Academic Professor Ian Gordon has run award-winning businesses, advised companies, refurbished properties, travelled the world and has retired twice. Giles Brown meets him

The North Sea is a volatile place, raging with high piercing winds, driving rain and snow, bitter cold and turbulent seas.

Few know this better than the workers who set out to extract oil and gas from its remote reserves, often pushing the edge of what is safe and technologically possible to exploit its natural resources.

In the early 1980s it was this pioneering pursuit which led Professor Ian Gordon - at that time working as an instrument engineer - to be dangling over the edge of a rig repairing the camera used to film the drilling operation below.

"The weather was a bit rough but I said I was happy to do it,” remembers Ian.

“They put you in a harness and you go down on a thing called a man riding tugger, which is just a winch and a cable.”

While he was working suspended above the sea, Ian looked up at the controller of the winch to ask to be lifted a little higher.

"I remember seeing this look of fear on his face and I thought 'Oh crap, something's going to happen’.”

What did happen was that Ian was hit by a huge wave and rammed against the leg of the rig, losing consciousness and being hoisted to safety.

It was an accident which would indirectly inspire him to undertake his first entrepreneurial endeavour.

However, according to him, it was just one of a number of accidents and coincidences that have built his career, a career which has included travelling the world with the Merchant Navy, working with giants of the telecommunications industry and training a new generation of budding business pioneers.

"When you've done a bunch of stuff, you can reflect on that and describe a brilliant strategic career structure,” he says.

“But really my life's been a series of triggers, accidents and cock ups. I'm a deliberate engineer. I'm an accidental entrepreneur. I'm an accidental academic.”

Ian’s association with the Lake District and Cumbria began in the early 1960’s when he and his family used to come on holiday from their home city of Edinburgh, where he was a somewhat unwilling student at Darroch School.

“I hated school. I never liked it. I wasn't motivated. When the teacher would ask if anyone had any questions all I could ask was why are we doing this, what's going on?"

Ian left school with no qualifications and, due to the fact he played the clarinet, was advised to join the Royal Marines band until his mother encouraged him to study to become a radio operator at Leith Nautical College.

“The motivator was that I would get paid to go around the world,” says Ian.

Initially failing his exams, he rejoined the college to successfully graduate and head out to sea, working from the Persian Gulf along the coast of Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and through to Singapore, Malaysia, China and Japan.

"The good thing about being a radio officer is that you're not allowed to use your radio equipment when the ship is ashore," says Ian.

"So when we weren't at sea I got lots of time to go ashore and explore.”

He went to work for a maritime radio station in Wick, northern Scotland and then as a freelance instrument engineer working on rigs as part of the booming North Sea oil industry.

Ian was mainly employed on semi-submersible so-called wildcat rigs, carrying out exploratory drilling to identify new oil and gas fields.

"It was quite good fun to be in that industry. It was at the pioneering days, a lot of things were happening,” he says.

The excitement was also cut through with tragedy in the form of incidents such as the death of rescue helicopter crew Ian was communicating with on the radio when they crashed into the sea in poor visibility.

"To live through that sort of thing was incredibly formative,” he says.

“Your life was potentially in danger because you're drilling into gas, sometimes poisonous gas.”

Following his own brush with peril,he was visited by one of the senior leaders of Sedco, the oil company that was employing him.

During the conversation the boss suggested that rather than employing Ian via a third party they could take him on directly as a freelancer, with him pocketing the fee that usually went to the agency. What’s more they would pay Ian commission if he could find other people with similar skills to cover shifts on the rig.

Ian set to work putting together a small company that could do just that and, despite the fact the venture never worked out, it planted the seed of the idea that he could run his own business.

In addition to his work on the rigs he began putting his skills to use as a junior lecturer at Wray Castle - a business then based in the National Trust property of the same name overlooking Windermere - training radio officers for a career in the Merchant Navy.

"I just loved it,” says Ian.

“I discovered the hills and I became rapidly embedded in the world of the Lake District and the communities that lived there. I started doing a bit of fell running and I found I really liked it. I became addicted to running and did a lot of road marathons.”

Ian liked Wray Castle and his Lake District lifestyle so much that he bought the company for just £2000 when it came up for sale in 1983 in partnership with another employee.

Both the company and the premises needed some serious TLC with a host of structural issues to fix and only 40 students.

Ian moved into the castle to save money, selling his house in Edinburgh and his car to keep the business going, as well as working offshore to top up his earnings.

“It was a phenomenal amount of work but work is only a problem if you want to be doing something else,” he says.

“For me it was my passion so it was okay.

"I was at the stage of an entrepreneurial career where I just didn't know what I didn't know. I was just excited. I love the building and I loved what we were doing and the impact that we were having on students.”

As the need for radio operators began to decline with the growth of digital communications, the business had to adapt and moved into providing training to the booming cellphone industry.

"Ericsson, Nokia, Sony, Motorola were all flying in from all over the world to come to the Lake District and train at Wray Castle. We had a global footprint for what we were doing.”

Business boomed for Wray Castle from then on, with Ian setting up satellite offices in Hong Kong, the Middle East and Chicago.

Despite the success, the stress of running the business had inspired Ian to vow that he would sell it if he ever had the chance, something which he subsequently did in 1997 with a “vague notion” of retiring which never quite worked out.

Alongside his work with Wray Castle, Ian had also been a district councillor for Hawkshead - including sitting on the district council planning board - and he was soon approached to work as a consultant for Vodafone, advising them on a project to erect telecommunications masts in a sensitive way in the Lake District.

He also bought the former police station and magistrates’ court in Hawkshead to convert and sell as apartments.

Yet another venture followed in 2002 in the form of RUSH Clothing, founded by his friend David Owen, with Ian helping put together a business plan and raise capital to launch a chain of 12 retail outlets selling lifestyle outdoor clothing.

"There was some naivety on my part, I think,” remembers Ian.

“I assumed I was Teflon coated. You have two or three successes and you think you can do anything. You can't. It just didn't work. We ran out of cash.

"We opened in Chester, which is very expensive compared with some of the rural areas where we were opening and it just sucked cash.”

Although the company went into administration when the major investor pulled out, Ian was able to buy it from the administrators and run it as a much smaller business alongside wife Helen and supported by Dave the founder.

Helen herself is an experienced entrepreneur, having previously run lifestyle gift shop Maguire Metcalfe with her business partner Glynnis Maguire, in Bowness, and now focusing her efforts on her own business Fassienda, designing clothing and textiles.

"She's a consummate retailer, visual merchandiser and costume designer and she really ran RUSH and turned it around,” says Ian.

The couple ran the business until 2014, winning the Draper Magazine Independent Retailer of the Year award, with one outlet still remaining in Ambleside to this day under new ownership.

"I probably learned more about business in that experience than anything I had done before," says Ian.

"You don't learn from success very well, you learn from failure and making mistakes. We learn by reflection, we don't learn by having an experience we learn by reflecting on that experience.

“Sometimes you've done all the things you could possibly do, you've tried to break into a new market, you've been disruptive, you've been innovative, you have sensible control systems in place in your business but you haven't been able to do it.”

While he was engaged in running RUSH, Ian had also begun working with Lancaster University Management School (LUMS), having had an association with the university since completing an MBA there during his Wray Castle days.

Between 2008 and 2017 he was founding entrepreneur in residence, senior teaching fellow, and director of executive education at LUMS, and in 2016 he completed a PhD in the role of networks and social capital in running SMEs, tapping into his own belief in the importance of networking.

Ian says he was attracted by LUMS’ approach of merging advice from real entrepreneurs with business theory.

“The students’ job is to ask where does the theory make sense and where doesn’t it make sense,” says Ian.

"In business, things happen and everything is interacting. There's an infinite number of variables bearing down on you, meaning that any decision is only ever a reduction in a world of uncertainty; there can't be a right answer.

"I've got the academic rigour, I've got some entrepreneurial flair and I can bridge the gap between business and academia.

"It means I am quite good at both designing and delivering programmes for businesses because my mantra is that our job as a management school is to join businesses in their world.

“LUMS is a really world class university that is great at engaging with businesses beyond its walls.”

Ian left LUMS to try and retire once again in 2017 but was offered a role at Edinburgh University’s business school, relocating to his home city and working on developing a small business programme that could be delivered at Scotland’s 16 universities.

"I remember as a kid, walking past the fabulous buildings of Edinburgh University, and thinking it was somewhere I would never go and when I was offered a director's position inside the university it was too good an opportunity,” says Ian.

Ian and Helen moved back down to Cumbria in 2021, with Ian taking on a “retirement job” driving a Mountain Goat tour bus but soon beginning a position as professor of executive education back at Lancaster University at the age of 70.

“My wife was very angry. I was meant to be retired but now I’m working full time,” he says.

“It’s such a great place and they’re taking the same approach. They want to re-energise that engagement beyond the walls of academia.”

The entrepreneurial spirit seems to run in the family, with one of Ian’s sons Harry also making a name for himself in Cumbria working in sales at AW Jenkinson Forest Products, near Penrith, as well as running the popular Stride and Edge yoga business alongside partner Madeleine Sidi.

As well as teaching yoga classes in the Lake District, Madeleine and Harry also produce videos online, run retreats and sell their own range of non-slip yoga mats and other products.

Ian’s other son George is a commercial drone pilot and land surveyor, while he also has a very close relationship with Helen’s two children Eve and Jake with all their children living locally to their parents’ home in Kendal.

Meanwhile, his own drive shows little sign of slackening off.

"I just don't feel finished,” he says.

“I never see myself not doing stuff. I hate the idea of being an old fart.

“It's up to the current generation to make their own mistakes but if you've got a bunch of knowledge to draw on and you can just bring that to bear and it still has some currency, then why not?”