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Alumni return to DMU after 50 years

Old classmates took a trip down memory lane to celebrate their 50th anniversary of enrolling at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) this October. 

Tony Braniff, Barry Myers, Andrew Cochrane, Robert Bartup, John Moon, Peter Bell, John Waterhouse and Mary Kapadia all enrolled on a four-year Business Studies course at DMU – or Leicester Polytechnic as it was known then – back in 1971.

DMU alumni group

Fellow DMU alumni Chris Kittle, who studied for a Diploma in Shoe Design between 1972 and 1975, also joined the group’s reunion along with David Botley, Julian Scannell and John Schofield, who all completed their three-year Diploma in Building Surveying in 1975.

Starting their afternoon off by catching up with one another at Trinity House, the alumni enjoyed a tour of the campus and a visit to the university’s archives.

The size and structure of the university’s campus is arguably the most notable change to take place over the half-century. Years of redevelopment, including The Yard, which opened at the start of the 21/22 academic year, have helped transform DMU into a vibrant and modern hub.

DMU Alumni James Went Building
The towers from the old James Went building poking out behind the Turret Gateway

Gone are the tall towers of the James Went Building – where many of the business qualifications were taught, demolished in 2004 – and in its place stands the striking Hugh Aston Building.Gone too is the William Rowlett Hall of Residence, the university’s first hall of residence where many of the alumni would have lived at least in their first year of study.

For some, including retired entrepreneur Tony Braniff, who organised the event, the reunion was the first time they had seen their classmates in more than 45 years.  

Tony, Peter Bell and Andy Cochrane shared their memories of Leicester Polytechnic, how studying how shaped their careers and what it was like to be back on campus after all this time.

Tony Braniff, 68

DMU alumni Tony Braniff

Hi Tony. What first prompted you to leave Lichfield and study at Leicester Polytechnic?

I knew I wanted to work in business from an early age and thought the best thing I could do was study a broad, general business course. Leicester Poly offered a strong range of modules including accounting, law, data processing and sociology, which I knew would kick start my career.

What made Leicester Poly stand out most though was the fact it was offering a sandwich course. We had two six month placements between our second and third years, which really helped us understand how a business worked and how concepts such as accounting were used in the real world.

What inspired you to come back to see DMU?

Curiosity, mostly. I now live in Atlanta, GA, and I was coming back to the UK to see old friends before running the London Marathon. Knowing I’d be over here, I decided I wanted to come back and see what happened to the city and how Leicester Poly had changed.

The whole idea was to catch up, reminisce about the past – some of these people I haven’t spoken to for 45 years. I got in touch with people on Facebook, and from there it just grew as people were suggesting other classmates to invite.

It's all changed since you were last here nearly 50 years ago, what’s the biggest notable change?

The change is phenomenal. It’s got a really nice feel around the place – I’m quite envious of the students studying here because I would love to do it all again, however, retirement does have a few perks too. 

Looking around today, the student accommodation is much nicer compared our experience. The old Leicester Poly campus was much smaller but it had a gym and five-a-side facilities, which was everything we needed back then. Now, there’s so much for students to do and the facilities are just incredible, especially compared to what we had. 

You left Leicester Poly in 1975 and you currently live in Atlanta GA, US – what happened in-between that time to get you to where you are today?

The majority of my career has been focussed on building software technology companies from scratch and then selling them. I left university and joined a management training scheme for the motor component company Joseph Lucas Ltd. I was there for two years but felt that the motor industry was dying, and was intent on joining the emerging computer software industry, which I did.

I then worked for an American software company, Comshare, for 10 years  selling and marketing business application software for planning, reporting and budgeting pre-microsoft Office, and rose through the ranks to join the European Board.  This was a time of significant entrepreneurial opportunities in the industry so I left with some colleagues to create our own software company, raising cash  from venture capitalists including 3i here in the UK. I went to Atlanta to build the American arm of that business and I loved the place, so decided to settle there.

After a number years we were able to sell the company ALG Software, to a much larger software company, Business Objects – a successful outcome for all of the investors and shareholders. Given that experience, I have subsequently been involved in the building and creation of other software companies including Profisee Inc. , Xpertek in South Africa and Whoop Inc., all of which had successful exits.

What entrepreneurial advice would you have for DMU students looking to launch their own business?

That is a very interesting question. Off the top of my head, I have a couple of things:

Be very focused on the business you are creating. Make it simple and don’t get distracted by anything else but the core reason for the business. Always remind yourself what it is you’re doing, why you are doing it, what problem your business is solving and why should people want to do business with you.

The second thing, retain control of the business and do not give away ownership or shares in the company unless you really have to. Ensure you have the power to make your own decisions.

Peter Bell, 68

DMU alumni Peter Bell

Hi Peter. Were you local to Leicester and why did studying in the city appeal to you?

I’m from Norwich originally, so had never been to Leicester before enrolling at the polytechnic. I knew nothing about the city. We didn’t have many specific career paths available to us when I was growing up, so I wanted to get a general degree so I could gain practical skills. I wasn’t particularly academic and what really appealed about Leicester Polytechnic was the two six-month placements. 

How far has the university come and what’s impressed you the most since coming back to DMU and Leicester?

For certain it’s the branding. It hits you even before you step foot on the campus and it looks very professional. In our days, Leicester Poly was hardly branded at all but you do now get the sense that DMU is on equal footing with the University of Leicester when it comes to the facilities and campus. I imagine everyone in Leicester now knows of both universities.    

The sandwich course was obviously a big incentive for you, what did you learn in these placements?

The biggest thing it taught you was that a job requires a certain discipline. There’s a routine that you have to adapt to and if you are strong-willed you can do well in the business world.

In fact, after my second placement, I would say that I struggled to adapt back to studying because it wasn’t as structured. That is often not the case now because there are a lot of different skills you learn at university, so you have to be more disciplined with your studies.

What did you do after university?

I was lucky enough to get on the graduate scheme at United Biscuits. My first placement as a young twenty-something lad from Norwich was up in Glasgow and I was shipped up to Scotland to cut my teeth in the industry. It was a really eye-opening experience and I learned a lot up there before I was moved back to Leicestershire, this time at Ashby-De-La-Zouch.

I decided I really enjoyed working in the food industry – it was a different challenge. I got a chance at a small bread company called Warburtons. You can argue did alright in the end. At the time they were a family-run organisation with just two factories, so I joined them before they became the powerhouse they are today.

I stayed with them for thirty-odd years and became their operations director for some time. In that time, we expanded to 32 sites as the business just kept growing.

In reality, it was more a case of me being in the right place at the right time because Warburtons was already on to a winner but I was there to see the expansion of the company, and I’m proud to have been involved with the company for the journey.

Andrew Cochrane, 68

DMU alumni Andy Cochrane

Hello Andrew. What appealed to you about coming to Leicester Polytechnic?

Initially, I wanted to study geography with economics but it was becoming obvious I wasn’t going to get the grades. My teacher suggested I try out general business studies and when I was given the choice of Leicester and Newcastle, I chose Leicester.

What was the campus like back in 1971?

We were based in the James Went Building, which was, essentially, just two tower blocks roughly where the business school is now. Coming from York, the two-tower blocks actually looked quite exciting and metropolitan to me.

How has the campus changed in the past 50 years?

Well, where do you begin? I’ve never really come back to this side of the city, so there’s been a lot to take in.

Instantly, I thought it looked a lot cleaner and a lot brighter, and like a lot of universities, the campus has branched out a fair bit. It’s like a small town within the city. There’s a lot of very impressive buildings now compared to what we used to have to study back in the 1970s.

Newarke Street also used to be a small narrow street, with The Magazine – where a lot of students would drink – close to the corner – it’s a shame it’s not there anymore.

After leaving DMU, what did you end up doing?

Well, most importantly, I married my wife, who I met at a disco up at the University of Leicester.

In terms of my career, I got a trainee business management post at Western Helicopters, working in the commercial department selling choppers to India and Pakistan. I got a trip to Pakistan out of it, which is always nice.

After three years with Western Helicopters, I realised it wasn’t in my nature to sit in the office all day, so I went back into farming up in York. I had my own dairy herd on the outskirts of York for about 20 years and then decided to do a Higher National Diploma (HND) in countryside management. 

It was a pretty good decision, as off the back of completing the course I got a job in the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, which was a lovely role.

Posted on Thursday 4th November 2021

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