Best known as the driving force behind the car that flew from London to Timbuktu, Neil Laughton rose through the ranks to entrepreneurship the hard way.
It's early evening on the top floor of City Hall. The sun may be setting over Hammersmith in the west, but it's bouncing off the steel and glass buildings in Canary Wharf straight back into the London Living Room. From the balcony of the Sir Norman Foster offset sphere that's Mayor Boris Johnson's office, the panoramas over the capital's skyline are the stuff of tourist brochures.
Neil Laughton is giving a speech to launch a CSR programme to enable disadvantaged teenagers from the inner cities to get a start in life. Project Rough Seas is his vision to inspire previously unnoticed talent to take a more rigorous path, gain skills and experience, and allow them to become responsible and useful members of society. The project involves selecting youngsters and training them for an epic ocean-going voyage that will propel them into new lives away from a downward spiral of street life and gang culture.
Laughton is one of the best men for the job. Quite apart from being a self-made entrepreneur, currently at the helm of a £40m turnover company, he's also developing his own business consultancy aimed at fostering skills within the SET sector, and enabling his participants to manage successful businesses based on their hard-won technical skills.
The keys to Laughton's success in the entrepreneurial world have been the lessons he has learned from the world of exploration and adventure, often running gruelling projects in the field. He lists his hobbies as bicycle-polo, tin-tray racing and helicopter piloting. He's also climbed the 'Seven Summits' – the highest mountains in each of the continents of the world, including Mount Everest – and he famously flew a road-legal car from London to Timbuktu. This was a feat of engineering innovation and logistical challenges that drew on every ounce of his explorer instincts.
But which comes first: is he an explorer or an entrepreneur? 'It's a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario,' he explains. 'I describe myself as both an entrepreneur and an adventurer. Sometimes I can use both words in the same breath and sometimes they are independent labels, depending on what project I'm focusing on.'
They are, he says, 'two different life journeys along different paths. I have a lot of entrepreneurial friends who wouldn't be seen dead on the side of a mountain, and likewise I have a lot of adventurous friends who couldn't survive the nine-to-five rules and regulations of a business life.' Laughton draws the conclusion that he has managed to merge the two into 'something that works for me'.
For most of us, though, they are worlds apart. Surely the key difference must be the level of risk involved? If you're leading a team of mountaineers up Mount Everest and something goes catastrophically wrong because of a flaw in your leadership, there is the real risk of people dying. In business, mistakes in the critical path of bringing a product to market don't seem to have such apocalyptic outcomes attached to them.
'There are far-reaching effects in both worlds. What's worse: dying in an avalanche on Everest or making a bad business 'decision and ruining your family? These are events of equal importance so far as I'm concerned, and so the risk is similar, albeit different.'
Whether or not these risks are in any sense equal, Laughton is comfortable with the decision making process that goes hand-in-hand with leadership on a knife-edge. 'I'm one person in one body that happens to have two careers.'
Take to the skies
In the world of engineering and technology, Laughton is best known as the leader of the Skycar expedition that famously flew from London to Timbuktu in 2009. Appropriately enough, it had its origins in a far off corner of the world.
'The concept started in May 2007. I was sitting in a tent on the side of a mountain near Mount Everest with a young self-taught engineer called Giles Cardozo. We were there with an adventuring friend, Bear Grylls, having successfully flown a motorised parachute to the height of Everest [8,850m].'
Cardozo is the inventor of the backpack-powered engine Grylls used in the record-breaking flight and was aware of what its future technical and commercial possibilities could be. 'We were having a cup of tea in the tent when Giles said to me that he thought he had the DNA for designing a flying car based on this technology.'
Laughton was immediately drawn to Cardozo's proposal. Knowing that for the past 50 years there had been several abortive attempts to design practical and affordable flying cars, Laughton was keen to be the first to convert these concepts into reality. He asked what the cost of a prototype would be and received the answer of 150,000. 'I gave him an order, and it went from there.'
Laughton freely admits that he's not an engineer, and if pushed is 'just about good for changing the spark plugs'. But at the core of his success lies the management skill of being able to put together the right technical people with his business flair. The meeting with Cardozo was crucial.
'Cardozo's job was to figure out how to design the car. Mine was to assemble a team of people that could put it through its paces on its maiden voyage. I wanted to do something adventurous, and I'd always wanted to cross the Sahara desert. I thought, there are also a couple of expanses of sea between London and Timbuktu. And so I decided to set that as our goal.' The first outing for the prototype Skycar was a journey of 10,000km, flying over eight countries. It wasn't going to be easy, as there were mountains of red tape too.
Knocking on the doors of success
The first third of Laughton's career was in the armed forces, where he was a Royal Marine commando, followed by service in the Special Forces. 'It wasn't until 1984, when I was 25 years old, that I decided I wanted a commercial career and to make some money. Having been in the military I was only really any good for parachuting in the middle of the night and blowing things up. Or doing 100 press-ups. That sort of thing.' Laughton accepts that, exciting though this may be, none of it provided useful preparation 'for the average nine-to-five job in business'.
He remembers at an embryonic phase on his road to entrepreneurship buying a copy of the Evening Standard and scanning the recruitment pages for advertisements for sales people. 'There was a company wanting freelance sales reps, and what attracted me to this was the two-week training course they were reportedly offering.' Laughton duly answered the advertisement, signed up, passed the course and got on with life as a sole-trading door-to-door office equipment sales person. He did this for four years 'reasonably successfully, earning good money'.
He quickly found out that it was not a nine-to-five world that he was entering. In fact it was more like seven-to-seven, getting to the top floor of an office building working his way down, knocking on doors 'going down the fire escape seeing if I could get people in purchasing to talk to me'.
For Laughton this was a 'pretty hardcore' selling and marketing experience, dealing with objections, passing hurdles, establishing relationships and trading histories. 'By the end I had 100 clients buying regularly and that was my entrepreneurial apprenticeship, if you like.' Was it anything like 'The Apprentice'? 'No,' says Laughton.
Although this may have been Laughton's commercial baptism of fire, it's rare for sales reps, no matter how good, to make it all the way to the top and become CEO of their own company with a turnover of more than £40m. So how did he keep ascending to the next rung of the corporate ladder? 'It was a pretty dull trajectory really. When you think about it, if you're selling business equipment, printing technology and the like, then there's a limit to the level of seniority of person you're dealing with.'
Stuck on an achievement plateau, he made 'the conscious decision to rise above that level. I wanted to do business with very senior people: chairman, managing director, finance director and so on. I needed to find an industry where I could talk to these people. That was commercial interiors, office design and equipment.'
The 'conscious decision' led Laughton into that sector, where he eventually worked for several big players in the field. But he admits he 'didn't get on very well with that'. Determined to succeed he took the plunge and decided to go it alone, with '£2,000 capital and a few computers'.
Given that Laughton 'made it up as I went along', there must have been some fairly nerve-racking moments? 'I took the precaution of taking a part-time university business studies degree, which ran concurrently with my venture. So I was getting a bit of insight into how to do all this by the rulebook as well as being out there on the frontline. It was a combination of experience, a slightly hairy environment, and roughly knowing what I was doing.'
Keeping charity in mind
Laughton thinks that his gruelling work ethic ('I won't go home until everything on my to-do list is done') and his persistence are characteristics that have been handed down to him from his military career. 'What you learn from the military is discipline, humility, humour and the never-ending pursuit of excellence.'
He's a self-confessed perfectionist, dedicated to getting things organised: 'I have to have things done and dusted otherwise I can't sleep. I work until the list is complete and the things that I have said that I will do have been done.'
But there is more involved in Laughton's 'to-do' list than simply running a business, and somewhere high up are the words 'corporate social responsibility'. He dedicates much of his time to supporting charities, and his latest venture in the field is in support of Project Rough Seas, an expedition Laughton is about to lead and one that is close to his heart.
'I haven't always been the shiny boy who's done well for himself. If I cast my mind back to when I was at school, I remember distinctly struggling with my academic challenges. At 17, I failed every mock exam that was put in front of me and as a consequence my confidence and self-esteem were affected quite badly.
'Academically I was a slow learner, and yet sports-wise I was fine. I was captain of the rugby first XV. But the academic struggle made me rebellious and I got into trouble, was caned and eventually I was expelled. For a short period of time things weren't looking terribly good.'
Being faced with the possibility of launching a career without any exams under his belt eventually provided Laughton with the focus he needed. 'I desperately wanted to join the Marines, but that required five 'O' levels.' Laughton wrote to the explorer Colonel John Blashford-Snell at the British Schools Exploring Society (BSES) enquiring as to whether he could join the training programme for disadvantaged kids from the inner cities.
Receiving no reply, Laughton wrote again and received a reply, largely because 'I think he must have thought I was serious and wasn't going to go away'. Eventually, Blashford-Snell invited Laughton to attend the training course as an assistant instructor rather than a participant, 'because I wasn't particularly disadvantaged'.
Laughton ended up helping to run the course and this became 'an emotionally and psychologically important time of my life. I realised that when it came down to it I was extremely lucky compared with some of these kids.'
From that moment on, Laughton decided that he would wherever possible 'try to give something back'.
Back to the future
As with many other high-profile adventurers, Laughton is often to be seen converting his experiences into motivational talks. For him, business and adventure are two sides of the same coin, and so it is inevitable that they become combined, and 'these two worlds are often seen as being linked inextricably'.
He comments on the increasing frequency with which expedition leaders turn to the world of business for sponsorship and finance, while the blue chips in particular turn to high profile adventurers for their inspiration and motivational speaking. 'The qualities you need to be a successful entrepreneur or adventurer can be similar. I would argue that hard work, determination and the ability to accept and take risks are three key parts to being successful in either genre.'
Laughton has taken his tales of high achievement before audiences of 2,000, sharing his passion for success with the likes of BT, Centrica, Halliburton, Nokia and even the England cricket team. But he also likes to coach aspiring leaders on a smaller group basis, and in order to do this he's setting up a business consultancy with the specific aim of nurturing leadership skills, 'pushing past conventional barriers and preparing individuals for success'.
It all seems a long way from the engineering challenges of the Skycar. 'It's all a challenge,' says Laughton. 'We have to share what we have learned from our success, and critically learn from failure, too. There were loads of times when the challenges look to be too daunting. But you confront them and get on with it.' *