Neil Laughton speaks of his successful military career, to thriving business, to a series of extraordinary physical challenges.
Neil Laughton’s geography teacher once concluded that he was “trying very hard but achieving very little.” For the rest of his life, he has continued to try very hard, but has achieved an awful lot - from a successful military career, to a thriving business, to a series of extraordinary physical challenges. He even survived an encounter with the Yorkshire Ripper.
He admits that Mr Robertson, the geography teacher, may have had a point at the time. “I wasn’t particularly academic.” The toughest pill was that geography had been his best subject. Nevertheless, he enjoyed sport, got through school and emerged with a clear sense of what he wanted to do – and what he didn’t.
The services were an obvious choice. His father had been a naval commander and sea captain, once collecting him and his friends from school in a Wessex 5 helicopter. He believes it was in his DNA from the start: “I was blown away, not by the Navy, but by the experience of watching Royal Marine Commanders. I knew what I wanted to be.”
He surprised Mr Robertson by passing the necessary exams and getting one of 20 young officer slots. There had been 5,000 candidates. Screening did not rely on academics, but on qualities such as cheerfulness, initiative, courage, honesty and integrity. He went on to do the commander course, becoming a Green Beret.
Everything looked rosy. He loved his work, loved the Marines and the future seemed bright. But then his life took a difficult turn. His father was diagnosed with cancer and rapidly deteriorated, dying when Neil was just 20. “I was devastated and my performance dropped. I withdrew from the Marines, struggling with grief.”
It took time for him to get back on track, but it was the forces that ultimately helped him get over his father’s death. He joined the special forces and spent 12 years serving Queen and Country: “I got to work in an exciting environment with great people. I have no regrets.”
During his military career, Neil spent 70 days a year working in business. These spells of employment taught him a vital lesson: he didn’t want to be employed. The chairman of the first company he worked for turned out to be a fraud and killed himself when the company went down. The management team of the second company he worked for frittered away the company assets on fast cars. The third venture ran into financial problems and he was made redundant.
Building a business
After these initial experiences of commerce, he started to think he could do a better job of running a company. “I started a company focused on construction and commercial interiors. It project managed commercial relocations and fit-outs.” He founded it in 1994. By 2010, it had £40 million turnover and was winning large-scale projects from blue-chip companies. The crowning glory was winning a project from British Airports Authority to fit-out Heathrow Airport, the country’s second largest commercial ‘fit out’ at the time.
It was around this time the company also won a contract at psychiatric hospital Broadmoor. Walking down the inner sanctum with a clipboard and a tape measure in his hand, an inmate rammed him into a wall. It turns out this was the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe.
His military career had taught him to turn adversity to his advantage and this proved a useful skill in business. He was hit with a £250,000 bad debt when a client company went bust. This turned out to be a defining moment. “We had been in a comfort zone.
I knew that if we were going to absorb this bad debt, we had to raise our game. We raised our aspirations and just five weeks later, we bid for Rolls-Royce’s Goodwood Headquarters.”
There’s a third string to Neil’s bow: adventures. These range from the wacky – crossing the Solent in a bath - to the downright terrifying – a sky car from London to Timbuktu: “I love travel, sport and adventures. It was a good contrast to the stress and sedentary life of being a business owner. It was variety, excitement.” It was also, he found, a useful way to win business. Customers tended to remember him.
He has had his fair share of scrapes. In 1996, on his first attempt to climb Everest, he faced the worst storm in 100 years. He had 48 hours in the so-called ‘death zone’. Eight people lost their lives on the mountain at the same time.
While he was parachuting in the Alps, the parachute collapsed and he fell 100 feet – fortunately onto the sloping tiled roof of a French farmhouse. He bounced off the roof and landed inches from a metal spike. The French family were, understandably, open-mouthed, but ultimately helped him to safety.
However, while this may suggest a risk taker, he doesn’t see himself that way. He thinks about risk carefully with each trip and puts a huge amount into planning and preparation. “50-60% commitment is when accidents happen,” he says. The stand-out adventure for him was crossing the Sahara on his sky car.
From here, he says, he has lots of little aspirational goals across his business, family and personal life. “I’ve reached an age – I’m approaching my sixties – where I’ve ticked most of the boxes. I’m not retiring, but I find myself with the time and bandwidth to explore smaller and more interesting experiences and challenges. Recently I took a penny farthing bicycle across the South Downs. No-one is likely to repeat that!”