Friday, 17 September 2021

From living at the YMCA to running my own business

AUDIOLOGIST Leon Cox says that when he started his own business he had six weeks to make it

AUDIOLOGIST Leon Cox says that when he started his own business he had six weeks to make it a success.

Having lived at the Henley YMCA for five years, his route to becoming his own boss is far from conventional.

Now his hearing aid company is going from strength to strength with two premises — one in Little Chalfont, Buckinghamshire, and the other in Hart Street, Henley, which he opened in the autumn.

He employs four people and is earning enough to have just bought his first home.

“Everything good that’s happened to me is since moving to Henley or being associated with Henley,” he says.

“You always dream about running your own business and employing people but you never actually think when you’re sat in a youth hostel, detached from friends and family, that you’re actually going to reach that point.”

Mr Cox, 32, grew up in High Wycombe and after his parents broke up he lived with his father Antony.

However, his father died suddenly from a heart attack when Leon was 11 as he was walking his daughter Eleanor home from school.

Leon then lived with his mother and stepfather Kim and Paul Bowring until he was 17 when he moved out because he was unhappy and stayed with friends in High Wycombe.

At the time, he was studying for his A-levels in business studies, ceramics and film studies at The Henley College but had no career plan.

“I had no idea what I wanted to do, although knew I wanted to run my own business at some point,” says Mr Cox.

After college, he worked for a marketing firm in High Wycombe for a year before returning to further education by chance.

He had gone back to the college with his sister to help her enrol when he bumped into his former business studies teacher Clare Forgie, who persuaded him to come back to study for his higher national diploma in business studies.

The course was run by Oxford Brookes University and lasted two years and he earned money by working part-time at the Tesco store, off Reading Road.

Mr Cox recalls: “While on the course I was struggling to find somewhere to live. I had been staying with friends in High Wycombe.

“It had never worked when I lived at home — we had a difficult relationship, I suppose. It was easier for me to move out. We’ve had a better relationship not living together.

“One of the guys on the higher national diploma course was living at the Henley YMCA and said ‘why don’t you apply’, so I did.”

His application was successful and he moved into one of the single person flats at the complex in Lawson Road.

“That gave me a stable platform for the next few years to try to develop myself and they were always supportive,” says Mr Cox. “It gave me something to call home and feel attached to.

“I had quite a strong work ethic so I was always working at Tesco over the road and to get extra money I used to paint the rooms for new people who were moving into the YMCA or painting the communal areas.”

At the end of the two years he decided to take a top-up course for a year to earn a business studies degree from Oxford Brookes and he gained a 2:1.

“After the adversity and everything else, to be the first person in my family to go to university was quite good,” says Mr Cox.

He then began looking for jobs and it was on the advice of the YMCA’s then manager Claire Edmonds that he applied to Hidden Hearing, a national hearing company, where her father worked.

He was taken on as a trainee hearing aid dispenser and went on a nine-month residential course in Buxton, Derbyshire, only returning to Henley at weekends.

Mr Cox says: “I hadn’t thought of anything like that but the way it was sold to me was ‘you’ll be like an optician’ so it kind of appealed to me.

“Once I had done the training, I fell in love with the job. It’s the only job where you can literally change somebody’s life on a daily basis.”

He qualified as a registered hearing aid dispenser and left Henley as he went to work for the NHS at King’s Mill Hospital near Mansfield.

He worked there for about a year before coming back south to do more studying.

Mr Cox says: “I didn’t know enough about audiology as I’d like. My knowledge base was quite limited so, loving the job and the role, I wanted to know a bit more.”

He studied for a master’s degree in audiological science at University College London for a year, commuting daily from Thame where he was living in a housing association property.

“We got to do placements at the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital and various teaching hospitals,” recalls Mr Cox.

“You get a much deeper understanding and learning from the leading figures in the industry.

“It gave me a completely different perspective seeing it from the private side, from a clinical point of view.”

When the degree course ended, he was short of money so he went to work for Phonak Unitron, a hearing aid manufacturer based in Warrington, and was made regional manager for the South-East.

Visiting companies and seeing how the industry worked made him think that he could realise his original dream of running his own business.

He says: “I had then seen it from every angle — manufacturing, private, the NHS — and I had the perfect service delivery model. It was at that point I thought, ‘I need to do my own thing’.

“I went to visit one of my clients who had set up a hearing centre in Chalfont 12 months before but was struggling to make it work. He basically said ‘do you want to take this off my hands?’

“It was obviously a massive risk. I had security, a good car — everything I had worked for for 10 years — and I jacked it in on a whim in the hope I could turn it around and make it work. I was so anxious, terrified even.”

Phonak Unitron agreed to help him by providing a start-up loan but this still hadn’t been approved when he took on the business in January 2013. Mr Cox says: “I had no savings, nothing in the bank, and was forced to use credit cards to tide me over and fund the business.

“It had virtually nothing — there was no database and the premises looked terrible.”

He redecorated the shop and rebranded the company’s website at a cost of almost £20,000, all of which he put on credit cards. He also delayed paying his bills.

“I had six weeks to get some money in,” he says. “January was particularly bad as it snowed. No one was coming in and the phone wasn’t ringing and I started to panic.”

However, customers did start coming into the shop and the business picked up as word spread.

“We’ve grown 50 per cent year-on-year since opening,” says Mr Cox. “We are doing things in a modern, professional way, consulting people as opposed to selling to them.”

With the business improving financially, he was able to work part-time at Henley Chiropractic Centre in West Lane, where he was supported by practitioners Stefan Nilsson and Dr Jorgen Rasmussen and held clinics two days a week.

“Henley was always the place I had wanted to start,” he says. “What I wanted to do was build a patient base first.

“We got bigger than just two days a week so we needed a dedicated premises.”

He opened the Hearing Clinic Henley in Hart Street in September and now runs both premises as well as a Saturday clinic at the chiropractic centre.

He has also moved back to High Wycombe, where he has bought his first home.

“I’m still nervous but I suppose it’s those nerves that keep you going and I’m just relishing the future,” says Mr Cox.

“If the Henley shop does half of what the Chalfont one has done I’ll be eternally happy to everybody who has helped me along the way.

“We’re a centre of excellence for every main hearing aid manufacturer. We have a high level of clinical standards and of customer service.

“One more premises and a couple more audiologists and I’ll have a mini-chain.

“I am very proud of what I’ve achieved but it’s not having that support and security from my family that has given me the drive to achieve what I have.”

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