My Biggest Mistake: Gerald Bodmer

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Gerald Bodmer, 61, is chairman of Launer, maker of the Queen's handbags. He began a career as a classical musician and, after four years at the Royal College of Music, became first clarinet with the Carl Rosa opera company in 1955. A few years later, however, after a year on the dole, he found he had to accept a job as a stocktaker. He spent three years selling leather goods, started his own company and by 1976 had factories in Hackney and the West Midlands. In 1981, he bought Launer. Its products are sold in Harrods, Selfridges and Fortnum & Mason.

MY BIGGEST mistake was spending eight years trying to make it as a professional musician. I had been offered a place at Manchester University studying economics, but I had this desire to be the world's greatest clarinet player. I went instead to the Royal College of Music.

At first things looked fairly promising. I won the top wind prize at college, went on to play with the Halle, then, after two years with the Carl Rosa decided to hit the big London scene.

It was 1957. I had struggled in orchestra pits, waiting for The Big One. I always felt success was just round the corner. Instead, I spent a year on the dole, which in those days was pounds 2.50 a week. The only work I had was teaching clarinet at a high school for girls and I wasn't even good at that.

Gradually I realised I wasn't going to make it. The highlight of the year was when I was offered a job behind the counter at the dole office. I was horrified - but if your experience has been as a clarinet player, job offers are few and far between.

In the end, there was no option but to use the few distant connections I had to get a job as a stocktaker for a firm that imported gloves. It was traumatic - I had never worked from nine to five before. It was hard on the ego. I hated it.

Fortunately, my father's cousin ran Bagcraft, which made handbags and small leather goods, and he gave me a job as a salesman. He was very helpful and taught me everything I know. By the time I was 33, both my brothers were immensely successful, but I felt as if I had achieved nothing.

The turning point came in 1965 when I became a sales agent, working on commission. I never looked back. By the time I started my own company in 1968, I was selling on behalf of five or six leather goods manufacturers. I started a wholesale importing business, then got the factories. In the slump of 1981, our business took a nosedive, but by a lucky coincidence Launer became available and I have spent the last 12 years building it back up. I was 28 when I started out in business. If I hadn't spent all those years trying to be a top musician, I would have a much bigger turnover today.

What really got me in the end was when I realised that the chances of success were not based only on talent, but on the toss of a coin. When you go to an audition and there are 120 people trying for the same part, do you really think that after hearing the 60th they are able to tell the difference? My father was right; I should have gone to university.

We all spend an enormous amount of time at work, so I believe passionately that we should enjoy what we do. But you have got to look at the market.

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