SEVEN of the North-East's top businessmen have been named as regional finalists in the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2001 awards.

They include Darlington's so-called richest man, health club chain owner Duncan Bannatyne.

Mr Bannatyne operates the Bannatyne Fitness chain of health clubs, now the UK's largest independent chain with turnover in excess of £6.2m. He has been entered in the consumer products category of the awards.

Other North-East finalists are David Charlton, chairman of men's fashion stores The Officer's Club; Martin Jones, managing director of travel firm Freedom Direct; Dr Neil Loxley, chief executive of Bede plc; Barry Moat, managing director of Premier Direct; Tony Powell, chief executive of PII Group, and Michael Mould, director and actor at The Fun Palace.

The region's cream of the crop will be among 41 business people from the North of England chosen as finalists in the competition.

Among them are Jonathan Elvidge of The Gadget Shop and David Whelan of JJB Sports.

Entrepreneur of the Year is a regional, national and international annual awards programme that identifies the achievements of entrepreneurs within successful growing businesses.

Sponsors of the national competition include Vodafone and Citigroup Private Bank.

The winners of this year's regional awards will be announced at a dinner in Leeds on June 14.

They will then go forward to the national finals to be held in London on October 15.

Categories include: consumer products and services; retail; business services; technology; young entrepreneur; master entrepreneur and for the first time social entrepreneur. An overall Entrepreneur of the Year will be chosen from all the categories.

Mark Hatton, entrepreneurial services partner with Ernst and Young in Newcastle, said: "It is good to see the North-East so well represented in the finals of these awards.

"These individuals are testimony to the wealth and diversity of entrepreneurial talent in the region and I am delighted that their achievements are being recognised."

He added: "Entrepreneurs are often unsung heroes and our aim is to use the scheme to help to promote a culture where successful businesses receive the plaudits they deserve and in this way help to fuel an enterprise culture."