He’s a former athlete who is helping to protect truckers from thugs. Mike Fromant met Deputy Business Editor Greg Wright
BACK in the late 1960s, you needed a clean pair of heels to keep up with Mike Fromant.
Among those who tried – and failed – to catch him in junior races was David Moorcroft, who went on to become the 5,000 metres world record holder. Mr Fromant was a figure to be feared on the track, and today he brings the same focused, competitive approach to his business career.
As managing director of the Contis Group, he’s heading an organisation which is creating jobs in rural Yorkshire, and helping to reduce the number of attacks carried out on long distance lorry drivers across Europe.
Over the last four years, Skipton-based Contis has grown through acquisition to become one of a handful of companies in Europe that can provide a range of prepaid card services under one roof. Its bulging customer list includes Pizza Express and Empire Cinemas, and Mr Fromant’s sights are set on growth in places ranging from Zimbabwe to Latvia.
His sporting career blossomed in the days before National Lottery funding and lucrative sponsorship deals.
“At 16, I won the AAAs junior championship,’’ he recalled. “I was ranked number one in the UK over 800 metres as a junior in 1971. At 40, I finished second in the world vets championships in Birmingham to Mike McLeod, who ran in a number of Olympic games.”
In the 1970s, top amateur athletes needed a day job.
So the young Mr Fromant decided to join a sector, which at the time, seemed the epitome of conservatism. He got a job at the local branch of Barclays.
It was a world still inhabited by characters who would have approved of Captain Mainwaring’s safety-first approach to banking.
Mr Fromant said: “I was introduced to the bank manager and was told that his name was ‘Sir’. The assistant manager had to be called ‘Mr’.
“It was very hierarchical, and very conservative, working in the branches and looking after the customers.
“You were really serving the local community and making sure that the branches could make decisions.”
In those days bank managers could look customers in the eye and decide, using their common sense and experience, if they should extend the offer of credit to them. The credit-fuelled financial meltdown lay in the distant future.
It’s easy to view the past with rose-tinted glasses. But, 50 years ago, nobody would have predicted that the banks themselves would be at the heart of the biggest financial crisis in history.
“It (the banks) have moved into more centralised control over lending decisions,’’ said Mr Fromant. “They became organisations selling products to make profit for aspects of the services they delivered.”
He acknowledged that the banks faced a “long battle” to restore their reputations.
“People in the bank branches are doing a great job, it’s the investment side which is a completely different picture and maybe regulation will help.”
Over the years, Mr Fromant went on to hold executive roles at Barclaycard and GE Money. By 2010, he had set up his own consultancy.
When Contis, a small company backed by a team of independent shareholders, wanted to attract his services, he saw an opportunity to put his experience to good use. On the back of acquisitions and client growth, the company’s income is expected to grow by 60 per cent to more than £1m this year.
Contis, which was founded in 2008, has 40 staff in Skipton and Ahmedabad in India. It is growing thanks to the strong demand for prepaid payment card services. Prepaid is a catch-all title that covers the kind of payment services that carry preloaded funds.
It includes, for example, loyalty cards offered by high street retailers to their customers and corporate cards issued by a large business to its staff members to cover expenses.
According to Contis, the market for prepaid cards is exploding. Mastercard predicts annual growth of 22 per cent until 2017, when the market could be worth around 822 billion US dollars. These trends could lead to more jobs in Skipton.
In May last year, Contis snapped up GTP Financial Services, a regulated ‘e-money’ issuer across the EU. Earlier this year, Contis became a Principal Member of Visa, which as Mr Fromant points out, gives it the same status as the major banks.
“We have a certified Visa processing platform and we have our own internal call centre in Skipton,” Mr Fromant said. “We have the ability to grow our product in different sectors.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s a big corporate giant, or a smaller company. My philosophy is that you have to treat all your customers the same. It’s important that we understand their business as well.”
According to Mr Fromant, the lives of more than 2,000 haulage drivers across Europe have been made simpler and safer after they started using a multi-currency prepaid card service. It means the truckers don’t have to carry large amounts of cash with them, which had made them easy targets for crooks.
The service, which has been delivered to 128 European haulage customers of Contis’s client, Transport Consulting Services (TCS), provides long distance truck drivers and haulage workers with a cash replacement prepaid payment method.
“If a truck driver is travelling through Italy, and they have to pay a toll or a fine, they can use the pre-paid card product or go to an ATM and withdraw cash,” said Mr Fromant.
“It has made things safer for them. They (the drivers) were being robbed and the cash was disappearing out of their cabs. It was also difficult for the company to control and manage what was happening.”
Contis is on the brink of attracting six more clients, which could include an airline.
Mr Fromant said: “We will be looking for more jobs in Skipton in project management and business analysis areas. We’re recruiting for marketing people and we’ll also expand customer services.
“We’re also creating a call centre in Latvia for a Latvian card programme that we’re rolling out in February next year, where we will need Russian, Latvian and English-speaking staff.
“We’ve got a relationship with FBC Bank in Zimbabwe where we have a sponsorship arrangement, which enables us to issue cards out in Zimbabwe. We’re making sure we work with the right banks and buying the right products. There’s a big, ‘unbanked’ population in Zimbabwe, and in Africa.
“Like any athlete, or anybody involved in competition, we’re not putting any limits on our growth. We’re looking at expanding the company, in the right manner, in the right way, and in the right sectors.”
Name: Mike Fromant.
Title: Managing Director of the Skipton-based Contis Group, which provides prepaid payment card services.
Date of birth: April 26, 1952
Place of birth: Tooting, London
Education: The ‘university of life’.
Last book read: James Patterson’s Kill Alex Cross
Car driven: Lexus
First job: Working in a butchers in Mitcham, plucking the turkeys for Christmas
Favourite holiday destination: San Diego
Favourite song: Otis Redding – Sitting on the Dock of the Bay
What is the thing you are most proud of? Watching my two daughters getting married