TRIBUTES have flooded in to Sir Tom Cowie.
The man who created a business empire from his family’s motorcycle shop has died aged 89.
Today, friends, colleagues and business leaders shared their memories of the local lad who made good.
It was in 1948 that Tom Cowie began transforming the family business into one of Britain’s biggest transport names. Today – as Arriva – it employs 47,500 people across 12 European countries.
The company’s chief executive David Martin said: “Sir Tom was a dedicated and talented businessman whose determination and vision built his small family motorcycle business, T Cowie Ltd, into a successful national motor retailing chain and laid the foundations for Arriva’s international business today.
“Sir Tom will be sadly missed and our thoughts are with his family.”
North East Chamber of Commerce chief executive James Ramsbotham added: “Sir Tom was a true entrepreneur and genuine regional success story, growing his business from humble beginnings into one of the largest in the North East. My thoughts are with his family and friends.”
Sir Tom, who died on Wednesday, was a proud supporter of Sunderland University, which named its lecture theatre in his honour.
Vice-chancellor Professor Peter Fidler said: “Sir Tom, who received an Honorary Doctorate of Business from us in 1992, was a truly great supporter of the university.
“Sir Tom’s contribution to the university is something for which we will be eternally grateful. His support in this respect came from his strong belief in our philosophy – to open the doors of higher education to those with talent, regardless of background.
“He devoted so much time and effort to supporting an extraordinarily wide range of causes. But his biggest cause, and one he supported all his life, was the North East. He was such a passionate supporter of and voice for the region.
“He was a true gentleman, a great businessman – a real entrepreneur – and a wonderful family man. He will be a tremendous miss to me personally, our university, our city and our region.”
Sir Tom was twice married – to Lillas Hunnam in 1949, with whom he had five children, and in 1975 to Diana Evans, with whom he had another three daughters, as well as gaining two step-children.
Throughout his life, he was a passionate advocate for Sunderland and the whole North East.
In 1979, he became chairman of the Sunderland Conservative Association.
“I felt very strongly that the country was going to rack and ruin,” he said later.
He was twice honoured for his political and public service, becoming an OBE in 1982 and being knighted a decade later.
Sir Tom remained a dedicated supporter of the party until David Cameron’s announcement that the Tories would scrap the few remaining grammar schools in the UK. Himself a product of the grammar school system, Sir Tom promptly withdrew his support.
Sunderland City Council leader Coun Paul Watson said of him: “As well as being a highly successful businessman, Sir Tom made a hugely telling contribution to the people of Sunderland throughout his life through employment, education, culture, the arts and sport.
“Such is his standing in Sunderland that he was granted the freedom of the city in 2006, the highest honour the city can bestow.
“Sunderland has truly lost one of its most famous sons.”
His Conservative opposite number Coun Robert Oliver added: “Sir Tom Cowie was a great Sunderland entrepreneur whose story of building up his business from motorcycles to motor car magnate will continue to influence budding businessmen for years to come.
“Throughout his life he gave generously to many local causes, always remaining loyal to his home town and was a supportive member of the city’s Conservative Association of which he was Life President.”
TV agony aunt Denise Robertson said: “He loved Sunderland with all his heart, I only had to mention the city and whatever I wanted it was done. He is someone Sunderland should be very proud of.
“He did thousands of things that were not recorded for so many individuals and the city meant the absolute world to him.”