Old Bedalian 2004

It is one of life’s little ironies that Julian Coates, having spent much of his career in the Middle East, should derive some of his earliest memories of life from the time that he and his family spent in Kuwait. “My stepfather had an oil-related job with a Dutch plastics company and we arrived in Kuwait just after the end of the first Gulf War,” he recalls. “I was very young at the time but I do remember the sight of burning oil wells as we came in to land and the lectures we got about the dangers of unexploded mines if you weren’t careful where you walked. Other than that, we lived a fairly typical expat life in a rambling old villa and I went to the Kuwait English School – over a thousand students and a real mixture of expat and Arab kids.”

Julian confesses to being unsure how Bedales arrived on his parents’ radar: “There was no original family connection; I was just told that the woodwork shop at Dunhurst would be something that I would enjoy, I took the entrance exam out in Kuwait and then it happened – I was a Bedales student. As a ten year-old, I wasn’t all that keen on the idea of boarding and was filled with trepidation, despite the fact that my sister would also be at Bedales with me. It probably took me a year to get used to the separation.”

Working with his hands was, as originally promised, something that Julian enjoyed at Dunhurst but most of his early days at the school were devoted to making friends among a year that would become particularly close. “I really started to settle in after we moved up to Bedales itself,” he explains. “My family returned to England, which meant that I became a day boy, and I dabbled at a lot of things. I played the piano a bit, where Nick Gleed was a real mentor, but I was hardly a virtuoso; I liked the crafty stuff but I was no artist; sport was good fun but I tended more towards  athletics and tennis – rather solitary sports, I can see in retrospect. I liked drama as well but usually preferred being behind the scenes, helping with the lighting and so on.”

The emphasis from everyone at Bedales was always that you could achieve whatever you wanted and that was as true for scientists as it was for budding actors, designers or artists

 

Academically, Julian was beginning to incline towards the sciences. “There were some big influences there,” he says. “Tobias Hardy was excellent and Harry Pearson was the requisite mad scientist that every school needs and always gave you the inspiration to crack on and aim high. The emphasis from everyone at Bedales was always that you could achieve whatever you wanted and that was as true for scientists as it was for budding actors, designers or artists. People would always rally round to help you.” Somewhere around his Block 5 year, Julian conceived the idea of joining the RAF. “Aerospace engineering had become a real focus of mine, I figured out quite early what I wanted to target and Bedales gave me all the support in the world to have a go at fulfilling my ambitions. As it turned out, I didn’t get into the RAF but that wasn’t the point,” he says.

Southampton University, where he studied aerospace engineering, would be the initial stage for Julian to see what lay beyond the Bedalian womb. “At the time, I was ready to go, I suppose, to get out into the wilds and make a few new friends,” he remarks. “And I did, of course, even though it did sometimes seem to me that my university contemporaries weren’t quite as sure about what they wanted from the world as my old mates from Bedales. That’s not to say that they didn’t know what they wanted to do for a career but more that they hadn’t always worked out what mattered most to them. Bedales is such an idealistic place, somewhere that also instils a strong moral compass in its students, which is incredibly valuable. Most of my closest friends are still OBs, at least partly because we do speak a slightly different language, one that is difficult to replicate elsewhere.”

Working life would begin for Julian at Schlumberger, the oil and gas technology giants. “It was all quite an adventure for me at a time when I hadn’t sorted out the working world at all,” he reflects. “I was sent up to Aberdeen, where I worked offshore on oil rigs, and was also spending time in places like Italy and Houston. The great personal benefit of those days was that I met the woman who would become my wife in Edinburgh but I realised reasonably quickly that it wasn’t the career for me.”

Julian accordingly moved to join the graduate engineering programme at SELEX Galileo, an entity that had been part-owned by British Aerospace but was now in the process of being fully taken over by Finmeccanica (now Leonardo), the Italian global high-tech company. “That wasn’t quite right either,” Julian relates. “I was living in Harpenden but working in Luton, where I spent my days in an underground chamber that was impervious to radar signals! I scarcely saw the daylight at all for long periods and I needed something different.”

The Bedalian connection would point the way to Julian’s future. “The father of a great school friend of mine, Jess Price, had a very senior position at Macsteel, a big steel trading, distribution and shipping company with its headquarters in the States,” Julian explains. “He was brilliant at selling the organisation to me as a place where I could potentially knock round the world doing exciting things and within a year, I was off to South Africa on another graduate programme. That was an amazing experience; Macsteel was, in a very Bedalian way, building strong relationships around the world, from the Middle East to South East Asia, and I was eventually posted to Dubai in 2009, which is where I finally got married.”

Bedales is such an idealistic place, somewhere that also instils a strong moral compass in its students, which is incredibly valuable

 

In the wake of the global economic crash, Dubai was an interesting place to be. “It was quite bizarre because there was a general mass exodus from Dubai at that time – a lot of abandoned Ferraris sitting by the roadside!” Julian says. “I had to get to grips with the place and with the business at a company where there was an extremely Alpha male sort of pecking order. I’m not really that great with that kind of hierarchy – it’s a legacy of Bedales, where you’re always taught to question things from an early age – but I had to learn how to navigate my way through it. I guess my approach was quite an individual one but once I’d got involved with the social side of life as an expat in the UAE, things became much easier.”

After five years, Julian began to feel that he had hit a glass ceiling with Macsteel: “I actually applied for a job with Spacex in California but as it turned out, I was head-hunted at more or less the same time by Cargill to take over their Middle East steel trading desk. It was a step up and the chance was potentially there for me to move into other commodities at some future point as well. In the end, though, I’ve stayed with steel, largely because I’ve been given a free hand to operate entirely as I see fit.”

Nearly a decade since he began in it, Julian is content to remain in a business for which he has such obvious talent. “It’s not what I originally thought I might do but I’ve come to realise more than ever that job satisfaction is all about the culture, the environment and especially the people at the place where you work,” he says. “In theory, I’m into the last third or so of my career and it’s hard to tell where I may end up but I’ll certainly be sticking at Cargill for the foreseeable future.”

Most of my closest friends are still OBs, at least partly because we do speak a slightly different language, one that is difficult to replicate elsewhere

 

Julian’s work now involves more travelling than it has ever done. Not only do his responsibilities span Europe and the Middle East but he has also just concluded the business of relocating his family back in the UK, close to Tunbridge Wells. “We have three children now and my wife felt that it was about time to head home again so that’s what we’ve done,” he says. “At the moment, I’m probably away about three weeks in every four, which seems a lot, but I still enjoy it, curiously enough. When I’ve achieved everything I want to, I shall probably get sick of the inside of an aeroplane!”

The fact that the family is back in the UK does not, in any case, mean that they are here permanently. “For some reason, we seem to get itchy feet every few years and feel the urge to move,” Julian admits. “Spain is a big market for us at Cargill and the thought has occurred that we could move to Madrid one day. Meanwhile, we’ve got the future education of the kids to consider. I was back at Bedales the other day to have a look around and I must say, it felt so familiar and yet somehow sharper and more finished than I remember it. I’d love our children to end up there but we have to look at schools in the light of their characters and of the skills that they might need in the future as well. So much depends but as a devoutly pro-Bedales man, I’d be delighted if we could send them to my old school.”

It’s been a long journey since Julian left Bedales and he muses about what his younger self might have thought of it: “It’s gone down a few highways and byways but I’d like to think that the 18 year-old Julian would have reckoned that I’ve ended up in a good place,” he says. “He might challenge me on whether I’d got the right balance between idealism and practicality but I hope he’d generally approve.”