From nuclear subs to IT systems

Article originally published in The Journal on 7th June 2015

Nigel BeggBack To The Future fan Nigel Begg has turned Aspire Technology Solutions into one of the region’s leading IT firms. Coreena Ford talks to him about his route to the top.

The fear of failure may drive Nigel Begg, but there’s no evidence it plays any part in his working life.

In less than 10 years Aspire Technology Solutions, the company he co-owns, has grown from a two-man business to one of the region’s leading and most successful IT companies.

Based in Gateshead, the firm employs more than 70 people and has just announced record revenues for an eighth successive year – up by 25% in 2014 from £6m to £7.5m. Similar growth is forecast for 2015/16 and the firm’s success has not gone unnoticed.

Back in 2013 the firm took the Small Business trophy at the North East Business Awards and it’s since moved into national leagues, including the Sunday Times Hiscox Tech Track 100 league table – measuring technology companies by sales growth over the last three years – which it appeared in last September.

Awards are great recognition, but he says he is not bothered by acclaim from his peers.

“I’m only interested in what our customers think of us, that’s all that matters to me,” he said.

“Aspire isn’t about servicing customers, it’s about delighting customers and I literally can’t sleep if I don’t think we’ve done our absolute best.”

And there are a lot of customers to delight now, as Aspire has accrued a strong list of more than 450 clients, providing managed IT services, infrastructure and connectivity solutions and full IT support.

With bases in London and the 300-year-old listed Heworth Hall in Gateshead, the firm now counts household names like Barbour, Benfield Motors, Sunderland AFC, the Labour Party, to local authorities and theatres to smaller businesses and enterprises.

Most are based in the region, but others extend from Plymouth to Inverness and from Gibraltar to the US.

It’s clear where Nigel’s work ethic and dynamism comes from. His father was manager of a draughts office at a River Wear shipyard and his mother worked as a civil servant.

They could afford to send his brother to private school, but Nigel wasn’t interested – and was more intent on staying close to his pals.

“They worked so hard to give us a good start in life,” he said.

“Private schools played rugby, not football, and besides all my mates were at Whitburn School, so that’s where I stayed.”

Those school friends remain his mates today, despite the fact he didn’t linger long at school, shunning the idea of university to head straight out into the working world.

That decision led to him dipping his toe in many different roles and sectors, helping him discover a real aptitude for IT, a skill that would ultimately lead to the establishment of Aspire.

He said: “I wasn’t interested in going to university, I just wanted to do my own thing, be self-sufficient, so I left.

“I tried lots of different jobs after leaving school, but my first proper job was working as a British Standard auditor on nuclear submarines in Faslane.

“The company – it was then NEI Clarke Chapman – made the lifts that took the subs out of the water. Through the role, I discovered I had a knack with computers. They’d always been a passion as well as a hobby, but I hadn’t really thought about a career in IT.”

Having discovering his personal career path, he then embarked on a series of IT related roles, starting with Wimpey Waste Management, which was bought out by UK Waste and was then bought by huge American conglomerate Waste Management International.

As European IT director he worked across the Continent and in the US before joining US housebuilder Centex who enlisted him to integrate their American IT systems into a European way of working.

That need to ‘do his own thing’ had never left him so Nigel soon set up his own consultancy in London, working with the likes of Philips, the Dutch electronics company, before the lure of the North East and home led him back to the region.

He’s now the father of three young children and lives in Cleadon Village, just a mile from Whitburn, the village where he grew up.

“I’d been based in London for a long time, but felt it was time to start a family, time to move home,” he said.

“As a consultant I’d always tried to use North East people, whose work ethic and honest, open approach I obviously knew well.

“One of those consultants was Chris Fraser, the most gifted, intelligent and creative IT expert I’ve ever met. He is a genius.

“We’ve always worked well together. It’s a bit like a marriage, we complement each other well.

“He works on designing the best solutions for our clients while I concentrate on the clients’ experience of Aspire and making sure we are delivering business advantage to them through technology.”

Chris had stayed in the region after leaving his native Lytham St Annes to graduate from Newcastle University so the pair launched Aspire in 2006 as a 50/50 enterprise from an office in the Gateshead Business Centre.

“I put all my savings into the business. We wanted to be independent from day one, and we’re still the same all these years later,” he said.

“We don’t have any debt, we don’t have shareholders, but we do reinvest our profit to provide a better experience for our customers,” he added, citing Aspire’s new on-site datacentre as an example.

Expansion has been rapid and, despite knocking three offices into one, Aspire quickly outgrew its Gateshead premises. They rented space in Newcastle before further expansion took them to Blue Sky Way in Hebburn.

“South Tyneside Council was fantastically supportive of us and still are,” he said.

“Again, because of our growing numbers we were looking for somewhere else, and I saw Heworth Hall was available. I loved the idea of a cutting-edge IT company being based in such an old and iconic building.

“I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being so closely involved in its restoration, but working on a listed building wasn’t without its challenges.”

The hall was originally built in 1730 and was the home of the mine-owning Russell family until 1919 when it became headquarters of the Brotherhood of St George.

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In 1929, the hall became Heworth Conservative Club which it remained until becoming home to Aspire in 2010.

“It’s a unique building for a unique business, although five years on and we need to find space for more staff as we’re still expanding.”

He hopes to extend the building to create space for 40 extra desks and will work with Gateshead Council and whoever else they need to make sure it’s done properly.

The firm’s creation of a datacentre is a story in itself, and proof positive of Nigel’s commitment to the North East and Aspire’s customers, in every way.

Having received part-funding of £220,000 through The Journal-backed Let’s Grow Fund for the datacentre – one of the most energy efficient in Europe – he quite literally took matters into his own hands when he couldn’t find a specialist roofer in the region.

The team wanted a suitably-qualified roofer capable of building an extremely high spec roof for the £1.5m building, but the only firm with the requisite skills was based in the south of England.

He therefore took a couple of the contractors working on the site with him and travelled to Wales to spend two days on a Tata-Steel approved installation course.

On returning to Aspire’s Heworth Hall headquarters with the necessary skills, he spent weekends and spare hours over a fortnight completing the project himself.

“The roof had to be both highly secure and eco-friendly, and the roofing system specified by the architect had to look good too,” he said.

“I was also very interested in the construction process so I thought: ‘You know what? I’ll do it myself’.

“I enjoyed the work, and I now know the building far better than I would have otherwise. I like to think the episode shows exactly what we will do to improve our service to customers.”

He not only wants to improve services – he’s determined to become the top provider.

“My ambition is to be the best and in doing so, we’ll become the biggest, it’s that simple,” he said.

“I suppose our ambition at the start was the same, although between us we had only six clients.

“In our first year our turnover was £1.1m so we exceeded our expectations. It was proof that concentrating on the customer was the right strategy.

“I started Aspire so I could say ‘yes’ to customers. I’d seen so many examples of firms saying ‘no’ or giving the customer a solution that they didn’t ask for.

“We work hard to understand a business before working with them to find a solution that is right for them, and that’s not just lip-service, everything does – and should – revolve around the customer.”

In the meantime, he’s made a few changes to the company structure, introducing team leaders, taken on more people and expanded the management team, to give us the firm capacity to “go that extra mile for our customers”.

And helping the next generation of IT consultants has now become a key driver.

“It’s not money or status that drives me. I suppose it’s wanting to take pride in a job well done,” he said.

“We take on apprentices and I get a real sense of satisfaction that I create opportunities for them.

“I get a tremendous sense of pride in knowing that I created a chance for someone to complete their training at the Aspire Apprentice Academy and watch the guys and girls develop into IT consultants. It’s rewarding, and it’s an honour.

“I’m also proud of the team we’ve assembled. We work really hard, and it’s important that people here know we appreciate their work.

“When I was young, my dad would very occasionally take us into his work, as other dads did. It was great to see where he worked, and I remembered that vividly.

“Now, what we do is host events like summer barbecues and we invite staff and their families. It’s a way to say thank you to the families, but also an opportunity for wives, husbands, sons and daughters to see where their loved ones work.”

Since Nigel and Chris launched Aspire, the firm has reported record turnover every year – and they believe the growth really can be sustained.

He hints that the firm’s future could also be aided by the addition of non-executive directors to help them drive forward, potentially beyond the boundaries of the North East.

“There’s no reason why growth can’t be sustained, as long as we continue doing what we’re doing so well now,” he said.

“Our turnover target for 2015/16 is £9m and by 2020 our ambition is to hit in excess of £15m.

“In doing so, we’ll be a bigger business, with more staff in larger premises. We’re a North East company and our customer base is here, but moving forward that will spread across the UK and beyond.

“And to help us on this exciting journey we might be interested in getting input from the right sort of non-exec directors who could help us.”

No doubt there’ll be quite a few interested parties keen to get involved.