|John Fenty - strength of purpose|
FEW individuals in Grimsby hold as high a profile as John Fenty. Not only is he a successful, self-made businessman but he is also a forthright member of North East Lincolnshire Council - one who is never afraid of courting controversy on subjects about which he feels strongly. Most notably, the 52-year-old is also the major shareholder of Grimsby Town FC and at the forefront of initiatives to build a new stadium for the club in readiness for the day, hopefully not too far off, when The Mariners return to the Football League. The feature below is the first part of an updated version of one that originally appeared in the Cleethorpes Chronicle in August 2010.
WHEN he was a schoolboy first at St Peter's Primary, then at Matthew Humberstone, the future prospects did not look particularly bright for John Fenty.
He was affected by dyslexia which affected his academic performance and undermined his confidence.
"My biggest dread was having to stand in front of class to read out a poem or piece of prose,"he recalls. "It was a nightmare.
"Nowadays, teachers are alert for signs of dyslexia and it is usually soon detected, but no so when I was at school.
"My response to classroom difficulties was to play truant, but at least I can say put my time to positive use. I liked cars and spent as much time as I could spraying old bangers or tinkering under their bonnets.”
John was the middle one of five brothers - the others being Mark, Paul, Steve and Pete, the last of whom was an Army officer who, very sadly, died some years ago.
During much of his boyhood, John saw relatively little of his father, also called John, whose job as a fisherman kept him at sea, but plenty of his mother, Marjorie, whom he describes as a "phenomenal inspiration" and “a perpetual ray of sunshine”.
"She was a real whirlwind,"he says. "As well as bringing up family, she was always helping and encouraging other people - even to the extent of wallpapering their homes.
"She accepted that I was not academically gifted but saw that I had an aptitude at mechanics and building things. She gave me loads of encouragement.
"It paid off because I developed all sorts of building skills and was able to carry out house and garage extensions to our own home."
As well as leaving school with no qualifications, John had other disadvantages - for instance, he is colour-blind and has a liver disorder which, though under control, can cause tiredness. It is thought the latter may have been caused by a bacterial infection during a time spent in Africa.
However, after he left school, his enthusiasm for all things mechanical earned him an apprenticeship at Hartfords Motors which was followed by eight months stint at John T Howard Transport.
"I enjoyed both jobs, but especially the latter because I was repairing components instead of just fitting them," he recalls
John was also an admirer of his boss, Mr Howard, but he decided to hand in his notice when an opportunity arose to become self-employed.
He bought a refrigerated van with which he transported pallets of frozen products, mostly fish, to outlets all over the UK on behalf of Grimsby merchants such as Blue Crest and others.
Business flourished to the extent that he was able to acquire premises on the fish docks from where he set up a small fleet of vehicles, some of which he made available for hire to his increasing roster of food firm clients.
When one of these, Horizon Foods, went belly-up, John saw a new opportunity and, with his accumulated know-how of the business, moved into fish processing and trading on his own account.
Still only in his 20s, this was the first move on a roller coaster ride which lead to the emergence and prodigious success of a company called Five Star Fish which, at its peak, not only provided employment for the best part of 300 staff but also earned a national reputation for excellence.
As it continued to prosper, John received more and more overtures from larger competitors, finally accepting one from a Stock Exchange-listed company, the Really Good Food Group.
"It was my baby, and it was a wrench to let it go," he recalls "But the offer was too good to refuse."
As part of the deal, he agreed to stay on as chairman for two years but left when the business was sold on to another enterprise, British Seafood.
When in 2008, the new owners went into administration, it was bought out by Ranjit Boparan, owner of the 36-strong Harry Ramsdens fish and chip shop restaurant chain and the Scunthorpe-based Buxted chicken-processing plant.
However, before the deal went through, John seriously considered making a bid himself.
If successful, it would have put him back at the heart of an incredibly vibrant and dynamic industry - one pretty well unique to this corner of the UK and one where he retains a huge number of friends.
"It was hard work including long days but they were great times,"he enthuses. "It was a big adventure – one which constantly demonstrated to me the resilient, ingenious, energetic and logical nature of the Grimsby-area workforce.”
John pays tribute to the cast of colourful and often larger than life characters - competitors as well as associates - with whom he came into contact.
He reserves particular plaudits for the acumen - and sometimes madcap humour - of colleague Roy Matthews for his instrumental role in multiplying Five Star’s turnover many times over into a £10- million-a-year business.
Looking back, John says that, at the start of the “adventure”, he had no clear personal blueprint about what he might be seeking to achieve. Nor, he suspects do many other entrepreneurs.
He lists the building block for his own success as a readiness to grasp opportunities, a capacity to adapt to changing circumstances and a commitment to technological innovation.
To these, he adds the strength of mind to resist the temptations of living a life of indulgence in favour of ploughing profits back into the business.
He and Roy did not always agree - for instance, on the decision to relocate from the fish docks to purpose-built new premises – but, by this stage, John had come to trust his own judgement.
“Lets get on the train,” was one of his favourite sayings.
Now, a couple of decades later could it all be done again by some like minded individual willing to roll up his or her sleeves, take a risk and have a go?
“Where’s there’s a will, there’s always a way,” he replies. “But it would take longer. Business today faces far more red tape - employment law, health and safety and the like.”
* Part Two to follow later this month.