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« Summer in Salamanca | Main | Fresh and Wild »

Adventure Capitalists


For some, the thrill of the deal is enough. Others need danger with their adrenaline shot, an epic feat that will get them ready to return to work transformed

Neil Laughton

Winston Churchill was once overheard saying, ‘The most exhilarating experience in life is to be shot at without result.’ The stock reaction to this is to think: they made ’em tough in those days. But actually, Churchill had a point. 

Modern life is so sanitised, so remarkably dull thanks to the insidious supremacy of the Health and Safety generation, that few of us get to experience that unmistakable thrill of forging into a danger zone and dancing through to the other side. It isn’t helped by the fact that convention presupposes that long hours spent glued to a desk will help career prospects; escape seems impossible.

However, a successful life in the City can undoubtedly be combined with indiana Jones-style adventures. You just need to have the oomph – and the finances – to pull them off. The star of this is Glencore chairman Simon Murray. A former French Foreign Legionnaire, who has also climbed Everest, he became the oldest man to trek unsupported to the South Pole, aged 63. 

There is a new wave of City adventurers following in his ski tracks. Between them, they prove that anything is possible...

Neil Laughton

When it comes to adventure, it’s difficult knowing where to start with this former Royal Marine and SAS officer. In 1994, after more than a decade in the armed forces, Laughton completed a postgraduate business diploma and started up OPL, an office-design business, from his dining room with an investment of £2,000. Seventeen years later, OPL had a blue-chip client list including Goldman Sachs, Rolls-Royce and Diageo, and a turnover of £40m. Laughton sold the business in 2011 to Balfour Beatty for £8m.

Meanwhile, entering civilian life had barely made a dent in Laughton’s saga of adventures. He was climbing Everest in 1996 when the mountain was hit by its worst storm in a century. Eight people were killed in the space of 24 hours; the tragedy was immortalised by Jon Krakauer’s classic book, Into Thin Air. Since then, Laughton has completed the ‘7 Summits’ challenge (climbing the highest mountain on every continent), trekked on skis to both Poles, motorcycled across the Atlas Mountains, and piloted a flying car from London to Timbuktu.

‘It wasn’t boring making the transition from the armed forces to everyday working life,’ he explains, ‘because the adventures provided me with spice and variety; they stopped me getting stuck in a rut. But the business career was always there to keep me on the ground financially.’

Organising each trip could take up to two-and-a-half years of planning: ‘I would do a day’s work in the office, but instead of going home in the evening, I’d spend two or three hours on expedition planning.’

The benefits, both professionally and personally, have been myriad. ‘When you are developing client relationships, it helps if you have done some interesting things because you stand out more,’ explains Laughton, adding, ‘Personally, I’ve been stretched in good ways and my leadership, communication and general life skills have improved.’

Since selling OPL, Laughton has set up the Business Leadership Academy, which runs bespoke leadership and management training programmes. He is also on the point of launching a new airline, making trips between Brighton City Airport and Paris.

Despite having survived the sort of adventures that most of us can only gasp at on the Discovery Channel, Laughton is as proud, if not more so, of Project New Horizons, a charity that he helped set up a few years ago. It takes up to 100 disadvantaged kids each year on a six-month developmental programme that ends with an extreme expedition. ‘The results we are getting are extraordinary,’ says Laughton. ‘Of last year’s intake of 36 young people, 90 per cent were either in employment or back in education three months later.’ The greatest challenge he faces now, he says, is fund-raising. 

Ewen Cameron

Ewen Cameron

When Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, one of her courtiers, Sir Robert Carey, leapt onto the first of many horses and galloped tirelessly up the Great North Road to Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh to deliver the news to James VI of Scotland. The journey took less than three days – lightning speed in those times – and Carey’s action was instrumental in securing the English throne for James over various other claimants.

Fast-forward just over 400 years and Ewen Cameron, a director of a property company and a former partner at a City firm of commercial property solicitors, is appointed to Her Majesty’s Body Guard. A largely ceremonial position, it is a great honour to become one of its 32 members and Cameron felt that it provided
an opportunity to find a challenge.

‘I was reading up on The Body Guard’s history and the one thing that really stood out was Carey’s great ride,’ says Cameron. It was the ignition point for the solicitor to stage his own version of the Great North Ride, not to tip off a likely royal heir, but to raise funds for charity.

Teaming up with Major Neil Cross of the King’s Troop, Cameron spent a year planning the trip. The logistics were immense – between them, they would need 160 horses; every inch of the route had to be recced and an army of helpers was essential to make sure each horse arrived at the designated place on time. As Cameron puts it: ‘I had walked, driven or cycled every inch of the way; I now know where every gate is between London and Edinburgh.’

The difficulties of the trip should not be underestimated. Prince Charles summed it up succinctly in a letter of support to the pair: ‘This is one of those rare challenges that with the advance of time and technology has not become any easier – and nor, I doubt, has the potential problem of saddle sores...’

However, the Great North Ride, in March 2011, went seamlessly and the pair arrived in Edinburgh 86 hours after leaving London. And averaging 14 hours in the saddle each day, Cameron indeed ended up with a hand-sized saddle sore. ‘I was really well treated by our vet,’ he says cheerfully. ‘Although I think I was the first of his patients to answer back!’ All in all, the adventure raised £60,000 for two military charities.

Cameron managed to organise and complete the ride without eating into any corporate time: ‘I didn’t get round to telling my fellow partners until a few days beforehand, when I mentioned it might be a good marketing opportunity. Typical over-cautious lawyers, they just asked, “What happens if something goes wrong?”’

He summarises: ‘Being a lawyer is fine financially, but it does lack a bit of excitement. I find that sport and a bit of travel, well off the beaten track, is an excellent antidote.’  

Roger Weatherby

Roger Weatherby

There are few chief executives who can claim to having completed one marathon, let alone the five-in-seven-days of the hair-raising Marathon des Sables. But this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Roger Weatherby’s adventures.

Chief executive of Weatherbys Bank since 2000, he is also a member of the Jockey Club. Horses have been a passion throughout his life and in 1996, after having spent 11 years at Cazenove, he rode across Spain unaccompanied. A subsequent break for a Masters in Finance at the London Business School was followed by two months riding solo through Pakistan’s northern frontier province – the heartland of the 19th century’s ‘Great Game’. Despite being armed with only ‘an idiot’s guide to Urdu’, he crossed four mountain ranges without a hitch: ‘Like all these things, when you go to the poorest parts with the poorest terrain, you find the people there are the most generous anywhere.’

He still smiles when he recalls a letter from the British military attaché in Pakistan, which arrived just as he was leaving for his flight. ‘It said, “Whatever you do, don’t do this trip. It’s too dangerous!” It was too late by then, so I just rolled the letter up and threw it away!’ 

In 2005, Weatherby and four friends completed an epic trip to the South Pole, replicating the last 200 miles of Robert Falcon Scott’s 1912 expedition, not just in choice of route, but also in terms of equipment. ‘We had reindeer sleeping bags, woollen underwear and tweeds covered by old-style Burberry macs. Our sledge and skis were exact replicas of the ones they used.’

Surprisingly, the clothes turned out to be more effective than their modern counterparts, unlike the sledge. ‘It was very, very heavy and really hard to move. On the worst days, we didn’t travel more than a mile an hour.’

When they got to the Pole, they each put a hand on the marker and walked round it, managing to achieve the seemingly impossible – to walk round the world in eight steps.

The adventure raised just over £400,000 for three charities. The team is planning another trip next year to travel to the North Pole. The benefits personally have been long-lasting, as Weatherby explains: ‘It gives you an opportunity to come back refreshed and full of new ideas. You value your life, your family and everything around you. It’s so much better than simply lying on a beach.’