Small is Beautiful – Stephen Owen’s Design for Life

 

14 Oct 2020

Small is Beautiful – Stephen Owen’s Design for Life

“We were poor growing up”, states the white-haired man sitting across the expansive desk opposite me. It’s a line we’ve all heard from someone before, and one many might scoff at with undue cynicism, but in this case the sentence is delivered with no uncertain amount of sincerity. It’s a statement, rather than a sympathy ploy, a matter of fact and a way of explaining the catalyst that led Stephen Owens down the paths in life that have offered up no small amount of success. Indeed, humble beginnings seem a million miles away, sat as we are in his office, walls adorned with objets d’art, walls that have behind them some of his more desirable, four wheeled toys. But humble beginnings they were, and whilst many in this world seem to judge levels of success with a financial yardstick, during our time together I would find out that Stephen’s life is about so much more than that.

Of course, we all know Stephen as the Porsche pedalling rally competitor and whilst the trophies that are proudly displayed in his office clearly indicate his extra-curricular activities, there is an awful lot more to the story. The middle child of three, Stephens family would do what they needed to do to survive in post war Britain. His father would work all day and then his Mother, after keeping the house, would head out to work nights as a seamstress. The pride that Stephen has in his mother is obvious from the start of our conversation, “she was a Trojan” he says, “It was piece work that she did, but she worked her machine faster than the other girls, and whilst they would take breaks, she would carry on going.” Stephen would carry this work ethic into his studies, and completed his schooling at his local comprehensive. Holiday’s too wouldn’t be wasted, and would be spent helping Mum in the factory, “She worked so hard I liked to help her out, make sure she had a spot of lunch whilst at her machine, that sort of thing.” It was an early example of selflessness and of doing things for the right reason, rather than for oneself that Stephen would carry through his life, particularly in the professional sphere. He tells me of many examples of seemingly accidental philanthropy, from small things that have made peoples working lives better, offering education to employees as well as chances to those that may have been seen as life ne’er do wells to extremely generous rewards gifted to the people that have helped make his businesses a success. I won’t go into exact details here, as I sense that the stories, he is telling me are deeply personal, this is not the work of the braggart, I can tell from the tone in his voice and the look in his eyes that his actions are driven by a deep desire to do the right thing.

The road to successful business though began when Stephen left school, before A-levels, with a desire to get into work. His Father wanted to stay in education and pursue a career as a draughtsman, in which Stephen was trained and, on the quiet he still enjoys drawing to this day. But the young Stephen was adamant employment was the way to go, on his own terms mind you; “I knew that I didn’t want to follow the same path as my parents, I wanted to find work where there was an opportunity to earn more money if I worked hard, not be limited by set wages.” Sales seemed the obvious thing and Stephen interviewed for a job at a national tile company, which, despite his tender age, he secured and began life as a trainee. “The problem was” he tells me, “they wanted me to be a trainee for far longer than I wanted to. So, I set about learning as much as I could from everyone there to get on a bit faster”. This self-education would reap the rewards, when he was offered an opportunity to provide holiday cover for an established sales rep. It went so well that the process was repeated, until eventually the young Stephen was rewarded with his own patch. At the same time other skills that would be paramount in the direction of his professional career were being developed, as Stephen set about building his own house. “I had bought a plot with a building that had been condemned, and I set about rebuilding it. I had found you could get local authority grants to help, and managed to secure the maximum amount.” Using his contacts in the roofing tile business, he also began to be able to get a network of tradesmen onside, that would stand him in good stead later on, but for now he had a house of his own in his early twenties and no debt to speak of, a remarkable achievement. The house still stands today, and Stephen still lives in the same village.

Applying what he had learned, more houses followed and, despite still working in sales, a burgeoning construction business was taking its first steps and partnerships were being developed that still stand firm today. These days, Stephen thinks he’s built some two hundred houses, and as we take a trip around his village, he shows me many of them. Living in the area that I do, I’m used to seeing the relentless expansion of housing estates, with a seemingly unimaginable number of builds shoehorned into tiny parcels of land. Looking at some of Stephens builds, they appear to follow a different pattern, he’s clearly got a keen eye for aesthetics and he explains that he feels it’s better to put the right number of houses on a piece of land, rather than as many as possible. “I could have made much more money” he tells me, “but I would rather build quality and build the right thing for the area and the people who move in.” Doing the right thing seems to be a recurring theme, alongside another view that small is beautiful when it comes to the business he has built over the years. “It’s better to be smaller and to get it right” he says on more than one occasion during our time chatting. Despite the many buildings, both commercial and domestic, one probably stands out for him head and shoulders above the rest, and that was the house that he built for his parents. “They had it with a small mortgage, so they could furnish it, but that was it. My Mum had never owned anything before, never had anything to call her own, and she was proud as punch of this place.”

It wasn’t just construction that Stephen has been involved with over the years, a chance meeting with a friend that worked in sales for a company that made medical items would begin a new business path. “They had a fleece that would lessen the effects of bed sores on patients, and the business was struggling for sales. I couldn’t understand it, as it was a great product so I offered to start selling it for them.” Sell it he did, and in the end decided to cut out the middle man altogether and persuaded his friend to go into business making medical products themselves, a business venture that would grow and diversify and eventually be sold. These days his son, Thomas, has a different medical business, that Stephen gifted to him to run as his own venture “I gave him that to run with and he’s done an incredible job” he tells me with no small amount of pride, “he has made it his own as well, people see him as his own entity, rather than being in the shadow of his dad, which is absolutely fantastic.”

Throughout his professional life Stephen reckons he has owned around 14 businesses, and has enjoyed them all. But it hasn’t all been about work, there is of course the rallying and interest in cars, although to begin with it was two wheels which gave Mr Owens his motorsport fix. “I’d always liked motorcycles, and when I could afford it got involved in trials riding at quite a high level.” The photos on the walls of his business premises act as a reminder of these exploits, in the days when he would compete at an international level, alongside famous names such as the Lampkin’s. But eventually the bikes had to go, but there was always a void left by the absence of any motorised competition. He had cars of course, especially Porsches, but it would be a trip to the modern incarnation of the Mille Miglia that would eventually translate an interest as a spectator, into that of a respected competitor, but not until his early 60’s. “I thought the Millie was fabulous, and I wanted to do it, so I needed a car” he tells me. It’s not as simple as just entering the Millie though, with a huge waiting list you need the right car, and the Austin Healey that was bought for the job wasn’t deemed by the organisers as being quite special enough. “So, I bought another” he says, “A 100S, with more provenance.” More provenance is a slight understatement, as what he bought was a sister car to the ill-fated machine of Lance Macklin, involved in the ever so tragic scenes of the 1955 Le Mans. Thankfully Stephen had more luck with the car and has since completed 5 Millie’s, of which he speaks with much fondness and regales me with stories of Italian police riders and driving the wrong way down streets to beat the Florentine traffic. The rest is history, and the vast swathes of cups and trophies that sit proudly in his office attest to man successful endeavours in various classic cars. Typically, modest though, Stephen plays down his success, “I’ve never won anything” he tells me, “I’ve come close and could have won a lot more, but it is more important to me to enjoy myself and enjoy the time I’m getting with the company I have in the car.” This is of course, referring to his navigator, and whilst he will often be seen paired with top drawer masters of the maps, it is just as important that he competes in partnership with his wife Collette and his son Thomas. “The time I get with them is brilliant. I could win more, but that doesn’t matter, if I was more competitive there is a good chance that I could walk away disappointed if I didn’t win, but this way I never do.”

Our day continues to take us on a whirlwind tour of the people and places that make Stephen who he is, and our itinerary brings us to York, a place he views as his second home. Strolling the streets in the late afternoon he points out with enthusiasm his favourite parts of the city. The rain is streaming down at this point, but it does not dampen his clamour for a place that has clearly left an impression on him, and he is almost childlike in the animated way in which he shows me around. Collette has joined us at this point, and between the both of them they regale stories of the city, point out favourite haunts and rave about the architecture and history of this wonderful pace. Its infectious and such is the velocity at which I am adorned with stories I would need to author a book to tell them all. Indeed, as I ask one question, no sooner do we get halfway to an answer and we are off on another tangent, and another. Art, architecture, aviation, motorsport, motorcycles, food and drink, travel, the theatre and of course friends and family.

These are all subjects which we touch on throughout the day and late into the night. It’s easy to forget I’m there to do an interview at all, such is Stephens easy going, and generous nature and we chat back and forth like old friends. I’m certain there are still questions that I never really got a proper answer too, but then it doesn’t really matter, as where would be the fun in learning and hearing about everything in one day? Life is surely about a constantly evolving and ever more involving set of experiences, isn’t it? That certainly seems to be the case where Stephens life is concerned. “I’m supposed to be retired” he tells me, “But I just enjoy what I do too much!” Well don’t retire too soon, Stephen, I’m sure there are still plenty of chapters to be written and stories to be created.

Will Broadhead

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