I joined P&O Containers as a graduate trainee straight after leaving university in 1994. After six months based out of Hainault being broken in by learning a little bit about each function, I spent nearly two years in ICM in Beagle House before the Nedlloyd Merger.
Part of the arrangement at the time for graduate trainees was to spend two years overseas in the first four. When asked about any preferences, the only one I remember expressing was that I would like to go “somewhere sunny”. I recalled this preference vividly as I looked out of the window over New Jersey in February 1997. I had a tremendous two years in East Rutherford working with the Global Logistics team and where I met my wife Melanie, who is now the mother to my two teenage daughters.
East Rutherford was followed by two years working on the East African Trade with Iain Mackintosh followed by moving to work in e-commerce under Patrick Burrows. I was lucky enough to host a visit from Patrick not long after starting my current job, everyone who worked with Patrick misses him very much. After five years in London I moved to Hong Kong to work with PONL Logistics. Two years later the takeover from Maersk came and I, like many others took the chance to think about what my next move might be.
I was considering options all over the world, with an Australian wife who I had met in America and with whom I was living in Asia (it was a very PONL lifestyle!) My mother, back in England, realised that her access to her new granddaughter would depend on me having a job in the UK. After scouring the newspaper adverts for some weeks, she sent me an email saying “I think I’ve found the job for you”.
The job in question was to be the Director of The Tank Museum in Bovington, which is in the beautiful county of Dorset in the South of England. The Tank Museum holds the world’s most important collection of tanks and armoured fighting vehicles, looking after the British national collection of about 350 vehicles. It wasn’t quite as random a suggestion as it may sound. I had done a history degree for which my undergraduate dissertation had been about first world war tanks, with my research being done in Bovington. British 20th Century military history has always been my greatest interest, in which I had kept up my reading throughout my 11 years in PONL.
While I pointed out to my mother that I had never worked in a museum and it might be something of a long shot, the Museum trustees agreed with her, and I have worked in The Tank Museum ever since.
My job today is one for which almost every element of my time in PONL was a preparation. Sales work in East Rutherford proved to be an invaluable training in fundraising. Working with the container maintenance team in ICM gave me a basic understanding of fleet management, for which a tank fleet is very similar. The work I did on e-commerce gave me a grounding which has directly led to the Tank Museum being the biggest museum in Europe on Youtube with a burgeoning online business. The business management skills I learnt in a trade division and in logistics operations are the backbone of running a medium sized enterprise of £6m annual turnover. The rigour of managing your costs, the importance of staff communication and the centrality of running a human businesses are all things which I have tried to carry from PONL into my new world.
Running a charity like The Tank Museum is pretty challenging but over my 16 years there we have come quite a long way. We have managed to raise and spend about £25m on capital developments which have involved constructing about 100,000 sq ft of new buildings. In the process the team doubled to just over 100 people and we have grown our turnover roughly fourfold. It is an enormous privilege to take a subject about which I am personally passionate and to have the chance to bring it alive to hundreds of thousands of people every year. Even after sixteen years, my job leaves me with a lingering feeling of getting away with something.
In 2018 I was lucky enough to get an award which necessitated a trip to Buckingham Palace. While in the waiting room I was having a chat with a number of other people who had been given similar awards when one of them asked me what I was there for (arriving at Buckingham Palace for an award must be a bit like arriving in prison from that point of view). After a moment’s thought, all I could think of saying was that I was there as part of a long running campaign to convince my wife that I had a proper job. I am yet to succeed in that particular task, but am tremendously grateful to everyone who spent so much time teaching me both the skills I would need, and showing the example of working in a place with a sense of belonging and fun which I still treasure to this day.
Richard Smith, Feb 2022