Malcolm Breakwell, chairman of Silverline Coaches, tells Tom Fleming that it hasn't always been a smooth ride.
Not so much a career path, more a way of strife marked Malcolm Breakwell’s tentative early steps en route to a successful business career.
As a fresh-faced newcomer to the world of work, the teenage Malcolm quite literally trudged up many a blind alley, dragging himself from door to door on a frustrating mission to persuade the housewives of 1960s Britain that what they needed most in life was a vacuum cleaner.
Not surprisingly, life on the knocker failed to thrill and he quit after just six weeks.
Being Hoover’s man on the doorstep wasn’t his first foray into employment. By the time he reached that stage he had already sampled, and abandoned, jobs as a salesman with a wholesale decorators’ merchants and as a glass cutter, a career choice that soon lost its sparkle.
Although his early years seem to have been marked by a certain lack of direction, the grasshopper philosophy concealed one important element of Malcolm’s make up – an unswerving determination to succeed.
Looking back it seems inevitable that having tried so many careers, he would eventually find the one to make his dream come true.
But back to the story. There was a long and unpredictable journey before that happened and when opportunity did bob by, it did so almost by chance.
We’ll skip over the ensuing episodes which read something like the list of trades in Yellow Pages – carpet and furniture salesman, cosmetics distributor – and go straight to the milk depot in the shape of Midlands Counties Dairy (later known as Unigate) where he rose to be deputy manager before moving to the Co-op where he had to start at the bottom all over again and spent two years as their man in Chelmsley Wood, loading crates of milk in and out of tower block lifts to complete his high rise milk round.
At this time, as a way of earning extra cash, he responded to an advert for part-time drivers at a private hire taxi firm.
A few weeks later his phone rang. It was the taxi firm asking if he was available for work that night.
“They had never met me, knew nothing about me and gave me no training,” he recalls. “They gave me the keys to a car I had never driven and told me to take it around the block.”
Soon after he was on the road.
“I thought I knew my way around the area, but I was terrible at it,” he admits. “I worked the Friday and Saturday night shifts and what I lacked in experience I made up for in giving customers a high level of service.
“The whole experience taught me the importance of training, something we value highly at Silverline, that and the need to provide a full service to customers.”
It also gave him an insight into the possibilities for private hire firms, and as all this was happening at the time the National Exhibition Centre was being built, he could see that there was a lot of opportunity. People would need transport.
The gods of enterprise work in mysterious ways and decided at this point to add a little physical discomfort to Mr Breakwell’s woes, inflicting on him a double dose of tennis elbow and setting in motion the chain of events that led to his current success.
Tennis elbow is an unfortunate condition in someone whose job it is to lug fully laden milk crates up and down high rise Chelmsley Wood, so he arranged for his manager to provide a fit young “runner” to lend a hand with the heavy work.
Until, that is, he arrived at the depot to find the manager was off and a relief manager had been brought in from another depot.
“When I asked him for help he refused and said that if I wasn’t fit I shouldn’t have come in. I was furious,” he says.
“I went out and did the round on my own, despite the pain, and when I finished I got myself signed off for a fortnight.”
Rarely can two weeks have been better spent. He used the first week researching the car hire business, handed in his notice at the start of the second week, placed an advert in the local paper saying he and his car were available for hire, and never returned.
While waiting for the phone to ring he painted the outside of his house.
It took a month before the first call came. “It was a family wanting to go the airport. The fare was £2 and that was my first month’s earnings,” he recalls. It was August 1974 and Silverline was born.
Undaunted he had 70,000 cards printed and pounded the local pavements pushing them through letterboxes. It had the desired response, along with some unwanted consequences.
“When the calls started to come in, of course, I found myself in Catch 22. I couldn’t be delivering the cards and answering the phone and driving the car all at the same time.
“A friend suggested that I should approach the local Venture Scouts and ask them to help by delivering the cards in return for a contribution towards their kit – and that’s just what I did,” he says.
“I was amazed at how it all kicked off after that, and it meant I was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Although Silverline had begun as a private hire taxi firm, it wasn’t long before corporate clients came knocking, impressed by the quality of the service, and pushed the firm into the chauffeur-driven car market.
“Inevitably, as the corporate work grew, clients began to ask for larger capacity vehicles and so we added our own mini-coaches,” he adds.
“Later, when larger coaches were required, we began to sub-contract work. This was all very well but we wanted to control the quality of our vehicles and our service and so in 1995 we bought our first full size executive coach.”
Today, Silverline operates a fleet of executive coaches and luxury chauffeur-driven cars, employs more than 100 people and turns over £3 million a year.
In addition to major blue chip companies, Silverline also counts the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and the Birmingham Royal Ballet among its clients.
It also has contracts with major airlines – including KLM, Continental Airlines, Lufthansa, Emirates, Air India and Flybe – to transport their flight crews and cabin staff between UK airports and to ferry them between airports and hotels.
Most recently, because of the current economic climate, the company has introduced LandFlightCars, a low-cost chauffeur service specialising in personal transport from home, hotel or office direct to the major UK airports.
For example, a trip to Heathrow for up to four people in a chauffeured executive car costs only £99 plus vat from anywhere within the Birmingham postcode area.
Mr Breakwell has many memories from his 35 years at the helm. One of the most memorable was when former US President Bill Clinton shook his hand and personally thanked his team for their efforts during the G8 Conference in Birmingham.