“On 8 December 1980 I joined Shell UK – the climax of my business career. I joined as an Operational Research Analyst and was soon promoted to the UK Retail division where I introduced customer care programmes and the concept of shopping at petrol stations. I had the opportunity to champion the way customers were treated – swimming against the cultural current. I was responsible chiefly for strategy, although I also oversaw finance, engineering and petrol station acquisition and disposal.
“My ten years at Shell were a privilege where I learnt the twists and turns of corporate life. However, when my mentor Sir Bob Reid (then UK Chairman) moved to British Rail, this led to my career re-think and move to academic life.
“I joined Imperial College Business School in 1990 as a lecturer in consumer marketing for the various MBA and undergraduate programmes. Soon after I was appointed Director of the Executive MBA Programme. I am proud to say that the programme rocketed up the FT Rankings, and in 2002 I was asked to run the Business School’s new Distance Learning MBA. Over the years, I have also taught some 3,000 MBA students Marketing and Customer Focused Strategy.
“It has been a true privilege to have taught so many bright people and I have so many special memories. Definitely the funniest comment came during a lecture about competition. When discussing a particular case study, I asked the class how they would deal with an annoying competitor. My Italian student put his hand up and said, “you shoota the knee caps!”
“Now I’ve retired I still have not worked out what I should do when I grow up. However, in the meantime, I will be continuing to provide consultancy for companies. Over the years I have been involved in lots of exciting projects – the launch of Eurostar, Petrol Price Wars, new product launches etc.
“Having spent a lot of time in Israel, lecturing at Bar Ilan University and seeing the hotbed of innovation in the country, I am interested in expanding my work advising start-ups, perhaps as a Non-Executive Director. I currently chair our family start-up business, Graduway, so have gone through all the growth pains. I’m also looking forward to spending a little bit more time with my wife, two children and six grandchildren!
This is when I got a real understanding of what business is really about. Cash flow, stock control, stock turn, pricing, gross profit, were no longer just terms but they had real meanings.
After 27 years at the Business School culminating in heading up the Distance Learning MBA, Dr Marcel Cohen has retired taking with him many memories. Here he shares the highs and lows of his life and career from house arrest in Egypt at the age of nine and living in a refugee camp upon arrival in Britain, to his time at Imperial and advising top businesses and start-ups all over the world.
“When I was nine years old, the Suez Crisis erupted. As a result, Jews and/or British subjects were seen as enemies of the state. My family was both Jewish and British. We were accused of spying, put under house arrest and then ordered to leave the country, leaving all possessions behind.
“We escaped in the middle of the night in case the authorities changed their minds, and upon arrival in the UK were placed in a make-shift refugee camp. Eventually, we picked ourselves up and made good, but in the process I forfeited my childhood. As a nine year old child, I became fluent in English ahead of the rest of my family and so was roped into completing tax forms, writing letters to the authorities, dealing with bills, etc – essentially a nine year old adult.
“Whilst at school I shone in physics. So when looking at university courses I chose to study physics at Bristol, famous for its physics tradition. I found the concepts difficult and grew to hate the subject! I realised too late that my school achievement was due to maths rather than physics itself, but I managed to scrape an upper second because of its mathematical content.
“Immediately after graduating I needed to earn a living as I had just got married. The (then) British Steel Corporation had an apprentice scheme whereby you worked for them for a year and they sponsored you to study full time at Imperial College for a Masters degree in Operational Research. I was lucky enough to be selected, and this was my introduction to Imperial.
“Later on in my career, I got the urge to enter academic life and applied to Imperial College Business School to become a lecturer. Roger Betts (who had taught me marketing as a student) supported my application. David Norburn, then Dean, offered me a position on the condition that whilst lecturing I would study for a PhD, and in 1996 I was awarded a PhD in Economics.
“My Imperial MSc opened doors for me and I spent some 20 fascinating years in industry. I was recruited by a paint manufacturing and marketing company called Berger Paints. My immediate boss was himself an alumnus of Imperial – this helped! I had excellent training in production and marketing whilst there but the salary was rather low.
“In order to make ends meet (by then I had a baby daughter), my wife and I had a stall in Edmonton Sunday market selling children’s clothes. This is when I got a real understanding of what business is really about. Cash flow, stock control, stock turn, pricing, gross profit, were no longer just terms but they had real meanings. With this retail experience, I was then asked by an entrepreneur to create a chain of DIY shops, ‘Mr Stanley’.
My final thought to all those who I have taught over the years is that your wealth comes not from more money and possessions but rather from being content with what you have. That does not mean that you should abandon your ambition, but rather pursue it in a well-mannered and fair way.
“When things go wrong (as inevitably they do), don’t ask ‘who did this to me’ but rather ‘where have I gone wrong’. In this way, you do not define yourself as a victim and seek to blame others, but rather you put yourself on the path of learning from experience and picking yourself up.”
If you would like to keep in touch with Dr Cohen and update him on your progress you can email him on firstname.lastname@example.org.