Dominic’s career started in advertising but after ten years in the business he packed it all in and became a tree surgeon. Soon after Dominic set up his own business which allowed him the flexibility to look after elderly parents. Yet another career change followed, plus a Masters and a PhD, today Dominic is the Executive Director of Mangrove Action Project, an NGO who work to preserve, conserve, and restore our world’s mangrove forest.
It looks like you had a set career plan in mind after Radley, studying Commerce at Edinburgh, specialising in marketing and then straight to a variety of marketing jobs. Why marketing?
It was a family thing. My dad was a Marketing Director and my older sister had gone into advertising. I wanted to go into business in general but didn’t have a specific direction. I thought studying Commerce would be interesting until I got a better idea of where it could take me.
Did you enjoy advertising, or was it just a job?
During the early 90s the economy had slowed down, and I started working in an agency where two firms were merging into one. Because of the pressures and stresses that go with a merger it was quite a culture shock – not a great place to work. Thankfully, after a year or so, I went to another agency which was much better.
Looking back, I think I came to advertising too late. In the late 80s advertising had really come into its own with creative, funny ads that you could have fun with but by the 90s it had turned into a sweat shop. The only people enjoying themselves were the accountants! Having said that, I did enjoy travelling for my work – I spent 10 years in advertising and without doubt travelling with someone else footing the bill has been a positive!
For two years I worked in Ukraine setting up an agency in Kiev for Lintas. When the job ended I spent two months travelling around France, Spain, and Portugal on a motorbike eventually coming back to the UK and freelanced for several years where jobs took me to Bangkok and Jakarta. The problem with freelancing is that you are usually brought in when there are internal problems which can be stressful and political. The older you get the more the politics increase – perhaps it was my awareness that increased, and the politics had always been there!
What made you leave marketing?
My parents became ill and I decided I needed to go back to the UK and help my sisters look after them. I knew I didn’t want to continue working in the advertising industry, and people weren’t being treated particularly well, it was time for a change.
How did you decide what to do next?
A friend of mine was a recruitment consultant. He said don’t think about the job itself but the format you want: office, city, countryside, travel, work from home, small company, corporate? What do you want to get from it? Follow a passion. Then work out what fits your criteria. I flicked through the yellow pages and saw adverts for tree surgeons.
I already had an interest in trees and through reading various journals was becoming aware of the environmental issues for forests, be they boreal, mangrove, rainforests, urban, or forests in the UK. It seemed an obvious choice for me, and something completely different.
Did you set up Altenburg Tree Services Ltd without any prior experience?
No, I worked for a small company first who were great, a good team. You need to have to the correct qualifications, know what equipment is needed etc, and of course get used to wielding chainsaws at height! I then worked for a larger company and saw examples of how not to do it.
Giving up a good career is a bold step, what did family and friends think?
Many friends either already had or wanted to change their own careers so I wasn’t alone. Letting go of the cash is difficult, I think there’s a danger that you get a sense of entitlement, ‘I’m worth £x amount’. However, advertising had taught me we are all just a commodity.
Did you enjoy being your own boss?
I did, it was fun and flexible. I worked in Southwest London and was picky about jobs. I walked around different areas and any I liked the look of I would write my own note to the house owner and put it in their letter box. Generally, I took the small technical jobs which bigger companies didn’t want, but you could charge more for them and there was less rubbish to take away.
I’m pretty certain I gave the most expensive quotes, but the work still came in. I sounded like and looked like the people who wanted to employ me. I could chat easily with prospective clients; I think it gave them a sense of comfort and people felt comfortable with me. I would be left to get on with the job, cash left on a table and handed the keys to lock up when I was finished.
Of the 205 invoices I raised every one was paid in full and without a problem.
In 2006 you did a Masters in Sustainable Development at Imperial, what prompted this and what were your career plans?
I never intended to be a tree surgeon as a long-term plan, just while I helped to look after my parents and get them stable. In 2005 I volunteered for a month with Mangrove Action Project which is how my interest in mangroves grew. Eventually I got a job with Wetlands International in 2006 based in Thailand as technical officer. It involved site monitoring, data collection, presentations at conferences, and environmental educational work in schools etc.
At the same time, I realised that if I really wanted to pursue a career in this area I needed a Masters. Imperial was like buying a good brand, plus I could do the Masters remotely on a part time basis while continuing to work for Wetlands International. The next 10 years were spent working for Mangrove Action Project (MAP) as a trainer, and then in 2020 you became the Executive Director, can you give me a brief overview of what MAP are about.
MAP is a small NGO with a team of just four full time people, and four part time. Our aim is the preservation and conservation of mangroves, we are a specialist group that acts as an advisory body to whoever needs us. We teach people the right way of restoring mangroves and make sure they are planting the correct species in the right places, and a variety of species if they are to survive the impact of climate change. The idea is to encourage a mangrove forest that can naturally regenerate – to facilitate a system that can heal itself. Mangrove forests store a huge amount ‘Blue Carbon’ (taking carbon dioxide from the earth’s atmosphere) up to five times the amount that tropical rain forests sequester per unit area, and hence are essential to aid global climate change.
You gained a PhD in 2019: Community Mangrove Management and Restoration, what was the driver behind that?
In 2011 I went back to the UK to help with my dad once again. While looking after dad I decided to do the PhD: it would improve my knowledge of mangroves and at the same time be useful from a work point of view; ‘someone with a PhD must know what they’re talking about’. Initially I applied to UCL but they insisted I was full time, however Bangor were happy with part time and that allowed me to work from home with dad. Sadly, my dad died later that year.
I funded the PhD myself while simultaneously continuing to teach for MAP. My research was exactly what I wanted to learn and was teaching. I also became an International Student Ambassador for Bangor University, my role was to promote Bangor University to potential international students in Southeast Asia. This meant Bangor paid for my travel around Southeast Asia and at the same time I could attend academic conferences, and travel to interview people, collect data etc in those areas. It was a win-win situation.
What do you enjoy about your current role, and what’s your biggest achievement to date?
I’m in my dream job, no commute (not had one since 2002) no need for an office as we work around the world. I enjoy working with different cultures and travelling to different countries. I’m constantly learning about new science – co-author on research papers (no time to lead) which keeps my hand in with the latest research, plus meeting new and interesting people. Also, from a sustainable point of view, I hope I have an impact on making the world a better place.
I do a lot of fundraising for MAP, the hardest part is getting people/companies to understand why we need funds for the operational side of MAP, not just for the training element. Recently I had great success securing money from the UK which means people can now be paid properly! In turn we can attract highly skilled people who understand the restoration of mangroves and can teach others. Hopefully, now one funding group is on board it will be easy to persuade others to follow.
If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Mmm, I suppose when I was working in advertising I could have been better at the politics. I don’t regret my time though, I learnt some very useful presentation skills which are invaluable to me now. Perhaps I could have been quicker at completing my PhD. An unexpected benefit there was that it taught me to be a better writer, it’s improved my proposal writing no end.
Finally, how would you sum up your Radley experience?
It was a good experience and I’m still in contact with several friends. A boarding school teaches you how to live with other people as it such a close environment. It also gives you great independence as you have already left home, and hence it made travelling abroad less daunting.