He was a school dropout who became a trainee accountant, before being catapulted to the role of multinational company president, leading 5,000 staff, at the tender age of 28. Next, he used his sharp accountancy skills and innate business nous to build several multi-million-pound companies, while battling the effects of a life-threatening stroke. Keith Bradshaw has one hell of a story to tell…
Do our lives change in an instant? Do our destinies alter dramatically because of random events? Or is our future in our own hands and our fate guided by our own skills, work ethic and attitude?
The story you are about to read raises such questions. It is a touching tale of joy, pain and inspirational business success. And it shows just how far accountancy skills, commercial instinct and sheer enthusiasm can take you, whilst also demonstrating that fortune always holds us firmly in its steely grip, ready to squeeze or caress as the mood takes.
Keith Bradshaw, 74, is a proud Brummie. Born in Aston to working-class parents, he was kicked out of Handsworth Technical School aged 15. Despite this, he became a successful accountant, and then a ridiculously young company CEO, aged just 28. Next, after a brief but memorable brush with the infamous boxing promoter Don King (more of that later), he became one of the UK’s most successful and prolific entrepreneurs. He co-founded Listers (one of England’s largest privately owned motor groups) and many other multi-million-pound businesses. In 2016, he became High Sheriff of the West Midlands and he is now expending a great deal of energy into philanthropy; particularly in the West Midlands.
When Keith looks back over his life, he focuses on four key moments in his youth that shaped his future. It’s fascinating to hear what they are – now chosen with the benefit of hindsight.
The first involves a large dose of youthful temerity. After leaving Handsworth Technical School at 15 with no O-Levels, he went to the Birmingham Youth-Employment Office with his mother. Keith says: “I told the chap I wanted to be a chartered accountant. He told me that that might be tricky and suggested I become a Co-Op shop assistant instead.”
That’s when it happened. “I walked out, crossed Great Charles Street and entered Lombard House, where I saw a sign for Russell, Durie Kerr, Watson & Co Chartered Accountants. I went up to their office and told them I wanted a job. The receptionist was about to kick me out when a senior partner called Sydney Benbow saw me and decided to offer me a job for 25 shillings a week, on the condition I passed my O-Levels.”
Keith sat his O-Levels and promptly failed every one. That’s when Key Moment Number Two happened. “It was a Saturday morning,” says Keith. “I was in bed and mum brought up the envelope containing my results. I opened it and I told her I’d failed them all. I still remember the look on her face. Here was a woman who cared for me, loved me to bits, and was ambitious for me. I thought: ‘You’d better sort this out, boy. You can’t ever put someone who cares for you in that position again.’ That was the moment I grew up.”
Key Moments Three and Four followed a few years later. Keith explains: “I was married to Pamela by this point, she was heavily pregnant with our first son and we’d bought our first home – a new semi for £1,950. I found out I’d qualified as an accountant and my first thought was to call dad at his factory – he was a toolmaker. Dad had spent nearly 50 years working on the same bench and I imagined him hearing a voice over the tannoy: ‘Would George Bradshaw please come to the office?’ Dad picked up the phone. ‘It’s me dad,’ I said. ‘What do you want?’ he asked. I told him I’d passed. He said ‘OK’ and put the phone down!”
“But looking back, that was a big moment – my proudest moment,” says Keith. “Many years later, dad came to West Africa, where I was working, and he was killed in a car crash. I went back to the factory to sort out his estate and spoke to his mates. They said that when dad came back to the bench after taking that call he’d grown from 6ft 4 to 8ft 4. But he never told me. He wouldn’t… that’s not what you did in those days.”
Buoyed by qualifying and by his father’s pride, Key Moment Number Four swiftly followed. This one would take Keith’s life in a completely new direction.
“I was negotiating on behalf of a client,” says Keith. “The company we were negotiating with – Liberia-based Mesurado Group, owned by Steve Tolbert and his brother, the then Vice President of Liberia, William R Tolbert, who subsequently became President – was pushing us around a bit. I’m not having this, I thought, and I got stuck in.”
Keith’s ballsiness impressed Mr Tolbert, who offered him the job of assistant financial controller, saying, in the same breath, that he’d be financial controller within six months. “Steve kept upping the ante,” says Keith. “He offered me a salary I couldn’t refuse and after talking long and hard with Pam, we upped sticks and moved to West Africa.”
Sure enough, within six months of moving to Liberia, Keith became the financial controller of Mesurado Group. After another 10 months, he was executive vice-president. And eight months after that, aged 28, he was president of one of the country’s largest group of companies, leading more than 5,000 staff. “I had an office the size of a tennis court,” he laughs.
The rest of the Keith Bradshaw story contains many more pivotal moments, but these four are the foundations (along with his 51-year-marriage to Pam – “my most important partnership,” he says) upon which the rest of his life and future business success are built. “If I hadn’t gone to Liberia, 90% of my business career wouldn’t have happened,” he speculates. So where did this surprising chain of events take him next?
The answer: into the firing line of the boxing promoter Don King. Keith was sent to the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire) by his company to protect its investment in a music concert happening alongside the 1974 ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ Foreman-Ali fight. Don King was organising the festival with his business partner, record producer Stuart Levine. Naturally, King and Levine were keen to make as much profit from the event as possible. Keith, on the other hand, was there to represent the investor, which put him on a direct collision course with Mr King.
Keith says: “I remember Don King banging on my hotel door to deliberately wake me up to catch me off guard, and saying: ‘Keith, why don’t you trust me?’ He tried every trick in the book to get me to take my eye off the ball. It was very character forming! King was not someone you wanted to cross, but he was also endearing – an incredible character who had come from nothing.”
Keith clearly did his job effectively, for in the film Soul Power, a documentary about the Rumble in the Jungle music festival, Stuart Levine says: “The tall guy [Keith Bradshaw] is one of my least favourite people in the history of my life…. He represented the money that came from Liberia…. He was their boy and they sent him to kind of look after things. And he was a horrible, horrible character who knew nothing about what he was talking about and drove everybody crazy… He was just miserable and bureaucratic.” In response to this quote, Keith says: “Today, I wear those words as a badge of pride!”
Keith returned to the UK – to Birmingham, of course – in 1977. It was a culture shock after his African adventure but he got busy (to say the least), building up no fewer than 11 businesses over the next 10 years. One became car dealership Listers, which today turns over more than £1bn. Another was a nursing home company that Bupa bought for close to £300m in 1998. And this entrepreneurial success eventually led to another proud moment – his appointment as High Sheriff High of the West Midlands. Keith still has a huge passion for his home region and believes that, under the right guidance and with the correct strategy, it can become a regional powerhouse. “To reach its full potential, Birmingham must be branded as a regional capital,” he says. “To achieve this, it must demonstrate its value to the rest of the region. During my year as High Sheriff I pushed this point hard and will continue to do so. Today we have a West Midlands Mayor in Andy Street and hopefully he will be a catalyst.”
But almost 30 years before becoming West Midlands High Sheriff, life was to throw Keith and his family a major curveball. In June 1987, he suffered an intracerebral haemorrhage – a blood clot on his brain that threatened his life and caused temporary paralysis. He didn’t know that it was temporary at the time, and he spent months in a hospital bed completely immobile, having to be turned every hour by the nurses. “I remember being in the ambulance after the stroke and the paramedic saying: ‘How do you feel?’ I replied that I felt very frightened. He said: ‘Don’t worry mate, you’ll get better and then you’ll get old.’ It was memorable gallows humour in a terrifying situation – an event that would turn Keith’s and his family’s lives upside down and have repercussions for the rest of their lives.
Keith says the lowest point came when Tim, his youngest son, aged 11, came to visit him for the first time after his stroke. He says: “I was the man in his life, the one immovable object, and he came to the hospital and saw me drooling. That was the only time I cried.”
Despite all this, Keith managed to return to work, battling to regain his health while learning to live with the constant threat of another stroke. “You get lots of spasms after a big stroke and every time I experienced one I thought my number was up.”
So does Keith’s story go any way to answering the questions posed at the start of this article? Are our destinies decided by random events? Or do we forge our futures using our own clearly defined skills, work ethic and attitude? On the evidence of Keith’s tale, the answer is yes to both questions. Random events decided the specifics – Sydney Benbow walking past at the right time and the Liberia job offer coming out of the blue to name but two. Yet it was Keith’s talent, attitude and self-assurance that made them a success. He controlled the tone and the mood of the picture that he was painting; fate decided the specific composition. You make your own luck. Never has that cliché been more appropriate than in the extraordinary story of Keith Bradshaw.