Peter was brought up in Kenya, where his father was working for ICI. Then as now, it was a dangerous place for westerners to work
Aa an investment banker in the frenzied financial world of the City, Peter Branson enjoyed an enviable lifestyle.
The 47-year-old chief executive of Huddersfield’s Forget Me Not Children’s Hospice looks back on those heady days and seems almost apologetic as he recalls: “I was living in London and I had two TVRs and a Range Rover. I was being paid ludicrous amounts of money for doing something that wasn’t doing much good for anyone else!”
But he was gaining valuable experience which would eventually benefit scores of families in his current role at the hospice, which he joined in September, 2010.
Peter was brought up in Kenya, where his father was working for ICI. Then as now, it was a dangerous place for westerners to work. “As a child, you only remembered the good bits,” he says. “You didn’t think about the fact that there were bars on the windows and guards patrolling the perimeter fencing.”
Peter’s family returned to Britain when he was nine. He went to school in Birmingham and gained a degree in economics at Exeter University before joining a graduate training scheme with NatWest. After three or four months, he decided he wanted to go into the dealing room as a trader. “My graduate training manager said I couldn’t do that because they didn’t put graduates into the dealing room,” he says. “The only way I could do so was to resign and hope they would hire me in the dealing room.”
Peter took the gamble and was told he would be taken on if he agreed to turn up for work at 6am every morning for three months so he could be trained. “I made sure I got there and they gave me a job,” he says.
Peter worked for NatWest and later First National Bank of Chicago, SPC Warburg and Deutsche Bank.
But he says: “Throughout those 10 years as an investment banker, I never thought of it as a ‘real’ job, People I went to school and university with had become teachers or nurses – things I considered to be real jobs.”
But Peter’s experiences did introduce him to the charity sector. “I used to travel into the city and walk from Charing Cross station, along the Strand and Covent Garden to the bank,” he says. “And I would see the same people sleeping rough in the doorways every morning. I got involved with Shelter and supported them financially and as a volunteer.”
In a bid to broaden his skills, Peter took a post with food giant Mars “because they had a great reputation for developing the skills of their people and giving them an all-round experience”. During his six years with the company, he built up its pet foods business from an idea drawn up on one side of an A4-sized piece of paper to a substantial organisation employing hundreds. “It was a massively valuable experience and taught me all sorts – how to do things and how not to do things,” says Peter. “A lot of that experience I have been able to bring to my role at the hospice.”
Before taking up that role, Peter spent seven years with the Prince’s Trust, heading its Yorkshire and Humber operations and later also overseeing its North East and East Midlands arms.
Peter’s contribution to the hospice has been telling. He likens its growth to that of a small business. “We have grown in the past couple of years from having a dozen staff to 90 people and from £400,000 income to £2.8m. That’s very significant growth.
“We have to deal with all the issue that a small business faces – health and safety, financial procedures – to ensure everything is stable.”
Peter’s passion for the job is partly a result of his own experiences. His son Aslan, now three, was seriously ill and spent three months in hospital. Although the crisis passed, he has an ongoing condition which requires regular monitoring. Peter says: “It gave me a tiny glimpse into what the families we support have to deal with on a daily basis.”
The other reason? “My father always instilled in me a strong sense that you should use whatever talents you have to the best of your ability. I have always believed that if you can do something to make a difference, then you must. I was very fortunate in having a great education – and lots of people who have given me my chances along the way.”
Peter’s appointment at the hospice marked the start of a new phase of development. “The trust needed to take the next step, which was to start delivering on the promises that had been made to the community,” says Peter. “The challenge was to turn those promises into reality.”
Just before Peter joined, the trust made its commitment to build a hospice to complement its “hospice at home” service. “We were committed to spending £2m out of reserves that had been built up over many years.” he says. “We knew that something quite significant had to happen in terms of growing our income to build the hospice and deliver the service they had set out to deliver seven years before.
“There were a number of people who did not believe it would be done. I had no doubt that it could. At the Prince’s Trust, I was involved in raising £3m a year, so I had the experience, and I wasn’t daunted by the task facing the hospice.”
Peter’s business background has helped him build long-term partnerships with corporate supporters of the hospice – which has to meet running costs of £2.8m this year – through initiatives such as The 99ers Club, whereby member firms pay 99p a day to the hospice and get the opportunity to network and do business together.
Another coup was to persuade Princess Beatrice to take on the role of patron. “We are confident that her continual involvement will help to raise awareness of the hospice,” says Peter. “We are talking about some things we can do with her next year.”
Peter says: “We are here to make sure children and their families get whatever they need. We have had 120 referrals since we opened and currently we support about 60 children and families. But we know that across the area there are 700 that we could be supporting. My aim is to ensure that we never turn a child or family away. That means our costs will continue to increase. We have to continue to develop our income to help us meet our aims.”
Away from work, Peter spends as much time as he can with his family. Their home high above Holmfirth is a “fabulous place” to bring up the children, he says, It’s also ideal for Peter’s main hobbies of mountain biking and photography.
“I ride the bike to work quite often,” he says. “It keeps me vaguely fit, but it also allows for good thinking time. It’s probably better for the soul than the body!” And he adds: “I love Yorkshire. I am incredibly proud of the fact that both my children were born in Yorkshire. Of all the places I have lived, this is undoubtedly the best.”