New life is being breathed into the former Sanyo factory near Newton Aycliffe after two years lying dormant. Business Editor Mike Parker met the man bringing skilled jobs back to the region.

WHEN Sanyo on Newton Aycliffe Industrial Estate closed its doors in November, 2001, it's 284 workers were devastated.

Livelihoods lay in tatters and many more businesses, from suppliers to pubs and corner shops, felt the shockwaves of mass redundancy.

It is an area which has been ravaged by redundancy announcements and factory closures at Sloman Engineering, SMK and Oshino Manufacturing, to name but a few.

This is a trend that Steve Balmer, managing director of the Balmer Lindley Group, is desperate to change.

Most gamblers will tell you that if you are going to back a horse, see first where the trainer puts his brass. Mr Balmer has sunk his in Newton Aycliffe - a cool £1.5m.

He is taking a chance, and has chosen to gamble his own pension on the outcome.

He said: "I am so confident in the property I have paid for it personally. The business could not risk its money and so I have given the business the property for free for a year."

Balmer Lindley Group's core business is safety. "Anything that provides safety on road and rail network, including safety fencing, crash barriers, manufacturing and installing bridge parapets and noise deflection barriers, that's us," he said.

The safety barrier business alone has experienced enormous demand in the wake of the Great Heck train crash, when a Land Rover skidded off a road and ended up on a railway track near Selby, North Yorkshire.

Ten people died when a passenger train derailed after hitting the vehicle.

Balmer Lindley also has a vested interest in street lighting after buying a small firm called Transmission and Lighting, in Hereford.

This is the business that the Scunthorpe group is moving to County Durham, and this is the business that could be key to Balmer Lindley's aspirations for future growth.

Mr Balmer said: "Over 70 per cent of lighting columns in this country are beyond their intended renewal date."

That is a substantial amount of work, when one considers the UK lighting industry is valued at an estimated £280m.

And the main purchasers all have deep pockets - local authorities, the Highways Agency, Balfour Beatty and McAlpine to name but a few.

He predicts Transmission and Lighting, soon to be absorbed under the Balmer Lindley name and branding, will represent a quarter of total group output in the not too distant future.

Mr Balmer admits that the only way to stay in the market is to stay ahead of the game. That is what brings him to Newton Aycliffe.

An exhaustive search for suitable premises put him in contact with County Durham Development Company (CDDC), which took control of the former Sanyo site when the Japanese microwave oven manufacturer moved out.

It is not easy to find a suitable home when your business is building 18m (60ft) lighting columns.

But the nine-acre site, around the corner from Sedgefield Borough Business Services (SBBS), proved ideal for a company which has already won the contract to manufacture the steel columns for the £750,000 Newport relief road in Wales. Some £200,000-worth of columns will be made in County Durham and shipped to Wales.

The largest, most sophisticated press brake machine in Europe is being installed on the new site to be used to bend enormous steel plates into octagonal columns before being pushed through the UK's longest powder coating line.

Five hundred tonnes of reinforced concrete foundations have been put in the former Sanyo building to cope with the reactive loads of the 120-tonne press.

The agencies responsible for attracting inward investment can accept a pat on the back for all this.

Mr Balmer said on more than one occasion that One NorthEast's Regional Selective Assistance grant of £750,000 over the next three years was an arm twister. The efforts of CDDC and SBBS were also praised.

He said: "The assistance we have had from the grant people was very helpful, very positive, and was key in our decision to come to the region.

The system was accessible, was very efficient and wasn't a bureaucratic nightmare and came with a human face."

However, grants alone cannot attract business. The workforce also has to be in place, and Mr Balmer found the right workers were on the doorstep. He said he hopes to restore skills not used since shipbuilding went into decline.

"You need people from the skill background that are happy and comfortable with metal working. You need people born out of that background.

"That is what you have in spades here. There is a tremendous base of these skills. The number of redundancies suffered was bad for the area but these are the people that are now working for us here. We needed that pool of labour.

"This goes from a standing start to full production very quickly. You do not have time to hand-rear these people and so you need the skills to polish and harness.

"The region has the best skills base in the country for this business, it has the best workers and most motivated workers."

When the doors open next month to about 160 workers, County Durham will be watching to see if Mr Balmer, and the agencies who helped bring him to the region, have backed a winner.