It’s safe to say that helping companies thrive is close to Ian Christelow’s heart. When he was just a child, the advertising agency his father had founded went under, the memory of which has stuck with Christelow to this day. “Because he didn’t have access to business coaching, he lost his business and we really suffered as a family,” he says. “He lost his job, all of his money and he nearly lost his wife.” For this reason, Christelow, now master licensee of ActionCOACH, the business coaching franchise, has dedicated his life to helping other business owners avoid the same fate. “For me, it’s personal,” he says.
After leaving Chelmsford’s Great Baddow High School, Christelow initially wanted to attend art school. However, the failure of his father’s business years before meant he needed to be bringing money in so he found employment at his local branch of Lloyds. “I absolutely hated it to be honest,” he says. “Finding myself in the machine room processing debits and credits was soul-destroying.” Christelow admits that he may not have tried that hard to conceal his half-hearted attitude: he landed himself in hot water on his first day. “I went into the manager’s office and said: ‘this is crazy – you could get a machine to do this,” he says. “After six months they sacked me.”
Fortunately Christelow’s next job worked out much better: not long after he found a position with Pearson Education working for its Pitman Publishing imprint. “I got a job in an accountancy department and decided to make the most of it, which meant qualifying as a chartered management accountant,” Christelow says. He dedicated his free time to studying chartered accounting in secret and booked leave from work so he could sit his exams, eventually passing with flying colours aged just 21. “When I told them that I had passed my finals, they were like: ‘why didn’t you talk to us about this?'” he recalls. “Then they reimbursed me a load of expenses retroactively and gave me a promotion.”
After Christelow had spent more than a decade working for Pearson imprints, he had a lucky break. “Paula Khan, our chairman at the time, decided to give me and three other people £1m and 12 months to get a new venture off the ground,” he says. “We had absolutely open book on it.” The small team eventually created Direct English, the English language training franchise, and, after a successful pilot out in Milan, sold ten international licences to the business to the tune of $5m. Along the way Christelow picked up valuable experience of the franchise sector. “Through ignorance, we did some things the wrong way,” he says. “But we learnt some really great lessons about how to franchise.”
Unfortunately, after four years, a change in management at the Pearson Group saw the company take things in a new direction. “The new chairman decided that the venture was not core business for the Pearson Group, so they sold it to the Linguapone Group and made me redundant,” Christelow says. “That was really tough because it had been a great experience; I cried my eyes out.” But rather than sitting around feeling sorry for himself, Christelow decided to invest a chunk of his redundancy on a convertible and see the world. “I drove around Spain and Portugal and then spent another four months travelling round Australasia,” he says.
When he returned to the UK, Christelow decided it was time for a change in direction. “I was very clear with myself that I would never go back into a job working for someone else,” he says. Luckily he had something to fall back on. During his last few years at the Pearson Group he had been studying for an MBA; he returned to complete the degree, selecting as many entrepreneurial modules as he could. And this sparked the idea for a new startup. “For my final project, I decided to set up a pleasure flights business and take stag and hen parties over the Blackpool tower in a helicopter,” he says.