A THRIVING Stockton firm which helps companies get a foothold in Europe has been named the area's best young business of the year in a top awards scheme.

Frontier Europe has taken top prize in the 2001 Shell Live Wire challenge, open to people aged 16 to 30 who have started their own business.

In all, seven Tees Valley businesses were in the running for the award and its first prize of £1,000.

Michael's Bakery of Darlington was runner-up and in third place was Stainton-based creative advertising and design company Ellahi and Pinkney.

Stockton council was host to this year's awards at the Arc, with prizes presented by the mayor, Coun Pete Andrew.

Frontier Europe services and supports businesses outside the EU which want to get established in the UK or other European countries. The three partners, Mr Scott Wayne, Ms Gillian Magee and Mr Glenn Turner, are all in their 20s and based in Stockton business centre.

Despite the global nature of their work, all are committed to the Tees Valley area.

After trading for just a year, the company already employs ten people and Ms Magee predicts that figure will rise to 50 within 18 months.

The idea for Frontier Europe came from Mr Wayne's experiences as a vice-consul in Los Angeles, responsible for encouraging Californians to invest in the UK.

"He found there were significant problems and that people needed a streamlined customer-led service," she said.

As a base, Stockton amply meets the firm's needs. "Space is cheaper and we have been able to build a great team which is customer-focused," said Ms Magee.

The team is also "green". Employees are offered a quarterly bonus if they agree to use public transport to and from work.

Frontier Europe now goes on to the Live Wire regional finals in May and could progress to the national finals to try for the £10,000 prize.

In second place, 30-year-old Mr Michael Sisterson won £500 after taking over a former baker's outlet in Darlington from the receivers and turning it into a profitable business.

He had to overcome a number of problems but is already supplying other retail bakers and considering opening a second shop.

Ellahi and Pinkney, which took the £250 third prize, is a partnership between Mr Tanvir Ellahi and Mr Daniel Pinkney. They have three employees and plan to expand further.

Four other businesses were shortlisted and each received £100: J L Riddle Design Studio, Stockton (innovative textile products); A M Spark and Wire, Darlington (wire erosion specialists); Chilli Media, Middlesbrough (internet and multi-media); Interactive Media Solutions, Middlesbrough (ICT services for disabled people).

Coun Andrew said: "These are the companies and employers of the future and I hope their success will encourage others.

"Those struggling in small businesses seem to be the forgotten people and these awards are one way of thanking them for their efforts."

Stockton council was joined as local sponsors of the awards by Hartlepool and Redcar and Cleveland councils, together with Lloyds bank, Tees Valley TEC and City Centre Training