5 life (career) changing decisions

Everyone’s life is the result of a mix of chance and decisions. You can’t do much about chance but it’s the decisions you make which map out your life. I reckon that there’s five decision which I’ve taken which, successively, have meant that I didn’t become an academic, a long term oil industry employee (and very possibly an American citizen God forbid), an old Asian hand, a senior Dow Chemical manager or a salary man through to retirement. 

1 choosing to do a PhD (1969)

Churchill College Boat crew. That’s me on the left.

I did all right at university. It was a time that I grew up of course, I was no longer a schoolboy and I escaped from all those relationships and behaviours which defined me as such. I did OK academically, I enjoyed myself socially and I participated in lots of sport. At the end of three years I had a decent degree, I had at least one good job offer and there was the option of staying on and doing a PhD. I had to decide what to do.

I chose to do a PhD but it was only later that I realised that there was a further choice I could have made.

I’d done Natural Sciences with Chemistry being my main subject and a special paper in Theoretical Chemistry so it seemed natural at the time to accept an overt invitation to work under Tony Callear in the physical chemistry department. What I hadn’t been smart enough to realise at the time was that a good friend Dudley Williams had signalled to me his wish that I consider working in his organic chemistry group.

My position with Tony did not work out. I didn’t really know what I was doing and resigned my position after about 6 months and went job hunting. With hindsight I probably would have enjoyed working for Dudley more, we remained in touch until he died some years ago, and continued to complete my PhD.

It’s ironic therefore that my decision to do a PhD resulted in me not ending up with a career in academia. Had I chosen the Dudley route it probably would have but who’s to know? As it was I applied for jobs in 1970, was offered four and ended up working for Shell in London.

2 deciding to move from Mobil to Dow (1976)

I worked for Shell until early 1974 and then followed a colleague to Mobil Oil. That wasn’t really a big decision though; I stayed in the oil industry and the move was a fairly logical career progression. I worked in New York until the late summer and then moved to Jakarta, Indonesia.

enjoying life in Jakarta

During my time in Jakarta I met people who worked for Dow Chemical in Hong Kong. Dow which was planning a petrochemical complex in North Sumatra using ethane from the Arun gas field which Mobil was developing in partnership with Pertamina, the Indonesian state oil company.

I’d already visited Hong Kong a few times and although I enjoyed life in Indonesia I didn’t really get a great deal of job satisfaction so I wrote to Dow suggesting that it hired me. I don’t recall a difficult process but it did involve one flight diversion to attend interviews and then a short period of negotiation as I held out for better terms. And that was it and I joined Dow in September 1976.

It was a significant move. I’d got the job based on some experience but there was nobody I knew who was going to look after me and it was a different industry, although being chemicals I would expect to understand it pretty quickly. Had I not made it I’d probably ended up working for Mobil in the US and who knows what would have happened thereafter.

3 moving back to Europe (1979)

Dow’s Chinese New Year dinner with Juni

Dow ran its Asia/Pacific business out of Hong Kong and I got to travel just about everywhere. It also gave me the chance to visit Dow’s headquarters in Midland, Michigan and the centre of its European operations in Horgan, near Zurich, in Switzerland. I rather liked the latter and on a second visit early in 1979 someone asked me why was I visiting. Was I looking for a job?

Well I wasn’t but it didn’t seem like a bad idea so I put out feelers thinking that maybe I could leverage my oil industry experience in Dow Europe’s hydrocarbons purchasing group.

I had a sympathetic boss at the time with good connections in Europe and he helped me out and I shortly got an offer. Trouble is it wasn’t the sort of role I’d enquired about and it wasn’t a similar role to the one I had in Hong Kong. I was offered the position of Distribution Planning & Development Manager.

That was another big move. I’d spent over 5 years working in Asia and this took me back to Europe and it would challenge me in a role which was new to me, I would find myself once more working in a totally new organisation and it was not just me facing such challenges but I’d got married in 1978 so Juni would encounter them as well. If I’d stayed I’d perhaps have become just another old Asian hand.

4 accepting the Business Systems Manager job (1988)

Applied Chemicals team in Malaga 1988

From 1979 to 1988 I enjoyed a series of positions in Dow Europe with a very successful and rewarding four years as a Product Marketing Manager between 1984 and 1988. That should have been the platform for bigger things but I got tempted by a move to work in the forefront of the IT revolution. This was the revolution which would enable companies to use IT, previously just used to automate boring business processes like accounting and order processing, for competitive advantage. I was promised the ‘bigger things’ as a part of the inducement.

I was a part of a small group bridging the divide between business and IT and it was a disaster. The business people decided that because we existed they didn’t need to worry about the use of IT and the IT people themselves just saw us as an irritant.

I was in the role for a miserable two years after which the promised ‘bigger things’ failed to materialise and I ended up in a smaller marketing role than the one I’d had previously. It was pretty unfulfilling and after two years I was ‘let go’. I’d been 16 years with Dow, I’d learnt a lot and had some really good times. Those last four years were unfortunate and scotched any ambition which I might have had of a big corporate career.

This is the big one. If I hadn’t been impatient for a move I proobaby would have git the bigger thing and I might have climbed a little higher up Dow’s corporate ladder although I do feel now and with hindsight that I was a little too much of a maverick to survive much longer with the company. By contrast the guy on the right in the photo of the Chinese New Year dinner above went on to become Chief Executive!

5 leaving Linx (2000)

After Dow I moved back to the UK and worked for FMC in Manchester. I had a role which was familiar and with global responsibility which was good but I found myself in a strange corporate culture. It was not a great couple of years and in 1996 I found myself on the wrong end of a redundancy which I navigated pretty well joining Linx in 1996.

Linx was a challenge. For the first time I had ‘director’ on my business card, I was managing a large team and the business wasn’t chemicals.

I only had one job at Linx, Sales & Marketing Director, but I was successful, judged on sales growth, and enjoyed it immensely. But for some reason I fell out with the MD.

The result of this was a sideways move and a role with no future. I chose to leave, rang one of Linx’ competitors and was offered a bigger role on a higher salary. So, no brainer, I moved.

With hindsight was it the right thing to do? My successor at Linx didn’t last very long so maybe I’d have regained my position if I’d stayed. My new employer was taken over two years later and in the shakeout I ended up with another redundancy at the age of 55, not a great age to be in the job market!

Leading the CCC Lib Dem group in 2008

Since 2002 I’ve operated as a consultant/coach/interim manager with some success. Certainly I’ve earned good money and 20 years later I’m still doing so. In parallel I’ve enjoyed a political career and used many of my business skills of team leadership and project management to great effect. But, as with the other four decisions above I have to ask ‘what might have happened if I’d not made that call?’

However we are where we are. I’ve got a nice house and no mortgage. I still have an income so my main pension pot is untouched. I’m healthy, my stent adventure 18 months ago notwithstanding, and I’ve got a daughter in Yorkshire who’s given me three grandchildren and a son in Western Australia who gives me the excuse to visit that splendid country, Covid permitting of course. I really can’t complain.

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