Damon Wright, the owner of Stokesley-based TK’s Café and Catering, has the recipe for success, after becoming the first person to take part in a top leadership programme, thanks to Open North Foundation.

Damon, has gained the double boost of a direct grant of £1,600, plus entry on the Small Business Leadership Programme (SBLP) run by Newcastle Business School, part of Northumbria University.

A private sector-led, not-for profit company, established in summer 2020, Open North Foundation assists small firms in the North East looking to recover from the pandemic through grants that are donated by companies and individuals in the region, plus in-kind support such as marketing, HR and finance. Directors, ambassadors and supporters of the Foundation provide their time pro bono.

Whilst Open North Foundation has gained financial support from a range of businesses, its largest single donation is currently £10,000 from Northumbria University, which it will use to fund grants for small businesses, such as TK’s Café. These businesses will also be offered access to tens of thousands of pounds of support, including a range of resources, expertise and free consultancy services from Northumbria’s Newcastle Business School.

TK’s café, located on the Terry Dicken Industrial Estate, has been owned for the past three years by Damon, 47, and his wife, Lyndsay, 40. The café was attracting a large and loyal influx of customers until the pandemic lockdown in March closed the hospitality industry.

Following months of uncertainty, drastic income reduction and a failed government grant application, Damon applied to Open North Foundation and, after meeting stringent criteria set out by the organisation, was awarded a £1,600 grant and a place on Northumbria’s Small Business Leadership Programme (SBLP) – a free 10-week strategic development programme for senior leaders in SMEs (those employing between 5-249 employees).

The programme, which is funded by The Dept for Business Energy Industrial Strategy, covers a range of practical topics and is hosted online by SME experts, including entrepreneurs, business leaders and academics from the university’s Newcastle Business School.

Damon, said: “Prior to COVID-19, we had very healthy profit margins and were servicing some very well-known businesses, including Barbour and Amazon.

“We very much believe that TK’s Cafe has a future after the pandemic and have used this time to make strategic changes to the business as we plan on coming back bigger and better. Accessing the Small Business Leadership Programme will allow me to refresh and build my business knowledge. Having undertaken a business strategy MBA 20 years ago, I have a sound understanding about how to run a successful business, but I am no longer up-to-date on current marketing trends. I will use the information to reset the business so it is ready to come back with a bang when everything opens up again.

“The grant has been used to buy an electronic point of sale system, which will go in our Jiffy van, allowing us to work smarter when out delivering meals.”

Richard Swart, chair, Open North Foundation, said: “While operating on an international basis, Northumbria University is absolutely committed to the North East, which is demonstrated by the support it is now offering to small businesses looking to recover from the pandemic. It is the only North East business school accredited by the Small Business Charter and is held in extremely high regard, both nationally and internationally. For many SMEs, TK’s Café included, having access to the programme will be a lifeline and provide them with the skills to come back stronger.

“The future, post-COVID, looks prosperous for TK’s Cafe. The grant and support from Northumbria University will help to secure its recovery and the future jobs of those who work within the business, both now and in the future.

“The ONF invite all like-minded businesses, institutions, organisations and individuals to join the scores of us involved in our mission by pledging financial and or service support to help as many qualifying businesses as this support allows. A qualifying business is any business that can demonstrate it had a future pre-Covid, has been impacted by Covid, and is likely to have a sustainable future. Full details and requirements are on our website www.opennorthfoundation.co.uk.”

Dr Matthew Sutherland, who is co-leading the SBLP alongside Dr Hannah Hesselgreaves at Newcastle Business School, added: “The SBLP is helping small businesses develop their strategic leadership skills in these incredibly testing times and is a crucial part of the wider regional recovery. Our partnership with Open North Foundation means we can help drive this recovery faster and further and provide real support for businesses like TK’s Café. The programme is attracting business leaders from a really diverse mix of sectors, from manufacturing, engineering and bio science to events, IT, dentistry and hospitality. However, they all have a shared interest in improving the sustainability and resilience of their organisations so they can respond effectively to the challenges of Covid-19. We would encourage anyone managing a small business during this difficult period to sign up.”