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The Engineer

Richard is the oldest of my interviewees, as he is now in his mid fifties. He also holds the most senior position of all my interviewees. I have known Richard since 1998, when he came onto the diploma course. My first full interview with Richard took place at his engineering works in February 2002, although I did conduct a pilot interview with Richard while he was still a diploma student. As we walked around the various workshops, he explained that his plans to sell out his share of the business to his partner had run into serious difficulty. A large contract in Pakistan had collapsed after the September 11 attacks leading to a dramatic fall in the share price of the company. By the time of my second interview, Richard had left his company and so I interviewed him at his house in a small village in the West Yorkshire countryside.


My childhood was unusual. My father was a conscientious objector and became interested in childcare after working in the East End of London during the Blitz, where he met my mum. My father was the son of a coal miner from south Yorkshire and my mother comes from a long line of clerics and minor land owners. I was brought up in a residential maladjusted children’s home in Leicestershire which was a very radical venture by my parents. It was a very large house on a small estate. My parents were described as ‘Warden’ and ‘Matron’. We lived as a single community, as this was part of my father’s philosophy. I went to the local primary school which had less than a hundred pupils and I was very very happy there. It was like having lots and lots of brothers and sisters and the most enormous playground to play in.
This unusual childhood changed when Richard was sent to boarding school.
I was put forward for a scholarship, passed, and went to a Quaker school, a boarding school. Going to a Quaker public school was an enormous shock to my system after coming from this very warm environment and I was immensely home sick for the entirety of the seven years that I was there. I felt that it was a punishment and I could not see any reason why I should have gone to such a place. The only good thing that I got out of school was that I was able to develop my sporting skills. On the down side I found myself bullied. I was physically very small until I was seventeen years old. My education declined and declined until, during my A levels, I upped sticks and left, much to the horror of my parents, who had been scratching and scraping to find the money. I also left home within days. I didn’t feel angry towards my parents in any respect, I felt angry towards the snobbishness of the school.
Richard begins to make a living in agriculture. His physical confidence is restored as the work develops his strength and as he realises that he is a talented sportsman.
I went to work in agriculture. I worked for eighteen months in Rutland and then I moved across to the other side of Leicestershire. I was doing general farm work. During this time a big change took place in me physically because I went from being under eight stone to nearly thirteen stone and being quite a big bloke. That in itself gave me the self confidence that I had lacked and allowed me to return back to sport again, and my returning to sport was very important to my self confidence that I had lost in the preceding three years.
I found that I got on with people and that I hadn’t got two heads, all the things that people who are bullied have nightmares about, bit by bit they disappeared, but the chip on my shoulder is still there, 35 years later and it was a very chastening experience.
What began as a way of making a living and escaping the snobbery of public school starts to interest Richard as a career. It is at agricultural college that Richard discovers his vocation as engineer and inventor.
I decided that agriculture was where I wished to make my career. Land was not particularly expensive and I have always been fond of the land. I have a natural ability with animals and machinery. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the fresh air and getting to meet the people. One of the things that I liked about it was that there is a surprisingly flat class system because everybody is in dirty clothes, whether it’s the land owner or not, everybody is on first name terms. Being called by surname is one of the things that I absolutely loathed about public school.
I applied for agricultural college and to my surprise I was accepted at all the places that I applied to. I did an OND in agriculture. I thought that I might be interested in doing teaching, so I took the HND in agriculture as well. I was a mature student, 21 years old. I had to fund myself and I realised that I needed to have a skill. I found that, amongst other things, I had good skills with welding. Welding paid for my education and I used to weld quite complicated structures, stainless steel milk tankers, petrol tankers, which again you have to know what you are doing to weld them.

After college, Richard heads into the oil industry.


A friend was working in the oil industry and was struggling to put paint on the inside of drill pipes. He came to me and said ‘Surely, you can think of a way of doing this?’ Well I did do. I made a huge thing, like a lathe, that was the opposite of the way that everyone else had been trying to do it. I became works engineer for his firm and did quite a lot of innovative work.
Next, I was head-hunted by an American firm who were looking to establish themselves. We undertook contracts on dangerous structures throughout the world. There was a big trade in taking crude oil from the Gulf back to Le Havre and Rotterdam. The ships were so big, and the money that they made was so immense, that they were looking for ways of doing corrosion protection of the ballast tanks whilst they were at sea. I was appointed as the person to investigate this. I spent part of my life at a desk, part of my life negotiating, and part of my life in a pair of overalls and priming boots, hanging off a crutch harness doing inspections in tanks at sea.
Richard sows some stereotypical young man’s ‘wild oats’, travelling the world, working on ships and containers, with a ‘girl in every port’, all the time building his expertise in engineering in extreme conditions. Eventually the attractions of this life pale, not least because he is nearly killed in an accident. He decides to go for a more settled existence, using his engineering expertise to found his own company.
This job gave me almost an instantaneous reputation within the marine paints business, which was very fortuitous. I did used to get fed up with being overseas all the time. I had met Angela by this time. I ought to say that when it came to girlfriends I used to try for Olympic records but when I met Angela it was very no nonsense. I realised that probably it was about time to settle down. I had two falls in the oil tanks in the space of three weeks, the second one very serious. I decided to start my own business, simply for stability. I had no ambitions other than to have a small engineering business working in the field I understood.
Richard reflects on how his obsession with work developed while on the ships, and how these traits led to him pushing himself and others to their limits. Richard links this trait to a feeling of guilt arising from his not following his mother’s wishes for him.
I was actually quite pushy. There were two quite incompetent superintendents running work which irritated me. I asked if I could run the job myself. This resulted in me dismissing the two men who were nearly twice my age. One of them tried to kill me with a 36 inch ‘Stillson’ wrench at one o’clock in the morning. I had to learn to look after myself in lots of ways.
I pushed myself and pushed myself in front of other people. I was always very conscious that my mother wanted me to follow my Uncle Richard, who had gone to Oxford. I do recognise that I was a disappointment to some members of my family and I thought that this was a second chance, a highly unlikely and unusual second chance.

Richard is very emphatic in linking the way he is so ‘driven’ by his work with childhood experiences of bullying and his feelings of both love and guilt for his parents.


I must have been big headed to think that I could actually do it. I think that the main driver was that I have carried a big chip on my shoulder about my treatment at school. My father went to his death without realising that I was unhappy at school. I never felt I could possibly tell him, knowing the privation that he had suffered, gone through his life savings for me to go to school. As a result, I am hugely competitive. I can push myself at most things until I’m absolutely shattered and then a bit further. I wanted to prove that I had got the intellectual capacity and breadth of personality, that I could do something.
Richard has had to fight against the tendency to become a bully himself in his determination not to be bullied again.
My wife was complaining about that part of my character but I did not realise it existed. I actually thought that I was a bit bloody ‘marshmallow’ to some extent. I have only recently had the balls to write down the fact that I was badly bullied at school. I was determined to be physically able to stand up for myself. It goes against my Quaker ethics, but in hindsight, when I was fourteen and fifteen, if I had whacked one of those people good and hard, good and early, none of that would have happened.
When I stopped working shifts Angela said to me ‘Look! You are turning into such a piece of shit’. This was because of the way in which one had to manage groups of construction workers. Those guys would sometimes decide they were going to come at you and it was important to learn how to duck and weave or get in there first. To some extent it was a gladiatorial thing. I had to go through that rite of passage. My dad was a conscientious objector and he preached a faith that would not harm a blade of grass, and this perhaps also was a rebuttal of those values.
I asked Richard when he started to think of himself as a manager rather than as an engineer.
Up until only a few years ago, I always used to describe myself as an engineer. I am slightly uneasy with the description ‘director’, whereas ‘engineer’ describes that one has a skill and to some extent a director is supposed to describe what your job is, though it doesn’t.
I do like to think of myself as a manager and I hope that I have been a good people manager, but I feel about managing the same way that I feel about engineering. I have evolved as a manager from finding myself needing a salesman, needing people to work on the shop floor, needing to have someone to do accounts and part of the issue of the course that I have undertaken is that I have needed to put some flesh upon the bones.
Richard goes on to explain that this feeling of not really knowing the ‘right way’ to manage, or at least wanting others to see him as a credible senior manager, was partly what motivated him to come on the diploma and then the Masters course, although wanting to prove himself to his intellectually successful family was also important.
I have been irritated that I have not done a degree. I have been wanting to change jobs for some years and I realised that telling people I knew how to manage was utterly insufficient for preparation for doing something different and I felt that this was a necessary rubber stamp. I needed to demonstrate that I was not only competent financially but that I was competent academically, and I would see this as part of removing the chip on my shoulder.

Richard also explained that he hoped that the Masters would enable him to escape from the self he had become to become someone different, someone less driven. His sense of himself as a paternalistic and ethical employer had also come under enormous strain as he fought for the survival of the company after September 11. He looked forward to a future as a mentor to an upcoming generation.


I have worked immensely hard and I don’t feel the capacity to do 60 plus hours any more, but I can’t stop working the 60 plus hours a week. I need to make a change. The way in which I work, and the dilemmas that I am daily faced with, were brought into focus by the September 11 tragedy. That led me to dismiss people that I was very fond of, people who I have known for years. I took stock of myself as a manager and asked myself some very critical questions about whether this really was where I wanted to be for the next seven years of my life. I have often been the person who is the sweeping brush and the shovel and during this rather difficult period I was working a lot of hours and in one week I clocked over 100 hours. I had a quite clear ethical view that the greater number had to survive, but I also decided ‘To hell with it! This is the last time I am going to do it.
I have an involvement in education and I am fascinated by the fact that agricultural college found and unlocked a key in me with engineering. I am fascinated in turning that same key with youngsters and I would like to spend the next part of my life doing that where possible.
We discussed whether the CMS aspects of the Masters had made any difference to how he had felt about being a manager during this difficult time.
I didn’t understand what was being taught to me. As a result of that I found myself extremely dismissive of the whole aspect of critical perspectives and to use the vernacular I thought it was utter bollocks. Strangely, I found that Marx was interesting. I had always had a love of history and therefore could understand Marx because of my knowledge of my father and his socialism. That was the portal through which I was able to get inside critical perspectives. I am much more reflective about anything I do, and much more considered. I am actually a bit cautious of saying that it has changed me because I know that it has but I would still like to be the one person who pretends that it hasn’t! It has given me more intellectual confidence to sit round with people who are clearly educated and all the rest of it and be able to say to them ‘Look my views matter’.
When I next met Richard, he updated me on events in his life, and particularly on how he had, in the end, extricated himself from his company.
In September of 2002 I decided to stop prevaricating and try and achieve my long held ambition to sell out of my business and have a career change. That process took me about six months. As a result of being in the business for 27 years there were various loose ends that needed tying up. I am left now with a small shareholding, but no directorships. I wanted to sell out all of my shares, but the bank wouldn’t let me because there is another major shareholder and if he metaphorically hit a tree in his car one day they wanted to be able to have the ability to drag me back into to it.
I asked Richard whether this not quite clean break was what he really wanted. Richard’s reply quickly turned into an account of how much of himself he felt he was leaving behind at his company and how difficult it was to simply walk away from it. His work was both something he wished to escape and something that he felt too much a part of himself to abandon.
I did want to make a clean break and if the bank had allowed me to do that then I would have done that without doubt. On my last day I was clearing out my office and our maintenance foreman, who has worked for us for 20 years, kept hanging around me while I was doing this clean out. In the end I said to him, ‘Bloody Hell, Aftar! What are you fannying around with, do you just want a coffee with me or something?’ and he walked up to me and threw his arms around me and said, ‘I will miss you, you are my brother’. I actually, for the first time, just collapsed in tears and realised I was leaving behind a lot of things from an emotional point of view. So there was really quite a juxtaposition between my emotional feelings and what I felt technically was the right thing to do, which was simply to make a break and allow other people to get on with it. I still feel very ambivalent about it.
Richard even went so far as to suggest that in leaving his engineering business he had become an entirely different person.
I feel a totally different person because most of my activities are now committee or board based and therefore are utterly consensual and I’m usually not the leader whereas previously, not to put too fine a point on it, I could quite often either finesse or bully my way through getting the decisions I wanted. It is a different lifestyle without a doubt. I describe myself now as a ‘business development consultant’ and that is the work I am doing.
Richard talked of his regrets at having worked so hard that he missed out on his children when they were younger and we talked of the dangers of his many interests and projects simply taking over from his old job as a source of excessive demands on his time and energy.
No I shall never ever go back to doing that! I certainly would like to address some of my hobbies with the same sort of vigour as I have addressed work, but I basically decided that I’m going to refuse to do more than 40 hours a week. You know I have been and watched football matches with my son who is 22. I should have been doing that when he was 12 not 22. There has been a lot of denial amongst all this.
We then discussed his plans for the future and the fact that he was now entering what people tend to think of as the final third of one’s life, albeit in his case a very active one.
Depending on what happens to the economy I can live off my shareholding comfortably. My intention is to use the experience that I have gained, not to get back into the frenetic lifestyle that you have clearly recognised and mentioned, but to use that expertise that I have built up to help other people.
I feel a lot more fragile than I used to. I know that I have aged beyond the usual aging process and I recognise that if I want to be one of those people who is around to see grand kids that I need to stop what I am doing. If I had retired at age 63-64, within a year I would be boxed up, underground. That just seemed stupid, and it also is selfish. I feel as though I have been selfish quite a long time and I don’t want to do those things. I want to make motor bikes and go-karts and things for the grand kids and I actually, stupidly, surprisingly, quite look forward to being able to use those type of skills, imparting my enthusiasm for things mechanical onto another generation. I look forward to being able to be a ‘wise owl’, which is my childrens’ nickname for me.



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