'It's not bashing RBS. It's about fairness for small business'

Just off the M1 near Leeds, there's a British-owned company that turns out 300 sports and racing cars a year. The perfect boys' toys, they will set you back up to £240,000.

The company is Ginetta, and its boss, Lawrence Tomlinson, 49, points out a sporty number that would be just right for the banker with a big bonus to spend: "This is the thing we're launching for the City boys. Our line is: don't waste your bonus on a Porsche; come and join the Ginetta racing drivers' club."

It is perhaps an unusual sales pitch for a businessman who has been portrayed as a champion of small firms and a basher of banks. But Tomlinson's explosive allegation that Royal Bank of Scotland is forcing viable businesses to the wall for its own profit sent shockwaves around the bank, sparked a regulatory inquiry and aroused the interest of the Serious Fraud Office.

The allegation is that the bailed-out bank has been moving commercial borrowers into its global restructuring group (GRG), which handles loans classed as risky and charges higher fees and interest rates. Firms that subsequently collapse will, it is alleged, then see RBS's distressed debt subsidiary, West Register, buy up their properties. RBS argues the allegations are unproven but have been very damaging.

Tomlinson says the complaints follow a pattern: customers find their properties valued lower than the purchase price and are put into GRG, where they are charged management fees and higher interest. The individual is then asked for personal guarantees, and soon after the business goes into administration.

Revelations that Tomlinson has a dispute of his own with RBS have added to the controversy. But sitting in his office – black leather sofa, bookshelves covered in racing memorabilia, fridge stocked with champagne and wine – Tomlinson insists he is not on a personal crusade. He wants to give embattled small businesses a voice: "I'm not out to bash RBS. I'm out to try to get a fair deal for businesses and to help the bank understand what is happening at the coalface."

His base in Garforth, in a former coal mining area, has become a popular stop-off point for politicians seeking domestic manufacturing success stories. The cars – which have been driven by Nigel Mansell and which the whippet-thin Tomlinson has driven in the Le Mans 24-hour race – are designed and assembled on site. His office overlooks the workshop where Ford engines are adapted, car frames are welded and carbon fibre moulded.

Vince Cable, for whose business department Tomlinson is an entrepreneur-in-residence, is among those to have visited. The business secretary has given his support to Tomlinson, whose report is now with the Financial Conduct Authority and the SFO. Tomlinson says RBS should have suspended those facing the allegations.

Tomlinson says: "I haven't had one person say to me: 'I had a great experience in GRG. They really helped me turn around my business.' What I have had is absolutely appalling negative comments about it."

His own dispute with RBS, over two of its staff members, is not relevant, he says, as he is not in GRG. But other businesses should not be there either, he says. "In the cases I'm looking at, people are paying back interest and capital and not missing payments. These are not people who are defaulting on loans."

While the Garforth car workshop is the most visible part of Tomlinson's business, it is not the only one. His eponymous LNT Group – the N is for his middle name, Neil – also builds and runs care homes, supplies software for care home businesses and manufactures items such as a wing de-icer for aircraft.

The latest accounts show bank fees amounting to £2.6m, incurred when the business agreed a £100m refinancing on 28 March. There is a £4m overdraft – with RBS subsidiary NatWest – and a £73.7m loan and £22.3m for land development with NatWest, Santander, Clydesdale and Bank Leumi. All will be up for renegotiation in September 2014.

Tomlinson has personally lent the loss-making group £27m. "I will always back my business for growth," he says. A property company he and his wife run has lent a further £10m, while a subsidiary of LNT Group recently sold a £1.2m helicopter to a company Tomlinson has an interest in. He is a busy man, claiming to get by on five hours' sleep a night, and the helicopter will be for personal use.

A mechanical engineering graduate, Tomlinson started importing speedboats and cars from the US in his early twenties before getting into care homes at 23, when he borrowed £526,000 to buy a home that his parents had been running. This eventually became Orchard Homes, which was sold in 2007 – "a good time to sell a business" – and he gave £9m to his staff. He set up Ideal Care Homes in 2009. Staff have stakes in the new company and the boardroom – where the table converts into a pool table – displays a line of champagne bottles opened on the day of the distribution.

Private Eye recently lambasted him for using a tax avoidance scheme in 2002. It was the result of "rubbish advice", says Tomlinson, adding that he regrets doing it. More recently he paid £6m in personal tax: "That would be a bloody nice boat in Monaco. I'd only have to stay there nine months."

He warned his wife and four children that there might be some publicity when his report was published 10 days ago, but insists the project is not about him. It is about giving a voice to those who have been "financially abused". Tomlinson, who has been contacted by at least 250 people since publication, also says he has omitted from his report those businesses that were failing anyway.

His ideal would be for firms to get the treatment he did, as a 23-year-old asking for his first loan. Sitting at his desk in Garforth, he says: "If I hadn't had a brilliant bank manager at the Midland Bank – he backed me because he knew me – none of this would be here. You find me a bank now that would have backed me to do what I've done."

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Jill Treanor, for The Observer on Sunday 8th December 2013 00.05 Europe/London

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image: © Elliott Brown

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