Chris Heaton
For many people after a career spanning more than 35 years, retirement may be a time to ease back and enjoy a more relaxing pace of life. Not so for Chris Heaton who is stepping straight into one of the greatest challenges on Earth which will see him tackle a gruelling 1,200 mile run across the Gobi Desert in 42 days starting on July 16th 2018.  We catch up with Chris to find out more about his career and this remarkable feat of endurance.


How did your career get started Chris?

“At school I wasn’t particularly brilliant at anything but was good across the board so I chose to study the subjects I enjoyed most. And that’s advice I have always given to people ever since. Choose what you enjoy the most, because unless you’re going to be a nuclear physicist, employers buy brains and not necessarily what you studied at university.

In my case I studied French and German at Durham University and then joined the family engineering business based in Liversedge. The company was founded in 1809 and I became the 5th generation family member.”


What was the catalyst to becoming a Chartered Accountant?

“The engineering sector we were involved with was narrow and there was limited progression in the family business at the time. I was attracted to a professional qualification and a wider business expertise that I hadn’t been exposed to so far in my career.”


After you qualified why didn’t you move into industry like many of your contemporaries?

“I got approached by Financial Training, as it was called then, in effect lecturing and training other Chartered Accountants. In those days not only was it regarded as a prime job, but also a great privilege to be approached and extremely well paid!

At first I was based in Leeds and then moved to become Managing Director of the Sheffield office and fairly quickly after that, I was promoted to become Head of the London office.”


Why did you leave Financial Training?

“I moved back up north for family reasons. I was approached by a partner at Grant Thornton who was aware of my background and said he knew of a company in the engineering sector that needed my skill set. I agreed to meet them. We got on and that was how I changed the course of my career again. There’s no doubt that the combination of my accountancy background and the fact that I’d worked in engineering from shop floor through to management helped me to secure that role.

I wasn’t there long because we restructured and sold on various parts of the business fairly quickly.”


Another slightly unusual move came when you joined the Sheffield & Rotherham Chamber of Commerce as Chief Executive?

“Yes. The link is in the rescue. For various reasons, people connected with the Chamber knew I was a trouble shooter. Sheffield and Rotherham Chambers had had what turned out to be an ill-fated merger and the combined entity was losing a lot of money.  So my primary role was to effect a business rescue and it was only subsequently that I took on the outward facing aspects of the Chief Executive’s role.”


What skills are needed in a turnaround?

“In this case the organisation was in a position where it had lost clarity and purpose due to the merger. They had also lost management control and understanding of their numbers and business. Sorting out the issues required strong leadership, analysis, a plan, and decision making. In this particular role there was also a requirement for diplomacy – albeit robust!”


Then in about 1999, you re-entered the engineering sector?

“I sold part of Walden Sizer to a certain Mr David Grey of OSL Group, and, in going through that process, we always said that if and when the opportunity arose then we should work together again! The opportunity arose because he was embarking on a significant acquisition trail. So that brought me full circle back into the engineering sector, working in finance and through into general management again.

I then spent a period of time working for myself, whilst always remaining on the OSL Board. During the financial crisis OSL had a problem with one of its divisions and David asked me if I would come back to run it and try to sort out the problems – which I did. I have remained with the Group ever since and have been Group Managing Director since 2014 when David Grey became Master Cutler.”


How planned do you feel your career has been?

“It hasn’t really! Looking back I have had to be opportunistic to some extent. Belief in my own skill sets has been important and the foundation for the opportunities I have taken on

I feel that opportunities have arisen because I’ve done demonstrably good jobs in previous roles. I have also found that as I am fairly restless, then the variety throughout my career has done me good.

I have always enjoyed a fresh challenge. When you’ve put a lot of energy into a business and made a lot of changes you can reach a point where you’re not as effective or as driven as you once were. When you are fresh, you are more likely to uncover things that otherwise you might miss or simply stop seeing.

I am also a believer in horses for courses. In turnround situations or when a series of major decisions and challenges are required I am at my best. “


What is your take on good leadership?

“I think you need internal command of as much information as possible. I have always been able to soak up huge amounts of information. There will be very little that I don’t know about any of the companies in our group at quite a detailed level. Decision making has to be delivered with clarity and simplicity – but without your own command of the information the decisions are unlikely to be good. Decision making can be both good and quick – but this requires a constant command of the underlying information.

My own leadership style is collaborative. I like to listen to all the views that people have. However, I will then be decisive because I think people expect you to take decisions. Especially difficult ones. That’s what they see you as being there for.

I trust my logic to understand all the facts and, having listened to as many views as possible, to formulate the right decisions.

I don’t have any problem with being questioned or challenged. In fact I welcome it. It’s healthy. If I am proved wrong or to have omitted some important factor then so be it. I do not feel that accepting challenge undermines my authority. I will seek to justify my points and if I still think I’ve got things right, then that’s fine. But if I look at it and think that they’ve got a point then I need to review my decision. After all there’s no point in pushing through a wrong decision out of misplaced pride or vanity. The key is to arrive at the right decision for the business and the people in that business.

In other words, I like to lead by being decisive, but I know that no one gets everything right all of the time. I also think gut feel is important, because in my experience, more often than not it’s based on something. Sometimes there are elements that are still unknown and deep down I think your mind references previous similar situations even if you can’t consciously identify them. So it’s a combination of the two.

Finally – when you employ people, you are in effect buying their time and their brains for that time. This is the most precious commodity and if people have something to contribute I think it is a leader’s job to identify that and to respect their contributions.”


How do you see yourself?

“I’ve always seen myself as independent and fearless. I don’t own the business, but I know what it’s like to own one. I’m here for the business and the business owners. I will always endeavour to act in their best interests and with total honesty and integrity. I will say what I honestly believe to be case. The owners may or may not agree with me, but I believe it is important to say how I see things.

I also believe I respect and value everyone who works in our businesses and try to treat them with humanity and compassion as far as I can.”


Looking back over your career, what advice would you offer to someone starting out today?

“I’m not sure there is really. People want different things out of careers. Interestingly, I think the modern world has changed more towards my sort of career, whereas when I started out it wasn’t actually that common. People tended to stay with employers a lot longer and have longer associations, but it doesn’t seem to matter as much in today’s world.

I would always advise people not to jump ship too quickly or at the first sign of anything not being quite right. The grass is not always greener and all businesses and people go through different ups and downs. Always give of your best, respect your colleagues, and remember you only have one shot at all of this so if you’re certain there’s a good opportunity out there for you, then go for it!”


You retired from OSL Group in June 2018, so tell us about your challenge to run the Gobi Desert?

“As my retirement present to myself, everyone asks if I’m going on a cruise or something. Well actually I’m attempting a solo run across the whole Gobi desert starting on July 16th! It’s about 1200 miles and I’m aiming to cover on average 40 miles a day. So about thirty successive days.

That’s over one and a half marathons each day. I’m going to do three stints of three hours each day. It’ll be sub-zero at night, pretty cold when I start each morning but up into the 40s by midday. I’ll be surviving on rice and goat or mutton or whatever can be sourced on the day.

There’s lots of planning involved but I’ve got professional logistics on this one. It’s too big an undertaking to just rock up and hope it goes ok.

I have completed many endurance events and supported many charities. This year I’m supporting Bluebell Wood Children’s Hospice, which covers the whole South Yorkshire area and is this year’s Master Cutler’s chosen charity. They work they do is simply fantastic and it’s a pleasure to support them.”