WHETHER it’s his passion for sport, or his instincts as an entrepreneur, Phil Crowther knows that teamwork is the foundation for success.
“I was taught to believe in the people around you,” says Phil who’s gone from being a young professional with Easington Cricket Club, to founder and chairman of a business that’s developed a winning mentality across multiple sectors.
With offices in Darlington, Stockton and Middlesbrough, Newlands Group comprises five brands – Care Matters, Tribe Recruitment, Tribe Search, Turn Left Ventures, and The Robin Centre.
And the business has come a long way since Phil started a formidable partnership with Lisa Spark, the group’s managing director.
“She stood out from the crowd, and we’ve become like brother and sister,” says Phil, who knows all about the value of opening partnerships from his days as a cricketer.
One of four children, Phil was born in South Africa, where his dad, Robin, was a journalist. In 1979, the family returned to the UK, with Robin initially landing a job as a sub-editor for The Northern Echo, while Phil’s mum, Barbara, worked as a nurse at Darlington Memorial Hospital.
Robin went on to become a journalism lecturer at Darlington College, fondly remembered by many former students for his sharp wit, boundless energy, and incisive knowledge of newspaper law.
“It was an interesting experience as kids, landing in Darlington with South African accents!” recalls Phil, who attended Alderman Leach Primary School, and then Branksome Comprehensive.
He was a natural sportsman, particularly excelling at squash to the extent that he was selected to play for England at junior level. Sadly, at 17, he broke his back in two places, and after two years of rehabilitation, he realised his best squash days were behind him. Instead, he decided his sporting ambitions would be better served by his other main sporting love – cricket.
After shining for Darlington Railway Athletic – he’s one of only two batsmen to score 1,000 runs for club in the North Yorkshire and South Durham Premier League – the offer to be a pro with Easington quickly followed.
Phil combined his cricketing duties with a job as a recruitment consultant – a role that led to working in sales for an oil company in Libya.
Despite demonstrating a natural ability in sales, his life suddenly changed direction after he played in a cup match for Easington against local rivals Blackhall.
“I got talking in the bar with Blackhall’s professional, HD Ackerman – a South African test batsman – and he suggested I should try my luck playing cricket in South Africa. I couldn’t resist and, before I knew it, I was living the dream by opening the batting for Capetown as a 26-year-old!”
He returned to England after the cricket season in South Africa, and resumed playing for Easington, only to receive a call from contacts he’d worked with in Libya, offering him the chance to work for LCM Oilfield Services, based in Tripoli.
“I also had an offer to coach cricket back in Capetown, so it was a tough choice,” he admits.
This time, he opted for business over cricket and headed for Tripoli, successfully selling maintenance contracts for oil companies all over the desert.
LCM’s owner, Mehdi Rheljari, was impressed enough with Phil’s performance to encourage him to come forward with business ideas of his own. The result, in 2003, was the pair setting up 5C Solutions, a company providing manpower from across the world for Dubai’s booming construction sector.
“I made lots of mistakes, but it was invaluable experience,” says Phil. “It was the start of the boom, we were working on multi-billion dollar projects, and we just kept growing.”
It was at 5C Solutions that Phil first saw Lisa’s qualities, and he made her general manager when he launched a top-end executive search company, called Shuar, in 2006. Starting in the real estate sector, Shuar worked mainly with the Qatar government, again on multi-billion dollar contracts.
It was all going so well until the financial crash of 2008 resulted in the Middle East real estate sector collapsing overnight. Phil and Mehdi went their separate ways, with 5C Solutions and Shuar having to be wound up.
“It was a terrible time but the biggest thing I’ve learned is that you never know what’s round the corner,” says Phil.
Working from a room in Darlington, he and Lisa responded by starting to put the building blocks in place for what was to become Newlands Group. Tribe Search came first, again providing top-end recruitment. A deal was signed with the Qatar Investment Authority and, despite the continuing global impact of the financial crash, the business expanded quickly.
In the meantime, Phil’s wife, Nicola, had given birth to their daughters, Maisie and Matilda, and Lisa had a young family too, so it was time to concentrate on business closer to home.
The money made from Tribe Search was invested into the launch of Tribe Recruitment, followed a year later by the opening of a healthcare division, providing temporary staff for care homes for the elderly.
The harshest lesson came in 2010 when a company went bust, owing Tribe Recruitment nearly £150,000. “We went into survival mode, and it took us three years to recover,” admits Phil. “Mehdi taught me a very important lesson – that cashflow is more important than profit and loss. Since then, we’ve kept as much money in the business as possible so we can face anything.”
Despite that blow, Phil bounced back in 2011 by launching commercial property company, Turn Left Ventures, which specialises in buying high-specification offices on business parks.
That was followed by the formation of domiciliary care provider, Care Matters, in 2014.
Then, in 2016, a very personal part of the group was added to the portfolio when The Robin Centre – named in honour of Phil’s dad – opened in the TAD Centre, in Middlesbrough.
“Dad loved helping people and we wanted a place that could develop life-skills for people with learning disabilities. It’s a day centre and safe haven for people who need help.”
Indeed, Phil is open about being autistic himself, declaring: “Being autistic has got me where I am today because it’s given me drive and focus. I’m proud to be autistic.”
Newlands Group – named after the test cricket arena in Capetown – was established in 2021 and now employs between 300 and 400 people, depending on projects. Three smart new offices – two in Pioneer Court in Darlington, and another in Halegrove Court, Stockton – were acquired during the pandemic, through Turn Left Ventures, and there are plans to keep on expanding.
“The aim is to take a long-term view of the group – scaling up the existing businesses and, hopefully, adding more,” declares Phil.
Underpinning that ambition, is a commitment to support the local community, and it’s no surprise that grass roots sport is a priority. For example, Newlands Group sponsors Phil’s old cricket club, Darlington RA, and an “exciting announcement” is expected soon on that front.
“Of course, we want to have a successful business, but we really do care,” says Phil. “That doesn’t mean we’re perfect because life isn’t like Facebook – it’s real. All you can ever do in life is your best, and try to stay one step ahead.”
From cricketer to entrepreneur, being on the front foot continues to produce strong results for Phil Crowther.