A NORTH-EAST engineer which almost collapsed during the recession is about to celebrate its 20th anniversary by recruiting new apprentices.

At its peak ALM Engineering Solutions was employing 48 people as business boomed before the recession hit in 2008 and the company lost a "ridiculous amount of cash," explained company founder Tony Thompson.

Staff numbers fell to 26, but after diversifying into the oil and gas sectors, ALM has steadily recovered. Work has picked up, investments have been made and the number of employees has risen to 34.

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Mr Thompson admitted he feared the firm, which makes specialist parts for the aerospace, nuclear, and transport industries, wouldn’t survive to

celebrate its 20th birthday.

"It was a pretty bleak time," he said. "But now we're coming up 20 and, when you look back over the last few years, it's an achievement we're very proud of.

"The first five years was easy. We were in a bit of a niche market and grew quite rapidly. Years five to 10 was a difficult period in terms of growth, when we had to employ more people and you go from a small family firm to bringing managers into the business.

"But then the withering recession hit and it wiped out about 40 per cent of the business overnight.

"We diversified into the precision engineering market and that brought with it its own skill demands.

"So we've seen all sides of it. Hopefully now we're starting to come out of the back end of the recession. We've got good growth and a good order book now, and we're back in recruitment mode."

The firm's never-say-die spirit is embodied by some of its long-serving staff.

Machinist John Lyons has been with the company since it started 20 years ago, and colleagues David Steele, Alan Lamb, Paul Fowler, Alan Smith, Barbara Lamb and Chris Pollitt have all been with the firm for more than a decade.

"You forget how much you grow as a business and the people grow with you," said Mr Thompson.

"They come as 20-year-old kids and now they're married with two kids who are almost leaving school. You forget just how much you have to support people over the years."

Mr Thompson started his career with Darchem Engineering on Aycliffe Business Park in 1978, but the firm closed its Aycliffe site as he was ending his Apprenticeship.

To make ends meet, he drove a wagon for a couple of years and spent six months in Hamsterley Forest as a lumberjack.

He then purchased a company called Winston Fabrications with a friend, a business which is still going now, but later sold his share and moved on to work for Tomaz in South Church and Cobtech in Shildon before launching ALM Products on June 1994.

Its first base was a small unit in South Church, near Bishop Auckland before he doubled the size of his premises when he moved to a 5,000 sq ft unit in Spennymoor. In November 1999. ALM moved into its current 11,000 sq ft home on Grindon Way, Aycliffe Business Park.

"It was the right decision," recalled Mr Thompson about staring his own business.

"I never get up on a morning and don't want to come to work. Often I may go home on an evening and not want to come back, but by the next morning I'm looking forward to it again.

"Over the years we've done quite well and had a good life out of the business. We've certainly learned a lot in the last five years. It's just been a case of managing cash flow with very little help from financial institutions.

"We lost cash so quickly it took us nearly four years to replace it, although we're back on top of it now. It's been a long, hard slog to get back on top of things, but we have.

"We've got a much better cash flow now, and by the end of next year we'll be out of a lot of debt. And the sooner, the better."

ALM is now looking to start taking on apprentices again, as well as looking for skilled people.

"I still don't think engineering is perceived as a good career move in school," he says.

"And yet I think it has got to be one of the best opportunities for school-leavers at the minute. It's a chance to enjoy a long career earning potentially lots of money," Mr Thompson added.