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Kamal Essa


As a teenager…

I grew up in Lancaster on the Bulk estate. It was a close-knit neighbourhood and it was great fun growing up there, and I was fortunate to have plenty of friends in the neighbourhood. We’d play football and cricket on the streets, and as we got older, we’d find other things to do, which often meant getting into mischief. My friends weren’t academic and weren’t interested in doing well in school. I was different.

I was clever enough to get into Grammar school. However, I almost didn’t go, as we were close to moving away from Lancaster. We didn’t have much money, and dad always found it hard to find a job after the textile factories closed. However, my primary school teacher, Mrs Hilson, convinced him to stay so I could go to LRGS. I still remember her taking me to the open day. Because of this, and being the oldest son, the pressure to do well was always intense.

I can’t say I enjoyed school and never felt like I belonged there, and I probably wasted a lot of time just trying to fit in. I was popular, but that was more to do with the tuck shop delivery service I ran after spotting an opportunity to make some extra money. That and selling my lunches when I was fasting during Ramadan!

I did well during the first few years and usually achieved top marks in most subjects. I was always active, enjoyed trying new things, and was keen to learn. I enjoyed learning new sports, such as basketball and rowing and played cricket for the school team. But that didn’t last long, as I lost interest in school.

I had a short attention span, and the only subjects I enjoyed were maths and the sciences, mostly because I’ve always been a logical thinker and found them easier to understand. I was suspended a few times and almost expelled for truancy. Those around me easily influenced me, and I often got into trouble with my neighbourhood mates rather than focusing on school. My report cards began to say, “has great potential, needs to work harder”.

Having no money meant I also spent most of my teenage years trying to earn extra pocket money. I think I was more interested in making money than getting good grades. I started with a paper round in the mornings, then worked in retail on the Morecambe prom during the summer holidays, including managing a shop at 16. I also spent a few years working on the markets in Gretna Green, Whitehaven and Workington, which wasn’t fun during the winter. I worked in a takeaway as a kitchen hand, and at one point, I was even selling personal stereos in school for some extra cash. I was never afraid of hard work, and for some reason, I never chose easy jobs!

After school…

Despite not enjoying school, I managed to do well enough to get into University. I was desperate to leave Lancaster and see what else was out there; going to uni was my way out. So I went to The University of Manchester to study Maths. I felt Manchester was just far enough away to move there but not too far to visit home regularly. It was one of my best decisions, and I loved my time at uni. I met so many people and made many friends. It was a real eye-opener, and Lancaster suddenly seemed so small.

I got bored just doing Maths, so I switched to Economics and Finance after the first semester. If I’m being honest, it was probably because that’s what most of my friends were doing, but I also think it was more suited to me as I’ve always been interested in business.

After graduating, I didn’t waste time applying for graduate jobs (probably because I didn’t think I was good enough). Instead, I went straight to a recruitment agency and got a temp job. It was an entry-level accounts assistant position. Having spent three years studying accountancy, becoming an accountant seemed the obvious choice, even though, by this time, I hated studying. I’m still unsure if it was the right choice, but I was comfortable with numbers and didn’t want my degree to go to waste.

After gaining valuable office experience, I moved on to my first full-time work in an accounts team in Manchester. I started my professional exams, and quickly worked my up and I was soon managing my own team. I stayed in Manchester for a few years until my department was relocated to the South to Toddington. I took the opportunity to move down for an initial 6 months as part of the handover team, but I ended up spending almost five years there. I was offered a position as a Financial Analyst, and it was a great job – not just because I got my first company car, mobile and expenses – I learnt so much in my first few years. It took me out of my comfort zone, and being an introvert made it one of the most challenging roles. I had to quickly learn to deal with senior managers and learn to influence them to deliver results. I found I was good at building relationships and earning trust. I enjoyed working with operations to help them deliver business performance. It gave me a great foundation to build a career as a Finance Business Partner.

After 5 years in the South, including a short stint living in London, I found it wasn’t for me and soon moved back up North. I got a job back in Manchester and worked for the Co-op for almost 10 years, continuing to do what I enjoyed most. I was a Finance Business Partner supporting various teams over the years including, Operations, Commercial and Property. I was fortunate enough to have had some great mentors there and learnt the importance of culture and building engaged teams. I was given plenty of opportunities for development with loads of leadership training available. I also built several high-performing teams and learnt how to get the best out of people by watching how different types of leaders in the business managed their teams.

One thing that has always remained constant throughout my life and career is that I’ve always had a side hustle to make extra cash. Even at University, I sold discounted designer clothes to students to pay off my overdrafts. Then when I started working, I got into the property game and found a passion for renovating houses. I think it was inevitable that one day I was going to want to run my own business. I also grand plans of retiring early and spending time doing charity work.

Now I’m…

In 2016, after spending 20+ years working for large firms, I decided it was the right time to quit corporate life. I was no longer driven by my career and I wanted a better work-life balance – 60+ hour weeks can take its toll!

I now run a digital marketing agency with my brothers. It takes me 10 minutes to walk to work, and the long hours are a distant memory. Instead, I spend more time with the family and use the extra time I have to do charity work. I sit on the Board of Trustees at the local hospice, St John’s Hospice. I have also recently been appointed Treasurer for Escape to Make, which I’m very excited about! I may not be fully retired but it does feel like I’m semi-retired compared to my previous life.

5 bits of advice to my teenage self…

  • Be yourself. Don’t try and please others just to be popular
  • Surround yourself with like-minded people
  • Don’t be easily influenced
  • Get a Mentor
  • Do what you’re passionate about

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