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Career Development - From the scrapyard to an MBA

During four years of studying for a Masters in Business Administration degree, Owen Laurenson FIMI seriously thought of packing it in. “One time was on a family holiday in Cyprus when I sat on the beach doing coursework and thought ‘How sad is this?’”

Last July, though, the perseverance paid off and Owen decided to celebrate in a way favoured by most students after hearing their exam results: “I went to the pub and got drunk.”

The route which was to take him to an MBA had an unlikely beginning, working in a scrapyard as a 12-year-old during the school holidays. He opted to leave school before taking his GCSEs to join Lothian Region Transport in his native Scotland as an apprentice mechanic, attending block release courses at the local college. “That apprentice-ship gave me a thorough grounding in all types of vehicles, from buses to road gritters.”

Six years later he joined the AA as a patrol in Edinburgh before taking on the role as a teacher of vehicle electronics at Vauxhall College. That led to a customer-care job, covering Scotland and the North of England visiting Vauxhall dealerships to try and resolve any particularly tricky technical problems reported by customers, along with an aftersales role for fleet business.

“My background up to that point had been in training and engineering, but as I became involved more with management, I realised I needed some form of management training,” said Owen.

So he began a two-year HNC course in business management, which involved three-hour classes, two nights a week, alongside a Continuing Professional Development  programme run by the Institute of the Motor Industry. With an HNC under his belt, he then decided to embark on an MBA course.

“I could have studied for it locally at Edinburgh University, but that would have restricted opportunities to move elsewhere with a change of job, so I decided to do the Open University course which gave me the flexibility to study wherever I happened to be,” said Owen.

With sponsorship from Vauxhall, he began with a one-year course for a Professional Certificate in Business Management, followed by another year working for the diploma. Then came four modular subjects, each of six months, with a separate project in between.

It was to become a relentless slog, demanding a weekly average of 20 hours’ study, along with job and domestic commitments (at that time his two sons were in their mid-teens). There were books and CDs to digest, weekend tutorials and residential courses to attend and assignments to complete. He estimates that the written work alone totalled more than 80,000 words.

“Those four years take over your life and most socialising has to take a back seat. The toughest part of the course was financial strategy. Coming from a technical background, I found finance really hard to get into. I was looking at things like hedging and currency swaps, but you just have to stick at it and eventually it all falls into place as part of the broader picture of management disciplines.”

Discipline became his watchword.

“At first I used to work late at night. Then I found it suited my routine better to come into the office for an hour’s study before starting work. I’d study again at lunchtime and type up my notes at night. On Sundays I’d put in about 10 hours’ study and assignment work.”

Along the way, there were job changes, which were to underscore the advantages of studying through the Open University. First, he moved to Vauxhall’s customer care centre at Toddington in Bedfordshire and then to the company’s HQ in Luton in a business planning role. Still in Luton, he’s now joined General Motors’ global purchasing and supply division as UK finance and planning manager, so the financial part of the MBA has proved useful after all.In fact Owen has decided to further refine his financial skills by taking a one-year OU accountancy course which would count towards a BSc honours degree.

Now 41, he has longer-term ambitions to return to his technical roots, but this time at director level. For the moment though, those aspirations, along with his studies, have been put on hold. “I think I need a bit of a break from burning the midnight oil,” he says.

If you can withstand the gruelling routine, Owen Laurenson cites the following benefits of studying for a professional qualification:

  • It allows you to put learning into practice and develop your understanding and skills.
  • Provides you with access to a pool of resources (university/college libraries, alumni, fellow students, course journals, etc).
  • Provides an opportunity to network, especially through residential schools.
  • Gives you a sense of achievement and will almost certainly aid career development.