Meet John: he shares how he turned his career around after an unexpected redundancy

Image credit: John Cowan

Image credit: John Cowan

When insurance company boss John Cowan received a letter on holiday telling him not to go back to work, it nearly broke his spirit. So how did this self-described “failed Marxist” who worked his way up from the Gorbals get his life and career back on track after the trauma of redundancy?

“Once you’ve got your confidence back you can do anything,” smiles John Cowan who, having just celebrated his 70th birthday has a wealth of experience – and experiences – under his belt. From attending two-million-strong demos in Paris with Jean Paul Sartre, to becoming chairman of several financial services companies, the current Sesame Bankhall Group CEO has led a fascinating life. Yet one incident that certainly doesn’t rank among his highlights was suddenly losing his job when he was in his fifties. “It took a few years to come back from that” he says. But bounce back he did.

Born in 1947, and raised in the then impoverished and violent Gorbals district of Glasgow, the future probably seemed mapped-out for the middle-child of three football-crazy boys, whose firefighter dad had been a professional football player, “before war broke out, and he went off to fight the Germans for six years”.

Living in a tenement block without central heating or hot water, and sharing a single toilet with 17 people on one landing, the former Catholic schoolboy’s upbringing was rough, but “really stimulating”, growing up alongside Italians, Poles, Lithuanians, and Jewish and Irish neighbours – “the ones who couldn’t get to America came to Glasgow”. In an area bustling with Italian cafes and Jewish shops, there was a tremendous sense of community, he recalls.

CHILD OF THE REVOLUTION

Although describing it as real “University of Life” stuff, he nevertheless got some A levels (“my dad was a mentor to me: he said, ‘We don’t have much money so you need to get educated, you need to get out of here’”), but failed to get into the University of Strathclyde. With no clear idea of what of what he wanted to do, Cowan headed for Paris in the spring of 1968 with a headful of Karl Marx. “I was 20-years-old and on the streets” he recalls of that heady era, when revolution was in the air and students and workers were striking. “It made sense to me. When you’re young, you’re impressionable. It was a very idealistic time.”

Fired up by the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War protests, and the conflicts in Northern Ireland, he plunged himself into the counterculture and fell in with some demo-going American draft-dodgers living on rue de Vaugirard. “That’s where my head was at,” he says, smiling at the thought of today’s young twentysomethings “getting BAs in Business Administration” as opposed to heading for Haight-Ashbury on the hippie trail.

Back in the UK, Cowan picked up some labouring jobs, including reassembling whisky barrels in the shipyards of the Clyde and working as a dustman in Coventry before finding a ‘proper job’: “It was December and it was utterly cold. A friend of mine had got a job in insurance and he said to me, ‘I think you need to get yourself sorted out.’” Cowan, who’d had some vague idea about becoming a history teacher, was at first dubious about becoming a “company man”, but eventually accepted the post with Scottish Amicable. Starting on the 6th January 1969, he stayed there for 30 years, throughout its sale to Prudential and working his way up to Group Sales Director. A move to London, marriage and kids followed, completing his transformation from revolutionary nomad to white collar family man.

SHOCK TREATMENT

And then in the summer of 2002 his world fell in. “No one, to this day, ever explained why it happened” he says. “I was on holiday, and I got a letter that said ‘Goodbye, we’ll send your stuff to you, if you want to come to the UK head office you’ll have to contact us to be let in.’  I didn’t even get to see my secretary.” The man who’d given his life to the company, whose staff considered him “The Guy” – but who’d always felt somewhat apart from his dinner party-throwing peers – was suddenly out. It was the first time anything like this had happened to him and he was completely stunned. “It affected me for years.”

He shakes his head with incomprehension: “I just wish somebody had sat me down and told me what the problem was; you know, ‘You’re too aligned with that brand, or you don’t agree with the strategy’ or whatever. But no one had the balls. They were all for themselves at that point. If the business had been in transition, that’s fine, but have a grown-up conversation. I was good with the staff, I’d speak at conferences, and was good at my job… so it was gut-wrenching on every level.”

And particularly at 50something: “There’s lots to face up to: loss of income, the feeling of ‘am I ever going to get another job’ – and the problem of what to say while networking, when somebody asks you what you do.” Plus the added embarrassment of bumping into younger people he used to work with who’d considered him an inspiration. And the all-too common sense of shame when your partner is suddenly doing much better than you are by default. “I was then in a relationship with a highly successful young woman – a world-champion athlete cyclist with a degree from Cambridge. So there was that dimension to it as well.”

Then of course there’s the awful realisation that half the people you thought were your friends have suddenly vanished. “I thought, ‘Why are these people not phoning me?’” he recalls, while praising the “one or two brave people” who did. “It’s like death I suppose. The feeling it might be infectious. I’m sure people didn’t mean it maliciously. I’m sure they just didn’t know how to react. It probably came as a shock to them too.” He still sees some of them today: “There are people I’ve been out to dinner with who have since gone onto other careers, but you almost want to go back and say, ‘You didn’t contact me.’ Like the guy I saw last night, who I recruited and helped grow. Someday I’ll say to him: ‘You never phoned me.’” (Pick up the phone, he urges today. “We don’t become redundant because we can’t do our jobs”.)

THE ROAD BACK

Following his redundancy, Cowan “went into hiding”. In addition to a “nice big, expensive apartment in Soho, down the road from Selfridges”, he also owned a country house in Kent, with horses and stables, and it was here he retreated to “and just did nothing”. Could he ask people to give him a job? He didn’t want to do that. He’d never asked anybody for a job before.

Image credit: Sesame Bankhall Group

Image credit: Sesame Bankhall Group

But then a guy who’d previously worked with him at Scottish Amicable got in touch. “He said, ‘I hear you’re shuffling around the house. I’m working on a small-scale business and I need a sales and marketing director.’ Cowan didn’t feel it was the right job for him at the time but offered to help find someone. “Within two years they’d sold the business and made £150m”. Cowan’s headhunting skills paid off: he was offered a non-executive director’s post on the board, on a £25,000 salary. “And I thought, ‘Well that’s a nice, smooth way of coming back into the world of contacting and networking!’”

Work attracts work: during those “wilderness years” he lent companies his skills and expertise and picked up a handful of non-exec positions. He currently holds two non-exec directorships and has a full-time job as Executive Chairman at Sesame Bankhall Group – a company he “absolutely loves with a passion”. Says Cowan on his recovery, “It’s about going out, getting out and talking to people and then it happens for you. You have to make your own luck.”

“I remember confiding to a friend that I didn’t know which direction to go in - at one point I was even thinking of starting a gallery full of Scottish art. This guy told me to look at my skills, my knowledge and my experience and see what direction it points to. Focus on what you can do because people will respect your knowledge and you will get back in.  That was a great piece of advice.”

ADVICE FOR BUSINESS

With more people in the UK over the age of 65 than under-18, he has some advice for the businesses considering getting rid of their older employees:

“If you do need to get rid of people, if the business was in transition for example, –agree to disagree but have a grown up conversation. But more than that, try not to judge someone on their age, only on their attitude to life and work. There are people 20 years younger than me who are tired – tired and boring. So for me it wouldn’t be about age if someone still had the fire and the desire to give something back. Remember the over-50s carry an enormous amount of skills and talents, and wisdom.”

 

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Caroline Bosher