30/04/2020 by Bob Windmill 0 Comments
From geeky superbike racer to Academic Director and beyond - The full version
It only seems like five minutes ago I was a rather geeky lab technician, for who a job was just a means of earning enough money to fund a hobby of racing powerful superbikes round a variety of UK circuits at the week-end. OK. Suddenly I'm a successful business owner and the Academic Director of a college with lots of plans for the future.
This post is a canter through of how this happened, from the early frustrations of naively trying to bend the world to my way of thinking, through the realisation of how business works and what it values and is prepared to pay, and onto a happier world where I could apply the painfully learned lessons to build the future that I wanted.
So, let's have a look at how it happened.
The beginning: Cocky schoolboy takes on the world of work and looses
I joined Anglian Water, the company supplying clean and waste water services in the east of England, in May 1976 as a trainee laboratory technician. I was sure that my employers would quickly see the value of this individual who had won the school chemistry prize three years on the trot and played for the football first eleven while still in the fifth year. This idea lasted about five minutes. On arrival, words of advice on my attire (no jeans and flowery shirts here, thank you), were quickly followed by being introduced to the art of washing laboratory glassware to the required standard. Not what I was expecting.
Getting in the swing of work
However, between learning from colleagues, being sent out to various treatment works to learn how they worked, and my day a week at college, I learned the technicalities of water treatment and testing and found that I actually liked the work and progresses up to the dizzy heights of Lab technician Grade 3.
With the extra money I was able to scrape up a deposit for the motorcycle of my dreams, as 1200cc Laverda, a Italian three cylinder road-going superbike. This purchase made me the king of the local bike crowd, but unknowing set me on a path to where I am today. I'll come back to this in a bit.
During one of Anglian's re-organisations, it was decided that my lab would merge with the main laboratory based at the main sewage treatment work. While initially scary, I found I really liked the world of waste water treatment with it's elegant technical simplicity. The laboratory itself was a shock, the large, impersonal and rather smelly warehouse like building contrasting unfavourably with the small immaculately clean clean water lab I was used to.
But, learning from my initial introduction to the world of work, I kept my head down, learned what I had to and did my tasks well enough to keep my supervisor off my back most of the time.
Learning from superbike racing
My problem was that I found routine testing un-challenging. I could work to the required standard without difficulty but any attempt to introduce improvements were rebuffed, often sharply. I found my release outside work when I went to my local race track, Snetterton, to be a track marshal. I enjoyed this, but found I was increasing wondering if I could do better. The considered opinion of friends was that it was a lot harder than it looked but the thought kept nagging baway at me. OK, the front runners were clearly seriously quick but some of the tail-enders seemed to be out for a Sunday ride.
Eventually I got a racing licence, and the obligatory orange jacket worn by newcomers for their first 10 races, and entered a meeting on my Laverda 1200 road bike in the production class, a class for nearly standard road-going machinery. Talk about nerves. I finished my three races that day in midfield obscurity, but I knew that this was something I wanted to do more of and, more importantly, do it better.
A lesson: The big secret
In my first year I made all the usual mistakes of trying too hard, and braking later and later into corners. And I fiddled around with the Laverda in a forlorn attempt to improve my lap times. Talking to more experienced racers I slowly came to understand that my relatively modest lap times were down to me and not the machine, and that until I would lap as fast as competitors on similar machinery, there was no point trying to improve the bike.
I also found that I could enter my nearly standard production class bike in the races for the purpose built racers, what is now known as the superbike class. While I believed that my production bike would be completely outclassed by the open superbikes with their tuned engines and full race suspension, I entered some open class races anyway.
I was pleasantly surprised to be as competitive in the open class as I was in the production class. It struck me that many open class competitors simply didn't have the technical knowledge experience to correctly set up their machinery and take advantage of the extra performance.
This turned out to be a life lesson: make the most of what you've already have before putting time and money into alternatives. This is an early example of a small but important building block that is helping me to this day. Definitely a Gift That Keeps Giving.
A lesson: Having the right equipment
I loved my Laverda 1200, but it was really a road going tourer and would only lap a racetrack so fast. Because I liked Italian machinery, it was replaced by its rather more sporting 1000cc Laverda Jota, a brilliant mid 70s superbike, which was in turn replaced by a brilliant early 70ss superbike, a Ducati 900SS. The only problem was that this was the mid 80s and the Japanese has figured how make their superbikes more powerful and handle decently, negating the power advantage of the Jota and the impeccable handling of the Ducati.
I persisted with the Ducati for a couple of years, learning how to corner fast enough to negate some of the straight line speed of the Japanese superbikes, and I turned out to be good at riding in the wet. Good enough to earn a couple of second places. But winning a race still escaped me.
Eventually, after a particularly expensive engine failure, the Ducati was replaced by a second hand Kawasaki GPZ 1110, a dragster down the straight but with appalling handling, followed in turn nearly new Yamaha FZ750, one of the new generation of smaller engined superbikes that could give the heavier 1000cc plus superbikes a serious run for their money.
The Yamaha was a revelation: sweet-handing and stable but with enough poke to run with the bigger superbikes down the straights. All of a sudden, I was regularly winning the 750 class and claiming overall top six finishes and a number of podiums. On one memorable week-end I actually won two open class races outright on my little 750. I quickly realised the value of having the the right equipment, Another Gift That Keeps Giving.
Eventually, wanting to win again, the FZ was traded in for it's big brother, the new super-duper FZR 1000. While fast, I could never get on with how it handled and it took me nearly a year to match my 750 lap times. This taught me the lesson that not only do you have to have the right equipment, you have to be able to use what it can give.. Another Gift That Keeps Giving.
A lesson: Learning to ask the question
The FZR, although fast enough to get regular podiums and win an club's open championship against the purpose built racers, was unreliable and eventually destroying its engine. Repaired, it was sold. While searching for a suitable replacement, I found that the UK Pirelli importer was selling the machine they successfully ran at that year's TT to showcase their high performance tyres.
While it it would be a year old by the time I raced it, I figured it would be more than good enough for a club racer and tentative enquiries were made. I was expecting to pay handsomely for the privilege but after a review of what I thought were my moderate successes to date and my plans for the future, I was quoted what can only be described as a very competitive price.
I now know that having won an open class championship on a production bike I was considered capable of of racing the bike to something like it's full potential, and that the price reflected the publicity Pirelli expected to gain if I did well on it. That championship didn't strike me as anything too special at the time, but to the outside world I had regularly beaten competitors on better machinery, something not be sneezed at.
The two great lesson here was that it costs nothing to ask, and not to underestimate what you have done. Both are Gifts That Keep Giving.
A lesson: Look down as well as up
One tip I was given later on in my career applies here: "don't worry about those who are doing better than you, just look at who you are doing better than". I was beating myself up because I had only ever worn two races, entirely overlooking the fact that I was a regular top five finisher and has won an open championship on a production bike against th purpose built races.
With the confidence that I was seen by others as a decent rider, I learned to respond to remarks about my lack of wins by reminding people that I had won a championship and that if anyone wanted to win they were going to have to finish ahead of me. Another Gift That keeps Giving
Everything coming together
The Suzuki was a joy and, in contrast to the FZR, I clicked with it straight away. Light, beautifully neutral handling and seriously quick down the straights it was what we would call "a weapon", that is a bike capable of competing for wins. An a weapon it was.
My first meeting on it was wet, something of a mixed blessing. While a confident wet-weather rider, for the first time I had the special wet weather tyres, "wets", that came with the bike. I had never used wets before and wasn't sure how hard I could push them.
Trying them in practice was interesting: the brain said "yes, you can go faster than you could on road tyres" but the throttle hand initially refused all requests to apply more power. This demonstrated to me the power of ingrained learning, this time in a negative way, and the need to find ways of breaking through such barriers.
My solution was a decision to simply follow those in front of me and learn from what they were doing. This worked well, slotting into a steady fourth place and gaining confidence over the first few laps. By lap four I had moved up to second place, with no slides or dramas, before taking the lead a that I held to the end.
The first ride on a new bike, the first ride on wets, and a win. Definitely one for the scrapbook. And the happiness continued that day with two further wins and three second places (yes, I liked to enter lots of races) and a lead in two of the club's championships. Happy days.
That year I won 11 races and the the club's production championship, and finished second in their open-class championship. And there was talk of an importer supported ride for the following seasons. Even happier days. What could go wrong?
A happy accident
What went wrong was my decision to enter the Manx Grand Prix, an event held for amateur rider over the Isle of man TT course each September. The TT course is 37.73 miles of public road which are closed twice a year to allow the TT and Manx Grand pric to take place. In contrast to my then local racetrack, Snetterton, with its 8 well defined corners the TT course has 60 named corners and over 200 lesser curves and s-bends. To lap at a competitive speed, which for a necomer means averaging over 100 mph over a whole lap, means knowing each corner and curve well enough to brake and turn into it at the right moment without being able to see the exit.
Do you remember what I wrote about the brain knowing what to do but the throttle hand not cooperating? This was it again in spades.
After a few practice laps I thought I was getting the hang of it. In reality I was was charging into corners and relying on reflexes to bail me out when turns suddenly became tighter than I remembered. On the fifth lap, my luck ran out and I peeled into what I thought was a fourth gear 100mph+ corner only to find that it was at best "steady in third".
The result was predictably horrible: an open fracture of the skull, a broken back, broken right tibia and fibula, and left wrist like a jigsaw puzzle. Only the skill of the marshals and doctors saved my life. But even as I woke up in the middle of the road, viewing what was left of my mangled wrist, my only thought was "damn, I won't be able to race on Monday".
As it turned out, I wasn't able to race seriously again, although it took nearly three years and a rebuild of an improperly healing arm to find out. But that's another story.
The great escape
The crash happened at the end of August and, somewhat surprisingly, I was able to return to work on light duties by mid-November. And this is where the upside of the accident started to emerge. Unable to carry out routine lab tests I was working on a project team revamping the regulatory sampling programme, that is those water samples which must be taken by law.
This was a revelation. because we were responding to a change in the regulations, there was no well defined answer and each UK water company had to find it's own solution. Suddenly I was in an environment where ideas were required and valued, rather than just following some predetermined recipe. I was happy as a porcine in the smelly stuff.
Within a week I knew two things: I didn't want to go back to the main lab when I had recovered enough, and that to make this happen I needed to make a mark on this sampling programme project. So it was a case of head down and learn everything i could about the project as a whole, rather than just my bit, and to get involved in as many of those as possible. Yes, it was long hours, which I chose not to claim overtime for, but it started to pay off.
Within the sampling project I was asked to take on more responsibility and was asked to join another project implementing an ISO quality system. Happy days. When my return to the main lab was mooted, I nearly died when I heard my supervisor decline on the grounds "we need Bob on these projects". That was probably the first time in my lab career that my work had been praised rather than accepted as adequate. And did it feel good.
I did occasionally work in the main lab, showing willing by filling on routine testing from time to time, but made sure that this was seen as me doing a favour. No way was I going to be sucked back into the day to day routine.
A lesson: Add new skills
That said, I was later asked by the lab manager to take the lab's Analytical Quality Control (AQC) system. AQC is the means by which a laboratory can show that the sample results it is producing are acceptably accurate. Note the phrasing: "acceptably accurate", not "right". This was another little lesson that served me well later on in my career, but that is also another story
At that time, the AQC system was run by each of the chemists and assistant chemists taking on part of it alongside their analytical ans supervisory duties. The lab manager wondered of would be better to have one person doing it full time, and asked me to have a go. That was quite a nice moment, too.
A cornerstone of AQC is the testing of what are called control samples. These are sample prepared separately from the standards used as in tests, and the result of each test is plotted on a control chart. The theory is if the control sample is acceptably accurate, then so are the other sample results in that batch. OK. it's actually rather more complicated than that, but it's a good enough explanation for here.
The minor problem that at that time I didn't know much about AQC, never mind the Statistical Process Control (SPC) that underpinned it, didn't bother me. I figured that I could find out about and learn each task as it came, and there were people around I could ask if required. And it worked.
With a single person in charge, communication mistakes vanished and the prepared control samples become more consistent. At least part of this was my decision to practice sample preparation every day alongside reading up and trying out a range of SPC techniques. Yes, the hours were long and some of the technical stuff was a real brain-fryer, but I kept improving. As I learned racing superbikes: get good at the basics, then build on that. Did I mention Gifts That Keep Giving?
Success breeding success
Around this time Anglian decided that it was going to offer a commercial laboratory service to help offset the cost of running its labs. With the AQC project on a nice upward curve I was asked (nice....) if I could act as the link between the lab and it's customers. I didn't need asking twice, even though I was already seriously busy. As with AQC I wasn't entirely sure I was letting myself in for, but it seemed interesting.
It turned out that the two most important things were listening to customers and managing their expectations. I enjoyed the opportunity travel to meet customers and put together agreements that worked for everybody and, a new area for me, made a profit for Anglian. One particularly enjoyable moment happened when a customer enquired about bringing his staff on a lab tour on a particular date and finding out I would be on annual leave, said "That's a pity. You explain things in away that really helps our people understand what you do".
Good as that was, the best Gift I got from that work was the ability to escape the lab and work in the wider business.
The great escape
Over the years I learned to treat company reorganisations as an opportunity, not a threat, and started getting a better or different position each time. So a big re-organisation in the mid 90s held no terros and I applied for a number of positions including that of o Field Scientists. This was a new role to help ensure that water at a customer's tap was a close to when it left the treatment works as possible, quite a new idea in the water industry at that time.
As was often the case, and to be fair I did apply for jobs that I didn't realistically expect to get by way of interview practice, the post interview phone call was "thank you but no thank you, but you are our second choice". However, in this case I know this was true because a few days later the phone rang again. This time it was to tell me that the successful candidate had taken a job with another water company, and ask if I would still like the job.
OK., I had some luck getting that particular job, but even then I know it was also in part to putting myself seriously in the running for the kind of jobs I wanted. The lesson here is summed up by the Bobby Unser quote "Success is where preparation and opportunity meet". Just think, if i hadn't said yes to the AQC role, and the Commercial Scientist role, and generally made myself useful so that the lab manager recommended me when my new boss called for a reference, this new job offer probably wouldn't have happened.
This I think is is a big lesson: the only time you really fail is when you stop trying. and that is very much a Gift That Keeps Giving.
Once again I was the newcomer in the world where the theory of managing drinking water quality met the hard-nosed practicalities of operational delivery. The idea of ensuring that operational activities did not contaminate the drinking water was not new, but for many it was just another set of procedures to follow. Part of my new role was to train the operational teams in the idea that their job was to look for and mitigate as far as possible risk to drinking water quality before they happened.
It was something of an uphill struggle, with busy managers and operational staff battling increased workloads. Din't I mention that the last reorganisation di away with about 15% of Anglians workforce including the Technical Clerks that had previously done the managers' admin for them. They were not happy bunnies when this, in their eyes, upstart laboratory type started telling them how to do their jobs.
It took working together on a couple of water quality incidents for us to really understand each other. I remember being told that being out on a cold wintery night helping the ops staff open and close stiiff and recalticent control valves had done me no harm. yes, it was nice to hear, but it gave me credibility as someone who didn't just sit in an office issuing instruction like some previous scientists.
A big part of my new role was to liaise with the string of large factories and power stations, note the plurals, along the Humber bank. These were a major revenue source for Anglian, and were not happy that the quality of their water supply was about to be changed and non-one was talking to them about it at a technical level. This was like an open goal for me.
Talking to them, I quickly discovered thing like a boiler to them was something the size of a three story house and in one case there were seven of these in a row. It was also explained to me that they produced steam at 1100 psi and 700C, and if they were fed the wrong quality of water they would likely explode, and if one exploded it would cause its neigbours to join in. In case I hadn't quite got it, they happily added that their calculations suggested that such an event would leave a crater about a quarter of mile across and be heard over a hundred miles away.
I didn't need that picture painting twice.
Quickly learned about this and other special requirements (an oil refinery where a failure of the incoming water supply would cause about essentially wreck the site at a mid-90s cost of about GBP100 million anybody) by holding regular meeting with each of them. I return I was able to liaise with the ops staff to understand the proposed changes and build a spreadsheet that could model different scenarios for the industrial customers.
This went down an absolute storm, and formed the basis of most of our future meetings. And it was all based on on the technical skills I had learned in my various laboratory jobs. so the lesson is be great and the basice, and look for ways to use what you know. Another Gift That Keeps Giving.
Managing to succeed
Leaving science behind
Working around barriers
off to contract land
Another new world
Moving on again
Self employment and the baking crash
Figuring out how good I was
full time jobs in three days a week
Successful training and consultancy business
BGF and beyond