Sir Tom Cowie,
Sir Tom Cowie, courtesy of Sportsbyte Sunderland

Tom Cowie was a Sunderland businessman. After passing the 11-plus examination, he attended a selective grammar school, Bede Collegiate, leaving aged 15 to join his father’s cycle sales and repair business. On the outbreak of World War II, he joined the Royal Air Force. In 1948 he re-opened T Cowie Ltd, now selling motorcycles. By 1961 the company was operating in seven cities across the UK. It diversified into car sales in 1964 and floated on the London Stock Exchange. As sales of once fashionable Vespa scooters waned during the later 1960s, Cowie recognized the potential for rapid growth in the emerging contract hire car market, setting up a new division that grew rapidly into a market leading position. Meanwhile, the car sales business continued to expand as a Vauxhall distributor. A further bold move in 1980 took the firm into bus operations through the acquisition of Grey-Green, growing rapidly as a contractor to London Transport. A bus sales division was added in 1988 through the acquisition of a Hughes-DAF distributor franchise. A further period of growth ensued. Tom retired in 1993, aged 70, but remained its live President. At the time, the business employed 3,676 people and was worth £403.5 million. It was renamed Arriva in 1998.

Tom was awarded the OBE in 1982 and knighted in 1992, becoming Sir Tom, not for his business achievements, but for “political and public service”. He served for many years as the President of the Sunderland Conservative Association and was a major donor to the Conservative party. He is remembered in the North East as chairman of Sunderland FC between 1980 and 1986, and for his lifetime devotion to the club through thick (sometimes) and thin (often), keeping a box at the Stadium of Light until his death.

Sir Tom Cowie donated a great deal of money to good causes during his lifetime. He was an early donor to the Community Foundation Tyne & Wear and Northumberland, with a £0.3m gift establishing a named fund as part of its initial endowment match challenge. In 1994 he gave over £1m to help build St Peter’s Campus at the University of Sunderland. In 2002, it was renamed the “Sir Tom Cowie Campus at St Peter’s” in recognition of his support. In the same year, the Sir Tom Cowie Charitable Trust was established. The trust, which supports educational, sport, health, environmental and community charities in Sunderland and County Durham, has an endowment of £6 million and makes grants of around £300,000 per annum. The trust has been a staunch supporter of the £19 million Beacon of Light project nearby Sunderland FC’s Stadium of Light. The Beacon, which fully opened in early September 2018, is a community hub with sports, education, training and health facilities spread over five stories. The Beacon is owned and operated by the ambitious charity The Foundation of Light, which is linked but financially independent of Sunderland FC.


Keleny, A. (2012). Sir Tom Cowie: Founder of a transport empire, The Independent, Available here (Accessed 28/03/2018).

Sir Tom Cowie Charitable Trust (2018). About the Trust, Available here (Accessed 28/03/2018).

Sunderland Echo (2012). The life and times of former Sunderland AFC chairman Sir Tom Cowie, Available here (Accessed 28/03/2018).

The Daily Mail (2012). Former Sunderland chairman Cowie dies at 89 years old, available here (Accessed 28/03/2018).

The Telegraph. (2012). Sir Tom Cowie, Available here (Accessed 28/03/2018).

Wikipedia. (2018). Tom Cowie, Available here (Accessed 28/03/2018).