Posted on November 1, 2018 by staff

Winning Oscars doesn’t compare to helping rebuild my town


Mark Crabtree OBE has been at the cutting edge of engineering and computing for decades – and is now giving generations coming through the chance to plough their own furrow in the industry.

The founder of Burnley-based AMS Neve sold his first piece of audio equipment to Sir Paul McCartney and his firm’s digital mixing desks have been used on countless blockbuster films since blazing a trail with Titanic.

“I made my own tape recorders to record my music because I had no money – and I began to use electronics to make the recordings sound better,” he told BusinessCloud.

“I made a prototype with my mate and rang Abbey Road to see if they’d look at our box of tricks. We went down there and Paul McCartney spent an hour or two with us.

“Despite it being a ratty box with wires sticking out of it, he sat down and plugged a Fender Rhodes electric piano into it and played it and said it was really good.

“We thought ‘this is brilliant, we’ve seen one of our heroes’. Then a couple of weeks later he ordered one and we thought ‘oh my God – we’ve got to make a proper one now!'”

The Beatle paid £230 for the device in 1975, when Crabtree was just 23 years of age. Now 66, the entrepreneur has personally won two Oscars for the impact his cutting-edge technology has made, plus an Emmy, a Grammy and three Queen’s Awards for export.

His business career has taken him around the world.Yet, gazing over the hills from his top-floor office on the outskirts of his hometown of Burnley, it is clear that Lancashire is where his heart lies.

“When we’ve travelled all over the world – to these bright shiny exhibitions full of the world’s best technology – when we come back over the hill into Burnley, we exhale. It’s a good place to think,” he reflected.

“The foreign visitors we have over here have no preconceptions about the North of England – they take it for what it is. Seeing it through those people’s eyes made me realise what a gift this place is.”

Crabtree founded AMS in the mid-1970s while working as a graduate for Lucas Aerospace designing a digital engine control system for Tornado aircraft. At that time the town was also host to Rolls Royce and many other high-tech companies.

He has guided it through stock market flotations, mergers, a takeover by Siemens and streamlining process which took many years. The full story will be covered in the final quarter 2018 edition of BusinessCloud.

The firm, which counts rapper Snoop Dogg and Warner Bros among its customers, now employs 70 staff and sells into 90 countries.

Its production lines are made highly efficient by the use of automated machines which are capable of soldering 58,000 parts an hour on circuit boards then, using machine learning, scanning the finished product to ensure that every one is in the right place and at the correct angle to function correctly.

A techie and engineer at heart, Crabtree is now applying his love of fixing things to Burnley itself. It is clear that this is where his passion now lies.

“When I went to university in Cambridge I didn’t feel like I’d come from the back of beyond – I felt that I’d come from a thriving town,” he explained. “The heritage is there.

“There are a lot of tech companies here now, but there was a gap in the middle: Phillips pulled out, Mullards pulled out, Lucas Aerospace pulled out… so Burnley got left in a hole.”

As chairman of the Burnley Bondholders, he is working closely with the council on several initiatives. He implemented the primary school STEM initiative Primary Engineer across every school in the town, which gets 2,500 children building model electric cars and robots from pieces of wood, electric motors and other bits and pieces.

“Kids can’t pull televisions or record players or radios to pieces like they used to because they’re all sealed – so where do they get their mental way of thinking about mending and breaking things from?” he asked. “That’s engineering to me.

“The Micro:bit is good; but by the age of ten or 11, if you haven’t got that engineering mindset of trial and error, you are going to struggle to find it. We are helping kids pull education towards them as opposed to having it rammed down them without understanding why – maths is just numbers otherwise.

“When we started this in 2014, the following year twice as many kids chose STEM subjects compared with the previous year as a result.”

The other piece of the jigsaw is The Landmark (pictured above), a high-tech co-working space which opened last week and which has a capacity for 60 digital tech start-ups and SMEs. Crabtree redeveloped the grade II-listed former Burnley Grammar School building alongside +24 Marketing MD Dave Walker.

“Burnley College moved out three years ago and this lovely building with great architecture was crying out for some TLC – it was on life support really,” said Crabtree.

“We need this next wave coming through: we’ve had cotton through to advanced manufacturing and aerospace, now it’s moving that curve on – it’s a perfect testbed for digital entrepreneurs to bang on people’s doors and say ‘I can really get productivity up in your company with my digital knowhow’.

“I like making things and fixing things – as a teenager I had a job mending televisions – and with the Bondholders we closed a gap between the council and the SMEs.

“After 35 years of just running my business, all of a sudden there’s an opportunity where I can do some fixing in the town – that’s manna to me. I love the fact that I can have an impact.”

Mark Crabtree will be speaking at our upcoming Lancashire’s untold digital story event on 14th November 2018.

Other speakers include Mo Isap, CEO, IN4.0; Michelle Mellor, MD, Cummins Mellor;  Frazer Durris, managing director, Businesswise Solutions; Miranda Barker, chief executive of East Lancashire Chamber of Commerce; Jennie Williams, cyber protect officer, NWROCU; Dharma Kovvuri, Dean of UCLan Burnley Campus; Gary Hall, chief executive, Chorley Council; Stephen Johnson, co-founder and director, ROQ; Michael Gibson, chair, Digital Lancashire; and Andrew Green, CTO, Utiligroup.

The event is FREE to attend but places are limited. Click here to book your place.