Business Interview: Julian Leighton, Company Director, Orange Bus

Julian Leighton, the 41 year-old entrepreneur behind successful digital agency Orange Bus, tells Tom Keighley about his story

Julian Leighton at his office in Milburn House, Dean Street
Julian Leighton at his office in Milburn House, Dean Street

Failure to achieve his dream job selling Adidas trainers was probably the best thing that happened for Julian Leighton’s career, he admits.

As a fresh-faced graduate Julian had his hopes pinned on an application for a field sales rep job with the iconic sports brand. It would be his begrudged back-up application for the far less glamorous role of IBM Business Partner that would actually plot the course of his career.

He said: “I thought the adidas job would be absolutely perfect, and I was really excited about it. I was actually gutted when I got the IBM Business Partner job and the Adidas one didn’t materialise.

“It’s funny, though, because that job was probably the best thing to happen to me at that time. I was young and naive at the time, and I probably didn’t realise how much hard work being a rep for Adidas would be.”

With some 60 pairs currently cluttering up his Gosforth home, it is fair to say the trainer is the epitome of Julian’s collector psyche.

In the lobby of Orange Bus’ Newcastle city centre offices, you encounter a bench plastered with old copies of the Beano - all part of the collection he amassed as a young lad - and a small pile of LPs rested against a portable record player reveal another one of Julian’s passions: vinyl.

The entrepreneur within Julian was already formed by the time he left Bradford University. A spell promoting rave gigs in and around Leeds was where his real passions lay. As for the business degree: “I hardly noticed it was there,” he quips.

A string of successful gigs was followed by one major knock-back which resulted in Julian owing some “very scary” security staff money. “It was a fantastic lesson in not getting carried away with myself. All of a sudden I wasn’t invincible.”

It was now the mid-1990s and his first job out of university, now back in the North East, was with a hard-nosed meat trader in Jesmond.

Julian explained: “It wasn’t the most glamorous job in the world, but I probably learnt more about what small business and sales is about than throughout my whole time at university. It was really tough. Me and my wife at the time had just had our first child, and I was fired three months afterwards.”

With little money in his pocket Julian was feeling the pressure. It was at this point he landed the IBM Business Partner job which set him on his current trajectory.

The born and bred North Easterner admits he showed no inclination towards a career in technology until he landed the role which involved selling mid range servers to businesses.

He said: “I had virtually no interest it that side of things. I was always very heavily into art and I even remember having to get my uni friends to help me print my dissertation - which seems crazy given where I am now!”

Fast-forward to today, to the Julian which co-founded a renowned digital agency which employs 40 people and this year turned over £2m, it does seem somewhat strange that he couldn’t work his printer.

The learning curve that brought him to where he is now was steep - and not without its problems. The server sales job was his first stab at self-management and working from home.

“I would meet the sales manager for a catch-up in Leeds, which was half way. If I was hitting my target he’d be fine and if I wasn’t, he’d ask how my garden was looking - saying I must have the best garden in the North East because I clearly wasn’t doing any work!

“I loved the job because it was exciting and people really wanted to buy what we were selling. I was making good money on a top product. Those years were very good for me from a work perspective, but I was spending a lot of time on the road.”

It was at this time Julian and his first wife were going through a divorce - a time he describes as extremely difficult. It was not until some time later that Julian met his current wife, Tamsin, with whom he now has three young children.

Julian explained: “Tamsin opened my eyes to a lot of things. She had travelled quite extensively - to places like Thailand. I had friends that had done so, but because I’d had a child so early - none of that was really on offer to me. I was kind of skint from the day I left university.

“All of a sudden I realised there was more to life than a week in Majorca.”

The turning point which led to the creation of Orange Bus was a trip to Thailand during the 2002 World Cup.

He said: “I watched most of the games horizontal in a hammock in a little hut on the beach. I’d just made a good chunk of money at IBM, but because I was doing well, I knew my target was about to go up - and so would the pressure.

“I remember sitting with Tamsin and thinking there must be more to life than this. So I resigned when I got home, and went back to uni to do a masters in Business Information Systems at Northumbria University.”

It was at this time Julian started to dabble in freelance IT consultancy, helping all manner of businesses with their infrastructure needs. He realised a talent for coordinating people and drawing together the relevant skills to tackle a project.

A small website job, picked up on the playground while he was collecting his daughter from school, proved to be the catalyst in making it a fully fledged business.

He said: “The job was for a hotel and restaurant, so I found someone who could put together a good booking system, and someone else to design the site. It was then I realised selling someone else’s time was better than selling my time. I could make more money and it was less demanding.

“I started to look for more work like that. The consultancy stuff was fine, but it was hard work and it was nothing to get a phone call at 7 o’clock on a Friday, when I was in the pub.”

Soon after that initial job Julian met Orange Bus co-founder Mike Parker at a networking event he was just about to leave.

“I was pushed back in the room by Doug Richards, who used to be on Dragons’ Den. Fortunately I stayed and got chatting to Mike, who was also thinking about leaving his job to go freelance. He offered to buy me a beer if I would sit down with him and talk him through the ups and downs of doing it yourself,” Julian explained.

The pair got on well, and when Julian’s next job required some technical expertise, he called on Mike - who has a background in computer science. A partnership was born.

It was 2006 and Orange Bus launched, with the view to scale as a serious digital agency. The name was suggested by Julian’s then seven year-old daughter - referring to his eye-catching orange VW split screen camper van.

He said: “I still love the brand, I’m really attached to it. Although the bus has changed colour to red. I’ve recently taken the family to Holland in it. It’s a squeeze but we all fit in there somehow, and we get the big awning out to accommodate everyone. We even got married in it.

“Working on the van gives me a huge sense of pleasure - and engineering holds a big fascination for me. I’m not methodical by nature, I tend to look for shortcuts and opportunities and once I’ve made decisions I like things to have happened yesterday. But, working on the van forces me to take a methodical approach.

“I rebuilt the engine last winter, and it took me a long time. I had to keep ringing friends along the way - it’s that part of it that forces me out of my comfort zone.”

Orange Bus’ big break was when surf brand O’Neill hired Julian’s van for a photoshoot. After attaching himself to the firm for the day they sent some work in his direction. For Julian and Mike it was the big name brand they needed under their belts to win work elsewhere.

Since then clients have grown in size to include the likes of Aston Martin Racing, Barbour, and Pearson, and the team has expanded. Most recently the firm opened an office in Clerkenwell in London to service growing demand from the capital.

With a wide customer base that skirted the public sector, banking and housing sectors Orange Bus successfully weathered the recession.

“The growth has been relatively quick - and next year we’re expecting turnover of £3m. It’s not been without its challenges of course, but we’re really happy with the way things have gone so far.”.

The London office is an exercise in providing account management to clients on their doorstep, while retaining the production base in the North East as Julian and Mike aim to reach £10m turnover in the next four years. A pride in their North East roots promises to keep the pair rooted in the region.

Julian explained: “We come from a region of engineering excellence. People often get caught up in this traditional notion of the North East’s heavy industrial heritage. We still are great engineers, but we’re engineering using software. Some of the stuff coming out of the region is absolutely fantastic.

“Our staff in Newcastle are second to none and there’s other companies out there who would say the same. We can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best of them and win work across Europe for our technology and creativity.

“What we don’t have up here, and there’s no point pretending otherwise, is a vast array of enterprise businesses with large cheque books. We have to go elsewhere and look for the work.”

He added: “Pure maths tells us to keep the engineers and designers up here. Our Newcastle offices give us around 400,000 sq ft for the same cost as 5,000 sq ft in buys us in London. The workforce is more loyal and far less transient in the city - so it makes perfect sense.

“I think that’s a real opportunity for the region as a whole. We need to focus on what we’re good at.”

Within the Dean Street offices Orange Bus’ user testing lab allows the team to observe people at work and how they interact with products. The user experience team come from a scientific background.

Now Julian and Mike have their sights set on the Swiss pharmaceutical sector - an extensive and lucrative market in which Orange Bus have already fought off much larger competitors to win work.

“It’s a really interesting place for us as it requires a different type of working. They do things slightly differently there. The protocol is a lot more formal and the Swiss firms are great clients to work for,” Julian said.

When he’s not in the office or out visiting clients, 41 year-old Julian devotes his time to his family - his four children aged one, five, seven, and 17.

“Having a third child turned everything up to 11. My wife works three days a week so its hard work, in fact it’s mayhem, with pack lunches to be made and uniforms to be washed. But, I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Julian smiled.

The Questionnaire

What car do you drive?

Audi S4 and 1967 VW Splitscreen Camper

What’s your favourite restaurant?

Two Fifths, it’s a new one opposite Revolution in town, highly recommended.

Who or what makes you laugh?

Loads of things, but the kids will always come pretty high up that list.

What’s your favourite book?

Always enjoyed the Carl Hiaasen books, but I don’t get the chance to read much these days. I tend to go for something along the lines of the freakonomics books or something by Malcolm Gladwell, factual but still surprising.

What was the last album you bought?

I buy all my music on vinyl, it’s a big passion and I get a lot of pleasure from it. The last purchase was Jungle (self titled).

What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?.

I’d love to be an engineer of some sort, I like the idea of solving problems and then creating something tangible.

If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?

I think a talking parrot would be spectacularly annoying. I wouldn’t teach one to say anything!

What’s your greatest fear?

Not being able to provide for my family.

What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?

A chap called David D’Arcy gave Mike and I his time in our early days and his advice was always worth listening to. One thing we always remember is to test any decisions we make, especially ones that may be difficult with what David called the “note on the canteen wall” - basically if you can imagine writing down your reasons and everyone reading them and understanding why you’ve made the decision, it’s probably a decent one from a moral standpoint. You can’t always please everyone but you can make sure you’re not being unfair or unreasonable.

And the worst?

Not exactly advice, but I honestly thought that the more successful we were the more time I would have to myself. Hopefully one day this will come true!

What’s your poison?

Lager or red wine, although I’ve started to try the odd real ale, mainly since the Bridge Tavern opened near our office (it has a micro brewery onsite).

What newspapers do you read, other than the Journal?

The Guardian Monday to Saturday and the Sunday Times, mainly for the supplements.

How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?

I used to go with my mum to the cash and carry as a kid and buy key rings and stuff with my pocket money so I could sell them at school, so I always liked earning! I had a car washing round at about 9 or 10 as well which brought in about £10 a week.

How do you keep fit?

I don’t, I have a gym membership and I never use it. It’s extremely annoying and I keep promising myself that I will start to look after myself one day…

What’s your most irritating habit?

I’m impatient.

What’s your biggest extravagance?

Trainers and jackets.

Which historical of fictional character do you most identify with or admire?.

I admire people who stood up for their beliefs and for the benefit of others, no matter how difficult or risky that was. Martin Luther King would be a good example, Winston Churchill another.

Which four people famous people would you most like to dine with?

I’m going to cheat here a little as I’d like my old mate Nick to be there, he sadly passed away after a scooter crash a few years ago and I still really miss him. Other than that, Paul Weller, Niall Quinn and Marissa Mayer.

How would you like to be remembered?

That doesn’t really trouble me, as long as your happy in yourself then surely thats enough? It’s up to others to form their opinions.

Working Day

6am to 7am - one of the kids will wake us up, I stopped setting my alarm ages ago. This occasionally back fires but I get a weird sense of satisfaction from pretending I don’t have to get up at any particular time.

7am - 8ish Get ready, try and choose which trainers I’m going to wear (this can take some time). Get the kids ready for school/nursery or whatever. It’s mayhem in the morning to be honest! I try and take the kids to school if I can once a week, or drop the baby off at nursery.

8.30am - It only takes me 15 minutes or so to get to work, so I should get there at a reasonable time. I’ll have a cup of tea and read emails and so on, sometimes Mike and I will wander up to Doyles to grab a coffee and catch up.

9.30 onwards - I don’t have a regular routine on a daily basis, we have weekly meetings internally that will take place on any particular day and I travel a fair bit, we have clients in Switzerland and an office in London so I’m not always in Newcastle.

6pm or thereabouts I’ll usually head home, sometimes earlier if I’m picking up kids and my wife is still at work. I try and switch off at night these days, unless there’s something specific to do there’s little point in working all night, your brain needs time to relax. Having said that, it can be well after 9pm before the kids are all in bed and prepared for the next day with uniforms, washing and all that stuff sorted, although again my wife does far more than I do!

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