Andrew Baxter hears how a promising musical career was brought to an abrupt end and a series of chance opportunities opened up
Colleagues should not be too surprised if Jonathan Cooper-Bagnall were to break out into song every now and again, his fine baritone voice echoing through the glass-partitioned spaces at PA Consulting Group's London headquarters.
It's not smugness - although Mr Cooper-Bagnall was one of the youngest ever members of PA's management group (equivalent to partner) at the age of 31 and 11 years later heads its 150-strong shared services and outsourcing business. Rather, it's a sign of a musical talent that might have led his career in a very different direction.
Brought up in Sutton Coldfield in the Midlands, "music was the only thing I really cared about" as a child, he says. And after eight years of immersion in musical instruments and choral work, including a fouryear music scholarship at Lichfield Cathedral from the age of eight, no one expected him to do anything else.
"But I got to 16 and thought: 'No, this is not what I want to do at all. I really don't want to turn it into a career, I want it as a hobby because I enjoy it and I love it'," he says.
Mr Cooper-Bagnall's route from there to his current role has been far from straightforward. Leaving school with few academic qualifications, he took a catering and hotel management course at a college in Birmingham, working at the same time for caterers such as Ring & Brymer at regattas and other such events.
Work was more appealing than study, however, and he decided to stop his education at that point, but admits: "I'm not sure that was a good decision in hindsight. I'm not a big advocate of there being only one route to getting your education, there are multiple ways to learn, but the effort required to overcome the hurdles of not having a good education is really quite substantial."
A stint as an assistant manager at the University Arms hotel in Cambridge put him in contact with technology, as the hotel was refreshing its reservation systems.
The technology connections intensified in Mr Cooper-Bagnall's next job, at a hotel owned by a computer company, and he was bitten by the IT bug: "Here they were grappling with the challenges of growing very fast, in the emerging PC industry of the early 1990s. This was another exciting industry that I wanted to be in."
So he quartered his salary and joined a unit of ICL as a salesman, selling technology products and services, learning on the job but hitting the ground running. At just 23 he had landed a multi-million pound contract with Powergen (now Eon) and realised - in something of a defining moment - that he could handle a job that required understanding a clients' business needs as much as the products he was selling.
More successes followed for Mr Cooper-Bagnall, in the UK and in Canada, on a huge contract for which Systemhouse (later taken over by EDS) was bidding from what was then SmithKline Beecham, and he became ever more immersed in both the broad thrust and the details of the fastemerging outsourcing business. By 1998, IT outsourcing was all the rage and PA, as an independent consultancy with a strong technology focus, needed people who understood what the providers could offer but could also advise clients on how to avoid pitfalls such as losing control of their business or failing to get value for money.
It was a window of opportunity for Mr Cooper-Bagnall to make another career move and become a consultant.
Consultancies such as PA aim for a blend of recruits, from smart young graduates who can be developed from their early 20s to wizened industry insiders who know their sector or function inside out. Mr Cooper-Bagnall was, at 28, hardly wizened, but industry expertise is only a start.
"John Little, then head of the IT management practice, said: 'I'm very sure you can sell things, Jonathan, but I've absolutely no idea whether you can be a consultant. So if you want to come in here, you have to start again'."
At the time, Mr Cooper-Bagnall was disappointed at being offered a relatively junior role but looking back he says it made a lot of sense to come in one level below what he wanted, as it gave him the opportunity to learn about both the work and the role but with less pressure.
He attributes his achievement in being elected a member of PA's management group within three and a half years partly to the consultancy's commitment to internal training and mentoring.
"It's been like my university, I guess. There is a huge investment in coaching and training people coming into the firm, with the single biggest thing being around getting you to think broadly about topics and issues and the challenges that businesses might be facing, and to get outside of what you might think is your particular specialism, discipline or skill." Mr Cooper-Bagnall has enjoyed the intellectual challenge of creating innovative ways to outsource that add value for clients, with a string of notable successes over the years. But the people and teamwork skills learnt in the heat of a commercial kitchen, serving food for a 2,000-person function, have also helped him. "If you can't work cohesively as a team, and something goes wrong, which it invariably does, how does that team cope?" he says.
"Similarly, when you are influencing 4,500 people who are transferring from one company to another, who do you worry about in that transfer? How do you ensure the team is going to stay joined up and working together?" After five years in the US for PA, Mr Cooper-Bagnall took up his present role in 2010, when the consultancy pulled together several teams to recognise the fact that outsourcing has now gone a long way beyond IT to embrace functions such as human resources, finance, and procurement.
He commutes from Cornwall, spending weekdays in London, and does not have much time for his first and abiding passion, music.
"I still love playing the piano, but I don't play the violin any more - my wife and daughter can't stand it," he says.
Who were your mentors? John Little, the PA partner who hired me, took enormous amounts of time to invest in developing his people. And another PA guy, David Ballantyne, was a master at relationships with people.
Other influences? This is going to sound twee, but the constant has been my wife Tracey since I was 20, to provide grounding, motivation, incentive, not letting me get too carried away.
What are your ambitions? Short-term, continuing to build this business is exciting; there's certainly lots more to do. Mid-term, I would love to build a business in Asia and also the opportunity to do more lecturing in the top business schools. And at some point I'm sure I'll settle down in Cornwall and open a restaurant and go back to doing that, but that's a number of years off.
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