Leisure: Steaming on the right track: A small family business is booming thanks to the demand for trains as entertainment

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The Independent Online
FOR a self-confessed 'Sixties drop-out', Michael Severn-Lamb is proving to be a dynamic and formidable businessman in the 1990s. Only the beard and the open-necked shirt hint at a more laid-back past.

The man who left Kingston College of Art with vague ideas about going into interior design is now chairman of a 'themed engineering' company, which has more than quadrupled its turnover during the recession - from pounds 1m in 1989 to latest figures of pounds 4.5m.

Turnover was just pounds 48,000 back in 1975, when he returned from Canada to take over the family business after the death of his father. Peter Severn-Lamb had turned an obsession into a business. He built his first model railway in the stables behind his parents' hotel in Stratford-upon-Avon back in 1946, two years before Michael was born.

Today, the company is producing the biggest and heaviest steam locomotives to be built in Europe for more than 30 years. They supply leisure organisations all over the world. Current orders include two 18-tonne engines (plus coaches) for Europe's latest theme park, Port Aventura in Spain, and also a 36-inch gauge 'American-style' train destined for Entertainment City in Kuwait. The original train was stolen by the Iraqis during the Gulf War.

'They just drove it away and it hasn't been seen since,' said Severn-Lamb's managing director, Heinz Roosen. 'Then they pulled up the track. We're replacing that as well.'

Now the company is planning a move into monorail systems, with shopping complexes as well as leisure venues in mind. It is a business traditionally dominated by the Swiss. But after 18 months of research and development, Mr Severn-Lamb is confident that it can compete in the tough South-east Asia market. A test track is being set up at the company's new premises at Alcester, in Warwickshire.

Just above the reception desk in the office is a discreet little homily that sums up Michael Severn-Lamb's philosophy: 'If we don't take care of the customer, someone else will.'

With 95 per cent of production going to clients outside the UK, looking after the customer requires a considerable amount of travel. The chairman has been on 57 international flights this year alone. 'If somebody calls up and they want to see you, you go. I reckon I've come back with contracts from 70 per cent of trips.'

Yet two years ago, the company came close to folding. 'We lost pounds 400,000 when the Windsor Safari Park went down. We delivered; they never paid. We begged the bank to stay with us, and they did.'

But the bank could not be persuaded to put up a 15 per cent bond when, soon after the bankruptcy scare, Mr Severn-Lamb landed a big contract with Euro Disney. 'I had to call in the staff and appeal to them to back us. Seven or eight of them put up the money.'

Eventually, they got their investment back with interest and helped to secure their future employment. There are now 54 on the payroll - 19 more than last year and 34 more than five years ago. 'Euro Disney established us as a company capable of doing and delivering big contracts,' Mr Severn-Lamb said.

The former Sixties drop-out seems content to keep flying around the globe to secure those contracts. A company founded in a stable and based on nostalgia for the golden age of steam is thriving in the era of jet travel.

(Photograph omitted)