My Biggest Mistake: Michael Crosswell

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Michael Crosswell, 49, is chairman of Blue Arrow Group, the 70-branch employment agency acquired through a pounds 34m management buyout last year. His career began in store management with Marks & Spencer, where he stayed for five years before joining Coats Patons (now Coats Viyella) in 1968. Three years later, after an unsuccessful six-month stint running a printing company, he joined Reliance Service Bureau. In 1978, he moved to Blue Arrow Staff Service, and six years later was appointed chief executive of Blue Arrow UK and a director of Blue Arrow.

MY BIGGEST mistake was in thinking that I could run a business which I knew nothing about. In 1970, I was based in Manchester as a regional manager for Coats Patons. I was 27 years old and earning a nice salary. I had a company car and all the trimmings, but I was feeling a bit fidgety. Just as I was thinking of moving back down south, my neighbour asked me if I would take over the running of his printing company. He had suffered a heart attack and was still very ill.

He seemed like a nice chap and I wanted to help him out. We didn't discuss money, because I trusted him - and he even talked about eventually giving me the company if it worked out.

My principal task was to pull in more business. I was young, feeling very brave, and thought that I could tackle just about anything.

The problem was that I had no idea what I was talking about, and there was no one I could turn to for advice.

I didn't know the correct printing terminology, so when customers asked me technical questions I would waffle my way through them - which they found either amusing or tiresome.

I was out of my depth and, because I couldn't interpret what they wanted, the orders often came out wrong. I was in a permanent state of confusion and often panicked.

It has never been in my nature to run away from things, so I decided that I would give it a bit more time. But no matter how hard I tried, it seemed I just couldn't learn fast enough.

The staff were aware of my ignorance and they caused me endless worry by messing about - partly in fun, partly deliberate.

All I was getting out of the job was repayment of my expenses, and this concerned me a bit. Not only was I in the wrong business - I wasn't even getting a salary. I had a mortgage that had to be paid every month, and suddenly I found myself broke.

By now I had been running the business for six months. When I tried to talk to the chap, he just said: 'Let's call it a day.'

I never did get any money out of him, and I felt totally let down. On one hand, I was angry. On the other, I felt stupid at not having discussed terms at the outset. It was my own fault; he was simply trying to make sure his business was covered while he was ill. So there I was, stuck in Manchester and virtually on the breadline, not knowing what to do next.

Then I had a brilliant idea. I applied for a variety of jobs in London and set up all the interviews on the same day - each on the promise that the company I was visiting would pay my expenses. Six interviews meant six train fares. There were plenty of jobs for bright young men in those days, so I could earn more money this way than I had while working full-time for Coats Patons.

I did this for about a month and a half before accepting a job with Reliance Service Bureau, which was the start of my career in the employment industry.

Having been through that awful experience of having no money, the first thing I wanted to do was to get away as fast as I possibly could from the breadline. I determined I would never be broke again. I was always going to have money in my pocket. But it taught me that when it comes to running a business, you've got to stick with what you know. And if you do find yourself exploring uncharted waters, make sure that you do your research first.

(Photograph omitted)