Jon Thornes: Investing in business

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Businessman Jon Thornes wears many hats, but it doesn’t take much to work out the common denominator that links them all.

“I enjoy making money, but I am even more passionate about seeing other people make money. Making money helps people in Lincolnshire to survive and prosper and it also boosts the local economy. I get a real buzz when I see people succeeding.”

Turning to all those different hats – Jon is the well-known founder of the successful business Cool Milk at School, which he started sixteen years ago and he is also interim chair the national organisation The School & Nursery Milk Alliance.

He set up J T Consultants more than five years ago and loves to encourage entrepreneurs and growing businesses to aim high, providing supercharging finance to those which show great promise.

Jon is also the brains behind Langworth Resources Ltd – a multi-faceted business, which provides a range of support services to all his businesses interests. Jon employs 100 people across his businesses in Lincoln and Langworth. Awarded an MBE in 2010, Jon thrives on keeping himself busy and as up-to-date as possible.

On the milk front, he is keen to see UK farmers and dairies become more sustainable and profitable and every child in the EU given the opportunity to drink milk every day.

Jon Thornes, founder of J T Consultants. Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Jon Thornes, founder of J T Consultants. Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Jon did Cranfield University’s Business Growth Programme in 2006 and he continues to maintain his relationship with Cranfield – carrying out mentoring sessions and also signposting his clients to that establishment.

He is passionate about getting involved with aspirational, new age businesses and helping them to reach for the stars, by providing injections of cash for those ambitious to succeed.

However, getting that important “Yes” and a congratulatory handshake from Jon is not a walk in the park. Entrepreneurs looking for help should make sure they are well prepared for a bit of a grilling!

“I have always loved helping people. When you have your nose to the grind in your business you have to use your energy to move it forward. Luckily, I have a great band of people behind me, so I can put my energy to use, to help others elsewhere.”

Tracking down businesses which are worthy of support is quite an art, but one member of Jon’s team is known as “The Spotter” and she talks to people working with budding entrepreneurs at Bishop Grosseteste University, Sparkhouse Studios on the University of Lincoln campus, Lincolnshire Investment Network and other organisations, to identify people who might benefit from Jon’s help.

“The Spotter” comes up with a list of prospective candidates. However, Jon has drawn up a detailed criteria for the type of enterprise he is keen to support. Not many in Lincolnshire tick all the boxes though.

“The ideal client will not need much money. They won’t need to carry any stock, or very little. They are unlikely to have bricks and mortar, but they will have a tight workforce, operate using the Internet and have the ability to trade worldwide. Such businesses will tend to have high margins,” said Jon.

“They may be developing apps, or be a service business which markets other companies’ products. They will certainly be heavily IT or knowledge-based.”

Jon Thornes, founder of J T Consultants. Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Jon Thornes, founder of J T Consultants. Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Jon actually loves it when he meets a business owner who has to describe what his enterprise is all about several times over, before he really understands it – because he enjoys that challenge.

Jon’s “Spotter” is the first person to chat to a potential beneficiary and, if she, and in turn, his accounts, marketing and IT people, think they sound like a good bet, he will meet them for a chat and, hopefully, enter into serious discussions.

“I will ask the business’ owners or managers what they are looking for in terms of finance and what equity they are offering me. I typically look to inject £50,000 to £250,000 into a business and look for a return of anything from 10 to 40 percent. It has to be worth the time and effort which we put in,” he said.

So far Jon has invested in 10 London-based businesses and 10 in Newcastle, but only one or two local businesses, including Innovoys, which Jon’s team sees and helps monthly.

“People who come to see me about financial backing are very nervous. I ask very straightforward questions. They think their business is the bee’s knees, which is a great sign of confidence, but no-one knows everything about the business.

“I may ask them about their projected turnover. They often say that they don’t know, but they could make an educated guess – they are the best person in the room to do that,” said Jon.

“Some people think you are being nosey, but if you are talking about giving them a substantial amount of money, you have to look after your investment.

“I ask when I will get a payback on my investment and they say ‘I hadn’t really thought about that’… so I ask ‘When will your business have made £100,000?”

I ultimately choose to back someone because I respect them. They will be enthusiastic, energetic and their business will conform to our criteria.

A business hoping to win financial backing can expect the process to take about six months to complete. At the other end of the scale, Jon typically looks to exit a business within three to five years.

Jon Thornes, founder of J T Consultants. Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Jon Thornes, founder of J T Consultants. Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

He enjoys being a panellist on Dragon’s Den type competitions and regularly attends sessions at Sparkhouse Studios. He also enjoys mentoring growing businesses in Lincoln and within incubation centres. Jon said that supporting entrepreneurs in this way helps to keep him up-to-date when it comes to new ideas and processes.

It was a Dragon’s Den-style event, hosted by Streets, the Lincolnshire Investment Network, NatWest and Sills & Betteridge that encouraged Jon to invest £150,000 in a new venture headed by Tim Whittaker – Innovoys.

Innovoys received backing for Trade Clients – an innovative mobile payment and management system for busy-self-employed trades people.

Jon, who was one of the panel members at the event, asked Streets Corporate Finance Partner Neil Gray to look at the proposition put to him and assist him in assessing the business’ potential – before agreeing to support the venture.

“I’m always eager to invest in businesses such as Innovoys. It’s a great product developed here in Lincolnshire, with real national potential,” said Jon.

“In the county, I am as keen to look at investing in migrant-run businesses and those set-up by people born here. A lot of them work within the agricultural industry, but some have opened shops and set-up small businesses and I think they are opportunity takers,” added Jon.

Jon is married to Jan. The couple have two daughters – Jemma who is a doctor in Durham and Charlotte, who is working within the field of childcare in Lincoln.

This feature interview was first published in issue 11 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.