Presenter | Speaker | Expert
Raised in Barrow on Trent , Derbyshire 16-year-old Stuart left school with no qualifications. His parents were very disappointed as they were hoping he would join his elder brother at university.
He much preferred bird-nesting and playing snooker and, as soon as he got a motorcycle, he was scrambling down at the gravel pits. He had had his fill of school and just wanted to do “boy's stuff”.'
Doing boy's stuff also blemished Stuart's first job opportunity: after three years as a gamekeeper at Foremarke Hall, he was sacked. He blamed this on the fact that the hours were very long and exacting and he was too much into girls, motorcycles and beer.
But all that was about to change. At the age of 18 he met a girl whose dad wouldn't let him take her out unless he had a job and so employed Stuart in his warehouse.
The warehouse was part of a fireworks business and Stuart felt the first stirrings of his entrepreneurial seed. His wage jumped from £16 a week to £70 a week but watching his mates who were working in what he saw as real jobs, and who were able to afford to buy cars and property, spurred him on as he knew he could do better.
Stuart bettered himself by saving as much as he could and, appropriately, used funds earned from repairing a damaged motorcycle to pay for his first house and to release some capital – for his own fireworks enterprise.
Suddenly, Stuart was a 19-year-old running a business. By his early 20s, the company was valued at £1 million.
Stuart explains his initial success was down to the fact he was presentable and could talk to people. He also found that if he was buying something, he could usually get it a bit cheaper than it was being sold for and when it came to opportunity, he was able to see past what the next man could see. He believes this is a skill no business school can teach you.
Stuart's business grew into Fireworks International which is now one of Britain's leading pyrotechnics firms and he later became a partner in Spondon Engineering which interestingly regularly made frames and parts for Norton Motorcycles.
Founded in Birmingham back in 1898, Norton became one of the world's most renowned motorcycle names and as a youngster in the late 1980s Stuart would go to the famous Donington Park with his father and watch the British Motorcycle Championships. A lasting memory for him is the fact that as the Norton JPS bikes came round the track, all the Union Jacks were waved. The Japanese had dominated the sport for so long so it was exhilarating to see a British bike coming through.
Fast forward 25 years to 2008; the year Stuart bought the Norton brand, effectively rescuing it from an uncertain future. Many say Stuart saving Norton is the equivalent of David Wilkins saving Aston Martin.
And how did this acquisition come about'
At Spondon Engineering he happened by chance one day to see the Norton logo being applied to a bike bound for the British National Motorcycle Museum and asked if the use of the logo had been authorised. Everyone looked blank and so he searched – and found – the owner of the Norton trade name, an American investment banker called Ollie Curme. Authorisation was duly granted.
A few years later, in 2008, Ollie Curme telephoned Stuart with an offer. Ollie's investment company had suffered in the Lehman's crash of 2008 so he was selling the Norton brand and asked Stuart if he was interested. The call was on a Monday and the offer was alive until the Friday, by which time he would be selling it to a clothing consortium. Ollie said to Stuart that If he agreed to make bikes, he would shake on the deal because he was a biker and he didn't want to see it become just a clothing brand. So Stuart jumped on a flight that night and was in Ollie's office the following morning. He did his due diligence on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and signed on the Friday.
Stuart had few doubts about buying even though he had invested only in the Norton marque. There were no bikes, no staff, let alone a factory – just the property rights and CDs containing engineering drawings.
So why was it, as he later described it, ‘a once in five lifetimes' opportunity''
“First of all, Norton has a great sense of history – it was THE first British motorcycle firm. It won the first TT race in 1907 and it's finished first 94 times. It helped the War effort, supplying 10,000 bikes to the military. It's had incredible success. OK, it's had failures – it's been bankrupt a few times – but it's never been bland and I feel there's a certain passion and excitement about Norton that doesn't apply to other brands. Get ten bikers together and I think nine would pick Norton as their number one choice.”
Stuart rose to the biggest challenge of his career and by 2010 Norton was riding again. It's taken a supreme effort with Stuart working 100 hours a week – he still does and is continually focused on ensuring his bikes are, as far as possible, British-made. 80% of components are made in Britain and all bikes are hand built at Donington Hall.
As a glittering exemplar of the entrepreneurial spirit, Stuart's take on his success with Norton is refreshingly simple: “Making a motorcycle business earn money didn't seem to be a very complex problem and I think the simplicity of my approach made it successful. My design team know that making a great motorbike is complicated but when I had a meeting with those guys, my approach was “just press the ‘make' button, boys.” I gave them the problem of making the bikes and, by not getting bogged down by the detail, I was able to concentrate on the rest of the business – dealing with finances, brand value, market position, distribution and dealer network – in order to sell at a higher price than it cost to make, and make a profit. Business is simple, really: buy the product at £1, sell it for £2 and make sure you operate for less than £1.”
People often ask Stuart if knowing Norton's chequered history had made him nervous and he acknowledges how much mettle and acumen turning round a failing brand has taken: “I took a long, hard walk through the automotive graveyard where you'll find TVR, BSA, Triumph and, yes, Norton, so that I could acknowledge all the causes of death and come out learning from other peoples' mistakes.”
Bringing back Norton from the dead is maybe not as miraculous as it sounds considering Stuart had reawakened a giant of the automotive world. Stuart says. “Key to success has been letting the brand be the brand. We've not tried to change the course of the brand or deny its history. We've revelled in that history.”
He adores the Britishness of the brand and has located the business to Donington Hall built for the 1st Marquis of Hastings in 1790 to the designs of William Wilkins, architect of the National Gallery and where Stuart now lives. Rather appropriately it sits alongside the Donington Race Track where he first cultivated his love of motorcycles, for Norton in particular. Norton's production facility is at Hastings House in the grounds of the hall.
When Norton was located at Donington race Track he kept looking over the fence, quite literally, at Donington Hall. He says ‘I've wanted a big house, a stately home since I was about ten. I suppose it goes back to my gamekeeping days at Foremarke Hall. But it wasn't just about the house; I wanted a prestigious address to match the brand and the product. Donington Hall conjures up a uniquely British way of showing style, strength and quality which are all great attributes of the Norton brand. I wanted this to be a showcase for foreign dealers and visiting clients are certainly impressed.'
Stuart is still presentable and is full of confidence and conviviality, a refreshing antithesis to the stern besuited corporate mogul, but he's no hairy biker either.
He has set up a 3,500-acre game reserve in South Africa near the Botswana border to breed rare Sable Antelope for safari parks. Stuart also went to the Bonneville Salt Flats in 2009 and wrote himself into the history books, setting the land speed record for a rotary powered motorcycle – on a Norton - at 173 mph for the flying mile! He did it because he believes it is vital for people to see the owner as it brings more affinity from the customer base – and from the industry – than when the business is a faceless corporate.
What has also boosted Norton is its coterie of celebrity customers who include Bruce Springsteen, Orlando Bloom and Top Gear's Richard Hammond. Interestingly, Stuart perceives that one of the reasons known names go motorbiking is because they can put on a crash helmet and be hidden. He “That's why David Beckham likes riding a bike. He gets his life back.”
Stuart still lives for his regular spin on his bike and likes to spend his free time with his three children