Byline: Andrew Mernin
AS far as endorsements for your business go, there can be few more impressive than one from the Queen. But Phil Renton and his Newcastle-based technology empire Croft have landed exactly that.
For the company, which has provided IT services and infrastructure to the royal households for the last five years, has been awarded the royal warrant - a regal stamp of approval from those at the very top of the monarchy.
The warrant puts Croft and its 115-strong workforce among an elite group of firms and makes it the only company in the country listed as providing IT services to Her Majesty.
It joins only a handful of North-East businesses to be given the honour, which includes outdoor clothing company Barbour, Procter and Gamble and fishing rod-maker Grays and Hardy, based in Alnwick, Northumberland.
For Mr Renton it is an accolade he is clearly proud of - not surprising for a man who has devoted over 20 years to the company having worked his way up from being a hardware engineer into the seat of power.
The 51-year-old pitman's son started life in Dinnington, Newcastle. He excelled academically at his local village school but soon found himself disillusioned by education when, at age 11, he was sent to the highly regarded Edward VI School in Morpeth, Northumberland. He says he felt "how a budding footballer must feel when he wins a place at a football academy and suddenly seems ordinary when mixing with kids of equal skill."
Not only did he find himself at the bottom end of the academic league at his new school he also saw his promising football career come to an untimely end.
"King Edwards was a rugby school. I thought I was a good footballer, but football was banned.
"Education played second fiddle to bunking off lessons and picking winners from The Sun at the bookmakers in Morpeth. The chess club and debating society were no-go areas."
At school Mr Renton was certainly among the company of people who were destined for great things. One of his classmates was high-flying entrepreneur Karl Watkin.
The multi-millionaire who Renton remarks "went on to do A-levels" now runs various successful businesses including biodiesel company and a huge gold mining enterprise in China.
Mr Renton, who didn't have the qualifications to take A-levels, eventually found himself at the back of the dole queue.
And so his career options seemed limited until "a good Samaritan" in the form of his former school's deputy head, Dan Tweddle, came to his aid.
The teacher arranged for him to have an interview for a post as a trainee TV and audio engineer and so began his career in technology and communications.
After six weeks on the dole, Phil spent several years working as a customer services engineer fixing TVs, cash registers and computers.
In 1985 the Northeasterner joined Croft which at that time was world's away from the multi-faceted group it is today.
"When we started in 1980 we were called Easy and Best and as you can well imagine, we couldn't wait to get rid of that name. We were a typical computer company writing software, providing hardware systems cabling buildings - we were a one-stop shop."
And then came the internet and everything changed.
"For me I was unbelievably sceptical about the internet and never in my wildest dreams did I think it would have the impact it has had.
"It's been absolutely amazing but it's still not finished and still has a long time to go.
"At the time I couldn't see the potential it had. I just fixed things and concentrated on my job."
In 1992 Phil, who by then was a director and shareholder in the firm, was asked by his four fellow directors to carry out a management buy-out as they were looking to exit the company.
"I actually say they didn't like my aftershave because they all wanted to leave the company at the same time. …