When I moved from a large corporate environment to working for myself, everyone said ‘network’. But I was sceptical and have only just started to get involved in networking events. My first event was Gone Fishing 4 Business in Derby which Chris Towe organises. I am still going. Some of the people I am interviewing for this series also attend Gone Fishing 4 Business, but I want to kick off with Chris.
Chris’s career progression has taken him from meat to ‘meet’. Sorry. Despite passing his 11+, Chris intensely disliked school. His masters were bullies and he left at 16 with few qualifications. Nonetheless, he started work the following Monday as a junior Clerk for a meat wholesaler. As you will see Chris is an achiever.
Within three years he was promoted to Chief Clerk of a department of 13 people, all of whom were older than his tender 19 years. The promotions continued and saw Chris taking up the role of Regional Internal Auditor. He was now responsible for identifying ‘fiddles’ and had the power to sack anyone he caught stealing. His patch covered 20 branches from Stoke-on-Trent to Cardiff. He also supported the opening of new branches.
After setting up a branch in Hereford he popped in for a cuppa and picked up the ledger of customer accounts. He quickly spotted a case of ‘Teeming and Laiding’ – a type of Ponzi scheme – to the tune of £3,000 (in 1967, which is just over £38,000 in today’s money.
As Chris tackled more corruption his confidence grew:
“When you have done something like that there is nothing you can’t do”
But further promotions led to more long distance trips and time away from home. After ‘sorting out’ the Coventry branch, Chris was keen to move on but was unable to do so. As a result, his job satisfaction was lower than normal, so when a competitor looking for
“Bright young things like you”
offered Chris a job he accepted. This brought Chris firmly home to his beloved Staffordshire and gave him the opportunity to apply his learning and skills in the wholesale meat trade to retail shops and a bakery. Chris has a strong customer focus and helped the bakery move from making the same products day-in-day-out to being more responsive to customer needs. But he wasn’t happy with his new employer; in Chris’s own words they were “a bit ruthless”. So he looked at other business opportunities.
He asked a couple of his bakers to join him in setting up a bakery in Hanley – this was a precursor to shops such as Greggs. On their first day (18 December 1972, Chris’s ability to remember key dates is impressive) they sold out by lunchtime. It was a roaring success, but the extremely early mornings proved too much and Chris bowed out of the business after 18 months. Sadly, without Chris’s business acumen, the bakery lost its way and closed three months later.
For the first time in his life Chris was unemployed but he planned to be front of the queue at Employment Agencies. And in a ‘meant to be moment’ was sent to an interview within ten minutes of arriving at the first agency he visited and had found by accident.
The interview, in a converted townhouse, led to Chris’s long association with an electronics firm; initially as its commercial manager. As the recession of the eighties bit hard, the company changed ownership and Chris became its Managing Director. But politics and greed saw the owners move the operation to the North-East. Despite being asked to move, Chris resigned, partly out of loyalty to his staff to whom he had promised the business would stay in Walsall.
Neville, Neville, who on earth is Neville? Shortly after moving into the shop, the Towes were visited by a slight, older gentleman with a flat cap. He asked if he could do ‘odd jobs to pay for my smokes’, he stayed to rebuild the family accommodation and will play another key role in Chris’s story.
Shortly after that life-changing decision Chris made another. He and his wife used their savings and the money from selling their family home to buy a newsagent and general store. The place was filthy, understocked and in a bad state of repair. With the help of a local man called Neville, the husband and wife team rebuilt the property (which was also their home) and trebled turnover in 20 months. They sold the property and business at that point. Having caught the ‘spinning’ bug, the Towes bought another house and refurbished that too. A short stint investing in the money markets increased their savings and they were set to retire.
Mrs Towe had long wanted to return to the village of Acton Trussell and found a derelict property on the edge of the village. Chris was not really interested but when the owners accepted a ridiculous offer he agreed to rebuild it. Chris and Neville restored the property to its former glory and the Towes settled down, with Chris joining the Parish Council by invitation. Sadly the marriage ended and Chris returned to Walsall, where he rented a flat, having to borrow the deposit as he had barely two pennies to rub together.
As you will expect, Chris did not sit still. He quickly found a temporary job at the Chamber of Commerce. As part of a larger team, he was tasked with finding 40 local businesses who would like to be given free software (Microsoft Windows and associated software), within two days he had increased the list of interested companies by 600%. The rest of the team couldn’t keep up with him and Chris was laid off. However, the Project Manager had a change of heart and asked Chris to return the following Monday. Chris soon went on to manage the project.
In 2002 Chris moved to Cannock to be part of the Southern Staffordshire Chamber of Commerce. Within a year, he applied for the position of Director of the Burton & District Chamber of Commerce and he gladly accepted the role when it was offered to him. His subsequent success in Burton was noted and Chris was asked to add the Tamworth and Lichfield Chambers to his brief.
“Business is all about people. You can have the finest equipment, the nicest building, but you will only succeed if your people want it to happen.”
Chris asked himself, what would he want from the Chamber if he were a member and the answer was a business community. He met this need by organising Network events. He set up the Burton Chamber Networking Club; with no pressure for referrals. Despite only using flyers and posted invitations, over 60 people turned up for the first meeting at the Branston Golf and Country club. Pleased with the mutual help and support enjoyed by Burton businesses, he went on to found similar clubs in Tamworth and Uttoxeter and Swadlincote. Chris also introduced a monthly ‘Pure Networking’ event where no-one could sit down to encourage people to talk to each other. It worked and at one event he had 218 attendees. He also introduced social events; even hosting a debate on Europe at the Queens Hospital, with a cross-party panel that included Andrew Bridgen, who was later to become a Conservative MP.
While Chris was making a success of the Burton & District Chamber of Commerce, national Chamber membership was in decline and almost halved during the period that saw the membership of Burton & District (South Staffordshire) increase by over 60%.
Chris was the only person surprised when he won East Staffordshire Business Personality of the Year in 2006 – he didn’t know he had been nominated.
Seeking the value of winning the Award, Chris used his newfound fame to write a column in the Burton Mail. For five months he used a diary format to talk about local businesses.
But why only five months? Chris has always had an interest in politics and became a councillor in 2003. His political career started in 2000 when he moved back to Walsall and decided to deliver leaflets for the Conservative Party.
Chris is honoured to be a Councillor and his mum was very proud of him. After being successfully re-elected in 2004, 2008, 2010 and 2014, Chris will face the ballot again in 2018. If successful he is likely to become mayor. Walsall is a unitary authority, responsible for everything in Walsall except the M6; becoming its first citizen and the representative of Her Majesty The Queen in the borough of his birth would fulfil Chris’s ambition to serve his community.
The Party Candidate spotted Chris’s dedication and talent, suggested Chris stand for a seat on Walsall Council and made the nomination the next day. Chris took his place on the ballot for Pheasy Park Farm. In his first attempt, he lost by 97 votes. But was immediately reselected. In 2003 he ousted the predicted future Labour leader of the council by a mere 37 votes (originally 34 but his opponent requested a recount). By a strange quirk of timing, Chris had to stand for re-election in 2004, as there was an ‘all out’ Election following boundary changes. Serving his electorate won Chris’s heart and he resigned from the Chamber in 2007.
After leaving the Chamber, a firm of solicitors in Derby (Bradley and Jeffries) asked Chris to help develop their business. He suggested that they sponsor a business network and Gone Fishing 4 Business was born. He held the first meeting at Branston Golf & Country Club in Burton on 7 January 2008.
Today, Chris brings together business people in Derby (since February 2008) and Walsall (since April 2009) every two weeks. I decided to interview Chris when he told me:
“You know I travel 38 miles to come to Derby and I never get up and ask myself why I am doing it.”
He continues to lead Gone Fishing as he enjoys the people who are part of it and knows networking delivers a benefit that is different for each person:
“We help people with their business and to find friends and associates.”
By way of testimonial one Walsall member told Chris:
Without Gone Fishing 4 Business, I wouldn’t be here today. It was my prop and got me going. I left here every Friday inspired.
In his spare time, Chris sings and plays guitar in his group Sounds Familiar. He also re-launched a folk club in April 2015, which he had originally opened in October 1964.
My overwhelming impression of Chris is one of a business pioneer with strong ethics and whose core strength comes from his desire to look after others.
Featured image by William Bout