Profile: Alan Lewis

From textiles to technology, Alan Lewis, of Hartley Investment Group, talks to Suzan Uzel about his vision for an innovative Britain.

ALAN Lewis has made a lot of money in Yorkshire.

And he wants to re-invest it in the region, the chairman of Hartley Investment Group tells me, to help stimulate growth in the UK.

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To be a credible force in the world markets, the country has to create the innovators and the entrepreneurs, said Mr Lewis, who is behind a project in Slaithwaite, near Huddersfield, to establish a multi-million pound technology hub, which he says could make the area “another Silicon Valley”.

“Although the banking sector is important and the service sector is important the future is going to be driven by the people who can make things.

“We’ve got to create the entrepreneurs who have got the pride as we used to have to be the best in the world and to ensure they are creative enough to be seen as the innovators of the world and that will create growth again.”

Hartley Investment Group has its origins in the textile industry, beginning with a small woollen mill, which enters recorded history in 1532. By the 20th century, this and many other mills had grown into the Yorkshire textile giant Illingworth Morris, which by the 1980s, was one of the world’s biggest wool textiles manufacturers.

The Illingworth Morris group included knitwear maker Hawico, worsted spinning operations Daniel Illingworth, suiting makers Huddersfield Fine Worsteds and luxury clothing brand Crombie – the latter is still retained by Hartley Investment Group today. But, by 1982, Illingworth Morris had accumulated large debts – a sign of the times as the textile industry was in decline.

However, under the chairmanship of Mr Lewis, the business was turned around. The group’s debts were repaid and it became a net lender to the money market, heralding the formation of Hartley’s investment banking division in 1983. Its textile operations were gradually divested, and it refocused its activities on property and natural resources.

“Yorkshire was very good to me,” reflected Mr Lewis, originally from Lancashire. He said: “I came here and took over Illingworth Morris which was a public company, which was in trouble and owed the banks about £50m with 6,000 people employed and I turned it around from a substantial loss to a substantial profit and shares went from 13p to 186p.

“We concentrated on ensuring that we invested in the high margin business, low volume, rather than high volume, low margin business, so really concentrating on the quality end and the creative end of the business, and that made an awful lot of money.”

Mr Lewis, who took the company private, added: “And then when the crisis came I had the financial strength to make sure we could secure our position and to endure that crisis where a lot of people, because they owed the banks money, couldn’t do that.

“And what I did was I had a policy of not selling off our properties in Yorkshire but keeping them with an intention to regenerate them and that policy paid us handsomely, because although the textile industry went into major decline the property business exploded and so what we did is we changed a lot of these mills to vibrant businesses again.”

Today, the group provides commercial, industrial and residential properties in the UK, Spain and Russia, while its natural resource activities range from natural gas in Louisiana, to timber harvesting in north-west Russia.

The group continues to be a net lender, and invests in property deals and environmental technologies.

Hartley’s recent regeneration projects in Yorkshire include Cumberland House in Bradford into office space, Whitehead Mills in Laisterdyke into a logistical park, and support for the newly established Kings Science Academy in Bradford, which includes a focus on developing the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Mr Lewis said: “I made a lot of money in Yorkshire and I’m very keen to see that it’s re-invested because I think it’s a very good centre where we can create wealth for the future.”

Former Illingworth Morris textile mill Globe Worsted, at Slaithwaite, is to be home to the Globe Innovation Centre, a joint venture between shareholders Hartley Investment Group, technology company 3M, the University of Huddersfield and Kirklees Council. Hartley Investment Group and 3M are the majority shareholders and are funding the project.

They will act as angel investors for promising entrepreneurial businesses in the technology sector. The first phase of the redevelopment is due to be completed in 2013.

Mr Lewis said: “We’re hoping to create a lot more jobs there. We aim to attract any innovation we think is viable commercially. Then we will mentor them, we will give them facilities of space, the incubators, and that also will be quite an inspirational thing because the cross-fertilisation is very important.”

Mr Lewis also funds the Alan Lewis scholarship for disadvantaged young people at the University of Huddersfield, which launched this year.

Such investments will ensure the region has “the seedcorn for the innovators”, “the scholarships for people who have that creativity but can’t afford to go to university”, and “the places where that innovation can be optimised”, with mentoring and financing opportunities.

The UK should have protected its skills base, said Mr Lewis. “We didn’t move or extricate ourselves from the textiles industry purely for financial reasons in Yorkshire, but the average age in our factories was 56 because nobody wanted to go into a factory, whereas 50 years ago Yorkshire was the fulcrum point of the textile industry and Bradford was one of the wealthiest cities in England and the only reason we lost because is we sacrificed our industries for all sorts of different things, which was wrong.”

Entrepreneurs and master craftsmen, such as engineers and scientists, need to be given “more kudos” in our educational system, he remarked, as these are the people who will create the wealth for the future of this country.

Role models must be set for children so “he’s not seen as the poor relation if he’s engineering, if he is a master craftsman”.

Hartley Investment Group, which employs around 500 people and has a net worth of £250m, is forecasting profits of £600,000 to £1m this year.

“We are not really interested in making short-term gains and getting dividends, we re-invest it”, said Mr Lewis.

“This year, we are investing an awful lot of money in Globe for instance and we don’t expect our return to come for a few years.

“In Globe we used to have 700 people there. With the innovation centre there we hope to bring it back to hundreds of people,” said Mr Lewis.

Alan Lewis Factfile

Title: Chairman and owner of Hartley Investment Group

Date of birth: I never say that

Education: UMIST (The University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology)

First job: Typography at a printer in Lancashire

Favourite song: Madame Butterfly

Car driven: A 1985 Rolls-Royce and a Mercedes

Favourite film: As Good as It Gets

Favourite holiday destination: Spain

Last book read: The Bible – I read it everyday

What I’m most proud of: The evolution of my faith