A movement that puts people at the forefront of promoting County Durham is gathering momentum. PETER BARRON continues a monthly series on the Powered by People initiative by shining the spotlight on a man who rose through the ranks to become the face of one of the region’s most successful companies

AS a boy of 16 in the summer of 1981, Martin Thompson was out on his bike on Westerton Bank, gazing down from one of the highest points of County Durham, when he saw a plume of smoke that made his heart sink.

As he and his mates pedalled frantically towards the billowing black cloud, his worst fears were realised: the old Smart & Brown “luminaire” factory in Merrington Lane, Spennymoor, was ablaze – four days before young Martin was due to start work as an apprentice electrician.

“I remember thinking my first job, my chance of learning a trade, had gone up in smoke,” says Martin.

But he was wrong. Despite what The Northern Echo headlined as “The Great Fire of Spennymoor”, workers at the factory, which had been taken over by Thorn Lighting in 1951, defied the devastation, and Martin was able to begin his career.

“They just gone on with it,” reflects Martin. “It was an early example of the resilience and commitment of the workforce.”

Nearly four decades on, Martin is Thorn Ambassador UK and Ireland – the face of Europe’s leading lighting company, which produces more than 30,000 light fittings a week, and distributes them to global markets as part of the Zumtobel Group

As far as Operations Director, Peter Arthy is concerned, Martin typifies a workforce that has given the company sustained success: “loyal, dedicated, flexible, and hard-working”. It is yet another example of the principles of Powered by People.

“It’s the staff who sell the place with their enthusiasm – and Martin is the perfect example,” adds Peter. “That’s why I always encourage visitors to talk to people on the shop-floor.”

Martin is clearly proud to have worked for the company for almost 40 years. Indeed, his face lights up when he talks about his working life.

He is just as proud to be a County Durham lad, having been born in the mining village of Fishburn in 1964. His father, George Thompson, was a millwright down the local pit, while his mother ran a fish and chip shop in Tweed Road, Spennymoor. His grandfather, Thomas Henry Thompson, was a man known for embracing change in the mining industry, developing expertise around new coal-face cutters.

A strong work ethic, combined with a willingness to embrace new technology, were in the genes and Martin quickly displayed an enlightened attitude.

At the time, Thorn was also producing cookers, fridges and freezers – it wasn’t until 1985 that the company concentrated on lights.

“I was lucky to learn from a diverse group of electricians and get a broad grounding,” he acknowledges.

By the time he was 20, Martin had qualified as a skilled electrician. However, Albert Hickman, Operations Director for Lighting, spotted further potential and put Martin on a management course at Bishop Auckland College.

That led to him following Albert into the UK Commercial department, where he went on to hold several roles in the UK and Ireland. A national role for commissioning project management followed, with Martin’s technical background, proving invaluable.

He went on to become a key account manager, then national sales manager for outdoor lighting, before he took over as systems manager for UK and Ireland.

A milestone for the company came in 2009 when a £28m investment saw the company consolidate production at a new highly-efficient site on Green Lane in Spennymoor, where 850 people earn their living.

After years in field-based roles, Martin returned to the Spennymoor headquarters to assume a global position as manager of the Thorn Academy – a customer experience centre, educating clients about lighting applications.

Finally, in May this year, Martin was made Thorn Ambassador UK and Ireland, using his wealth of knowledge to combine key account management with outdoor product management, as well as training customers.

Martin is justifiably proud of his career but is also remains humble, appreciating that the success of a company like Thorn Lighting is down to teamwork.

“There are far cleverer people in the business than me,” he admits. “Everyone is different – it’s about understanding how to get the best out of them.”

There have been many highlights in Martin’s career, not least in 1995, when The Queen visited the Merrington Lane site and switched on the 60 millionth “PopPack” LED batten made by Thorn.

There have also been plenty of mentors, but Lou Bedoc is perhaps the most inspirational. Lou was a Hungarian refugee who navigated a path across a minefield to help his family escape after the war. They made their way to England and Lou ended up working for Thorn at Spennymoor.

With time for everyone, he rose to become the company’s technical director, lecturing worldwide, setting European industry standards, and becoming Thorn’s longest-serving employee. He died this year after 60 years’ service, and one of Martin’s proudest moments came when a plaque was unveiled to name a staff relaxation area as “Lou’s Lounge”.

“Lou personified what Thorn is all about – giving people an opportunity to make the best of themselves,” says Martin, now a devoted grandfather, and living happily with wife, Tracey, at Middlestone Moor, in his beloved County Durham.

He is one of many prominent business leaders who are supporting the Powered by People movement because it recognises that hard-working, adaptable, passionate people are the county’s greatest asset when it comes to attracting inward investors.

“It is without question the right strategy because it’s people who make the difference at every level,” he says, looking out across the shop floor of the County Durham factory that is helping to light up the world.

  • If you would like to be part of the Powered by People movement, please email PoweredByPeople@durham.gov.uk to find out more.

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