Charles Cockell: What I wish I'd known when I started

Dec 06/Jan 07 issue

Managers can manage without you…
I started out in the travel sector at Thomas Cook during the late 60s.
I gained a lot of experience in sales, but always had an ambition to own a business by the time I was 30, and eventually I did – aged 31.

People describe me as an entrepreneur but it’s not a term I like. Entrepreneurs can be controlling because they think it’s their vision and tend to rule with an iron rod. I’m a firm believer that you should leave your managers to manage the company – delegate and have good people around you. Work should be a fun place to be and people should be able to do their jobs. If you make it a welcoming atmosphere people respond better than if you rule by force.

Don’t dilly dally on the way…
In 1985, I was on a plane and happened to be sat next to the founder of BSI. We were eating and he dropped his steak on the floor. I started to laugh and he persuaded me to part with some money – not right there and then of course! What I mean is, we got talking, I was impressed enough to takes shares in the company and later joined as sales and marketing director. In 1995, I led the management buyout (MBO) and the business really started to take off.
Organising an MBO is an arduous process and in the end it took a year to complete. I’m the sort of person that can work calmly through a problem, but I’m also a tenacious sort of animal and like to make up my mind, get out there and get on with it. The previous owner, who has now passed away and was a friend, tended to be a cautious sort and could dither a bit. It took perseverance, but with this sort of thing you can’t give up but you can’t rush things either. The trick is to have someone in the organisation that’s conversant with the process – that’s where Simon Milstead came in. He led us through it and taught us all to walk before we tried to run.

A good financial grounding will help you fly…
Simon is my main adviser and a good person to have around. My experience is in sales, which counts for a lot, but it’s imperative that you have someone in your team with a financial background. He has helped us make the company a stable operation. I’ve tried to take big risks on ventures before and they’ve failed. I bought into a travel agency a while back and that didn’t work. It was a good prospect but would have needed a huge turnover to succeed. We just didn’t have the resources and it makes you realise that vision isn’t always enough: great ideas don’t always work.

Never sit still…
After the MBO we underwent a period of rapid growth and had to increase profit greatly to pay back the debt that we’d incurred. We never had a problem coping with growth because we’d always looked at the company in those terms: as a business that was going to grow quickly from day one. It never occurred to me that we wouldn’t succeed. It’s that sort of attitude that has allowed us to stay ahead in the industry, investing in new technology like our self-booking system in order to grow the business – you can’t sit still in this game or you’re dead in the water.