Neville Bearpark feels strongly about the region's businesses getting access to funds and he's working with The Journal to do something about it, as he explains to Peter Jackson.
NEVILLE Bearpark could be forgiven for feeling pleased with himself. He has, after all, helped secure £30m for the region’s businesses.
Which, for an accountant – even for a corporate finance partner – is pretty good going. Not that there’s anything remotely self-satisfied about him. When we meet at his firm UNW’s offices in Newcastle, 53-year-old Bearpark comes across as a modest and easy-going man.
He’s pleased to have secured the Regional Growth Fund money, as part of The Journal supported Let’s Grow programme, not for himself but because he is a North East patriot.
He was born and bred in Newcastle, and he says: “I consider myself a North Easterner through and through.”
Except that, genetically speaking, he’s not. When I ask him about he origins of his surname, he reveals that he has investigated his family tree and traced the family as far back as the 1530s to a place called Bear Park Farm just outside Wensley in North Yorkshire, where he believes they worked as labourers on the farm. His great grandfather moved the family up to the North East to work on the shipyards.
That transition from peasant to industrial worker is unremarkable for a British family, but with Neville Bearpark the story becomes less typical.
His parents came from Newcastle’s West End, his father worked for Vickers and the circumstances were ‘modest’. However, his parents paid for him to be privately educated at Dame Allan’s.
“You don’t appreciate it at the time but they made a lot of sacrifices along the way to achieve that. It made a big difference to my life obviously,” he says.
It enabled him to go to Bristol University where he read economics and accounting. He liked it there so much that when he graduated he got a job with accountants Price Waterhouse in Bristol. The girlfriend he met at school, Sylvia, came to join him and they got married.
“We lived in Bristol for four years, we bought our first house there and our first child, Adam, was born in Bristol. We came back to the region because we had a young child and we felt we should be sharing him with our parents,” he says.
By now a qualified chartered accountant, he transferred to Price Waterhouse in Newcastle in 1986. He worked for Price Waterhouse – which became PwC following its merger with Coopers & Lybrand – for a further 12 years, initially as a general auditor but increasingly working in corporate finance rising to the level of senior manager.
In 1998 he joined Upton Nichol Williamson, becoming a partner within six months and shortly afterwards the firm underwent a transformation.
“The business has completely changed in the last 15 years. We effectively dissolved the old partnership in 2000 and myself and four others bought some of the old partners out.”
He explains the background to this.
“The reason I joined Upton Nichol Williamson and the reason I’m still here today is because the firm – even the partners who left – had a common goal which was to be the leading independent firm of accountants in the North East.
“We always had the goal of wanting to beat the big four at their game and we could do that by basically stuffing the business full of ex-Big Four people. The profile of this firm, right from those early days and even more so now, is that the majority of our senior staff have all got big firm experience and our sort of mantra is ‘a credible alternative to the Big Four’.
“It appealed to me back then when I joined and it’s still the reason I come into work now. The difference from then to now is that we deliver on that. We found it difficult to deliver when we didn’t have a big enough firm and didn’t have the right people.
“When I joined Upton Nichol Williamson, that idea of being as good as the Big Four was there, but there was no way to deliver it because we just didn’t have the expertise and hard as we tried, we just didn’t have the depth of experience.
“The frustration from that really led to the change and over a period of time partners left, new people came in, but there was a point where we took the decision to shut the partnership down. There was a lot of baggage associated with it and we were going to create this new business and grow from there with exactly the same strategy, but did it more professionally and brought in better people.” One of these was former Newcastle United chief executive David Stonehouse who joined the firm as chief executive of the newly named UNW.
It paid off. The firm has grown consistently over the past five years by between 10% and 20% a year, to a point where it now has 13 partners – up from the original five in 2000 – including people such as former Deloitte corporate finance specialist Paul Kaiser. It has about 80 staff and is about to take over more space in Citygate. It has an annual turnover of more than £5m.
During all his time at UNW, Bearpark has worked in corporate finance, originally as the only partner but joined by other partners as the firm has grown, so that it now claims to have the biggest corporate finance team in Newcastle.
That growth was helped by picking up grant advisory work, an area in which he had gained expertise while at PwC.
“That made us slightly unusual, it wasn’t something that anybody else particularly offered. As a result, over the years we have developed some really good relationships with some of the region’s bigger inward investors. We work with people like Nissan and a lot of Nissan’s suppliers, and it has all been on the back of giving them help and advice on getting grants,” he says.
When the coalitionGovernment was formed in 2010 and introduced its austerity programme, the firm was expecting to lose that work as grants were axed. But within weeks, the Government launched the Regional Growth Fund to create employment in the wake of public sector spending cuts and so it was directed at parts of the country, such as the North East, which were dependent on public sector jobs.
UNW’s background in grants advice and its connections with local authorities and other bodies generated a lot of work on advising on RGF applications.
“It’s been a very important feature of our corporate finance offer in the last two or three years,” he says.
It also made UNW a natural partner for The Journal in the Let’s Grow campaign to access RGF money and channel it to SMEs.
One of the criticisms of RGF with its £1m minimum bid was that it was not directed at SMEs so the Government allowed package bids to support them. After discussions with The Journal and Business and Enterprise Group, Bearpark put together a bid.
“I really passionately felt it was a bum deal for SMEs in the North East and that this was just the right sort of thing to do.”
The bid was successful in raising £3m to support 11 companies in the North East and so creating 433 much-needed jobs in the region.
Such was Let’s Grow’s success that when another round of RGF was announced, the partners approached the Department for Business Innovation and Skills with a view to another bid. The department’s suggestion was that an application could be made to run a programme rather than a package.
“We decided that rather than just get enough money for a one-off to support 11 companies, we’d get enough money to be able to do that every quarter for the next four years.”
He project managed the bid and was successful. Details have yet to be published, but it can be revealed that the next phase of Let’s Grow will have a fund of £30m, forming by far the region’s biggest grant scheme.
It will be run by The Journal, UNW and the Business and Enterprise Group, effectively acting as an agent for government in administering a regional growth fund, which, in this case will not be restricted to SMEs.
“It works really well. BE Group are absolutely fantastic at running these sorts of schemes and we have all the technical knowledge of appraising it and making sure the right people get the right grant.”
It has been endorsed by both Leps and it also has the support of the region’s 12 local authorities, each of which is making a financial contribution towards the running costs. Teesside and Northumbria will also be supporting Let’s Grow.
“It has taken up a lot of my life in the past six months, but it’s major, this is why I’m so passionate about it. If we didn’t have this, we’d actually, for the first time in my professional career, not have any grant schemes in the North East. It’s a credit to The Journal for thinking of it,” says Bearpark.
“What has frustrated me a lot is when I see other regions getting significant RGF funding and we seem to be losing out as a region. If you look at the statistics it seems like more companies in the North East have RGF support than any other region but that’s by number, if you look at the actual value of money going into the region, we are lagging behind the North West and we are lagging behind Leeds and Yorkshire and Humber, so this programme goes some way to redress that balance.”
What’s his advice for a business applying for a grant?
“This sounds incredibly obvious but you have to remember it’s a grant scheme. Lots of people have failed because they have applied for other things like loans but it’s not about that.”
Applications should also be about creating or safeguarding jobs as a result of a capital or R&D type project and the business should be able to prove it needs the grant.
And presumably you should be a safe bet?
“Absolutely, it’s not a rescue fund. Viability and deliverability are important criteria. It’s really important that you can demonstrate whatever it is you are doing is going to happen.”
Putting the programme together has taken up a lot of Bearpark’s time and his time is important to him as, apart from his professional life, he has much to occupy himself with his hobbies and other interests, including genealogy.
He owns a Land Rover for driving in winter and, infuriatingly, as soon as the snow has fallen it has broken down. Our interview is interrupted by a call from his wife Sylvia to give him bad news from the garage.
He tells me: “I’ve always been a petrolhead, and I live by the DIY mantra and do everything myself, hence my frustration at being told I face a bill of £750 to fix my car. Ever since I’ve been a teenager I’ve been fixing cars and bikes.”
He renovates classic cars and used to do a lot of historic rallying. He and Sylvia have also renovated a number of houses, including their cottage in the Lakes which they love and they have a yacht on Windermere. They also have three sons in their 20s: Adam, Peter, and Richard and a daughter Alice who is currently doing her A-levels.
“There’s 10 years between them and they have obviously been a massive part of my life. My attitude to life is that I’m not a workaholic and family life is really important to me. If I’d been a workaholic, I’d have stayed at Price Waterhouse and worked my socks off.”
And if that hadn’t left him time to work in Let’s Grow, the region could have been £30m worse off.