TOM Cowie was just 11 years old when the company he would turn into one of Britain’s best-known names began.
Finding himself out of work in 1931, Thomas Stephenson Knowles Cowie – known as TSK – decided to turn his hobby into a new career and opened a motorcycle workshop and store in the backyard of the family home in Westbury Street, Millfield.
That, in turn, led to the opening of a shop in Matamba Terrace and by the time TSK’s son Tom left Bede School at the age of 15, the business was flourishing.
Young Tom was a motorcycle fanatic and joined the business full-time on leaving school, having already spent much of his spare time in the workshop. In December 1938, aged just 16, he joined his parents as a director of the newly-formed T Cowie Ltd.
Tom served with the RAF as a leading aircraftsman in Britain and India during the war and set up a taxi business on his return.
He soon found himself going back to his first love, however, and the T Cowie motorcycle shop re-opened for business at the corner of Matamba Terrace and Hylton Road on the day petrol rationing ended in 1948, with Tom ploughing in £1,000 of his own money –his RAF gratuity and all his savings.
The business was soon booming and the Sunderland shop was followed by a second in Newcastle’s Scotswood Road.
It wouldn’t last, however, and the decline of the British motorcycle industry saw the business concentrating increasingly on car retailing, into which it had moved in 1960, and for which it was to become nationally famous.
Initially buying from other dealers, Cowie’s won the dealership rights to sell first Vauxhall and then Ford cars.
In 1980 came what would turn out to be the most significant development in the company’s history, as Cowie’s moved into the realm of public transport with the acquisition of the Grey-Green bus company in London.
It was a move that would transform the business and eventually see it give up its vehicle sales and rental operations entirely to become one of Europe’s leading public transport operators.
Sir Tom Cowie retired from the business in 1993, at the age of 70, though he remained honorary president and retained an interest in the group’s expansion across the continent.
He was not enamoured with 1997’s decision to drop the Cowie name and rebrand as Arriva. “I wasn’t too amused,” he said.
SIR Tom Cowie was a man who made his millions by exercising sound judgement – but he admitted there was one time it let him down badly.
The lifelong Sunderland fan joined the board in 1978 and took over as chairman in June 1980, promising cash to strengthen the team and carry out ground improvements.
In 1985, he pulled off a major coup, bringing high-profile manager Lawrie McMenemy to Wearside in what looked like a marriage made in heaven.
But McMenemy walked away from Roker Park after less than two years, leaving the Black Cats to tumble into the third tier of English football for the only time just weeks later.
Sir Tom never made any secret of his feelings towards the man he had made the highest-paid manager in English football.
“It was not only the fans who were bitterly disappointed by McMenemy’s failure,” he later recalled.
“It was also a huge personal disappointment”.