Meet the Yorkshirewoman helping to invest millions in regional businesses to rocket-boost their growth

Tavia Sparks is on a mission to help small and medium-sized Yorkshire businesses boost their growth through new investment and strategy. Chris Burn speaks to her.

The world of private equity investment can appear somewhat impenetrable to those outside it but like so much in the business world, a lot of it comes to down to relationships – and coffee.

​Doncaster-born and York-based Tavia Sparks, a senior investment manager at Foresight Group, says that when it comes to identifying opportunities to help promising regional businesses the personal touch is key.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“One thing we do an awful lot of is coffee meetings, hundreds and hundreds of them,” she explains. “They will be with accountants, lawyers, corporate finance houses, non-execs, chairs, interim FDs, you name it. They are connectors in the ecosystem working with high-growth businesses.

Tavia Sparks of ForesightTavia Sparks of Foresight
Tavia Sparks of Foresight

“It’s raising awareness of what private equity can do, and how private equity can be deployed to help scale a business and invest for growth, and how we can help drive sustainable best practice.

“Like the rest of the team, I’m naturally a really curious person. Finding out what’s going on every day brings a new opportunity and while scaling a business will present similar challenges, each is unique and it is really interesting because you get to learn something new all the time.”

Foresight, which is backed by pension funds, invests in small and medium-sized businesses and helps them shape their strategy and leadership teams to put them in a position for rapid growth. This week it has announced a £6.5m investment in Halifax-based facilities management business MSL Property Care Services.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Sparks joined Foresight last year as the firm looks to establish itself more firmly in Yorkshire and the North East. She had been working as director in Santander’s Growth Capital team but says the opportunity to join Foresight as it launched a multi-million North East Fund was one she couldn’t turn down. The firm is also overseeing a £20m West Yorkshire fund on behalf of Tracy Brabin’s mayoral combined authority.

Sparks says: “At Santander, I’d worked with Foresight on five or six deals as lender as part of management buyouts and buy-ins. I knew the team really well and I rated them as an operator. I had worked in London for a bit which was great but had moved back to York about five years ago so when the opportunity came up to join the fund at the beginning of its journey in this region, it was fantastic.”

One recent example of how the firm has assisted a business is the Mowgli Street Food chain of restaurants. Foresight invested in 2017, when there were two sites in Liverpool and one in Manchester. By the time they exited the business in January this year with a sale to TriSpan, a global private equity firm, Mowgli had 15 restaurants nationally – including one in Leeds.

Sparks says: “Nisha Katona is the founder and a mum of twins who is really passionate about bringing Indian street food to the UK market. Helping to build out the model and where the business grew to is a classic example of how Foresight has added value and worked with management to deliver a really successful proposition.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The firm typically focuses on businesses with profits in the region of £1m to £4m, while its regional model allows it to reach out to companies that typically go under the radar for many private equity firms.

Sparks says: “One thing Foresight is really strong at doing is attracting good talent and using our networks to bring good talent to high-growth SMEs that might not ordinarily come along and join the company but for the fact that they know they’re going on a growth journey supported through Foresight.

“The chair appointment at Mowgli [Dame Karen Jones] probably wouldn’t have been the chair appointment the business could have secured without us. We helped structure the senior leadership team. Growing businesses typically have similar challenges regardless of sector but we are able to attract top talent, put processes and strategy in place and help challenge strategy as we have the bird’s eye view across a very wide portfolio base that is unique to a larger investor.”

In addition to its Leeds office, the firm has just opened an office in Newcastle as it looks to extend its geographic reach across Yorkshire and the North-East.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Sparks says: “It is the start of the regional journey but certainly not the start of the operating model. This is the tenth or eleventh regional office for Foresight so this is a very tried and tested model and there is a gap in the market.

“It’s having those boots on the ground that generates the right conversations with the right people, which then turns into opportunity.

“We’re seeing lots of great and exciting opportunities across the whole region. It is not just the central conurbations, it is everywhere – the Wakefields, Huddersfields and Halifaxs are really important to us as well as the centre of Leeds.”

She adds: “There are parts of the economy that have suffered from underinvestment across the North. We deploy our funds particularly in those sorts of areas. When it comes to long-term skilled job creation and investment in R&D we are in a really privileged position to be instrumental on some of those decisions. It is really fantastic.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Sparks says she hopes the Yorkshire and North-East arm of Foresight is able to replicate what has been achieved on the other side of the Pennines with their North-West operation which started in 2017.

“In Manchester they have created 1,200 jobs and invested £4m in research and development. A third of our boards have female representation or female founders which is exciting. As a female in the corporate finance world, there aren’t enough of us and we need more.

“It is local money for local benefit. Our funders are combined authorities and local government pension schemes. Of course, they’re driven by financial return but they are also driven by the benefit to the local communities for the long term.”