Lessons on the road to success

11th April 1997 at 01:00
Elaine Carlton talks to Tom Farmer

I really didn't enjoy school very much and I don't look back on it with fond memories. I went to the Holy Cross Academy secondary school in Leith, Edinburgh, and must have had 20 teachers but I can barely remember any of their names. The reality was I didn't think much of them. If you were academic you were alright, and if you weren't academic but good at sport then you were also alright. But I was neither. In each year there were five classes, I was in 1E when I started and you couldn't get much lower than that.

It was 1953, I was 13 and although the war was over, rationing and National Service remained. In Leith, where I was brought up - the youngest of seven children - we didn't have much in the way of material goods but we didn't really want for anything either.

Many of the boys wanted to do their service in the RAF because it had great uniforms. The best way to make sure of that was to join the Air Training Corps, which held meetings after school at St Anthony's School in Leith.

The corps was run by John Mulvey, a ginger-haired, soft-spoken Irishman with a sharp tongue. He was the headmaster of another school in Leith, squadron leader of the ATC and a superb teacher. Mulvey's corps was an adventure. It was the biggest in the country and there was a waiting list to get a place.

Meetings were held on Wednesday and Friday evenings at school and what we learned was unbelievable - radio communications, map-reading and the basics of engineering. There was a rifle range where we learned to shoot, and we even had flying lessons.

at the end of every meeting the squadron would parade in the forecourt. There was an inspection followed by prayers. Mr Mulvey, whom we always called Sir, would come out at the side and stand in front of us boys. If I was to picture him now it would be right there standing in front of the squadron.

Then he would address the squadron for a few minutes. He'd tell us we should always be willing to give anything a try and that while academic qualifications were important, a "can do" attitude was crucial.

He taught me to have confidence and to believe in myself. It was an incredible atmosphere out there in the yard and he created it. I always felt as though he was talking directly to me, even though there were another 250 boys there. He believed that where young people were concerned there were no lost causes. He used to say there were no bad young people, just bad adults who gave bad guidance.

Mr Mulvey would never embarrass you, and he always took the time to try to help. He had incredible charisma and a way of making you trust him completely.

A successful relationship is created when the pupil feels such respect for the teacher he never wants to let him down - and I had that feeling with Mr Mulvey. The worst thing in the world was to be hauled up in front of the squadron leader for misbehaviour.

One day I got caught smoking and was shaking with fear when I was sent to see Mr Mulvey. He didn't scream or shout but just asked me if my mother knew I smoked and what she'd have said if she'd found me. It made me feel terrible.

Mr Mulvey taught map-reading and signalling. But more than that he taught you about what you needed to get on in the world - self motivation. He told us never to be frightened of failing. If you're frightened of failing you'll never do anything, he used to tell us.

Every year there was a parents' evening and Mr Mulvey would go out and tell the parents that his squadron was the best, which gave me tremendous inner pride. I can still remember him speaking to them. To me it felt like he was telling my mum and dad I was the greatest kid there.

Most of my mates went into mechanic-type jobs. They became joiners or engineers in shipbuilding yards. I left school just before my 15th birthday. My mum saw an advert from a tyre company looking for a stores boy. I went for it and I got the job.

A few years later I started my first business, selling tyres at discount prices. One day a guy drove up in an old Rover. I fitted two tyres and asked him if he remembered me. It was Mr Mulvey.

After that whenever he visited Edinburgh he came to see me. Eventually we started a travel agency business together. He has always given me a feeling that he'd never let me down and I trusted him 100 per cent.

Tom Farmer CBE is chairman and chief executive of Kwik Fit, the tyre and exhaust repair specialist. The company has 867 car centres in the UK, Holland and the Irish Republic, and in the six months to August 1996 delivered pre-tax profits of Pounds 21.5 million. Mr Farmer started the group in 1971, already a millionaire from selling his first business. John Mulvey died ten years ago.

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