The rapidly growing Blackburn-based company is still on the acquisition trail, driven by a ceo whose combination of northern pragmatism and sharp business acumen has helped push turnover up to £50m. The group employs 700 people and consists of seven separate businesses including Crossfield Foods, Lisa Bakery and Maid Marian Bakeries. Recent acquisitions include Hepworth & Whittles, which makes fairy cakes and decorated buns, Cake for the Connoisseur, which distributes cakes, The Creative Cake Company and William Lusty. Its main products are chocolate Swiss mini-rolls, Swiss rolls, fruit pies and cherry bakewells ­ all for the domestic market ­ but the Creative Cake Company, which makes celebration cakes with character licences, is now looking to develop a European market. According to Thompson, there are still a number of family owned bakeries with no successor which have reached a ceiling in terms of their capability and which could add value to Inter Link. "You have to be careful with acquisitions though," he cautions. "We've made three or four very good ones ­ they sound easy and sexy but they're not always." Thompson uses his experience and instinct to decide whether the fit's right, but he recognises his talents and limitations. "You see opportunities in the industry that you're working in ­ it's the sensible thing to do rather than think you could be something in the telecommunications industry." He also has no desire to produce his own brand. "If we launched a brand like Mrs Kipling, it would probably take £3-4m a year, and raising awareness of the brand would take about 10 years. So own label is the route for us." Despite being a £600m market, cake is an impulse purchase and doesn't feature on many people's shopping lists, a fact which makes the packaging and, in turn, product extremely important, according to Thompson. He says it is seen as a treat by many shoppers, although he's hoping to dispel the "naughty but nice image" with a new range of 97% fat-free cakes. "You've got to innovate and be creative, but never forget that you can sell anything once ­ you need to please consumers. I want people to buy my cakes every week. Quality is the be-all and end-all." Thompson started in the bakery business by setting up Country Fitness Foods in 1986 which he then sold to Northumbrian Fine Foods before joining its board. He founded Inter Link in 1994 when he bought Crossfield Foods, a firm limping along with a £1.4m turnover and an annual £350,000 loss. He swiftly turned the company around, grew it, and floated it in 1998. "Flotation was the best thing we could possibly have done. We floated at £1.10p a share and now they're £3.60 ­ and that's in the food manufacturing industry which the Stock Exchange sees as a bit dull." Going public gave Inter Link the funds it needed to meet Thompson's aspirations. "It's not easy to keep raising millions of pounds to do what you need to do." The move made a massive difference to the company which went, in Thompson's words, from being a firm that no-one was interested in, to one which now gets plenty of column inches in the financial press. He doesn't relish the two or three days of presentations that announcing financial results entails, but says it's a necessary evil. But as a very polite and softly spoken gent, you can't imagine him losing his temper with any hard-nosed analysts. But no doubt anything which takes him away from getting on with the job of running a company isn't welcome. "It's tiring but you get through it. I quite enjoy it really. It's a very important part of being a public company as you've got to let shareholders know what's going on." His work ethic was developed at an early age. His mother ran a family newsagent in Stockport which the family lived above. From helping out in the shop, Thompson went out to work at 16. "My parents taught me the value of money ­ we didn't have any so we understood it." His first weekly wage of £3/15s in the packing room of drapers James Stewart and Sons was a treat, Thompson recalls: "I thought I'd arrived. There was overtime for weekends which I did whenever I could." Promotion followed and he worked in the accounts department before joining Cadbury's as a sales rep and then went on to posts at Gallaghers and ADT Security Systems. While its sales and marketing director, selling fire alarms and security systems, he spent time in the World Trade Centre. Ironically, he recalls once there he immediately tried to find the way out. "I didn't like it, it was too high on the 92nd floor. The New York fire department's ladders only reached the 13th floor, it was incredible." Thompson has always enjoyed a day's graft but admits he's been lucky: "I've never been in a job where I dreaded going into work." He has the same desire for his workforce for whom he aims to be in tune with; it's not hard to imagine him walking round the factory and asking how everyone is ­ "taking a temperature," as he calls it. "I know what it's like to work on a packing line and how people can feel if they're not treated how they should be. If they feel fed up that doesn't help the company." Thompson spells things out slowly and plainly and it's clear that his colleagues probably don't leave meetings feeling confused or improperly briefed. "You must never lose sight of whose buying or making your products. It's all about the culture of a company." He also promises to act on grievances ­ if justified ­ in a measured way, through reason or compromise. "For many staff, it's not about money, it's about more important things like having a football team." Not for him a spot on the TV programme Back to the Floor, where a chief exec gets a short sharp shock as he realises just what the workers think of him. "It's good television but they should be in touch before the tv company rings them up." He says he and his staff are closer than most. "We're the size of company that can do it, if we were bigger it might be more difficult." Thompson is also a family man who touchingly admits that getting married was the best thing he ever did. As such, he's not a boss who spends every waking hour thinking about the business and although it's one of his two passions ­ Manchester United being the other one ­ he usually manages to confine work to weekdays. "Monday to Friday is business and I'll often have to work evenings, perhaps taking work home or having meetings. But on Friday night when I go home I'd like to think I just relax ­ just reading my shares magazine and The Grocer in bed on Saturday morning ­ and spending time with the family." He also manages to run about six miles a week and ignores warnings about "diabolical" knees in a bid to keep everything moving. But like any entrepreneur worth his salt, he admits that he never stops thinking about work and is constantly thinking up new ideas. Although he has an eye on other family businesses without a son and heir, it looks as though his will follow the same route as neither of his two grown-up sons look likely to follow in their father's footsteps. One is into computers and the other is about to go to university. "I'm not sure that going into the family business is the right grounding for them. They wouldn't have the shop floor experience, they'd miss certain things and get advantages." He's not into nepotism and even goes so far as to say: "I don't want my kids to come into Inter Link ­ I'd rather they went to work for Cadbury's and came back when they were 29 and said, now I'm good enough'." But on top of that, he wants both children to do whatever they most enjoy ­ "happiness is everything". And schmoozing with the industry is not something that makes Thompson happy as he professes a dislike of industry events and balls, only venturing to the National Grocers' Benevolent Fund ball in Harrogate and another in Blackpool once a year. "We're not big socialisers, we're too busy to spend hours coming down to London, it's often a whole day out." With a head office in Blackburn, he's well qualified to bemoan the state of the railways but still eschews private helicopters or chauffeurs to get around. He's also keen to show that he keeps his feet on the ground and fishes out a standard class train ticket to prove he's not one for special treatment. "I won't pay more because the service isn't value for money. It was an hour late today. Never, in my life, have I travelled first class." Corporate boxes at Old Trafford are also a no-no for him, instead he has a standard season ticket seat in which he watches every home game. But Thompson's quick to stress that he's no Scrooge when it comes to investing in the business. Last year he spent £1m on the company and says bluntly: "We need to be the lowest cost producer at making cakes ­ we've got to make them more efficiently than anyone else so we can sell to everybody." A meeting near London's diamond shops sparks a debate about whether he has time to buy his wife's birthday present before catching the train home ­ although he flinches at the mention of some of the (fairly modest) prices. Whatever the outcome of the shopping trip, his wife may have not have received the most expensive diamond bracelet, but she would have had a great birthday cake. n {{PROFILE }}