Businessman, philanthropist and football fan, Sir Tom Cowie was born in 1922. He started his career fixing bikes in his father’s secondhand motorcycle shop in Sunderland. By the time he retired, his company had become one of the biggest names in motorcar sales and contract hire in the UK. Now known as Arriva, the business trades in 12 European countries. Sir Tom was awarded an OBE in 1982 and was knighted in 1992.
Sir Tom was educated at Sunderland Grammar School and brought up to share his father’s passion for motorcycles, a hobby that was turned into a business with the opening of a shop in Matamba Terrace, Sunderland, buying, selling and repairing used bikes.
He served with the RAF during the Second World War and in 1948, T Cowie Ltd, motorcycle dealers, reopened for business and rapidly expanded. Sir Tom made one of his most memorable deals in his early 30’s when he travelled to London. He was sipping champagne in the Mayfair Hotel when the managing director of Vespa walked in. The pair had met briefly before and, after exchanging pleasantries, Sir Tom was offered a few hundred end-of-line scooters at a knockdown price. He later described that as the deal that put him on the map. Takeovers of rival businesses followed and in 1961, there were showrooms in Newcastle, Sunderland, Durham, Stockton, Bradford, Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Sir Tom responded to the reduction in demand for bikes by moving into car sales and oversaw several major deals with manufacturers before his company went public in 1964 to fund a major expansion programme. The business, which became known as the Cowie Group, grew and moved into many new areas, eventually becoming the largest contract hire company in Britain. A lifelong addiction to football drew Sir Tom to Roker Park, home of his beloved Sunderland, and he became chairman in 1980.
Sir Tom left the Cowie Group in 1993, a year after receiving an honorary doctorate of business from Sunderland University, and dedicated his life to supporting grassroots projects to alleviate and address problems in disadvantaged areas in the North East. In September 2002, Sunderland University renamed its St Peter’s Campus the ‘Sir Tom Cowie Campus at St Peter’s’ in recognition of his financial support to projects of more than £1m.
In 2011, The Sir Tom Cowie Charitable Trust gave a donation of £500,000 to Willow Burn Hospice, near Lanchester. The charity is building a new, bigger hospice and Sir Tom gave their £5m fundraising campaign a huge boost with his donation. He also donated £500,000 to refurbish the Sir Tom Cowie Sixth Form Centre at St Bede’s Catholic School in Lanchester, which opened in 2007 providing local youngsters with a first class learning facility.
Sir Tom, who died aged 89 in January 2012 at his home, Broadwood Hall, in Lanchester, County Durham, was well-known for being a generous donor to projects which support young people in Sunderland and County Durham.