My Biggest Mistake: Nicholas Brealey

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The Independent Online
MY BIGGEST mistake was leaping from the frying pan into the fire in a bid to escape from unproductive corporate power games.

I had been a director of a subsidiary of an American multinational publishing company for three and a half years, and by 1990 I was feeling the need to do something different.

The London office was very much regarded as the colonial outpost. In theory, we were a small operation, backed by big capital. In reality, despite our size, we were expected to perform like a billion-dollar division . . . but without the billion dollars.

Being part of such a large company was more a hindrance than a help, and I decided it was time for a fresh start, away from mainstream general publishing.

I saw an advert for a job in the publishing division of a large training charity and decided to apply. I got the job as head of publishing and started in September 1990.

It only took three weeks for me to realise that I might have made a mistake. Although there were lots of good people there, the organisation had in place something similar to the Polish voting system: a plan of action would be agreed after loads of meetings, everyone would go through the motions and nothing would happen.

They could never seem to work out whether I was there for propaganda purposes, just providing a printing service or whether I should be proactive. It's the standard dilemma of institutional publishing.

In this case, I didn't have the resources to do anything at all. Money spent on training does get cut back during a recession, and this charity was continually struggling.

I thought I'd achieved a breakthrough when I was invited to present a strategic plan to the board. Everybody listened, some even asked a few questions, and I actually seemed to have got through to them. The decision was made to go ahead . . . but it still wasn't implemented. There was a brief ray of hope when a new director joined, and I managed to get a meeting with her.

It turned out that she wasn't interested in any of the joint ventures I was proposing. However, she did respond when I offered a management buy-out of the publishing division.

It was completely unrehearsed, but to my shock she agreed and asked me for a formal proposal.

So, after my having discovered I was profoundly unsuited to institutional life, a management buy-out is what I did: not of the whole division, but of part of its list. I started out with just 22 titles.

I don't think I would have had the confidence - or arrogance - to march around the City and say: 'I'm brilliant, give me your money.' However, due to a death in the family, I had a small amount to play with.

I emerged in February 1992 with this embryo of a publishing company. I began working from home the following Monday, and have since gone on to publish another 40 books, several of them blockbusters.

I had gone from the world's biggest publisher to the world's most obscure, but now I have found my niche as the publisher of international business books.

Looking back, I find it bizarre that it took a crisis to force me to do what I am so happy doing today.

(Photograph omitted)