We couldn’t let the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee slip past uncelebrated here at the North Tyneside Business Forum.
So we’ve been chatting to two of our member businesses who have been in business for just as long as, if not longer than, the Queen has graced her throne.
We’re incredibly lucky to have some amazing, long-standing businesses in our membership, and even luckier to have two of the oldest businesses represented on our management team too.
The first of two celebratory blogs is about Toby Bridges, CEO of the NBT Group – a business that has existed in North Tyneside since 1908. Toby chatted to us about his business, its history and the challenges faced by his forerunners.
NBT Group – a history
Our family business was founded by my Great Grandfather and Great Great Uncle in 1908 when they left the 300 year old family trading business in Holland and came to the North East to start an electrical components business. They started out on Newcastle Quayside as the first tenants in Milburn House at the bottom of Dean Street, supplying spares to keep the trams running.
My Great Great Uncle was called Adolph Albrecht. Whilst he was Dutch, his name sounded very German. As a result, the business was the target of quite a lot of racist abuse, forcing them to rename it North British Engineering and Electrical Company in 1912. When the brothers went to war, my Great Grandmother took over the running of the business, supplying electrical components to local businesses while they were away.
My Great Grandfather died in 1951 and my Great Grandmother took over the business with her three daughters. The ladies moved the business into the mining industry and became the largest supplier of Ericsson telephones in the UK. They were incredible women who all lived in Whitley Bay.
Due to the market changes in the mining industry in the early 1970s the family business was forced to diversify. By that time, my father Mike had joined the business and met someone from 3M (the maker of Post-It notes). They’d recently invented parcel tape and my father spotted an opportunity to sell this tape into businesses in the local area. His first success was with Proctor and Gamble when they were based Seaton Delaval, who saved hours of time switching string for parcel tape in their packing processes.
He later moved on to work with numerous companies across the NE, from pharmaceuticals to oven manufacturers to automotive clients, providing 3M technical bonding tapes and changing the business name to North British Tapes in the process.
I joined the business in 1993 (full time rather than for my pocket money) and we were still very much a tape business. We worked to grow the business and started up a Scottish business, as well as acquiring two companies in the South. But in the early part of this century when several of our largest customers – Electrolux, Phillips, Samsung for example – disappeared to China for cheaper manufacturing, we lost a great swathe of our business almost overnight.
It was my turn to take over the business during the recession in 2008. We were still selling tape, but the changes in the market were making things tricky again. I remember talking this through with a contact at long standing client, Avery Dennison in Cramlington, who suggested he didn’t buy tape from me anymore. Instead, he bought the fact we never let him run out of the tape and perhaps I should find a way to make him redundant. And from that one conversation we moved the business on again. We took on a huge swathe of their suppliers, alongside our traditional tape business, and found ways to automate processes within their business, making them much more efficient, and he ultimately got his wish. Thankfully, he went on to even greater things.
From there we started to engage other clients, managing complex supply chains for them and in 2014 we acquired a company that had started to develop technologies to automate numerous touchpoints and processes in inventory supply chains.
We’ve since made the North East’s 50 fastest growing companies list, being top in 2018 and second in 2019, and have gone on to support some other fantastic clients. Unipress, ZF Automotive and, still after 50 years of trading, Avery Dennison, are our biggest clients, and we manage most of the parts they use across their plants every day.
These days we provide walk-in/walk-out stores for engineers and point of use technologies which require no paperwork and no staff in a store, the whole process is automated and digitised making the entire process much more streamlined and cost effective.
As a result of our work in innovation, we spun out a new company called Vytech Solutions Limited, to focus on creating digitised inventory that can be tied into other systems across an organisation. One R&D challenge today is how to get a welding robot to order its own repair parts, when it needs them, from the right place, without any intervention. Whilst manufacturing is still our core business, this development and thinking has led to us to work in other sectors, the NHS and other public sector organisations for instance, automating very varied inventory and processes, that put absolute control into their working systems, making them more efficient and cost-effective than traditional, manual methods.
There’s no doubt that our family business has seen more than its share of challenges in its time – many repeating through history. While the recent pandemic might be the first in our lifetime, NBT Group has now survived two pandemics, two world wars, multiple recessions and seen five monarchs on the throne.
The challenges keep coming and with the great team at NBT, hopefully its strong sense of innovative thinking, we’re able to weather the storms and help our customers weather them too. To a degree, the world of business at this moment in time has never been more difficult, unpredictable, and precarious but often that is where the best opportunities lie.