Oliver North of O&H Vehicle Technology: “Appreciate that there will be roadblocks in the way; Don’t be surprised when they pop up”

Focus on what you want to achieve and appreciate that there will be roadblocks in the way. It is your job to drive through, over or around the hurdles. Don’t be surprised when they pop up and embrace them as a necessity when they arise. Once you achieve your target, raise it and go again […]

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Focus on what you want to achieve and appreciate that there will be roadblocks in the way. It is your job to drive through, over or around the hurdles. Don’t be surprised when they pop up and embrace them as a necessity when they arise. Once you achieve your target, raise it and go again — if you’re not moving forward, then you’re moving backward. Importantly, devour your wins and successes and feed off the positivity which comes from them. It has to be rewarding and enjoyable.

Inthis interview series, we are exploring the subject of resilience among successful business leaders. Resilience is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases, it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market. I had the pleasure of interviewing Oliver North.

Oliver North is the managing director and owner of O&H Vehicle Technology, the UK’s leading manufacturer of ambulances.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?

Iwas raised by my grandmother in West Yorkshire, UK. At the age of 17, I dropped out of college to join the military. After six years, involving numerous quick, successive promotions, I left the army with a desire to join a ‘bigger pond’. After a few sales jobs, I left employment, setting up my own company as a one-man-band, supplying firefighting equipment to the UK fire brigades. My son was three months old at the time. Just one month into trading — or trying to commence trading — my mother died tragically. I found her two days after her death and pulled her out of the river she had drowned in.

I had to go back to work two days later to try and secure orders to pay for my mortgage and provide for my young son. Fast forward to 2014 and my company was acquired for a seven-figure sum. Four years later — at the end of 2018 — with my company now part of a global group, I became disillusioned and left to turn around a struggling manufacturer with over 150 employees. Eight months later our company had established a reputation as the UK’s number one ambulance builder, and I spearheaded a management buyout. In 2020, my new group will bid to become one of the best specialist vehicle builders in the United Kingdom.

Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

I was 18 years old by the time I had finished military training and was posted to Germany. I entered the camp gates knowing that at this time (1999), UK military bases in Germany were institutions of ‘character building’. In 2020 it is referred to as bullying, but without it, I probably wouldn’t have achieved what I have to-date. I walked into the camp gates and an old, time-served Lance Corporal threw his cigarette bud on the floor, then looked at me and told me to pick it up (he worded it less kindly). I was wet behind the ears and still ‘filling out’ at the time and this big Glaswegian soldier was playing with newbies like me. I told him where he could stick his bud. I took a ‘pasting’ from him and a gate guard on my first minute in camp but got my own back after filling out, gaining two promotions and then winning the regimental boxing championship. I wanted to earn the respect to the point where I felt I had to be stronger, faster and a better soldier. There are obviously plenty of world-class soldiers in there, but I feel I was always within the top 5% performers in my regiment and now is no different. I always try to be better than my peers, and try to ensure the company I run, manufactures better, leaner and more ethically.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

When I have created my former companies and driven them through phases of growth (I’ve always grown companies and never reduced or plateaued) I always ensure the entire team — including management, cleaners, admin, the shop floor staff — is immersed in the company’s agenda. The company’s agenda should ALWAYS mirror that of the team to ensure the ‘rope’ is being pulled in the same direction, by the entire team.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I have only ever had one person I’d call a mentor in business. In 2011 my business won a Chamber of Commerce business of the year award and at the ceremony, I was sat next to one of my region’s best-known entrepreneurs — Ken Davy — who eventually ended up taking a stake in my previous company, North Fire.

Ken is not only a well-reputed, successful businessperson, who has made tens of millions in personal wealth, but moreover is the most ethical and honest man I have ever met. It is this genuineness that provides the nucleus of our proven partnership working together today. Ken Davy joined and backed the MBO of O&H Vehicle Technology in 2019.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

Resilient people are, to me, those who can get up when they’ve been knocked down. A person who displays the mental aptitude to — hypothetically — look up the mountain, bite down on the gum shield and push on with progression. In a world that is undoubtedly becoming more culturally delicate, it becomes harder for the next generation to display resilience. I feel it is those who grow up in tougher environments who are shielded less to real life, in turn developing the natural skills which are more likely to cope with inevitable setbacks in life.

When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

The word resilience highly resonates with my own life. I lived with my grandmother as a kid and got mocked for the small size of her house, the flowery wallpaper and my handed down clothes. With little to no parental input, I joined the military as a scrawny kid and I took beatings on my way to my promotions.

Another instance is when I left my employer in 2008, and they tried to sue me in the High Court for competing against them, which was when my pride and joy — my son — was only two weeks old.

The death of my mum was as tragic as anything I have been through, but I had to return to work, or my company would fail, and I would have defaulted on my mortgage. My sister then died suddenly in 2011, aged only 18. In 2018 I sat next to the lady who raised me — my grandmother — and held her hand as she died.

Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?

When my company was acquired in 2014, the business was turning over £3.5million. I told my new parent company that I would increase this to £18million within four years. They literally laughed after I had told them, claiming my ambition was ‘nice’. When I left in 2018, my turnover — which I personally sold — was £18.6million.

Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?

One year after setting up North Fire, there were then only three employees including myself. I was managing director, sales director, marketing manager, finance manager, cleaner and DIY man all rolled into one. I was also driving over 1,000 miles each week to see as many customers as possible — often driving through the night. On a Friday afternoon, I was collecting my son from nursery when I passed out at the wheel of my car. I managed to pull into a bus stop before the lights went out. I saw the doctor who said my blood pressure was high, I was suffering from exhaustion and I needed two weeks off. I slept for the entire weekend and then made fundamental changes to my health, diet, and mindset, but didn’t take a day off work. I always ensure I take care of my physical and mental health to ensure neither my body nor mind break!

Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?

When I lived with my Grandma as a kid, my Grandad was also around for the first 8 years of my life. He was a world-war II veteran and used to tell me stories of being a gunner on the ship he served on. When his boat was shot down, he swam to a rescue vessel.

I used to look at that man with all the admiration in the world, and even 30 years after his death, I still remind myself I’m part of his pedigree.

Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Focus on what you want to achieve and appreciate that there will be roadblocks in the way. It is your job to drive through, over or around the hurdles. Don’t be surprised when they pop up and embrace them as a necessity when they arise. Once you achieve your target, raise it and go again — if you’re not moving forward, then you’re moving backward. Importantly, devour your wins and successes and feed off the positivity which comes from them. It has to be rewarding and enjoyable.
  2. Learn from your losses or mistakes — which will come. We all fail from time to time. However, I personally don’t agree with “failure parties”, which in my opinion, are non-productive. Instead, I dissect the situation, work out why I failed and make sure it never happens again. I also like to think of business in analogy form of being in a boxing ring. If you lose round after round then you need a knockout punch; as long as you have air in your lungs, it is never over! (And maybe watch Rocky IV if you’re as into that as I am!)
  3. Do not become entrenched in the world of thinking you’re defined by social media. Instead, go for a run and test yourself on your mental aptitude; not only in your timings but by showing your discipline and dragging yourself off the couch or out of bed.
  4. Keep improving yourself. People talk about not having enough time yet still manage to watch TV or browse various apps on their smartphones. Instead, learn an instrument or another skill that will serve your mindset better.
  5. When you’re feeling down, do something about it. Eat or drink something healthy, ease off on caffeine, exercise or immerse yourself in a hobby.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Kindness, manners, and politeness are all completely free of charge. We would all strive to be kind, polite and pleasant, every day of every week 🙂

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂

It has to be David Goggins — because he is the ambassador of resilience.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

@VenariUK on Twitter or @venarigroup on Instagram.

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