Companies worldwide face huge challenges due to coronavirus. PETER BARRON talks to one successful North-East entrepreneur striving to avoid being driven out of business

FOR more than three decades, Bob Pope has established an impressive track record as an entrepreneur with plenty of drive.

He opened the first indoor karting circuit in London in 1985 and went on to play a leading role in developing the ‘arrive and drive’ style of accessible motor sport across the world.

In 1998, he and his wife, Tracy, left the capital and ventured up to the North-East to take over Teesside Karting, on the outskirts of Middlesbrough, and turned it into the biggest go kart track in the world.

But suddenly, just as Bob was contemplating handing over the business to his daughter, Kat Franklin, coronavirus has put a giant spoke in the wheels.

“We’re not looking for any favours, and it has to be kept in the context of the heartbreak of so many people dying, but this is just one example of the challenges businesses are facing,” says Bob.

“Anyone who knows me, will testify I’m a man of my word, and we will honour every obligation we have in the business, but it’s hard to see where we go from here.”

Bob was born in London and joined the Army when he was just 15. That was followed by a stint as a driver for the Qatari royal family, before joining the Greater London Council as a youth worker in 1980.

His focus was intermediate treatment, which involved trying to steer young people away from crime through a range of activities. Bob, who had always been interested in mechanics, used motorcycles and go karts to engage the youngsters. The model proved hugely successful, quickly spreading to other parts of the country.

When Margaret Thatcher abolished the GLC in 1986, and Bob was made redundant, he ran the youth activities independently. His lucky break came when Formula One motorboat racing came to the Royal Victoria Docks, and he was given the opportunity to operate his go karts as a way of generating revenue for the main event.

“It started raining, so the go karts were taken inside a massive warehouse to race, and that’s how the world’s first indoor go karting circuit came about,” he recalls.

Bob was allowed to continue renting the warehouse and people loved it. When London Transport started shutting down bus garages, he rented those too, and ended up with seven indoor venues in London.

The next step was to develop a true endurance kart, using two Honda 160 engines strapped to a new, wider and stronger chassis. The success of the “Pro kart” opened up new opportunities in longer endurance events and, in 1990, the first Le Mans 24-Hour kart race took place.

The business continued to thrive, and, in 1997, Bob and Tracy took over the lease on the Teesside Karting track from Langbaurgh Council, having seen its potential during a British 24-Hour event.

The South Bank venue had been closed amid complaints about noise, but the Popes’ go karts were quieter, and an initial five-days-a-week licence was soon extended to seven days.

After hundreds of thousands of pounds of investment, the track has been extended and remodelled, with new workshops added. It is now a multi-purpose site for karts, bikes, and drift cars, attracting competitors and spectators from across the UK and Europe, and making a significant contribution to the local economy.

As well as the arrive and drive karting experiences for children and adults, the circuit also stages organised Iron Man 40-minute races, and bespoke corporate events.

With a stock of 200 go karts, the venue has become home to the British 24-Hour race, and the Student 24-Hour race, featuring teams from universities all over the country. Teesside Karting also travels across Europe to stage events, including the Le Mans 24-Hour race, the Irish 24-Hour race, and events in Spain and Belgium.

The business has survived plenty of challenges over the years, including the financial crash of 2008, and the ‘Beast From The East’ which brought the circuit to a standstill for eight weeks in 2018.

However, by far the biggest blow for Bob was the sudden death, four years ago, of his wife Tracy.

“It was a terrible shock – I couldn’t work for a while after that,” admits Bob.

But with daughter Kat bringing fresh ideas, the business entered 2020 in good shape. A £250,000 bank loan was used to further improve the track, build a café, introduce a unique timing system, and invest in an automatic ramp for repairs.

Then, coronavirus struck, and a calendar of events, on Teesside and across Europe, were suddenly on hold. A request for another £250,000 loan to cover cash flow issues was turned down, with the bank insisting it had to “err on the side of caution”, although it has agreed to a £75,000 loan to help in the short-term.

The company’s insurance policy for business interruption insurance is not covered by a pandemic.

Ten full-time staff have been furloughed but are having their wages topped up by Bob. Up to 30 more are employed for the events abroad, and the business also provides summer jobs and weekend work for Teesside University students, who are trained to be marshals.

Bob readily acknowledges the support of Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council, which has agreed to a three-month rent break, and he is planning to hold discussions with the authority about potential ways forward. There is also the possibility that he may have to re-mortgage his house to meet his commitments.

“It all highlights how every business is going to face difficulties but, after everything we’ve put into making it a success, we’re not going to just give up,” he says.

There’s a tough course ahead, but Bob Pope isn’t ready for the final lap just yet.