Bloodied but unbowed

Losing his sportswear business gave Tim Drake an insight into the ruthlessness of today's technological world. And, he warns, it's not getting any easier. By Rachelle Thackray
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The Independent Online
WHEN Tim Drake's bankers valued at pounds 5m his share of Cobra Sports, the retail chain he founded, he felt confident the marketplace would always be at his feet.

But only two years later, when he was forced to sell the business for the equivalent of 5p, he had learnt about the market's capricious nature the hard way, and had realised how vital it is to adapt to change - before it adapts you.

"After 14 years of building, with a partner, an excellent team and business, which was to have been our life work - and our pension - I found myself without a partner, without a company and, apparently, without a future. I was 48, had lost two stone in weight while losing the company, and had some thinking to do," writes Mr Drake in his new book, Wearing the Coat of Change: Handbook for Personal Survival and Prosperity in the Unpredictable World of Work.

His background lay in advertising, but he left in 1979 to set up Cobra Sports, the UK's first specialist sports footwear shop. A combination of factors - the recession, increased competition, high shop rents, and a reverse in fashion trends - brought troubled times for the company, and after disaster struck, it was bought by the family trust of a board member.

Left with no company and no career, plus a young family to support, Mr Drake decided that sitting around feeling sorry for himself was not on. Instead of trying to climb the corporate ladder, he realised it was time to manipulate market trends for his own benefit, and launched himself as an independent business generator (IBG). He admits he was sceptical when he looked at self-help books. But he had to start somewhere, and while he cast doubt on the idea of smiling to himself in the mirror and reciting the word enthusiasm 10 times at the start of each day, he realised that at least it was cheering him up.

In his book, he begins by evaluating his new profession, and identifying some of the changes that anyone emulating him - to become an IBG - will need to make. Taking a STOC (Strengths, Talents, Opportunities, Challenges) check, widening your comfort zone and becoming an active social contributor are all part of his strategy.

He describes what effects inventions, universal education, loss of religious certainty and breakdown of family life have had on the working environment. A shift from the industrial to the incomes revolution means self-employment will be commoner than having a permanent job.

He identifies four groups which he believes will evolve: the high-flyers, the survivor-flourishers, the strugglers and what he calls the buggered. His warning to high-flyers is that pressure, long hours and circumstance can topple even the most brilliant from their perches. Survivor-flourishers, he argues, are those who understand better the fragility of the concept of the permanent job.

The strugglers are those who are sinking oftener than they swim; they may have two or even three jobs but are still struggling financially. The buggered are the under-skilled and under-educated who will find themselves replaced by technology. Young men whose fathers were jobless are particularly at risk.

"I'm not optimistic about the lethal cocktail of global competition, technology replacing jobs, and uphill demographics producing widespread prosperity. In the past, productivity gains fed through to higher pay, and more jobs. Now, productivity gains flow through to higher pay for the few, and higher profits," he writes. There are fewer "real" jobs.

Another factor is the lack of what he calls "surplus people-absorbers". Between 1850 and 1914, for example, 12 million people left Britain to start afresh overseas. Today, such lands are themselves saturated with ever-cheaper labour.

Despite the gloomy forecast, Mr Drake is not one for wringing his hands. Being an IBG - which also stands, in his book, for "I'm bloody good" - is all about creating your own micro-economy. "This is not to say we join the 'I'm all right Jack, pull up the ladder' school of thinking. Quite the reverse. Having had my cage rattled, I came to understand that to survive in a world where income is becoming sickeningly fickle, you need a more broad-based approach than just efficient money generation," he writes.

He goes on to set out the ways in which one can develop core, alternative and secondary income streams, using branding, an action plan and mission statement. He concludes: "I have managed to build up seven or eight separate income sources, most of them with some sort of residual, or royalty, income. Possibly the most important benefit is that if a client asks for your presence at a time that is scheduled for a child's sports day... you can say with truth that you're already contracted for that time. The second is that there is no ceiling to your monthly earnings. You may at times miss your target income for a month or two. But there are few joys like pulverising it, and having some spare cash around to spend."

Not bad for a man who, at 48, thought that with the crash of an empire, the end of his working life was nigh.

'Wearing the Coat of Change: Handbook for Personal Survival and Prosperity in the Unpredictable World of Work' is published by Orion Business Books at pounds 20.