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Article from the Edinburgh Evening News of Tuesday 26th July 2005 

The high earners who want to be learners

SARAH HOWDEN

 

Picture: CATE GILLON

SCROLL OF HONOUR: Martin McFadden of Willowbrae Coachworks, pictured, and John Wallbank of Copy Cat printers both feel that there's something missing from their lives - an academic qualification.

FROM his luxury detached home in Blackhall, Martin McFadden appears the epitome of success.

His world is full of fast and expensive cars, his lifestyle includes designer clothes shopping and, when he socialises, it's at the top Edinburgh nightspots.

Yet there is something he doesn't have - that little scroll of paper collected when a four-year long university course is completed.

And although many say that degrees these days are handed out as freely as jellybeans to children, 40-year-old Martin feels, despite all his financial success, that there's something missing because he never went to university.

He's not alone with such a regret. Former Celtic manager Martin O'Neill bemoaned the fact that he left his law degree studies at Belfast University to pursue a football career - despite the level of success he reached in the game as a player and manager. Thirty-four years later, he finally got to wear a graduation gown and collect his honorary doctorate for services to sport from Queen's University Belfast on July 6.

And comic Billy Connolly has also constantly trumpeted about the doctor of letters degree he was awarded by Glasgow University four years ago in recognition of his contribution to Scottish arts and popular culture, as academia was certainly never a route open to him in his youth.

It seems to those of a certain generation that university degrees are still something worthwhile to attain - and it doesn't matter what success they've achieved in their careers, they still want those little letters after their name.

"I definitely feel that I want to be able to say I got a degree," says Martin McFadden. He left school at 16 to begin work as an apprentice panel beater, but despite all his success he still hankers after a framed piece of paper to hang on his wall.

"I wasn't interested in going to college when I was young," he says. "I wanted to be in the motor industry and knew I had to get on-the-job training - further education wouldn't really have given me any advantage."

Martin was ambitious and by 20 he was helping to run a coachworks firm. Two years later he left to start his own business. Now, 18 years on, Willowbrae Coachworks is one of the most successful and renowned independent coachworks companies in the Capital, turning over around £500,000 per year.

"I knew I could build my own company and be successful as I'd been effectively running another company. So I thought why stay working for someone else?" he says. From modest premises, only two staff and just eight cars to work on back in 1987, Martin now runs an expansive company with state-of-the-art machinery, equipment and techniques, employing 14 staff and dealing with more than 40 cars a week.

Willowbrae Coachworks is now a "top level" repairs company with regular trade business from Renault, Hyundai and Mercedes, with confirmation pending for another prestigious car manufacturer's trade.

"In this industry, a degree isn't relevant. It's about skill, experience and reputation. I'm proud of what I've achieved without going to college, but I've had to learn and it's been a struggle through the years.

"However, I do regret not studying something like business management as it would have been a big help and made the years of hard work that little bit easier."

He adds: "I've had to work hard since I was very young to achieve all I have, but I don't think I've missed out on too much from the social side of student life."

But now, Martin, who lives with his partner Connie and teenage son Danny, is seriously thinking about further education. "I'm thinking about a course in business studies - but with still working six days a week, it will be sometime in the future."

Stewart Leslie is another who wants to be able to say he graduated. Yet the 52-year-old former finance director for Inveresk Research has an enviable lifestyle. He has four luxury properties in the Capital - including his detached house in Morningside - a holiday retreat in Kenmore, drives a Ferrari and Audi and has three elite golf memberships.

IT'S evident the divorced father of three grown-up children need never work again. But Stewart, who earned a salary in excess of six figures until leaving his job last year, admits he's had to work extremely hard for his possessions after he dropped out of university.

"I studied pure maths in 1971 for one year at Edinburgh University. I didn't pass enough exams so I wasn't allowed to move on to second year. I took a year out and decided I was interested in accountancy."

So Stewart went to Napier to study for a Scottish National Higher Diploma in accountancy which would then permit him to complete a degree for a professional qualification.

But when a job as an accounts clerk was offered to him in 1976, he chose work over education.

He says: "I had different priorities - I could have furthered my education but I never bothered. Even when I was employed I prioritised work ahead of qualifications.

That's was what he thought until he went for promotion. "I was passed over twice and told it was because I didn't have a qualification," he explains. "I eventually did get the promotion through sheer hard work and I think I did the job better than they did."

After working with Croda Paints, Stewart was then employed by an electronic component distributors in Kirkcaldy as finance controller. Then, in 1985, he moved to Inveresk Research as deputy finance director.

"I was quite lucky there as the finance director wasn't qualified either so he gave me a chance," recalls Stewart.

"He was an exceptional management accountant, I was a better finance accountant and we became a good team. He taught me to become good at both and eventually I became finance director in 1989."

BUT Stewart does admit he's lacking in formal learning experience. "I have missed out in the studying area, but now I can go back."

His choice of course is computing and Stewart is looking forward to donning the mortar board and getting that degree.

"Going back to study now will be about doing something I enjoy. Professionally, I've achieved everything I wanted. I'm not exactly actively seeking employment."

John Wallbank from Marchmont is another business success looking to return to academia. Like Stewart he began further education - a computing degree at Napier in 1994 - but dropped out after a year. A friend then offered him a job managing an up-and-coming American band, Zero Icon, and he readily accepted.

"Any 21-year-old would jump at the chance," he laughs. "It was too good an opportunity to miss. I was unhappy at university and this was the final nail in the coffin. Being a band manager seemed much more glamorous."

The glamorous lifestyle lasted just one year before the band broke up, and John returned home. "I didn't really know what I was going to do, but I always liked the idea of being self-employed. My father had a printing company and having worked on the shop side of things I knew it was profitable. So when I came back I thought 'let's go for it'."

Not that it was easy. He was initially refused bank funding for the development of forged bank note detectors because he didn't have "further education and qualifications".

So he borrowed £15,000 from a family friend and opened his first shop.

"I started alone in a tiny shop doing binding, photocopying, lamination and a range of stationery. But as I was near Napier University that made Copy Cat instantly successful."

His company expanded quickly, and now the business boats around 400 business contracts, from the Scottish Parliament to Live 8, as well as many bars, restaurants and clubs. Turnover is equally impressive at just under £1 million per year. Despite John's success, the 33-year-old wishes he'd got that degree certificate and had changed from computing to business.

"On one hand I'm proud of what I've achieved without a degree, but I would have had a much sounder base with one.

"You tend to walk very tentatively when you don't really know things and that can have some serious ramifications if you unwittingly print something libellous."

Now John says he is planning on returning to university.

"Without a qualification there's a void, and I'd like to fill it."

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