Grand designs and wild imagination

STEFAN Lepkowski was brought up in the wilds of the South African veldt: he adored the open vistas and the endless beauty of the landscape around his home near Table Mountain.

Stefan Lepkowski

STEFAN Lepkowski was brought up in the wilds of the South African veldt: he adored the open vistas and the endless beauty of the landscape around his home near Table Mountain. His days were filled with surfing, sunbathing and experiencing a wild outdoor existence – he even used to catch snakes for pocket money.

It’s a far cry from his life these days, which is, in large part, spent coming up with campaigns for clients of his Newcastle agency Karol Marketing.

The managing director explains: “As a boy I used to catch snakes like puff adders, slug eaters and even (lethal) cape cobras and sell the skins at local gymkhana events.

“A friend of mine at that time asked me to come round to his farm to see the safe and non-venomous slug eater he had caught alive.

“Unfortunately when his father saw what we had, he went berserk – it was actually a cape cobra which looked very similar but could have killed either one of us with one bite.

“Years later in Corsica I presented myself as somewhat of a snake expert when a two-foot snake showed up on the beach, causing a commotion. People were screaming and running everywhere.

“I went to catch it with my bare hands – as I had done dozens of times in South Africa – mistimed it and got bitten on the hand.

“Fortunately, it wasn’t poisonous, just very embarrassing,” he recalls.

In 1979, when he was aged 17, his world as he knew it fell apart when his parents settled in England, deciding to leave South Africa forever.

Lepkowski was sent to boarding school in Bath, a period in his life he describes as very unhappy. But it led to a tough and life-changing lesson.

He says: “We had been able to come to England because my mother is English and my father felt that in 1979 the storm clouds of political unrest were gathering in South Africa.

“But I had grown up used to wide open spaces and freedom, so the regimented life at boarding school was hard to bear. I literally prayed for God to help me and of course he never did.

“Then one day I remembered hearing the phrase ‘God helps those who help themselves’ and from that day forward things were very different; I took responsibility for my own life.”

Lepkowski is now the head of thriving public relations, marketing and communications consultant Karol Marketing, (Karol is his middle name) in Ouseburn Valley, employing 15 staff.

He also has a significant interest in two other businesses – the £3m turnover Tanfield Foods, set up three years ago with Phileas Fogg snacks founder Roger McKechnie, and point-of-sale retail design company somethinkelse, which has achieved £1m sales in two years.

Lepkowski says: “I always knew I wanted to work for myself at some point but when I left school (with no qualifications) all I wanted to do was ski.

“I have always been a very outdoors person (he has a love of climbing, wind surfing, paragliding and skiing) and coming from South Africa meant I had never seen snow, so I headed for Austria.”

Lepkowski has supreme confidence in himself and his own abilities which is a little disarming.

Part of this comes from a grand family heritage on his father’s side, occupying the upper echelons of Polish society.

He says: “My grandfather Stanislaw Lepkowski was a senior political figure in Poland.

“Before the Second World War when the Nazis invaded he fled with the then-Prime Minister but they were arrested in Czechoslovakia because the authorities wanted to hand them over to the Nazis.

“My grandfather escaped to London with three documents, each nominating a different person to be the new Prime Minister in exile, because no one knew which of the three would make it back to London from occupied Europe.”

The stories of Lepkowski’s distinguished family flow easily, each told with humour and pride. It is clear they have fired his imagination and ambition from an early age.

“Of my grandfather’s brothers, one was a great entrepreneur who was Poland’s biggest importer of cars before the war and the other was a fighter pilot, who was well known for dropping love letters to his girlfriends from the cockpit of his plane at various ambassadorial garden parties.

“Apparently he always wrote them in a bit of a code so none of the women knew for sure if the letter was for them in case there was more than one girlfriend at the party.”

After the war Lepkowski’s family was exiled as the communists took over in Poland and even years later when Lepkowski’s father visited Poland, he was followed by the secret police.

“Because of my family’s position I have always believed whatever drove them to be successful must be in me,” he reasons.

But on leaving school Lepkowski didn’t know what he wanted to do so he travelled Europe to find himself, a journey that lasted for six years.

“I was fluent in English and Afrikaans so I was able to learn German relatively easily,” he says.

“I was passionate about skiing because I had never seen snow. I will never forget how amazed I was when I realised how quietly it falls.

“The ability to keep an open mind and understand other people’s problems, be it a client or a friend, is a direct result of my travelling experiences. I believe everyone should get the opportunity to go travelling.”

Lepkowski was able to travel Europe after eventually finding work in a mountaineering centre in Val d’Isere in France.

The family who owned the centre also ran an activities centre in Corsica during the summer months where Lepkowski was also employed.

Then came a chance meeting with the Davison family – founders of the Sunderland outdoor activities brand Berghaus – who flew into Corsica in a private plane, resulting in an offer of work back in the UK.

“They must have seen something in me. I was keen, an outdoors type, and mechanically minded,” says Lepkowski.

It was decided he would come to the North-East to work in the retail shop.

“I didn’t want to work in the shop but I figured if I impressed, there would be other opportunities for me and I was right.”

He worked his way around every department in the company before being appointed public relations boss in 1990.

“This was my first time in the North-East and I immediately identified with the area. It is a cliché but, compared to my experiences in the South, I found people here much more friendly and I was able to indulge my love of outdoor sports, wind surfing and climbing in the region.

“It got to the point where my family were asking me when I was coming back to the South and I got quite annoyed and defensive about that attitude to this region.”

Lepkowski continued his love affair with the North-East, settling in Jesmond, Newcastle.

“Berghaus were really good to me but in 1992, when Pentland moved in to buy it, I felt I was achieving amazing things for the business and I decided I didn’t want to put my career on hold for a year waiting for the dust to settle and instead launched my own business from home.”

The move paid off and within six months he had his first employee and within 12 months had moved into an office on the Quayside.

“I started the business with the objective of making sales of £20,000 in the first year, working three days a week so I could indulge my outdoor pursuits.

“I achieved the early financial goal within six months but I was working six days a week so I decided to take someone on but, of course, that meant I had to increase my turnover which meant working longer hours.”

One of Lepkowski’s passions was mountaineering and through Berghaus he befriended mountaineer Chris Bonnington, who accompanied him on a ski expedition in 1992 to the Haute Route Chamonix-Zermatt in Switzerland to Chamonix in France.

“Chris is not a great skier and thought it would be a good challenge. Unfortunately, at the beginning of the expedition I went over a small cliff and ripped all the muscles in my shoulder.

“Everyone looked to Chris to give first aid but someone had told me the previous day Chris knew nothing about first aid.

“Fortunately, he does have a lot of common sense and I was put in a comfortable position before medical assistance arrived.”

As a result of this accident and the loss of two good friends, Paul Williams and Andy Fanshawe, both star climbers killed in climbing accidents, Lepkowski no longer climbs.

“I get my adrenaline rush from paragliding in Turkey and the Swiss Alps these days,” he says.

“It was also a tough experience because I had to launch my business whilst my injury healed and was unable to drive myself anywhere. It must have cost me over £1,000 in taxi fares.”

He has also developed another passion – buildings. Lepkowski bought Ouseburn’s Fighting Cock pub in 2000 and has converted it into a 6,000sq ft glass and steel office.

“Everyone thought I was mad when I bought the pub and they really thought I was mad when I started to direct a lot of the work myself, but now it is a great working environment with amazing views of the city.

“Getting the funding wasn’t easy either. My bank refused to back me so I went to one of my main clients, Nike, and was open about what I wanted the money for.

“They paid me a whole year’s fees up-front; other clients improved their credit terms and suddenly it freed up several hundred thousand pounds. I was absolutely delighted with the support I got.”

Off the back of his successful office development Lepkowski has charged headlong into his next pet project – renovating an old mill in the middle of the Northumberland countryside and it’s all recorded for Channel 4’s Grand Designs programme.

“It has cost me all my savings,” he admits. “It doesn’t have a kitchen and therefore it doesn’t qualify for a mortgage, but it is a wonderful stone building pre-dating 1850 with an acre-and-a-half of land surrounded by hundreds of acres of open countryside.

“Again, everybody told me I was mad but I approached the programme Grand Designs with my ideas and it has snowballed from there.

“It is amazing when a television company gets involved. Everybody involved with the project wants to give you the best quality at the best price; they want to do the very best job they can.

“I am really excited about it – there will be folding gantries, pre-cast concrete beams and bridges overlooking a beautiful valley.

“The programme airs next year, if we ever get it finished,” concludes Lepkowski.

In view of his track record . . . only a fool would bet against him.

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