BINGO! It was eyes down for a world-beating business idea for Wearside man Frank Cronin – thanks to a little divine inspiration.
Frank had followed in his father’s footsteps to work in the family firm of Edward Thompson, a small stationary and printing business.
But, after taking an order for bingo tickets from a priest in the 1950s, he hit on an idea which would transform his whole life.
Edward Thompson became the world’s leading supplier of bingo cards within just a few years – and Frank was crowned the “King of Bingo.”
“There’s been great fun in my life,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I’ve never been bored in my life.”
Frank’s fascinating life – from schoolboy maths whizz to global business success – is the topic of a new book, Good With Numbers.
Penned by biographer Nigel Watson, it explores the extraordinary story of a remarkable man and the business he built against the odds.
“Bingo is a game which has brought pleasure to countless millions, and Frank is one of the men who made this possible,” said Nigel.
Sunderland was in the grip of the Great Depression when Francis Stephen Cronin was born in Barnard Street on February 3, 1933.
The second of three boys, young Frank – as he was known – struggled with a squint from birth and needed years of corrective treatment.
His mother, Frances, also had health problems, having contracted TB, and Frank often took “weeks and weeks” off school to nurse her.
But, despite these difficulties, Frank was usually top of his class in maths at Corby Hall – with abilities “bordering on genius.”
Edward Thompson was a small jobbing printer and stationer when Frank joined his father, John Louis Cronin, in the family business.
“My dad never had more than a dozen people working for him, but all of them loved him,” Frank recalls.
“He had hundreds of customers and all of them loved him too. So where else should I go to learn how to run a business than with my dad?”
Frank’s education was cut short in 1951, when he was called up for national service in the RAF and trained as an air wireless mechanic.
His spell in the services inspired him to invent labour-saving machinery but, on his return home in 1953, he found little changed.
John, according to Frank, was “happy and content, drifting into retirement.” Frank, on the other hand, was keen to expand the business.
“I was more looking for change than he was. I was more looking for progress, for doing it better,” he recalls.
When Father Jeremiah O’Callaghan ordered bingo tickets for a parish fund-raiser, it was Frank who sensed a new opportunity.
The first cards were ordered from a firm in Ipswich but, within months, Edward Thompson was printing its own – with great success.
“The bingo boom transformed the company. From less than a dozen employees in 1959, it had more than 300 six years later,” said Nigel.
“From selling a few thousand tickets supplied by someone else every month, the company was printing 50 million a week by 1965.
“And, thanks to his dexterity with numbers, Frank expanded the number of ticket combinations from fewer than 2,00 to nearly 17,000.”
Frank managed to find time for love, too, at this time – marrying sweetheart Teresa Martin in 1957, and becoming a father to four boys.
The 1960s saw an explosion in bingo halls, often converted from old cinemas, and Edward Thompson was at the forefront of ticket sales.
A mill in Wilson Street was acquired to cope with demand, with a factory for Frank’s new firm, Wearside Electronics, built next door.
A second factory was completed in Richmond Street in 1964, complete with canteen, surgery, sick bay and nurse to care for the workers.
“Frank believed in looking after his staff, just as his father had done,” said Nigel. “There were outings, dances and a bonus scheme.”
By the 1970s, when traditional industries were declining, Edward Thompson had become the world’s largest manufacturer of bingo tickets.
Bingo blowers – machines used to randomly select bingo numbers – were also supplied by Wearside Electronics, as was other equipment.
Indeed, such was the firm’s success that Frank snapped up the old Echo office in Bridge Street in 1976 – just for extra storage space.
The exhibition circuit provided one of the most important avenues for developing exports – and a hugely enjoyable one too.
“We would ask some of the office girls to help out, and I’d design their dresses. They were always a big draw at displays,” said Frank.
By the late 1970s, Frank’s firm was making 150million tickets a week and supplying most major bingo and social clubs in the UK.
But it was the introduction of newspaper bingo which provided the biggest national and international boost to the company in the 1980s.
“At one time or another, Edward Thompson supplied games to almost every major UK national newspaper,” said Nigel.
Thompson’s hit shaky ground at one point, when a contract fell through and staff had to be laid off.
The crisis made Frank rethink some aspects of the business – and even led to the creation of Sunderland Paper Mill.
The dawn of the 1990s found Thompson’s turning over nearly £30million, with customers across Europe, Australia, the U.S. and Far East.
By 2000, annual sales had reached £40million, with business almost equally split between bingo, the paper mill and printing.
By the time Frank finally stepped down from the business in 2003, Edward Thompson had been at “the top of the tree” for five decades.
Today Frank, 77, still takes an active interest in the firm, although the day-to-day running is managed by one of his sons, Paddy.
Sadly, his life has been touched by heartache in recent years, with the loss of Teresa in 2004 followed by a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.
But Frank, who admits the diagnosis “hacked him off,” is still battling on: “I am not worried. It’s part of ageing, of getting old.”
l Read more about Frank’s life in Good With Numbers: Frank Cronin and the Bingo Room, by Nigel Watson.
Available from Amazon and Waterstones at £25.