From prize-winning nuclear physicist to fearless combatant of a particularly belligerent Chinese pheasant, Duncan Tift meets Edward Cook, former managing director of West Midland manufacturer Thomas Walker.
You can learn a lot about a person from the films they watch and who their heroes are. On the face of it, Edward Cook is a typical managing director of a mid-ranking Midland manufacturing company but beneath his crisply tailored suit beats the heart of an adventurer.
Prize winning nuclear physicist he may be, but deep down you get the impression all he wants to do is the decent thing and ride off into the sunset with Grace Kelly by his side. The reason – his favourite film.
“I saw High Noon when I was seven and it’s still the most influential film I’ve ever seen. Ever since then Will Kane has been one of my heroes. The man who stood up for what he thinks is right,” he says.
It is one of the principles by which he has tried to live his own life.
Indeed he knows the film inside-out and still has the original 78 recording of the soundtrack.
“The screenwriter, Carl Foreman made the film as an anti-McCarthy statement, which was a powerful thing to do in the early 50s and I admire him for it. It cost him his career in the end but the thing is a triumph and a lasting legacy for him.”
His other hero is legendary explorer Ernest Shackleton – unalike on the face of it from Will Kane but underneath, perhaps not so different.
“Ever since I read about his exploits I have wanted to visit Elephant Island, where he kept his team alive in the Anctartic,” he says. Indeed, if he were alive today, the explorer could find himself with a dinner invitation.
Perhaps the heroic exploits of these two men inspired him to overcome one of the hardest challenges of his early life.
“I was a student working in a private aviary in Charlcot and it was one of the worst experiences of my life because I had a civil war with one of the birds there, a particularly nasty Chinese pheasant which took it upon itself to attack me every morning I entered the cage.
“I used to have to go in armed with a long stick and fend off attacks. The first you knew of it was this missile suddenly heading towards you and then it was a case of self-defence.
“I’m pleased to say that life’s got easier since then.”
Chances are, if you’re reading this and wearing trousers then in some small way you will have contributed to the success of this week’s interviewee.
For Mr Cook has recently stepped down as managing director of West Midland fastener manufacturer Thomas Walker, a company perhaps still best known for supplying the hook and bars that perform such a vital role in stopping our trousers from spending more time around our ankles than our waists.
He joined the company almost three decades ago and has overseen some major changes, both in his own business and in the fashion world. But it was an unusual road that has brought him to this point.
As a student at Nottingham University he opted to study nuclear physics – and not without success, claiming the Barton Business Prize (University Prize for Physics).
After leaving university in the mid 60s he joined Courtalds, initially with a view to getting into sales.
However, his scientific skills proved useful and was also put to work in the company’s laboratories, as well as getting involved in field work.
“We were developing fibre testings for things like carpets, assessing their durability and the like.
“We were also running research into things like tyre construction,” he says. “Oddly, around that time the university contacted me and said that good physicists were in demand and would I like to go back.
“I thought about it but I opted to stay where I was and then I had a lucky break and got into the testing of carbon fibres in aerospace, sports equipment and general engineering,” he adds.
Back in the late 60s/early 70s the technology was in its infancy but the farsighted recognised that it was a key innovation for the future.
“We developed early carbon fibre products such as tennis racquets and golf clubs. The work involved a lot of overseas travel and I visited Japan a great deal to develop production and technology licenses with Mitsubishi.
“I used to go for periods of three weeks, twice a year for five years. That might be something Westerners take for granted now but back then we were few and far between.
“For example, there were no knives and forks and so I had to learn very quickly how to use chopsticks,” he says.
He also learned the Oriental way of doing things, something that was to stand him in good stead later in his career.
“I discovered many things, for example I learned that ‘Yes’ doesn’t mean yes over there, it’s merely an abbreviated form for saying ‘Yes, we understand what you say’.
“It is grievously impolite to say ‘No’ and so you have to structure your questions differently. For example, we can say ‘Are we in agreement that this is done this way’ and they can then keep consensus going, which they see as more constructive.”
He also had to overcome native curiosity, which wasn’t without humour.
“The Japanese hadn’t really had much contact with Westerners back then so we were viewed with great curiosity. They used to call me ‘GI Joe’.”
In 1979 he was invited to join Thomas Walker. He firstly worked as sales and marketing manager, before becoming the director of one of its subsidiaries. In 1982 he was made sales director, followed 10 years later with his appointment as managing director.
“I retire in October and earlier this year I suggested it would be a good idea for me to step down in June at the end of the financial year.
“Currently I am chairman of UK subsidiaries and director without portfolio - an interesting title for someone who’s negative about everything,” he says.
He admits that the business has changed a lot during his career.
“It was a long standing family company which went public and when I joined it was totally focused on the clothing and garment accessory business, which was then still thriving in Western Europe.
The product range varied but was predominantly the hooks and bars sewn into trousers and skirts. The key to the business’s success was providing the machinery in the clothing factory to fit the garment.
“The most complex machines are the ones that put the hooks and bars into men’s suits and ladies trousers. The machines basically do a simple job but in a sophisticated way.
“In addition, we manufacture visibles such as belt buckles, brace clips and fasteners for ladies corsetry - surgical to lingerie.”
However, with his knowledge of the Far East, he quickly recognised that the focus of the garment industry was about to do a global shift and if the business was to survive it needed to diversify.
“There were a couple of events in the early 1980s that enabled the diversification to take place and on the face of it, they may seem rather odd and unconnected, however, the Falklands War and the Pope’s visit to Britain were very significant for us.
“There was an instant demand for ID badges and with a little thought, we modified a man’s brace clip and developed a new attachment and we had what was needed.
“We have now broadened the range considerably from lanyards to the elastic cord swipe cards for cash tills.”
But getting a new product off the ground required a lot of hard work.
“I had to tread the boards and get people interested, that’s how the market was generated. I had guessed by this stage that the garment manufacturing industry was moving to Asia. It’s very easy to move a clothing factory. It’s an itinerant industry and so we have to follow it.
“We needed to find a company we could operate with in Asia. I found one in Hong Kong where we could successfully transpose operations from here to there. After that we set up a second Asian company and we continued to look after quality control and sales and marketing,” he says.
One problem the company has had to try and overcome over the years is being a slave to fashion. “As fashions change so the business has had to adapt,” he says. “If men’s trousers have a single hook or women’s trousers have a narrow waistband instead of a deep one then our business can halve.
“It is the same with braces, especially in the US. But its cyclical and in two or three years it comes around again.
“When companies stopped putting belts on trousers that affected us as is the change in women’s lingerie to shall we say, something less structured,” he says somewhat coyly.
The loss of the jeans market to the foreign markets has also had a significant effect on the business although it continues to supply major high street stores and designers.
“In any garment store ours is probably the predominant product,” he says proudly.
However, if his career has taught him anything it is not to try and second guess the fashion industry.
“We try and do what we are good at. The Britishness of our brands is still significant and it’s very important that we have Made in England on our products, especially for the US and Indian marketplaces where it’s valued the most,” he says.
How does he intend to spend his retirement? “I am a representative on a Standards and Ethics Committee on a district council and I have also taken on a consultancy role here looking at new market applications.
“I have also become involved in advising London-based charity Move-It, which is endeavouring to put an extra two hours sports into schools for 11-13 year olds,” he said.
The charity has a broad range of applications. It is designed to improve the confidence of the children. It began as a four year pilot project in Brent and is expanding around London with a view to moving to other cities.
“The top 10 per cent of kids are good at sports and will normally find their way into sports. Ten per cent at the bottom aren’t interested. The ones in-between are interested in sports but often have no outlet or opportunity and this is where Move-It is important. At the moment I’m just involved in an advisory role and telling people what they can’t do but despite that, they’re still talking to me.”
His eventual goal is to bring the project to Birmingham. “I think it would work here and it would be nice to be able to play a part in that,” he says.
With apologies to the song from his favourite film, perhaps he is not yet ready to forsake his darling town.