Jason Pritchard is a man on a mission – to help engineering and manufacturing companies to SCALE their businesses through digitalisation. PETER BARRON talks to the new Group Chief Commercial Officer of Fitfactory Technology

FOR a man who left school without many qualifications and unclear of his direction in life, Jason Pritchard has turned out to be the perfect fit for a company ready to transform the fortunes of businesses in the engineering and manufacturing sector.

Having been head-hunted to become Group Chief Commercial Officer, Jason has bold ambitions for Stockton-based Fitfactory Technology to play a significant role in the Government’s Levelling Up Agenda by helping North-East companies grow through digital technology.

“These are really exciting times for the North-East, and for me to be starting in such an influential role, because we want Fitfactory to be at the heart of helping the region to realise its full potential,” he says from his office in the North Shore Innovation Centre, overlooking the River Tees.

And yet, realising his own potential hasn’t been easy for Jason, who was born in the German town of Wegberg, as the second youngest of six children. Dad, William, served for 22 years in the Royal Signals regiment, and mum Tracy was a nursery teacher.

The family moved to Darlington when Jason was ten and settled on the Red Hall council estate, with William becoming a civil servant at Catterick Garrison, and Tracy retraining as a nurse.

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Jason excelled at sports during his time at Haughton Comprehensive – playing volleyball for the North-East region, and captaining the school football team – but he wasn’t academic, with dyslexia making reading and writing “a daily struggle”.

“It was hard because there was still a real stigma around dyslexia back then – you were made to feel like you were a little bit stupid, and taken out of class to be taught separately,” he recalls. “It’s fair to say my frustration came out in the wrong way at times – I wasn’t exactly a model pupil.”

He left school with “two or three” GCSEs and, without any clear career path, he studied sports science at Darlington College, with the vague notion of being some kind of coach.

However, a part-time job at Homebase, working in the garden centre, began to help him realise he had a knack for selling and positioning products. He blossomed and, within three months, he’d been promoted above older employees to become garden centre manager.

After two and a half years of building his confidence, he made a “big mistake” by joining his brother’s building company without working his full notice at Homebase. “It didn’t work out and there was no way back at Homebase, so I learned a really important lesson – never burn your bridges,” he admits.

It led to him spending more than a year on the dole, with girlfriend Leanne supporting him while she worked as a trainee hairdresser. They’d met a few weeks after finishing school when he’d called in for a haircut at the salon where she was training.

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“It was a tough time,” Jason admits. “We were surviving on £80 a week, in a council flat on Red Hall, but there was something inside me, saying this wasn’t how it was meant to be.”

He eventually found a job at a furniture shop at Stockton, rekindled his natural ability with customers, and was top salesman within six weeks. After six months, he was assistant store manager but found himself out of work again when the credit crunch hit and the business went into administration.

He joined Infoserve, in Darlington, cold calling to sell a mix of newspaper advertising and online marketing and again impressed with his drive. When he was 21, he was promoted to sales trainer after just nine months with the company and promised Leanne that he’d be a sales director by the time he was 30.

“The time on the dole just made me hungry to make something of myself and I felt I owed it to Leanne for supporting me,” he says.

The momentum continued when he joined family-owned kitchen distributor PWS, at Aycliffe. He quickly saw ways to streamline the ordering process, and increased the revenue against his name from £150,000 to £1.2m in the first year.

“It was a piece of cake because of the experience I’d had – I could see what needed to be done,” he says.

The next step up the career ladder was to become an Implementation Consultant at E-Max Systems, selling an enterprise resource planning system, managing processes for businesses in the manufacturing and engineering sector.

“I suddenly felt I’d found an industry that was a natural fit for me,” he says.

He quickly rose through the ranks: to operations manager, sales consultant, then sales director. “I missed keeping my promise to Leanne by three months, so I suppose I failed!” he laughs.

Three years on, and Jason has been head-hunted by Fitfactory’s Chief Executive and Chairman, Tom Dawes, who formed the company by merging four innovative businesses, using cutting-edge technology, under a single brand.

Jason’s remit is to use his wealth of experience and contacts to commercialise Fitfactory and, little over a month into the role, he has big plans.

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“What really excites me is the variety of products we offer with the capacity to transform businesses that might have thought digitalisation was out of reach,” he says. “Our USP is that we are a one-stop shop where engineering and manufacturing companies can select tailored modules that enable business improvement by plugging the gaps they need to fill – within their existing systems – in the most cost-effective way.”

Fitfactory serves major original equipment manufacturers such as Airbus and Bentley, through to Tier 3 & 4 suppliers, and Jason sees huge benefits in those connections for SMEs.

“It puts us in a position to share industry best practice about what big companies want in the supply chain – it’s crucial intelligence that can keep SMEs ahead of the game,” he explains.

There are currently around 450 SMEs on Fitfactory’s books, but Jason is confident that can be trebled within a year, and that turnover can grow from £2.5m to £25m over the next five years.

“With the experience I’ve gained, we can see where the gaps are for SMEs and come up with solutions,” he says.

Jason is also a member of the North-East board of Make UK – the country’s largest membership organisation for the engineering and manufacturing sector – which feeds into Government policy.

He passionately believes that the North-East is on the cusp of a period of major growth with the Government’s Levelling Up agenda, and the work of Tees Valley Mayor, Ben Houchen, in bringing Freeport status and other devolved investment to the area.

Jason and Leanne have been married since 2012 and have two children: Lola, six, and baby Rudy. And, having kept his promise to his wife about becoming a sales director – albeit three months late – he’s now unashamedly set his sights on providing financially security for his family by the time he’s 40, and being recognised for services to manufacturing before he passes the 50 mark.

What he’s achieved already, from humble and challenging beginnings, should be an inspiration to youngsters who may not be academic or have a clear view of the path ahead. His message to them is not to panic. “It’s OK not to have things planned by the time you leave school – take your time to find yourself, and understand what drives you,” he says.

“It took me a while to find my feet, but now I don’t see what I do as work – it’s just something I really enjoy. With this new role, and at such an exciting time for the North-East, I honestly wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

  • Find out more about how to SCALE your manufacturing business through digitalisation: www.fitfactory.com