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News > Community > Mis-directed but got there in the end! By Chris Brooks

Mis-directed but got there in the end! By Chris Brooks

15 Jun 2022
Written by Jenny Armitage
Chris as a small boy with parents and sibling
Chris as a small boy with parents and sibling

After five enjoyable years in the Kings Junior School, I passed the 11+ and entered the Senior School in L3A. In the Autumn of that year my father read in the Daily Express that the world was short of chemists and bought a chemistry set for me. It was typical of my entrepreneurial family, owning a thriving textile business in town and always looking for ways of making things happen. So, I was destined for the science stream. The next event of significance at Kings was an announcement of who was going to miss a year, the Upper Fourth year, to create a spare year for Oxbridge applications in the 6th form.  My name was not called out, and rightly so. Although top in Chemistry I was nearly bottom in everything else!  I protested, was reluctantly added to the list, I ended up second in class and, was promoted up to L5Sc. The message here is about realising one’s potential, avoiding the dreaded ‘could do better’ in reports! It was tough missing out that middle year but I knuckled down, got good O Levels and then A levels.

In the meantime, my social life was moving apace. At conker time I collected over a hundred, pierced them and threaded them on to strings and sold them in school for a penny each. At United away matches I bought programmes by the hundred and sold them outside Old Trafford for double the price. I started a skiffle group as lead guitarist and vocalist, sold our services to pupils’ parents and played at lots of 16th and 18th year parties. In Wales, I used our boat to catch mackerel, topped and tailed them, and sold them around caravan sites. I loved selling things.

In the third Upper Sixth year Kings provided just two chances at Oxbridge, Autumn and Spring. I went to Downing, Cambridge, for an entrance exam and was told that I was too young but was invited to try again the following year. I have a May birthday which didn’t help. I was then entered for the wrong exam at Oxford in March and so had wasted my extra year. I sat an additional A level and two S levels, passed them, and duly returned to Downing the following autumn to claim my place only to be turned down as ‘past it’!  Calamity, but, I bought a pad of luxury Basildon Bond notepaper and sent 26 hand-written letters to Oxbridge colleges, selling myself. Within a week I had received a telephone call, travelled to Oxford, sat an entrance exam, been interviewed, and accepted a place on the spot.  Simples!  Once ‘in’, I filled six months usefully at ICI Pharmaceuticals, Alderley Park, on a research project.

I spent four super years at Oxford, the fourth being a research year. I presented myself to a world leading professor and author, asking him to take me on for this final year. We ended up with a paper published in the best-known global chemistry journal. Meanwhile, I booked a meeting at the Careers Office and was offered three choices; Research (done it; boring), Teaching (not paid enough; sorry Kings’ staff) or Manufacturing. No mention of Sales or Marketing and I never even thought to ask.  My father was right; there was a shortage of chemists. I attended seven interviews, was offered seven jobs, and accepted a place with Beecham, making Brylcreem and Macleans toothpaste in Maidenhead.

I have no regrets at all about being directed towards both chemistry and manufacturing.  I spent a total of 19 years making things, living in Germany, Switzerland, Monaco (that was something else!) and Belgium before deciding it was time to settle down back in England, approaching my thirtieth birthday. I ran Avon’s cosmetics factory in Northampton and joined the Avon Dramatic Society, putting on several shows a year. As a result, the Sales Director asked me if I had considered a career in sales? I showed interest, was offered a switch but it was blocked by the MD.  I was livid, but it coincided with an approach to run a larger factory in Aylesbury for Schwarzkopf, and for more money. I spent 8 years there whilst getting engaged, married and then starting a family. Really it was for too long, I became bored, and I started a business on the side with a friend, importing wine from France. I sold sizeable contracts to local restaurants and bars. It was really taking off when I was approached, this time to run Europe’s biggest toy operation, making Star Wars, Action Man, Trivial Pursuit, Meccano, Airfix, Playdoh, Monopoly, Care Bears etc.  Regrettably wine selling was now firmly off the agenda, although drinking the residual stock was enjoyable!  Again, a great job and the kids enjoyed the free samples, toys I mean, not the wine, but then, disaster.  The US owners decided to move all its operations to Hong Kong/China, and I had to make 4,500 people redundant, including myself. It was down to me to sell myself to the jobs market. 

We moved North to join the market-leading management recruitment company, MSL, part of Saatchi & Saatchi, in Manchester with the devious intent of waiting for the right job to come along, apply for it myself and move on.  However, the role became to take over the office, allow the boss to move to London to run the UK, and for me to grow the provincial businesses.  Yes, at long last, a job in sales!  Within a year Manchester was the largest UK office and the crowning glory for me was to win the contract to recruit the first astronaut to go into space in a Soyuz rocket, with Helen Sharman chosen from 87,000 applicants.  However, triumph quickly turned to setback. As a result of our soaring sales figures, my boss wanted me to move to London to be the UK Sales Director. Live in London?  Never mind the family house in Prestbury; United were top of the league and I had four season tickets right on the half-way line.  No way was I moving!

I enjoyed everything about senior level recruitment and so decided to leave MSL but stay in the North and start my own company, which I did under the umbrella of one of the largest global headhunting companies, Spencer Stuart, which had an office in Cheshire at the time.  Again, sales were the key to success, and, within two years, we had an MD in London, teams in Manchester and Leeds, and I was taken into the parent company as a global Partner.  I specialised in odd-ball assignments such as recruiting Richard Scudamore into soccer, plus MDs for Wolves and Sheffield Wednesday, finding someone to lead a business in Abu Dhabi for a company in Texas, hiring the Chief Executive of the Commonwealth Games in Manchester, as well as large campaigns, such as recruiting 47 executives as Northwest Water morphed into United Utilities.

However, we are now in 1996 and, following the firm’s reorganisation, the travelling became too much, with regular staff meetings in New York and across the EU.  Instead, I resigned and settled into my office at home, still in Prestbury, established CBC (Chris Brooks Consulting), and was employed as a non-executive director of firms and organisations across the North, a fascinating portfolio that gradually dwindled over the years until around 2006 when I closed CBC. Since then I have been Chairman, Secretary, or Treasurer of various clubs and charities.

Who knows what would have happened if the lovely lady in the Oxford Careers Office had suggested Sales & Marketing as a career back in 1966?  In the event, sales finally won over manufacturing, but only after manufacturing things had led to many years of excitement and fulfilment.  If there is a lesson for others, it is to follow your dreams, but never at the expense of making a success of the present.  Now in my 80th year, life continues to thrive and long may it last.  The season tickets at Old Trafford have gone, however.  Now that really was a disaster!

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