The Story of a Frustrated Geologist

We catch up with a new policyholder of FSB Insurance Service, Barry Roberts to talk about his unique business. Barry is a self-declared ‘frustrated geologist’ who co-owns Bolton-based Northern Geological Supplies Ltd.

How Did You Get Into Geology?

I started out as a meteorologist working for the British Antarctic survey, and I did that for a while before going to university to study geography, then going into teaching.

I left after 15-16 years because I was always a ‘frustrated geologist’, that was my field of interest and that’s what I wanted to do. I’ve been mountaineering for years and it’s a huge part of my life. That may have been why I got into geology.

I’ve also been climbing in the Alps since I was fifteen. Eventually you are up close to the rocks and you start to look at them more closely. You start asking questions and that’s how I developed my interest in geology.  I was always interested in physical geology and glaciology.

When Did Your Interest Turn Into a Business Idea?

I started about 32 years ago... It’s been going a while now! I started selling samples out of my garage to individual enthusiasts and EJ Arnolds in Leeds, they’re not around now but at the time they were a huge educational company.

So I had just set it up myself, literally just selling ‘kits’ to schools. We still sell them but it’s not a huge part of the business now.

I carried on selling things on my own and the business just began to grow; there’s 5 of us work here [Northern Geological Supplies Ltd.] now. We’re quite a small team and all of us except one are all geologists. That’s pretty much how it started.

We sell rock and mineral samples to individuals, schools and universities but that’s not the bulk of what we do, I’d say about 70% of our business actually comes from being suppliers of tools and equipment to the mining exploration industry.

We started selling tools years ago but it’s only recently that we’ve started focusing on it. The internet has made a huge difference. We’ve also benefitted from word-of-mouth as people hear about us.

A lot of what we have made, is manufactured in England. In some ways it’s an ethical decision but practically, it’s a lot easier to communicate with people when you’re close by, especially as a business. We know our supply chain well and are comfortable developing new products with them as if something goes wrong, or we’re developing prototypes we can action any changes quickly. It’s also much easier to develop products when you don’t have to factor in delivery of samples.

We’re working on a few projects and we have our own branded items. We’ve made pads out of waterproof paper that can be used in the mines. About 3 years ago we developed a specialist sample tag book for field work- our printer thought we’d never sell many of them, but they’ve turned out to be popular. Once you’re in an industry like this you know what people want.

A Tricky Situation

I could tell you loads of stories about amusing things that have happened over the years. On one occasion   I was out in Norway and I’d been recommended a site to collect a mineral called biotite mica.  It was right out in the mountains along dirt tracks. As I approached this little subsidiary quarry I heard all this gunfire around me. A line of men was lined up with their backs to me firing their guns across the quarry! I think it was a gun club practicing.

I left the engine running, grabbed a sack and ran as quickly as I could into this smaller subsidiary quarry. Fortunately, I knew where I was going, so I threw about 50kg of samples into my sack and got back to my car, and they were still firing… They hadn’t noticed me, so I thought ‘Oh I’ll go and get some more then!’

The group in front of me were still firing high velocity bullets and you could hear them going whoosh right across the quarry but I grabbed a couple more bags worth of samples, got back into the car and I start slowly edging back down the track and they were still firing away. It was a bit tense, as if they’d seen me, I’d have probably been in trouble!

You do get into situations like that sometimes but it’s all in good fun.

You FSB members are a truly varied lot! Since we started trading as FSB Insurance Service we’ve been speaking to some businesses we never even knew existed! This is part of a series in which we talk to you and find out more about your passions, your businesses and your histories.

You can check out Northern Geological Supplies Ltd.’s website at