The Apprentice A-List

The Apprentice A-List

At the start of National Apprenticeship Week, here's an A-List of people who have made the journey from being an apprentice to being the boss.


At the top of the list is a clutch of talismanic, celebrity figures. They started as apprentices and became household names. They include Jamie Oliver, who began his career at 16 with an apprenticeship in home economics; Sir Alex Ferguson, whose first job was as a 19-year-old apprentice tool-maker at a Glasgow typewriter factory; and Stella McCartney, who was an apprentice tailor. You can also add Sir Michael Caine, David Beckham and Eric Clapton (an apprenticeship in stained glass design) to this list.

Jamie Oliver, of course, has been a passionate and practical advocate of apprenticeships with his Fifteen programme. The main point of these celebrity stories is that they are metaphors for individual talent and sheer bloody graft, rather than necessarily demonstrating the worth of their particular apprenticeship to their subsequent fame and success.

The billionaires

The next group are those who demonstrate that you can begin your working life as an apprentice and become a billionaire. One recent example was produced by the Association of Accounting Technicians (in itself a form of accountancy apprenticeship) which published a list of "Britain's richest apprentices." They were led by this trio:

Lord Bamford, the head of JCB, started with an engineering apprenticeship at Massey Ferguson in France as his first step into the family business after leaving Ampleforth College.

Laurence Graff, the founder of Graff Diamonds, became a jewellery apprentice at Schindler's workshop after leaving school at the age of 15. Three months later Schindler let him go, saying that he would not make the grade. The diamond king is now estimated to be worth £3bn.

John Caudwell, who built up and then sold Phones 4 U for more than £1bn, began as an engineering apprentice at Michelin in Stoke-on-Trent.

The pillars

Then there are those who have risen up the ranks to become CEOs, often running household name businesses. They are pillar figures of the British business community.

Stewart Wingate, the CEO of London Gatwick Airport, began his career as an apprentice at the tool maker Black & Decker. The company provided him with a bursary to go to university.

Andy Palmer was a 16-year-old apprentice at Automotive Products in the West Midlands before he joined Austin Rover. He then served a 23-year stint at Nissan. Now, though, he is CEO of Aston Martin.

Peter Digby left school to become an apprentice at British Airways. He then joined the Williams Formula 1 team for six years before moving to become MD of engineering firm Xtrac - a business which he subsequently bought. In 2013, he was named IoD Director of the Year.

The self-made men

There are other self-made men who, while not billionaires, are comfortably (multi) millionaires.

Actually, Jim McColl could be in the billionaire category so let's put him at the head of this group. He trained as an apprentice engineer on the site of the former Weir Pumps factory in Glasgow's Cathcart area. He turned his engineering smarts into deal-making acumen and an ability to turn around businesses.

Charlie Mullins took to 'bunking off' school to earn two shillings a day working with the local plumber. He then did a four year apprenticeship. "There'd be no Pimlico Plumbers today if I hadn't once been a 15-year-old apprentice," he says.

Geoff Turnbull started as an engineering apprentice with Castrol Oil at the age of 15. He started his engineering design and manufacturing business GT Group in the 1980s. The 300-strong group specialises in environmental engineering and exports to more than 60 countries.

Michael Oliver left school at 15 to become an apprentice with a Manchester engineering company. He then gained an HND in mechanical and production engineering. He started Oliver Valves in his garage. His Cheshire-based business today employs more than 300 people and turnover is approaching £100m.

The highly skilled

There is then a group of highly skilled people who have risen to the top of their profession. You can see the linear trajectory from what they learn as an apprentice to their ultimate achievements. Clearly, Laurence Graff and Stella McCartney (see above) also fit this pattern.

Ross Brawn began his career in motorsport after a mechanical engineering apprenticeship with the atomic energy body UKAEA. His career has since then allowed him to direct the Mercedes and Ferrari teams. He's now one of the most respected men in Formula One.

Peter Rogers, the younger brother of architect Sir Richard Rogers, is one of the most influential people to shape the London skyline. He dropped out of further education to work as a labourer on a building site. His employer saw his abilities and encouraged him to get a place at a polytechnic.

Andrew Ramroop arrived in UK from Trinidad in 1970 with a burning ambition of becoming a Savile Row tailor. He worked ferociously hard to fulfil that dream. Today, he owns and runs Maurice Sedwell on 19 Savile Row, making bespoke suits for customers around the world.

The foreign stories

The ability to start as an apprentice and become a significant industry figure is not, of course, just a British one. So the A-List needs to have some stories from elsewhere.

Matthias Muller, the new CEO of VW, trained as an apprentice toolmaker at Audi in the 1970s. After briefly studying computer science, he returned to Audi and in 2010 was appointed chief executive of Porsche.

Leonardo del Vecchio, the founder of Luxottica, the Italian company that dominates the world of sunglasses with brands such as Ray-Ban and Oakley, started his career as an apprentice tool and dye maker in Milan.

The quiet heroes

However, many others in my A-List would be people who are not on rich lists or or who attract media attention. This is the understated majority and I have only included a few of them here. All of them understand the value of apprenticeship schemes, having been there themselves. They have worked with tools, got their hands dirty, worked shifts. They know the shop floor inside out.

These are men (and, yes, I'll come to this point later) who have stayed with one business - or certainly one industry - for their professional careers. Individuals such as Chris Elliott, the COO of component manufacturer VTL Group, who trained as an apprentice toolmaker and has lived and breathed manufacturing for more than 20 years. And Dave Ruddy, who started his career as an apprentice laboratory technician and is now the owner and managing director of Billingham-based water and wastewater treatment specialist Biochemica UK.

For some, in more modest versions of Lord Bamford's story, their apprenticeship has been a part of training for the family business.

At Gloucestershire-based electrical contractor Clarkson Evans, Nathan Evans is set to take over as MD from his father Steve, who started the company 35 years ago. Nathan joined his father's firm as an 18-year-old apprentice in 1994. Today Clarkson Evans wires one in ten of all new properties built in England and Wales and employs approximately 700 people.

Les Owens left school at 16 without any qualifications and was sent to the National Construction College by his father. He then returned to his native Wirral to begin an apprenticeship in bricklaying. He took over the family firm 12 years ago; today the Trustland Group employs more than 50 people.

They put things back into their local community or their industry. Steve Rawlings first trained as an apprentice roofer in Tower Hamlets and has worked and lived there for much of his life. Hence his commitment to the award-winning charity and building academy Building Lives, which teams up with construction firms, social landlords and colleges to transform unloved, disused community spaces into bespoke construction training academies.

(Shout-out for Jim McColl here: he has established the £1.5m Newlands Junior College in Glasgow's southside to take on 30 young people aged between 14 and 16 who "don't engage with the current education system but who have the potential to develop in the world of work.")

The A-List also contains life stories that are impossible to categorise, such as Bob Lindo. At 16, he was an apprentice General Post Office technician; this led to a GPO scholarship to read electronic engineering at Essex University. He was an RAF pilot. He is the founder of Camel Valley Vineyards - and his wine was served at the Downing Street dinner for Chinese premier Xi Jinping.

The future A-List

Of course, what is very striking about this A-List is the absence of women. This is not for lack of trying. If you know a female CEO who has served an apprenticeship, tell them to tell the world about their achievement.

At present, too, this list is very white and Anglo-Saxon. That's partly, I suspect, because it reflects a generation that entered work in the 1970s and 1980s. that was a time when there would not have been many British Asians, for example, joining formal company apprenticeship schemes. Again, we should know about them.

The current A-List is also sharply divided between those who are skilled in individual and creative disciplines - tailoring, jewellery etc - and those who have learned the basics in areas such as engineering and construction.

Ultimately, any quality apprenticeship is about learning to make and model, build and repair, to try and try again. It should also be about creating genuine opportunities for people to rise to the top. And it should not be seen as an "either/or" to having a university degree. It really should be a "both/and" - as is evidenced by people such as Bob Lindo and Stewart Wingate.

Perhaps the real change to the composition of this list will only be felt once some of the more recent apprenticeship schemes in different sectors have had the time to make a lasting impact.

It will take time for schemes such as Karen Blackett's bold apprenticeship scheme for 18-24 year-olds at media giant MediaCom, and the pioneering legal apprenticeships of Yorkshire law firm Gordons, to bear fruit.


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