Goodbye suit, hello dreams

Rob Whiting was something in the City until he decided to chuck it in and become a dispatch rider. Emma Cook finds out why he and others like him give up their lucrative careers
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In old photos Rob Whiting, 31, looks like the perfect City gent: respectable, part of the establishment, keen to carve out a good living and maintain the status quo. His father also worked in the City and was naturally delighted when Rob followed suit. But it wasn't to last long - he ditched his job in financial services after 12 months. Now a dispatch rider, discarding his navy suit for leathers and a crash helmet, he couldn't wait to leave. "I just looked out of the window one day and thought, `I've had enough'. You only get your time once. I was just advising clients where to shove their money. I got thoroughly bored of it and I didn't like being trapped in the office."

Although he made friends in the City, it's clear he felt a world apart from many of his colleagues. "It was all a bit sad," he muses. "Fun for most of those boys was spending money when they had the chance. I just felt I was going through the motions. A lot of people need a structure to their lives but I find that very claustrophobic."

His current job couldn't be more different. Enjoying a pint in his local, dressed casually in an old denim jacket, it's hard to imagine him "stressed up" in a City office. He is affable and laid back about his career choices. "Being able to predict my future scares me terribly. I like being able to change my mind. Also I hate the politics of an office and the deceit. It stresses me out and I haven't got the patience." When he saw an ad for his new job, he jumped at the chance. "I'd always wanted to ride a bike and this company said, `We'll pay for your test if you work for us', so I did."

He admits that much of the work is "very smelly, dirty and tiring" but still it's preferable to a suit and the predictable nine-to-five trap. "I like dealing with something that's easy and straightforward. I don't have to deal with a client or anybody. There's no, `Why didn't you do it this way or that way?'" Taking a drop in pay is, for Rob, a minor drawback. "I have to watch my money, yes - it can be quite frustrating. I used to earn up to pounds 1,000 a week - now I'm on less than half that." The advantage is that he can pick and choose his hours and concentrate on his social life. "Perhaps I take off more days than I ought to. I just like getting out there and meeting people - I like to make time for my friends."

It's easy enough to live like a free spirit when you're young and single but Rob is rapidly realising that as time goes on commitments are harder to avoid. With his wedding next Saturday, he has finally accepted the inevitability of a more structured job - and life. "I've got big plans," he says. "I'm doing a plumbing course. I want to get into Agas and kitchens - selling stock on at a profit."

His fiancee, Sam Protheroe, is clearly relieved that Rob has found some direction with their impending marriage. "Initially I was a bit concerned," says Sam, 29, who works as a PA for a top City head-hunting firm. "I was the main breadwinner and it put some pressure on us because of the male pride thing." Now, though, she feels Rob made the right decision. "I did have to pin him down earlier on," she says. "But now I'm totally relaxed with the situation. It made life a little more difficult but he's happier, which is important. At first I thought he left because he's lazy but now I admire him for it - he's quite moralistic."

Talk to Rob and it's clear there is still some residual anxiety about his career - or lack of it. "She forever worries that I don't have any money," he says. "She always asks how we are going to afford this or that, and I have to think of a good story," he laughs.

The drop in status is also something that both of them have been aware of - despite Rob's apparent indifference to lofty job titles. "I'd be lying if I say it doesn't sometimes embarrass me at parties. I certainly don't start a conversation with, `What do you do?'" Sam, though, has overcome any fears of social inadequacy. She says brightly: "I'm not fussed about that. Sometimes I'll say my partner's a dispatch rider and the conversation just stops dead. It's quite amusing. I just think, `If you're not interested in his job then that's your problem, it's certainly not mine'." Rob agrees, naturally. "I'm not really worried about being judged, definitely not. If someone did I'd turn round and say, `If you don't think much of plumbers - fine. I don't think much of you'"n

I don't want to retire young and play golf

Graeme Love, 35, worked as a corporate finance manager before founding The Indian Ocean Trading Company seven years ago with his business partner James Hobbs. Their business imports teak garden furniture - they have shops in Balham, south London, and Chester.

I worked in corporate finance for five years and by that stage I wanted to leave the City altogether. It had become boring. One deal began to look much like the next one. It didn't matter whether it was one million or one billion, there was still the same amount of drudgery involved. I felt it was time for a change.

A friend and I had been planning a business of our own - I'd already decided to go travelling around Madagascar - after six weeks we spotted these extra-large wooden-and-canvas umbrellas. We hadn't seen anything like that in Britain, so we decided to start importing them. That's how it began. Then we added different types of umbrellas and tables. Now we have two shops and a warehouse in Southampton.

I prefer being my own boss and I've got more security. In the City, you're subject to the whims of banks eating smaller banks and you can easily end up with no job. This work is also more creative. I'm learning about production, marketing and design. Also, I'd have aimed to leave the City by the time I was 40 and there wouldn't have been hell of a lot for me to do after that. I don't want to retire young and play golf every day. With this business there's always something to occupy me intellectually and there always will be - even when I'm 70.

Rose, 34, used to work in investment management in the City. She is now a trained physiotherapist.

I was in investment management for about six years but decided that I wanted to be able to work part-time if I had children. I left and went to physio school for three years - when I finished I worked in the NHS. Now I'm pregnant with my second baby but I will go back to it - the point is I've got the choice when.

I decided on physiotherapy because my mother is a GP and I'm medically oriented - I did physics and chemistry for A-level. I don't regret leaving the City - physio is satisfying but in a different way. You feel like you've done something worthwhile for people. It's definitely rewarding in terms of feeling you've made some sort of contribution. I specialised in outpatients; working with people who had had strokes or had MS. You know you've made a fundamental difference when you see how they respond. It's a real challenge and the people are more interesting - more importantly, I've got the flexibility and I really did it for that reason.

John Boden, 36, is managing director of Boden Mail Order Company.

I started off in corporate finance and then became a stockbroker. I didn't really enjoy it because I felt the product was so intangible. I felt I wasn't terribly good at it. People understood the market more than I did. It meant nothing to me. Also I fancied doing something a little more creative. I left over five years ago to set up a mail order company - I'd seen it work in the States and thought it could succeed over here. I enjoy it so much more because I can identify with the product - women's fashion - and control it a lot better. I do miss the money. The City is very well paid and it can be quite stressful seeing what your friends earn and knowing you can't do what you want to. It's also demanding - I compare it to having five firms of builders working in your home at once. You have to manage lots of different things. But the pay-off is that it's more fun. You control your own destiny and that gives you a sense of freedom. Because it's your own business, it's naturally more fulfilling.