Work smarter and harder and longer to find your dream

Downshifting doesn't mean packing in a stressful job for a life of tranquil idyll. Meg Carter and Rachelle Thackray talk to people who made the jump and never looked back
Click to follow
Peter Bielby, 57, was a management consultant for 25 years before making a new career as a furniture designer. Meg Carter reports.

Who hasn't day-dreamed of packing in the daily grind of a nine-to-five job in favour of something more, well, creative? It's a desire stimulated in recent years by the breakdown of the old `psychological contract' between employer and employee, organisational psychologists claim. Why pledge undying loyalty to your employer if they won't make the same pledge to you? For those of us with the nerve - and financial security - to follow their dreams, the personal rewards can be great.

"It was probably the biggest gamble of my life," confides Peter Bielby who decided in his early fifties to become a furniture designer. A former senior vice-president of Gemini Consulting, Bielby recently completed a two-year course in furniture design at Parnham School for Craftsmen in Wood whose alumni include Royal designer and cabinet maker Viscount Linley.

Bielby had always been keen to work with his hands but admits a punishing work schedule with 16-hour working days and frequent trips abroad left him neither time nor energy to keep his hand in: "I remember fiddling in the workshop as a boy, but as an adult my only recent experience was going with my partner on a residential furniture-making course in Pembroke for a week, seven or eight years ago." It may have been brief, but the experience rekindled his dream.

"Four or five years ago, I realised that as much as I enjoyed my job - it was intellectually demanding and certainly not boring or routine - the problems I was brought in to deal with as a consultant were conceptually all the same," he explains. "I'd wake up in the morning and know I'd not learn anything new that day. I had always enjoyed working with my hands so decided to see if I had what it would take."

One of eleven people taken on to Parnham's prestigious two-year course, Bielby admits he was the oldest in his class but reveals other students were not all wet behind the ears. "There was also a former doctor, an ex-oil rig worker and the manager of a building company."

Furniture-making appealed at a number of levels. "All our possessions make statements about us, far stronger than our jobs make nowadays, or where we were educated or where we live. We carry these items from house to house - they have a history, our history," he explains.

Furniture design is also a psychological challenge. "I like to play with the limitations of the materials," he confides. Yet he is eager to prove his feet remain firmly on the ground: "I'm put off by the pseudo-babble of those who see deep things in daubs - very like what is often experienced in a consultancy, where people have a tendency to surround themselves with bullshitters."

Bielby's pieces of furniture are elegant, striking and unashamedly contemporary. So far, he has completed more than a dozen private commissions including chairs, tables, an elegant, compact writing desk and `Miss Davenport' - a striking ladies' desk reminiscent of a Victorian skirt.

The desks he has designed have generally been for use by business professionals working at home. His latest, (see above) nicknamed `Desk on the Run', is for standing rather than sitting.

The management consultant is still latent within, he admits: "My work now is, after all, about translating a brief and producing an end product. I've been project-oriented all my life, which can be a downside as I always want to get a piece finished on time whereas younger designers might say `I'll wait until it's absolutely right'.

"It's about coming to terms with yourself - when you're younger, often you haven't. I was well-equipped in that I'm used to the fact that difficult things don't come right quickly. People I have talked to say they wish they could make the break. But if your kids haven't left home or you're paying the alimony it's very different."

If you are truly interested in what you're doing, your work can almost become a hobby, Bielby believes. Few would disagree even if many, for the time being at least, can only yearn.

qPeter Bielby will be exhibiting some of his work at the Contemporary Crafts Fair in Richmond-upon-Thames, May 23-25.

Tim Roupell was a commodities broker in the City until he saw which side his bread was buttered on. Rachelle Thackray meets a man who wouldn't spread his talents too thin

For a former commodities broker to go back into the City peddling sandwiches, humble pie might have seemed the most appropriate dessert.

But Tim Roupell, who left his job of 10 years at the height of the Eighties to set up a sandwich business from a tiny kitchen, and who is now the chief of Daily Bread, a 40-strong company turning over pounds 2 million, didn't ever feel that pursuing his ideal was a come-down.

"I'd worked for a sugar broker and ended up at a bookmaking firm; it took me an awful long time to work out that I didn't want to do it. But it was soul-destroying. The worry when you're in the City is that you really don't know how to do anything else. I didn't have money to invest so it had to be something that was low-cost that I also thought was a good idea: it was hard to buy good sandwiches back in 1986. So I left my job and got up very early to cook bacon and chicken sandwiches."

At first, things were so difficult that he was forced to pay his landlord sandwiches in lieu of rent. "I started off with a friend and for the first few months, did it all by hand. It was totally unstructured. I'd say `That looks like a big building, let's try there'. It was horrendous," recalls Roupell, now 43.

What sustained him was the satisfaction of being able to work towards a target and forge a direction of his own: "There was a sense of doing something worthwhile. It was a good, solid, decent way of making a living, making something with one's hands, but I had to keep my eyes on that future because the reality was unthinkable. I had to take the view that I had to put the hard work in somewhere. Generally, people in the offices were very nice, but there were one or two smug little bastards."

Starting off with - for the 1980s - innovative recipes including bacon and avocado, Roupell hawked his wares and built up a following. "I thought I'd make more money more quickly," he confesses. "But I liked the consistency: if someone bought one today, they would probably buy one tomorrow."

The recession was tough: "When all anybody would talk about was price: the word `quality' was never mentioned' - but after five years, Roupell moved his growing staff into new premises. It's been over the past two years that he's noticed the most growth; he has moved into the wholesale market to supply Harvey Nichols, London Zoo, the Seattle Coffee Company group and several other large organisations, and now turns out around 8,000 to 10,000 sandwich packs each day. Pretty good, considering he started out with just 50 a day.

He is also generous about his competitors: "Pret a Manger have done a great job in raising the market's expectations: people go back to their offices and say `Why can't we have sandwiches like that in here?'"

Like most other entrepreneurs, Roupell's success comes down to having a canny eye for a market and being prepared to gamble on his judgment. He advises others to get experience of their desired business before setting out.

But he has also succeeded through sheer determination to work for himself. Without that, he says, he'd have given up long ago. "Running a company isn't always a barrel of laughs, but I've had a very supportive wife.

"But these are good times for entrepreneurs. If anyone has any good ideas, I'd like to hear about them."

Down but not out

For Pat Donnell, 41, sacrificing a career in banking for an opportunity to fulfil a long-held dream to study design was made easier by wise investment of her "comfortable" salary and a supportive and understanding husband. That, and having no kids. "I never actively set out to work in financial services," she admits. "In fact the more successful I became, the more trapped and dissatisfied I felt." Now, mid-way through a graphic design degree, she hopes to work as a freelance graphic artist. "There's something appealing about being thrown onto your own creative resources," she says.

Financial security also helped John Martyn's decision to swap a pounds 220,000- a-year City job as finance director of pet food giant Dalgety to become unpaid treasurer of a drop-in centre for the homeless, the Gatehouse Project in Oxford, two years ago. And his reason for the move? "I fancied a change," he reportedly told colleagues.

It was conviction of another kind, however, that drove Jim O'Donnell, a senior executive at stockbrokers HSBC James Capel, to quit his pounds 1 million-a-year job to become a Catholic priest last November. The former American football player and Princeton scholar leaves the company this summer.

Here's the professional view: Careers counsellor Morag Peters believes many people end up dissatisfied in their work because they are ignoring the inner motivations that really count. Even so, she counsels: "You have to be really convinced not only that your current employment is wrong and that this is unacceptable but that your chosen alternative is, at the very least, viable for you to support yourself and get by."

There's no harm in giving a career change a serious go, so long as you are prepared to modify your dreams should they fail to take off in the way you expected them to. "View such a career move as a calculated gamble," she advises. "Research and understand the implications thoroughly and make sure you don't burn your bridges completely - just in case things don't go quite according to plan."

Meg Carter