Award-winning author Harry Pearson writes for Tees Business – here’s his latest ‘business buzz’ column…
For a long while I held the opinion that the toughest job in the history of business would have been working as financial advisor to 1950s’ middleweight boxing genius Sugar Ray Robinson.
Encouraging fiscal prudence in a man who not only has a hairdresser on standby 24 hours a day but also employs a bloke full-time just to whistle during his training sessions was clearly a monstrous task – and when your client is more than happy to step in the ring and trade punches with Jake “The Raging Bull” La Motta, there’s little hope that you can simply shout at him till he does as he’s told either.
My opinion on this topic changed one night in 1993 when dimple-chinned England rugby union captain and Sloane Ranger to royalty Will Carling popped up on my television screen and tried to persuade me to make a nourishing pasta sauce out of what I soon learned was a soil-dwelling mould named fusarium venenatum.
I mean, even trying to talk The Sugarman into maybe, say, cutting back on the number of dancing animals in his entourage and putting the money into something nice and safe like an ISA seemed simple compared to convincing a British public – who were only just getting the hang of spaghetti that didn’t come in tins – to tuck into grub that had the words “a fungal biomass for human consumption” somewhere in its product description.
Yet some brave, bold and ingenious person took on the task and did such a brilliant job of it that these days this microfungus – discovered in the Thames Valley, named after a village in Leicestershire and developed by white-coated boffins from ICI, is one of Teesside’s most globally renowned products – Quorn.
Now owned by Philippines food giants Monde Nissin, Quorn’s HQ is in Stokesley and its main UK factory in Billingham. The latter is now the biggest meat-alternative production facility in the world, knocks out the vegetarian equivalent of the meat of 1,600 cows each week and provides the filling for every London-based hipster’s favourite “down with the workers” lunchtime snack – the Gregg’s vegan sausage roll. (Personally, I’d like to see them take it to the next level and produce a Quornish pasty.)
Having grown up in the 1960s – with an aversion to bone, gristle and those tubes you used to get in liver – when the only meat-alternative was an empty space on your plate, I can’t help thinking this is a situation to be welcomed.
Quorn is by no means Teesside’s only major link in the food chain, either.
KP Snacks (the KP stands for Kenyon Produce, nothing to do with peanuts – although they are the world’s biggest buyer of them) recently celebrated 50 years in the region by opening a new £6m plant in Billingham. It’s the home to McCoy’s, Pom-Bear, Discos and Hula Hoops (and while we’re on the Hula Hoops topic – how about bringing back prawn cocktail flavour?).
And as we known from the recent visit of our esteemed PM, Tetley now make all their UK and Canadian tea products – and they are the biggest tea firm in both nations – in Eaglescliffe. Tetley was started in Huddersfield by two brothers who began selling salt off the back of a horse and now belongs to Tata Global Beverages, part of the Tata Group that once owned the blast furnace in Redcar.
But then massive consortiums are a bit random like that. For a brief while in the 1980s I worked for the same global consortium as my father – Trafalgar House. He built the Humber Bridge and I made dainty snacks at the Ritz Hotel. No Quorn was involved at that point. But these days…