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Three careers and a brush with death – but still a driven man

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: October 29, 2011

Charles Howeson in the grounds of his Plymouth home, with his beloved model railway

Charles Howeson in the grounds of his Plymouth home, with his beloved model railway

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He has been described as an eccentric, a canny businessman and a passionate philanthropist. Here, well-known Westcountry self-made millionaire Charles Howeson tells Ryan Hooper what motivates him to continue his unrelenting work schedule despite a brush with death which offered a changed perspective on the dual lives of work and play.

Cast your mind back to your childhood days, where folly and a devilish desire for unruly behaviour manifested themselves once a year, coming to the surface for April Fool's Day.

Up and down the country, school playgrounds were filled with talk of mischievous pranks on teachers, shaving foam sprayed over car windscreens, cling film fastened deceptively over toilet seats.

As the years piled on and time eroded the willingness for recalcitrance, some were still exercising the need for a practical joke. Charles Howeson, who at the age of 25 and having achieved such seniority in the Royal Navy that he was left in command of a ship, is one of those people.

Now, even at the age of 61 and having embarked on a successful stint in the armed forces as well as careers in the three sectors of public, private and voluntary, the Westcountry-based businessman's military misdemeanour of having the temerity to reverse the grand HMS Walkerton up the Plymouth breakwater on April 1, 1977, in full view of his unwitting Admiral, remains among the stories for which Mr Howeson is best known.

"I was possibly perceived as being a bit of a character," the self-styled "adopted Plymothian" laughs, from one of the sitting rooms in his stunning barn conversion overlooking a beautiful section of the city's Forder valley.

Despite a few totems of personal success which are dotted throughout the Howeson homestead – the lavish Naval memorabilia, the trendy interior and the outdoor swimming pool which is kept at a constant temperature of 100F, for example – the man of the house is unwaveringly down to earth.

His articulate, flowing sentences are peppered with the sort of modern parlance likely inherited from his three children, aged 19 to 29, while his working day attire – seldom over-scrupulous in its arrangement – comprises brightly coloured shorts and a T-shirt or polo-neck. Flip-flops are an optional extra.

Later, he stands in the nucleus of his empire reciting responses to the glut of emails from inquisitors representing his myriad of personal and business interests which his two secretaries receive on an hourly basis. At a moment's notice he can be relaxing in the garden, pottering about in his shed or joining Emma, his wife, for a cup of tea. His genuine and friendly demeanour coupled with a relaxed attitude betray an unrelenting business brain.

As the non-executive director of more than 20 companies, his list of appointments includes chairmanship of the NHS South West, of the Consumer Council for Water, and of the regional arm of Coutts and Co bankers. The act of printing off a copy of his CV onto the thinnest paper would likely be enough to send even the most stoical of Forestry Commission members into meltdown, such is the quantity of tree required to adequately document the man's achievements.

Having built up a reputation as a successful chairman after leaving the Navy following nearly 25 years' service, Captain Howeson soon found himself at the helm of one of the country's most despised organisations – First Great Western.

"Hardly a day went past without a castigating newspaper article – 'Worst, Late Western', we were told we couldn't run a pee-up in a brewery, and all that sort of thing," he recalls.

"When I took it on I didn't know whether I would succeed but I thought I'd give it my best shot. Back then it involved much more apologising for things than anything else."

At the time the company was canceling almost as many trains as it was running.

But with a new team and a new outlook of putting customers first, from the worst of times sprang the best of times.

"Staff now walk tall, you will see them cheerful, customer-facing, professional, knowing their jobs and enjoying working for the company," he says.

"In 2007 most of them were not enjoying their experience. They were finding it difficult to be apologetic – how can you be employed and ashamed at the same time?"

The fact Mr Howeson can recall, without hesitation, the rail franchise's performance figures hints at a military background which has heightened his ability to process and dispense watertight information.

"Could I name every position I hold in a company or charity at the moment? Of course I could," he responds, confidently, and perhaps half-expecting a challenge to do so.

He ups the ante.

"I could name all my co-directors, the turnovers, the highlights, low lights and most of the leading staff. In the Navy you are trained to remember things."

Raised in Mevagissey near Clay Country in mid-Cornwall, a young Charles joined the Royal Navy in 1967. It was after service that he embarked on careers in business.

But he admits his appointment to FGW, and subsequent positions at other nationally-renowned organisations, risked wiping his reputation as a successful chairman.

"I know what I'd like to think my reputation was – here's a man who's made some money in the private sector (as a property developer) but who's divided his life into three bits – the private sector which he pursues ethically, the public and not-for-profit sector which is about making a contribution to community agenda, and the third bit is working in the voluntary sector and charities.

"If people had looked at my reputation they might have thought I was quite schizophrenic – i.e. this bit, that bit and another bit."

Commentators might add "eccentric" to the list. For, tucked away towards a sheltered spot in the back garden of the Howeson home lies "Second Great Western" – the proprietor's labour of love and sanctuary, which negates stresses of an 18-hour working day. To the casual observer, it's a train set.

But the master of the controls makes no secret of the joyful hours spent with his G-gauge models on the more than 400ft of laid track.

"I suppose people think I'm a bit silly with my trains, but the truth is that I absolutely love being out here," he says, eyes flitting methodically between the track, a German-imported train and the remote device clasped firmly in his hands.

The passion for engines was something inherited, albeit somewhat belatedly, from his father – the creator of the renowned Mevagissey model railway.

"My younger brother was quite into it, I wasn't because I was quite keen on ships and was learning to be a fisherman, so quite late in the day my own railway got built.

"But it was built because my youngest daughter, Tavoya, who was then nine, suddenly saw the Hamleys catalogue. It kept arriving on my bed with the page bent back a bit.

"I looked at it and there was a tiny engine on a small piece of track, beautifully engineered by the Germans as they do, and I finally said: 'Look, a lot of this is very expensive for a nine-year-old,' but we said we'd do it. Within about six months the thing was too complicated for the children to go near."

It is clear, having spent just a few hours in his company, how much the honorary Royal Naval captain has found the need to strike a balance between work and play. That need was made all the more acute in 2004 when a serious illness saw the NHS chief call upon the skills of his staff.

"I have been in what you would know as intensive care," he says, recalling the moment he was admitted to hospital with a pulmonary embolism from a potentially fatal deep vein thrombosis. A frightening episode for a man who, for the first time in his life, faced the prospect of his own mortality.

"You do worry about these things, like every other member of the population," he says.

"When you go into intensive care you can only roll your eyes to Heaven and pray and hope the NHS get it right – you hope some other bean keeps an eye on you.

"In my case, I've probably changed (since leaving intensive care). In some ways I am more impatient of incompetence and 'flannel', I am much more tolerant of debate and everyone having a chance to speak."

His inside experience as a customer also offered a valuable insight into the NHS at the point of delivery.

"An organisation, like the NHS, can always get better. We have to offer, 24/7, something that works for a vast number of people well enough, if possible it is always excellent, but it should never be less than satisfactory."

This, as much as any, is a mantra evident across the entire Howeson portfolio – although his success in business and attention to detail has not always made him popular, for reasons he is reluctant to divulge.

"I have got lots and lots of friends in Plymouth. But I know there are one or two people who do not have me on their Christmas card list.

"In most cases I probably know why, because we've crossed each other professionally at some stage. But I never bear a grudge and I'm always ready to move on.

"I was once told by an old friend in Plymouth, who used to say: 'If you want revenge, dig two graves, Charles'.

"Revenge is a waste of passion and energy, I'd much rather move on."

And so to his latest baby – the Plymouth Drake Foundation. Mr Howeson established the "charity of charities" designed to support individuals and groups in a city of rising unemployment through grants. The jewel in the foundation's crown is a £10 annual trust membership for 10,000 Plymothians, which will raise vital funds and offer members a dedicated telephone service to pinpoint areas most in need of the cash.

"Unemployment is going up in this city and it ain't stopping any time soon, so what are we going to do about whole families not having a wage-earner?" he adds.

"I have to have my feet on the ground economically, because challenges are coming. You have to strive to do more – but we are all involved. To come out of adversity, we must act together. We will."

Once more, perhaps without the pressure of FGW and devoid of the tomfoolery of the HMS Walkerton, Mr Howeson has set about turning a colossus around.

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  • 2ladybugs  |  October 29 2011, 12:35PM

    What a really excellent report. Full of interest.

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