Durham & Wearside Business Executive of the Year 2011

PHIL Cronin masterminded the development of what is the biggest online bingo business in the UK and one of the biggest in Europe.

WINNER: PHIL CRONIN Chief executive, Tombola Ltd

PHIL Cronin masterminded the development of what is the biggest online bingo business in the UK and one of the biggest in Europe.

Despite stiff competition, Tombola attracts thousands of players daily and pays £4m each week in prizes. Cronin, its chief executive, is currently considering expanding into Italy.

He says: “With luck, good ideas and good people we have a good chance of succeeding in new markets.”

On graduating in computing and electronics from Durham University in 1986, he joined his father’s business, Edward Thompson. This is the UK’s largest supplier of bingo tickets to the terrestrial games. He became managing director at 28 when his father became chairman.

In 1995 he left to set up Intermedia Games, creating and selling promotional game cards produced by Edward Thompson and in 2000 he created Tombola as an internet business featuring not only as tombola.com but on other sites too.

After the dot com bubble burst the business almost folded. Cronin studied at Harvard Business School then returned to Edward Thompson in 2002 as chief executive.

In 2006, Tombola found profit launching its first bingo site partnering a national newspaper. Cronin, to concentrate on the newspaper venture, again ceased being an executive with Edward Thompson. In 2008 Tombola split from the newspaper and now claims the biggest bingo site in the UK with twice as many players as its nearest rival.

The company has grown from revenue of under £50,000 in 2005 to an estimated £26m this year and it employs 150 people.

Last year the firm was named Online Bingo Operator of the Year, and this year Cronin was named North East Entrepreneur of the Year. Cronin, 47 and married with three sons, avidly supports Sunderland Football Club, of which Tombola is a sponsor. He says: “I feel blessed to run my business.”

RUNNERS-UP

Nigel Cook, managing director of Elddis Transport in Consett, has led one of the UK’s largest family-owned haulage and logistics services over the last 11 years.

“If you can buy it in a supermarket, we distribute it,” is Cook’s simple explanation of the what his empire does.

The yellow and white liveried business dates back to the 1880s when his great grandfather started the company with just a horse and cart. In his time Cook has profitably increased the fleet from 106 vehicles to 155 with 300 trailers, and nine sites across the North.

Throughout a difficult decade in logistics, Elddis has remained profitable and strategic partnerships have enabled it to compete against multinational PLCs and cover the British Isles for blue chips and other customers.

Reducing carbon footprint is high in priority and the company expects to reduce CO² emissions by around 10% this year and recently won a national award for its environmental improvements. It has also diversified into caravan storage. Cook says: “There are 300 families whose livelihood depends on the decisions I make each day.”

Cook earned his earliest Elddis pay packet at 12. “I have grown up with trucks. It gets into your blood,” he says. He succeeded his father as managing director in 2000 but still takes turns at the wheel sometimes.

The company operates 24/7 for 364 days a year, and has 300 staff including four who have been there 40 years. It now has an annual turnover of £22.7m. In 2008, he also set up a profitable garage business in Durham with Elddis’s commercial director while he is also active on industry bodies.

Cook is a trustee of Willow Burn Hospice at Lanchester, long supported by Elddis. Recently, and with only three previous practice runs, he completed 10 half marathons, in 10 different countries or islands in 10 months. One run was 250 miles inside the Arctic Circle, in the dark and on ice. He raised £23,000 for the hospice. He also enjoys golf and travel, and is married with two children

Margaret Elliott OBE, director of services at Sunderland Home Care Associates, has a wide reputation for her work launching and developing this social enterprise.

“While it is third sector, that doesn’t mean grants,” she points out. “We get nothing from anyone. We tender for everything like other businesses, and have to be sustainable and viable,” she says.

The association provides home care and care services. Staff, paid above market rate, are trained to support older people, vulnerable people, young people with disabilities, and children. It also provides escort services on outdoor visits. Many staff lack formal education before joining, but undergo courses and get the chance of NVQ qualifications.

Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude, who recently visited, said it was a great example of how freeing people from top-down control can produce much better services and better value for money for taxpayers.

The company operates directly or indirectly in Sunderland, Newcastle, South Shields and Manchester. It is expanding into Calderdale, Moorsley and Leeds in Yorkshire. Employees get a batch of shares yearly which they can trade internally, with the company’s accountants setting the price. They also have a say in working conditions. Needless to say, staff turnover is low.

A trained youth worker, Elliott structured the company originally as a workers’ co-operative, the assets owned in common and equally by the employees. But in 2000 it switched to being employee-owned. Elliott soon found careers for almost 200 disadvantaged local residents, at the same time filling a community need. Today there are more than 360 staff in Sunderland and South Tyneside alone, where turnover is £2.33m.

Elliott, awarded the OBE in 2008, indirectly carries on with refinements the work of Robert Oakeshott, the eminent social reformer and champion of co-operatives, who recently died aged 77. He had chosen the North East as an appropriate seedbed in the UK.

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