Peacocks still in the best of health

The Peacocks have been making orthotics in Newcastle for more than 100 years.

Colin Peacock, Managing Director of Peacocks Medical Group

The return of thousands of wounded Tommies from the Great War changed one family business in the region forever.

Combined with the physical demands of the burgeoning coal industry in the 1920s, the North-East faced an unprecedented burden of injuries and disabilities.

This was the catalyst that led the Peacocks, who had been quietly making cutlery and scalpels since the 1850s, into its pioneering work in orthotics - using mechanical devices to support weakened or abnormal joints or limbs.

Today - three generations on - Peacocks Medical Group is in the hands of chairman and managing director Colin Peacock, whose crusading work to shape the industry earned him a lifetime achievement award last month.

A brisk and enthusiastic guided tour around Peacocks' bustling Benfield Road factory in Newcastle reveals much about the heritage of the company, and the reasons why it continues to thrive.

Piles of plaster-cast body parts, discarded after custom-fit equipment has been sent to grateful patients, provide striking evidence of the number of people whose lives have been improved.

Then there's Colin's collection of acrylic false eyeballs, a relic which looks back to the history of this Newcastle firm.

"We took them to the Antiques Roadshow who dated them as Victorian, so these are probably the work of John Clint," beams the current Mr Peacock.

John Clint Peacock was Colin's grandfather, who formed the company in 1903 - although the medical supply line can be traced back still further to George Peacock, who was making surgical instruments as early as the 1850s.

The 62-year-old says: "At some time in the 1930s the idea came of putting metal and leather together to help injuries from the war and mining accidents, plus correct some of the effects of diseases like polio.

"My father, Roy Peacock, took over the company and worked in Collingwood Street in the building which is now the Ristorante Roma. It was from one of those semi-circular windows that I watched Newcastle United after their last FA Cup win in 1955."

Roy was still working as a consultant for the company when he died at the age of 87 in 1996.

"He was originally an optician, and he took the accuracy of an optician's measurements and transferred it to the orthotics process.

"We grew into a sizeable regional business during his lifetime, but it was the advent of the National Health Service after the war when the company really lifted off."

The NHS became Peacocks's main customer, with Primary Care Trusts across the country now using Colin's orthotic devices.

In fact, several aids invented at Peacocks' Newcastle factory are now in use all over the world.

Colin Peacock says: "What we do is to create devices which exert a force on the body where something is not working, to improve mobility or reduce pain.

"This discomfort could result from anything from fallen arches to serious conditions like muscular dystrophy and cerebral palsy."

Peacocks' orthotics division takes plaster moulds of its patients to make precisely tailored braces, seating supports, standing aids and corrective footwear - once the problem has been diagnosed within the NHS.

From its Victorian beginnings, Peacocks has grown into a national group of five companies under Colin's guidance, branching out from orthotics and manufacturing into sales and capital equipment.

It employs more than 130 people in the North-East, and boasts a clinical centre in Southampton and a Newcastle city centre shop in St Thomas Street.

So when Colin joined in 1968, did he feel any pressure to continue the family heritage?

"Absolutely none," he insists. "To be honest I was very uncertain what my role would be, but there was no easy way in.

"If you come to this company you have to bring something in.

"What I brought to the business was to combine the medical and engineering sides. I was good with the mechanical side of things, and was always pulling cars to pieces."

Colin qualified as a physiotherapist and briefly practised at the Royal National Orthopedic Hospital in Stanmore, north London.

Then came what he refers to as his "big decision".

"I enjoyed what I was doing and it was a crossroads in my life," Peacock explains.

"Orthotics wasn't really a profession then, it was a craft. There would be physiotherapists who knew what needed to be done, and engineers who knew how to do it, but the two elements were not properly combined."

He found a like-minded partner in Gordon Rose, an eminent surgeon who approached Colin with a view to helping the fledgling science into a fully trained and regulated profession.

"He decided that to get better treatment to his patients he needed to upgrade our profession. He ran a course and basically put me on a pedestal and got me speaking at conferences.

"We pooled a group from all over the country to get people talking. We were commercial enemies at that time so the first job was to break down those barriers."

This process led to the formation of the Orthotic and Prosthetic Training and Education Council (OPTEC) in 1980, of which Colin later became chairman in 1993.

"Then," he says, "my life started taking off quite dramatically."

Colin was one of the OPTEC members responsible for training and helping to oversee a "grand-fathering" policy to formalise training in the industry.

He maintained this role until orthotics became a university degree course - "then it was taken over by the academics and our job was done".

The next item on Colin's crusade was to ensure that the profession was properly regulated to ensure standards remained high, and Colin was instrumental in this as well.

He became chairman of the Prosthetists and Orthotists Board in 1997, which succeeded in regulating the standards and discipline of the trade.

"This was the final key, turning what was previously just a craft into a trained and licensed profession."

For his efforts, Colin was last month given a lifetime achievement award by the British Association of Prosthetists and Orthotists (BAPO) which sits proudly in a glass cabinet in his office next to a similar award from the British Healthcare Trade Association (BHTA), received in 2002.

In the manner of any great award-winner, his response to this recognition is a mixture of modesty and thanks to the people behind his success.

"I never do anything for thanks but I became quite emotional. It was unexpected, but I was delighted at getting two thirds of the vote.

"Ultimately you will be judged on the success of your business, and for me that means stability for my employees. I have a fantastic workforce, who are very loyal and I would put them up against the world for their performance - I am very grateful."

Another source of satisfaction is the involvement of Colin's family in the care industry which is so close to his heart.

Outside the office stands a tree grown from a lemon pip by his daughter Kirsty - the pampered care of which is an unwritten part of all his employees' contracts.

Kirsty, 35, is the physiotherapist for Munster Rugby Club in Ireland, giving her parents the opportunity for a grand day out at last year's Heineken Cup Final at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.

"It was a fantastic occasion," remembers Colin. "We always get very excited when she runs on to the field."

Wife Kim also prefers the "hands-on" approach and was, until recently, working as a paediatric physiotherapist at St Oswald's Hospice in Gosforth, Newcastle.

But it is 33-year-old son Christopher who has become the fifth generation in the Peacocks business dynasty, as the managing director of their capital equipment division. He says: "I always had a very good relationship with my father - luckily it has passed on to my son. It must be good genes."

In line with the Peacock tradition, Colin ensured that Christopher was made to prove himself.

"If you are given a silver spoon in business it is a fantastic opportunity, but it can also be a curse on your life if you're not cut out for it, so you have to prove yourself a hundred times over to know you can do the job.

"We gave Chris the least profitable company in the group to see if he could turn it round, which he has done. He's turned a loss into one of the most profitable contributors to the group, so he's looking good to carry on the family line."

This hard-knock school of training will be useful in an important time for Peacocks Medical Group.

Peacock says: "All of our customers' contracts are up for tender by the end of 2007 and we will be setting the foundations for the next five years.

"When I took over the company, we lost the contract for a hospital in Hartlepool because of a 3% costing difference. I am sure the taxpayers will be pleased to know that hospitals negotiate so hard on their spending but I realised then that we were not safe as a regional company, and had to expand.

"It has never been very profitable. The group stays successful and we invest all our money back into the business. It's about people."

Much of this investment is already evident. Computer scanning and automated manufacturing are already improving and speeding up parts of the process, and there are plans for larger 3D imaging equipment to remove the need for taking plaster casts of patients' problem areas.

"It will take a lot of the mess out of the process, but we will still need skilled operators to maintain the quality of our work."

Colin is also a ferocious supporter of business in the North-East.

He says: "This place was designed to serve the people of the North-East, so we're all set up to win back the tenders we have lost in the area. That is my target."

So it's fair to say that he's proud of his roots?

"Of course - I'm a Geordie. I was very brave and trained in Leeds, but I am extremely proud of my region. I love it here."

One of his biggest "gripes" is that the Walkergate Hospital - next door to his base in Benfield Road - is currently supplied by a company in Bradford.

"But guess who supplies the NHS in Bradford?" he smiles.

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The Questionnaire

What car do you drive?
A Honda Accord.

What's your favourite restaurant?
Il Forno, at Tynemouth Station.

Who or what makes you laugh?
John Cleese in Fawlty Towers.

What's your favourite book?
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, by Mark Haddon. It shows a great understanding of people with disabilities.

What's your favourite film?
Lawrence of Arabia. I'm embarrassed to admit that I also like Oklahoma.

What's your ideal job, other than your current one?
I'm already in the right place for my talent. I was designed for this job.

If you had a talking parrot, what's the first thing you'd teach it to say?
"Support North-East industry!"

What's your greatest fear?
Failure.

What's the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Never refuse a cup of tea.

And the worst?
Don't buy property.

What's your poison?
I love real ale, especially Mordue's Radgie Gadgie

Apart from The Journal, which newspaper do you read?
The Telegraph

How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
£27, for counting surgical needles in a stock-take.

How do you keep fit?
Volleyball, cycling, golf and skiing. I also go to the gym.

What's your most irritating habit?
Working too late.

What's your biggest extravagance?
Holidays. My last one was to New Zealand - it was wonderful.

With which historical or fictional character do you most identify?
I'm a great admirer of Ernest Shackleton (the Antarctic explorer). He was a fantastic leader.

And which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
David Attenborough, Tony Benn, Selina Scott and Margaret Thatcher - in her first term of office.

How would you like to be remembered?
As the leader of a successful company, and for leading my trade from a craft into a profession.

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CV

Education

1952-1962 Royal Grammar School, Eskdale Terrace, Newcastle

1963-1967 Trained in physiotherapy at Leeds General Infirmary

Career

1968 Practised physiotherapy at Royal National Orthopedic Hospital, Stanmore.

1968 Joined Peacocks Medical Group

Positions held

1977 Inaugural member of National Orthotic Committee

1980 Orthotic representative, Orthotic and Prosthetic Training and Education Council (OPTEC)

1986 Formation of National Orthotic Training Officers Group (NOTOG). Elected Chairman

1987 Fellow of International Society of Prosthetics and Orthotics (FISPO)

1988 Chairman of British Institute of Surgical Technologists (BIST)

1989 Chairman of International Society of Prosthetists and Orthotists (ISPO)

1993 Chairman of Orthotic and Prosthetic Training and Education Council (OPTEC)

1997 Chairman of Council for Professions Supplementary to Medicine (CPSM), Prosthetists and Orthotists Board.

2002 Lifetime Achievement Award, British Healthcare Trade Association (BHTA)

2004 Chairman of BHTA Orthotic Service Sub-Section

2007 Lifetime Achievement Award, British Association Of Prosthetists and Orthotists (BAPO)

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