Saturday, 20 October 2018

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AT the meeting on September 18 the members were treated to a double bill of speakers.

Jan Mirkowski, the owner of Fairmile Vineyard in Henley, made a return visit and reported on the successful progress of the vineyard, which can be seen when travelling along Fair Mile.

He reminded members that when he last visited the club he described the planting of the vines in 2013 and predicted that he would be selling their wine by 2018.

His prediction was spot on and his rosé and classic cuvée wines are now being sold online.

The wines have already won two regional awards.

A vote of thanks and congratulations was proposed by club vice-president Hilary Shaw.

The second speaker was member James Frost who recently joined the club together with his wife Elsie.

James held the members enthralled as he related the history of his business life.

He described himself as an entrepreneur. That was an understatement.

James first showed his business acumen at the age of 10 when he would buy bags of stamps and sell them on at school for 1d per stamp.

It was his second outing into sales that established his lifelong commitment to charity and community service.

In 1953, as a boy scout, he sold souvenir programmes outside Westminster Abbey for the Queen’s coronation.

Having, as he described it, no education, no job and no money, his working life began as a junior clerk with a small independent airline in Baker Street — but only after cycling up and down Bath Road in West London seeking work.

He realised that without a qualification his horizons were limited and he joined a firm of chartered accountants and began attending night school to study for his exams.

He met an 18-year-old Elsie and married her in the middle of his studies.

Being more astute than many, he realised that three hours of commuting into London could be better spent working and in 1967 he joined a small group of garages operating from High Wycombe as their accountant.

Having identified that selling petrol was more lucrative than selling and repairing cars, he persuaded the company to change direction and a career in petrol retailing began.

His suggestion that he should leave the company to start his own business was countered when he was appointed finance director.

He and Elsie sold their home to finance his acquisition of a share in the business.

He was an early convert to energy saving. He invented a light control box to turn the forecourt lights on and off as needed and set up a company to market the control box.

His acumen was tested to the full in October 1973 with the outbreak of the Yom Kippur war.

His boss was out of contact in South America, the cost of crude oil quadrupled overnight and petrol was severely rationed.

James acted expeditiously, reducing opening hours and shutting down petrol pumps amid the minute-by-minute diktats from the Government.

His timely and effective actions were recognised by the company and, on his boss’s return, he was made joint managing director.

James expanded the business, introducing independent licensees rather than managers, which involved a brush with the Transport and General Workers’ Union.

In the Seventies expansion continued, despite the inflation rate of 25 per cent.

The ensuing price war in the oil industry meant an increase in the acquisition of new sites and in 1980 the company received an offer from Elf Oil.

A term imposed by the French company was that James stayed on to run what had become a chain of 51 sites.

Among other projects, he set up two property investment companies, continued building up a portfolio of petrol stations, set up an investment trust company and developed a small estate on the Isle of Man.

Not content with these achievements, both he and Elsie took up flying in the Eighties.

James also purchased a small, private bank before selling it in August 1990. The acquiring company, obviously lacking his abilities, went into administration in 1991.

James stepped in to rescue it during the course of which he had to attend a
37-hour meeting in the City.

In doing so, he created a rare record of the same company achieving Stock Exchange listing twice in consecutive years.

Having recovered for the main investors many millions of pounds more than they had hoped for, James was rewarded but he promptly used the monies to set up a family charity.

Among his other achievements were chairing Aylesbury Business Club in 1992, being named UK entrepreneur of the year in 1993 and becoming the first petrol retailer to introduce unleaded 4-star petrol in the UK in 1995.

Also in 1995 his company bought the UK petrol and retailing arm of a major oil company.

In 2000 he sold the private bank and in 2001 he finally retired from petrol retailing.

He still does some work but now concentrates on the family charity and charity work in general and, of course, Rotary.

He attributed his success to God, Elsie and his dogs, all of whom he considers to have been a constant support.

After such an inspirational talk, the vote of thanks was proposed by vice-president Hilary Shaw. James received the well-deserved appreciation of a club fortunate to have him as a member.

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