IN WORKING hours, he’s the boss of the biggest private company in the North of England.

Out of them, he’s in charge of Workington Comets speedway team – and Keith Denham is determined that both organisations will be the best in their vastly differing worlds.

Keith is chief executive of Thomas Armstrong Ltd, an organisation whose distinctive orange vans and lorries are a familiar sight on roads in and far beyond West Cumbria.

Away from work, his main interest is classic motorcycles, and that’s what led him to buy the Comets last year.

He says: “I’ve always been into motorbikes - have my own collection and I’ve followed speedway since 1970. I tried to buy the Comets in 2003 and I plugged away until last year when I made an offer and bought them.”

Keith’s whole family is involved with the team in the same way that they have been responsible for building up Thomas Armstrong into the multi-million pound operation it is toda.

The firm had humble beginnings in Cockermouth, where it was founded as a sawmill and joinery business by the original Thomas Armstrong in 1830.

The business was in the hands of four generations of the Armstrong family and originally involved felling vast swathes of trees in the Lake District for use in the furniture industry and in pits.

The firm’s headquarters at Flimby has a fascinating collection of old photographs that show subjects as diverse as logs being hauled by horses at Loweswater, where logs were pulled across the lake if it was frozen and floated if not; and a loggers’ camp at Bassenthwaite, a place easily accessible today via the A66, but which was at one time too remote to allow the workers to travel there and back every day. A later picture shows one of the firm’s early motor lorries bearing its phone number – Cockermouth 3.

The firm had one of the first steam sawmills in the country and at one time had four sites in Cockermouth.

In 1926, it got its first recorded public works contract, building 50 houses, roads and sewers for Workington Corporation.

Some of the most notable buildings constructed by the firm during the 1920s and 1930s included Dovenby Hall Hospital, Workington’s New Central School and the Salterbeck housing estate.

The Denham family’s involvement with the company began in 1930 when the last Armstrong left suddenly and Keith’s father, Glover Denham, who had been manager since the First World War, got together with four other Cockermouth businessmen to buy it – and formed Thomas Armstrong Ltd over a weekend with four £1 shares.

During the Second World War, the firm were contractors to the War Office, supplying timber; but that era came to an end in 1963 when it cut down its last trees.

Keith says: “After the war, we got involved in building council houses on a big scale, and in the early 1950s we were building upwards of 1,000 houses every year for councils and housing associations.”

During that period there was a shortage of bricks, so Thomas Armstrong came up with a solution – the Clinecon building block, made from clinker ash from power stations- an early example of recycling.

The company was the pioneer of the block and had one of the first automatic block making machines in the country.

Keith says: “The blocks were unique. They were designed in particular sizes and just slotted together, including corner pieces, so that they didn’t have to be cut. “They brought about a revolution in building and we were asked to use them to build houses in the South – but we were far too busy.”

The first house the firm built using this method was at Parkside Avenue in Cockermouth, and it is still there.

At the same time, the firm diversified into limestone quarrying and provided ground limestone for its gangs to spread on agricultural land throughout Scotland.

Up until 1955, it was burning 10 lime kilns day and night around Cockermouth.

Keith has spent 50 years with the firm and is proud that he has done most of the trades in every department, so that he knows about them all.

He worked with his brother, Raymond, who retired three years ago, while his eldest sister, Sibyl, ran the firm’s Newcastle construction business for many years, an unusual occupation for a woman in those days.

Another brother and sister are shareholders and Raymond’s sons, Barry and Anthony, are working directors involved in the aggregates and construction sides of the business.

The firm really began to expand after 1975 and moved to its Flimby headquarters, which formerly belonged to Condura fabrics, who produced seat covers for Austin Rover and other British car manufacturers, in 1986.

It now has interests throughout the North of England and employs more than 1,000 people in divisions which embrace bespoke joinery, construction, aggregates, concrete blocks, timber and pre-stressed concrete.

Thomas Armstrong (Construction) Ltd has just been awarded a £41 million contract for the redevelopment of Penrith town centre.

It was also the main contractor for Workington’s £35 million town centre and has the £10 million contract for the nuclear academy being built at Lillyhall.

But it’s at the weekends that Keith can leave the cares of business behind him as he gets hands-on with the Comets.

He says: “I wholly own the business and Ian Thomas is team manager and runs the day-to-day operation.

“I get involved from Saturday morning, when I and my team of helpers manage the stadium and the track.”

The weather is an important factor in the running of speedway meetings and the Workington team keeps a close eye on the forecasts.

Keith says: “It’s all hands to the pump to get the track prepared for whatever weather is expected.

“The other Saturday it was dry and very humid, so we had to water the track from 8.30am until 6.30pm. On a hot day, we can use up to 20,000 gallons of water to make sure we are dust-free for the evening meeting; and if it’s wet, we have to work out how to get it dry.

“We might have to lift the whole track if the shale is soaking wet, and then we have to re-grade it.

“It can be a nightmare deciding whether or not we should go ahead. If riders are coming from as far away as King’s Lynn, we have to decide by about 1pm – we have to watch the skies all the time.”

Keith has about 70 back-up staff, including more than 20 stewards, and members of his family all lend a hand, including wife Mavis and daughters Paula and Julie, who sell programmes; his nephew; his son-in-law and his sister-in-law, who helps man the turnstiles.

Riders, from all parts of the country, start to turn up from about 4.30pm; the gates open at 6pm and then there is a rush to get everything ready for the 7pm start.

Under his stewardship, gates are 14 per cent up on last year and he hopes that plans for a new stadium to be shared by Workington Town RL and Reds football teams will leave the Derwent Park stadium to the Comets.

He says: “I have been asked what we need to make it as we want it and the consultants have recognised that we are probably the most important of the three sports.

“Speedway is a family community sport. We attract lots of families in a town where there are few places for them to go.

“Children aged between two and 15 have free admittance if accompanied by a paying adult and we had 237 children in on Saturday. There is always a nice mix of generations, from toddlers to grandparents.

“Allerdale Borough Council and the planning consultants finally recognise what we are doing and they have asked us what we would like to see in Derwent Park. A decision on the stadiums will be made in eight weeks and it could be surprising what will happen.

“We only have two years of planning permission left on Derwent Park and if we can’t carry on, we will have to move to Carlisle because I need to protect my investment.”

The nearest other Speedway team is in Newcastle, and the Comets meetings attract people from as far away as Kendal, Kirkby Lonsdale, Preston, Barrow and Carlisle.

Says Keith: “A few weeks ago we won the Premier Fours national competition and you couldn’t get a hotel room in the town.”

At the moment, he is concentrating on building up the team and has been talent spotting at Moto X meetings where he has already found two new local talents.

He adds: “I didn’t take the Comets on to make money; I want to keep the sport in the town where there isn’t much for young people to do and I think it is important that it stays here. We have some fantastic sponsors and that’s why it works.

“My aim is to make it the best speedway operation in the UK and I’ve already spent a lot of money upgrading the track and pits, plus £10,000 on floodlights.

“But the recession could be here for two years and there may be difficult decisions to make.

“There is no doubt that it will affect speedway. In fact, it will affect us all.”

But there is no doubt that this dynamic businessman, with his roots deep in West Cumbria, will do his best to minimise the impact of any downturn in the economy on his business and his hobby, which provide work and pleasure for so many in the area.