HE’S a Lancashire lad who’s more than happy to be working in Huddersfield.
And despite missing out on his first choice career as a PE teacher, rugby league enthusiast Neil Wheeler is helping make sure things stays fit and healthy for business services specialist Code Blue Group, where he is managing director.
“Growing up in Oldham, I wanted to be a PE teacher,” he says. “I was offered a place on a course at Liverpool University. But I enjoyed my rugby and my summers too much and failed my A-levels. I was playing rugby at weekends and socialising with my rugby mates.
“But as one of nine children I was expected to go out and get myself a job and that’s how I stumbled into retailing.”
He started by working on a fruit and veg stall at Oldham open market, recalling: “I was very quiet and shy – until one day my boss threw the money wallet at me and told me to start selling. That meant shouting out the prices to attract customers.
“It was a good grounding for a career in sales because it helped you learn how to deal with customers face-to-face and find out what customers wanted.
“It taught you that the customer is king – and so many businesses forget that. If the customers are not happy, the bills don’t get paid.”
Neil later joined national retail chain All Sports and at the age of 19 became manager of its Oldham branch. During a 10-year career with the company, he went on to manage its flagship store in Manchester and developed several new stores in Scotland.
He insists: “I’m not the best salesman, but I enjoy working with people and bringing out the best in them. I enjoyed my time there, but I eventually made a decision to leave. I was working six or seven days a week as store manager at a time when my daughter was little. When the chance of sales job came up I decided to take it.”
Neil recalls having to persuade his wife, Sharon, that this was a wise move! He says: “We had just got our first mortgage and I’d decided to pack in my nice, safe job for a commission-only sales job – but I could see a better future.”
So in 1999 Neil began selling ads for a trade magazine publisher in Leeds – working alongside old friend and Huddersfield University graduate Tony Kenny. They first met at Oldham market and Neil later gave Tony a job working weekends at the All Sports store.
When the publishing firm ceased trading three years later, Neil and Tony decided to set up their own business – initially publishing FMCG magazine, for which Neil had been sales manager at the Leeds company.
“We chose to set up the business in Huddersfield,” says Neil. “I live in Oldham and Tony lives in Leeds, so Huddersfield seemed a good compromise. Now we would never consider moving out of town because most of our staff are local people.”
Neil and Tony launched Code Blue in the Media Centre with FMCG magazine. After 18 months, they launched Construction Industry News. As the business grew, they took on additional sales and studio staff.
Code Blue began offering the services of its design studio to other businesses as a way to keep staff busy during the lulls between deadlines. That led to the launch of Code Blue Design – and a move in 2005 to larger premises in Hammond’s Yard, off King Street.
Since then – and despite the credit crunch – Code Blue Group has widened its business services to include mobile communications, recruitment, IT support and systems management and marketing.
Code Blue’s success is easy to decipher.
Says Neil: “It was a case of seeing opportunities and exploiting them. We didn’t want to miss out.
“It has been very tough, but we are getting through these difficult times by sensible management – keeping things nice and tight and overheads low – and by offering good customer service and competitive rates.”