By Adam Steel
Business Durham raised a glass to the firms who took part in Future Business Magnates, giving the region’s youth of today inspiration for tomorrow, as the annual project’s prize-giving enjoyed centre stage at the Xcel Centre on Aycliffe Business Park.
The competition is organised by Business Durham and encourages local companies to team up with schools and help them create fresh commercial concepts, while providing an insight into the working world.
Employers from across the Business Park and beyond got involved in the 13th edition of the scheme and Gary Chaplin, Enterprise Development Manager for Business Durham, said FBM is indebted to all concerned for their continued support in helping and uplifting young people.
“Businesses like Ebac and Frank’s the Flooring Store and from all over Aycliffe Business Park and right throughout the county are extremely generous towards FBM and have been very, very supportive this year and over the years,” he said.
“In the past, companies like Hitachi have been involved, and smaller businesses act as specialist support as well.
“We’ve had businesses who have taken part like Waterstons IT Consultancy in Durham who have had young people come back to them after FBM for work experience and they are also anticipating getting some employees out of it, so it really is an effective and worthwhile scheme for everyone involved.”
Chaplin said FBM provides an important business grounding for the youngsters who participate, and gives them a leg-up when it comes to applying for jobs and being self-motivated after education.
The enterprise competition features Year 8 pupils aged 12-13 from the county’s schools and runs throughout the academic year.
“The North East has fewer new business start-ups than anywhere else in the country, and FBM is very much a hearts and minds project,” Chaplin added.
“We have got to start with our young people and implant in them the notion that starting a business isn’t something that other people do, it’s something that they can do.
“Something that can change their lives and give them control of their own destiny.
“By the same token, I’m not saying that everyone who does FBM should go off and start a business, but it gives them a lot of the qualities that employers value.
“We’ve had a lot of bright sparks in it, and this year’s competition was particularly close.”
Europe’s leading manufacturer of dehumidifiers, water coolers and washing machines, Ebac joined up with students from Woodham Academy for this year’s instalment, with the theme based around ‘Durham Smart County’.
The students collaborated on user-friendly wheelchair enhancements with the firm, and its financial director Graham Currie said FBM remains as useful as ever for both participating companies and schools alike.
“We’ve been involved with FBM probably since its inception, and I’ve been involved for seven or eight years now myself,” he said.
“I think it’s an excellent project outside the general curriculum that gives students a real insight into the workplace and what life is like beyond education.
“In my experience, you really see the students develop throughout the 10 months that they spend with you.
“It’s not necessarily about winning the competition, it’s about seeing young people progress and it’s a great platform for them to build on as they go forward.”
Currie believes taking part in something like FBM gives students a kind of gold star status when it comes to job applications.
Ebac moved to Aycliffe from Bishop Auckland nine years ago, with all but one of their workforce making the switch with them.
They currently employ 250 people, most of who live within a 10-mile radius of the Business Park.
He said: “I think schools and colleges do an excellent job of producing young people with skills and qualifications, but how do you determine who will be the most suitable in a working environment?
“As an employer, if I look at a young person’s CV and they have something like FBM on it, that stands out as a real highlight for me because they have had that exposure to the workplace and how it functions.
“I think FBM is a great way of letting local youngsters know the opportunities that are out there and available to them.”
Woodham gained a real insight into Ebac’s inner workings, Currie added, giving the students a flavour of possible career paths.
“We explain to them that we have a whole range of different people working across a broad spectrum,” he said.
“Of course, we have production operators given the nature of our business, but we also have product designers, IT staff and foreign language speakers as well.
“I think it’s important for the students to see what exactly goes on in a workplace.
“Putting things together is at the heart of industry but it’s not just about that, there is a whole spectrum around the edges that goes into it as well.
“So I think FBM is a fantastic initiative for a whole number of reasons.”
FBM teams must complete six challenges, culminating in a Dragons’ Den style presentation in front of a panel of judges including Business Durham’s Business Development Director Sarah Slaven and Professor Brian Tanner, an entrepreneur and physicist.
Ideas in this year’s competition included a rewards app for people who scan their rubbish before throwing it away and a smart lighting system for rural roads to reduce light pollution.
The grand final event at the Xcel Centre was hosted by BBC Radio Newcastle presenter Charlie Charlton.
Eleven prizes were up for grabs, including a first prize and two runners’-up prizes, with a cash award going to each of the top three schools to help develop their enterprise activities, and shopping vouchers for the students.
Sarah Miller, assistant head of year 8 at St John’s Catholic School in Bishop Auckland, gave her thumbs-up to FBM.
“It’s about expanding students’ horizons in terms of what professions and jobs are actually out there in the market that they don’t often have that much of an opportunity to engage with,” she said.
John Bignall, director of the Bignall Group, described FBM as a one-off project worth shouting about.
“To the best of my knowledge, FBM is unique,” he said. “It is just such a good scheme.
“One of the teachers told me that when her students moved into Business Studies, those that had done FBM were a year ahead and I thought: ‘how fantastic’.”
And David Richardson, from Short Richardson & Forth Solicitors, said FBM fosters an important self-belief in the youngsters who take part, encouraging them to step out of themselves and realise their potential.
“I worked in London for a number of years and everybody down there told me they were brilliant,” he explained.
“You come to the North East and there is more of a confidence issue.
“There is no difference in skills or talent, it’s about confidence,” he added.