
With more than 10 different centres, the business covers everything from manufacturing insulation jackets to rope access training to wind turbine technical skills.
Earlier this year, it created 50 jobs on opening a £2.5m offshore survival centre that will train thousands of workers on dealing with emergencies at sea.
Featuring a 4.5m deep environmental pool, a fire training centre, an escape chute, and a lifeboat and davit system, the facility has been designed to provide an ultra-lifelike setting in which workers will learn survival techniques for scenarios like a helicopter ditching at sea or escaping from a smoke-filled environment.
“Nobody likes to think of accidents happening, but it’s vital that offshore workers are prepared for all eventualities,” said Paul. “The North East is without a shadow of a doubt a leader in this field. Previously, people would go to Aberdeen to do this, so we’re providing a solution here in the region.”
Indeed, Paul believes the North East is becoming a “hub” for the offshore sector,
“About 60% of the offshore workforce is from the North East region, because the skillset has been here for years,” he said. “We are thriving because businesses, even in Aberdeen, are seeing that their workforces are predominately from the North East.”
Hence, with growing numbers of customers travelling to train at AIS, the business used to subcontract out to hotels to provide accommodation for groups.
“As a business, though, we needed a full turnkey solution, so individuals could come from anywhere in the country and stay here,” Paul said.
AIS created its own hotel, emulating the offshore experience and featuring facilities such as a cinema. Those staying at the complex, which is already hitting about 50% capacity shortly after opening, also have access to a minibus, enabling them to have more of a social life during their time in the North East.
“If they spent enough on training, they could get the hotel accommodation for free,” Paul said. “Otherwise, it’s £20 a night. It’s all about giving the customer what they want and driving people from everywhere in the country to us.”
He added that he was unaware of any other companies taking similar steps.
“But we want to focus on our customers, never taking them for granted. We want them to feel part of what we’re doing and make sure they are really looked after.
“We also provide them with interest-free finance and are the only training provider in the country to offer that.”
Listening to Paul, his passion for the training world is clear, so it is perhaps surprising that, with his gift for business, he didn’t always know exactly what course his entrepreneurial route would take.
On leaving school, in fact, he went into a three-year apprenticeship in thermal insulation engineering, but realised fairly swiftly it wasn’t for him.
“I just wanted to do an apprenticeship,” he said. It wasn’t that good at it. It didn’t inspire me in any shape or form.
“Naively, I’d thought I could be a footballer until, at the age of 23, I realised I would never be anywhere near good enough.”
Moving into the offshore sector, he became a project manager, filled with determination to become as skilled as he possibly could in his chosen field.
For seven years, his work took him around the world and, taking responsibilty for hundreds of workers, gave him the chance to hone his talents and develop in-depth knowledge of the industry.
At the age of 30, with a young child he wouldn’t see for month-long stretches, however, he decided there was more to life and began working up a case for some business ideas, the first of which was a product known as the Weather Pro insulation jacket, which hit the market in 2007.
“Typically, mindsets were in the dark ages back then,” Paul said. “Water was getting into the products and it was costing industry billions of pounds. We worked with industry to develop a different product and made sure it was waterproof, that nothing could get through it.
“We created products that were better than anyone’s else for insulation.”
Armed with a philosophy that there’s always a more efficient, easier way than the status quo, Paul’s business went on to create even more innovative products, such as the Jet Fire Pro, currently the world’s thinnest flexible fire protection jacketing system, which offers 120 minutes of life-saving protection.
The Jacket protects equipment from jet and hydrocarbon fires, thereby ensuring they do not fail and that workers have time to escape in emergency situations.
“We won many innovation awards for it; it was streets ahead of anything anyone else was producing,” Paul said. “From the money we’ve made from that, we’ve been able to reinvest in training.”
And that’s a growing industry, since regulations are being tightened up across a number of sectors, creating a wealth of mandatory courses. With a looming skills gap, businesses are also increasingly seeking the most highly qualified candidates.
As far as AIS itself is concerned, Paul’s helping secure the future of the workforce by taking on apprentices – there are 10 there currently – some of whom have gone on to take up high profile roles at the company.
“A person in business must be an asset,” Paul said. “That’s part of our philosophy and it’s something we want them to take into industry. We want to make them hungry individuals who are a credit to themselves, us and everyone else.
“You’ve got to have trust and invest in people, because without the people you don’t have a business. While working elsewhere I’ve seen people treated as a means to an end; they didn’t care about the people who were really making a difference.”
AIS is also making a difference on a much wider scale, working in collaboration with Newcastle College to help plug the skills gap within North East industry.
It’s an ambition the company hopes to pursue further in the near future with an investment of £5m on a training academy and new manufacturing facilities next to its current site at North Shields.
If all goes to plan, the academy could potentially help thousands of young people every year develop a range of transferable skills through both apprenticeships and other higher education routes.
Meanwhile, AIS will be able to significantly expand its manufacturing capability, bringing its products into new sectors and potentially heralding a new era for a business that’s never been afraid to adapt with the times.
“We have all the key expertise already here,” Paul said. “Now we just need to grow the facilities.”
What car do you drive?
Porsche Panamera Turbo
What’s your favourite restaurant?
House of Tides on the Newcastle Quayside
Who or what makes you laugh?
What’s your favourite book?
Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code
What was the last album you bought?
Radio One’s Live Lounge
What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
Chairman of Newcastle United
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?
Who’s a pretty boy then?
What’s your greatest fear?
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Treat people the way you would expect to be treated yourself
And the worst?
N/A – all advice is worth listening to.
What’s your poison?
Which newspapers do you read other than the Journal?
How do you keep fit?
Walking and running
What’s your most irritating habit?
I can’t sit still!
How much was your first pay packet?
£18 at 12 years old and £112 as an apprentice
What’s your biggest extravagance?
Cars and holidays
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire? Albert Einstein
How would you like to
A great guy, husband and father.
Which four people would
you most like to dine with?
Mike Ashley, Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger, Peter Jones