Behind the Cheeky Chappie exterior there is an astute business man who with a phone call can change the weather!
David Holmes was born the third of six children at home in Ealing, South West London. David knew exactly what time he was born because his mother heard the theme tune from Coronation Street coming from the next room. David’s parents met when they were at a Guide and Scout camp. “At the time it caused quite a bit of gossip because my mum was 23 and my dad was 16. When they met my mum thought he was one of the scout leaders but of course he wasn’t he was just one of the scouts, anyway he asked her out where eventually my mum ended up at my dads having tea and this is when my dads mum turned to my mum and said she was surprised that she was interested in John because she was 23 and he was only 16. After my mum had finished choking on her sandwiches she decided she liked my dad and they went on to get married and have six children. My older brother was born when my dad was only 17.”
Schooling was hard for David as his family moved around a lot as his father had to do all sorts of horrible jobs to make ends meet. This took the family all round the country including London, Dorset, a farm in Piddlehinton, Yeovil. Banbury and so it goes on. David’s connection with the island came about because his mother’s Gran lived in Freshwater, this meant that wherever David lived the family spent time on the island visiting her.
“I attended at least 15 schools throughout my childhood. The last school I attended was in Twickenham, located at the end of the M3 coming into London. I remember I spent the last 3 school years looking out of the window watching loads of Brain Haulage container lorries go up and down the M3.” David left school before he took any exams as he was desperate to earn more money.
“I suppose this was the first indication that perhaps I had entrepreneurial skills. I remember when I used to sit in the class room watching the Brain lorries running up and down the motorway I thought to myself, there must be a lot of money in the haulage business because there were so many of them. I was always motivated by trying to make a few bob, in those days I had to.”
David had so many after school jobs that when he eventually left school he took a pay cut, and on top of this his mum suddenly decided it was time for David to pay rent, which amounted to almost a third of his income! When David actually left school he didn’t really know what he wanted to do, although he enjoyed art at school and because of this he wanted to try sign writing. “In those days the average wage was £100 a week, however a sign writer could earn £200 a day to signwrite a lorry, I liked the idea of that and also the fact that armed with just a car, a box of paints and a mahl stick you could earn a fortune.”
David finally managed to get an apprenticeship with a sign writer, which unfortunately lasted all of half a day. “I remember turning up on the first day, I was left handed and the sign writer was right handed. I was told quite clearly that this would not work as the apprentices job was to fill the letters in and because I was left handed, this meant that I would drag my arm through the lettering, I still am not sure to this day what he meant, but that was the end of my sign writing career!” From here David went off and did several jobs, at 17 he worked for a funeral directors.
“By this time my parents had long since divorced, Mum had re-married a Coroners Officer. So I had a few years of him coming home and telling us all about the business. I thought it was all quite interesting, I thrive on crisis and drama, I remember he was always on the phone breaking news that someone had died or there had been an accident. So I went and got myself a job in Shepherds Bush at an undertakers. I liked the job, but I didn’t like where I was, at the bottom! In those days you would spend a year fitting out coffins, which I hated. I am the sort of person that wants to do it today, this minute. For instance, if I had a job on a newspaper I would want to be the editor not out covering Women’s Institute stories.
“So I left the job and thought to myself I will squirrel that idea away, however I will do this one day but not the way I was doing it at the time.” Moving on from the undertakers job David applied himself to a wide range of jobs. One skill David had was “The Gift of The Gab” so he had various sales jobs, one of which was selling cars. “I got that job because it meant that I could drive round in flash cars, so for quite a few years I was always in a nice Jag, or whatever the hot car of the moment was, it was great fun but the money was terrible.”
For some reason David had always had an interest in lorries, he thinks it goes back to when his grandfather owned a Scammell. So at the age of 21 David got his HGV Licence and toyed with the idea of going into the business of selling trucks. “In the end this idea didn’t go ahead because I realised you could earn quite a bit of money working out of Heathrow driving artic lorries, in those days HGV drivers were earning very good money. I became addicted to it and I actually stuck that job for a couple of years.”
By this time David was 23 married with his first child and a mortgage. He had always imagined he would make a lot of money. By now David knew a bit about the haulage business and went and got a job with Scania the truck company as a sales person. “I was very successful with Scania, in fact I was salesman of the year. I stayed with Scania for two years selling heavy trucks.” Those early days saw the beginning of Leasing and Contract Hire. This meant companies who previously needed to pay out 50k for a truck could now lease one with nil deposit and £2-300 per month. David played a part in setting up this scheme for Scania.
“I had a lucky break at Heathrow with a company who not only wanted to lease a fleet of vehicles but also wanted someone to supply the drivers, sort the insurance and diesel. I saw this as a wonderful opportunity for me to set up in business. My cheeky bit was to persuade Scania to let me have some vehicles on lease that I had already ordered, bearing in mind that I had already handed my notice in. Scania wanted 3 years accounts and money up front which I did not have, in the end they agreed to let me have the vehicles after I set out my business plan to them.”
This was David’s first real business that earned him good money, life was looking good. David funnily enough at the time chose not to expand the business as he felt settled and did not want to risk everything. He had a wife and child to care for and a mortgage, Up until this point he had always struggled with money.
“For a few years I was quite cowardly. In the early 90’s we had a recession, so I was glad I stayed where I was with the business as I saw many large companies fall by the wayside during these years. In the end I sold the business to my youngest brother and today it is one of UPS’s biggest UK heavy truck contractors.”
At this time David, still in his 20s, got in touch with his other brother who at the time was finding it hard in business and suggested that they should start a funeral business together. “I found some premises and we started a funeral business in Hounslow. It was a bit of a gamble, however it was immediately successful, I remember the first month we opened we did 13 funerals, so over the next 10 years between us we opened a new office each year. Eventually my brother decided that he no longer wanted me as a partner which I always knew deep down would be the case.”
With David’s brother buying him out of the original business David set up yet another funeral business. Over the next few years David worked hard making this a successful business eventually selling a big chunk of it to set himself up in the property development business here on the Island. I still have a thriving funeral business on the mainland, this is still my passion. I love the job. I am currently writing a book called “Lifting the Lid ” which is all about the often funny things that happen as well as being an insiders guide.”
I asked David if you get people who don’t pay in the business? “Yes, of course we do, I remember on one occasion where we actually took the guy to court and he looked across the court room to me and said “you will never get a f-in penny”. It turned out that he didn’t get on with his late brother’s wife and thought that she should pay, unfortunately for me they hated each other, what could I do, I never got paid! It’s funny because whenever this happens they’ve always ordered the most expensive coffin and an extra two or three limousines.”
I asked David if there’s a lot of competition in the funeral business? You wont believe this but the biggest operator in the UK is Co-Op, they make 10’s of millions of pounds from funerals. In fact in Hampshire they are being forced to sell business they own because they have a monopoly. This happened because they went round and bought up all the small independent funeral businesses. For instance if you tried to pick three different businesses along the South Coast it’s most likely that all three would be owned by the Co-Op. This has led to the price of a funeral increasing because there is no competition.”
Would you sell? “No, not at all, I love the job. It’s the only job I have done where your customers are embarrassingly grateful. It’s an attention to detail job. In order to do the job you have to be pretty good at dealing with families especially where accidents or children are involved. I love dealing with people that nobody else wants to talk to because of the horror of their situation.”
Do you get emotionally involved with the job? “Yes I do, only last night I was talking to my local vicar in Totland about how people presume that because I do this sort of job you can become detached from the situation. You can’t deal with a death of a child or a teenager without becoming involved. I have had many occasions where I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it, because at the time you’re so close to the person that’s suffering. The worst case I ever dealt with was a fellow up in London who had left his son in the car whilst he went and got an estimate for something or other and unfortunately whilst he was away the car caught fire and the young boy was killed, I always remember these sad cases.”
I asked David what was one of the most common causes of accidental death? “I suppose the most common cause is head injuries, the head is so fragile, people don’t understand how easy it is to die all because you suffer a hard knock on your head. I would not let my kids travel in any car without an air bag and seat belts. Just this month I have dealt with two teenagers because they were not wearing seat belts.” One thing David has learned from working in the funeral business is that you must live for today.
“I have heard many people say at funerals, what a shame, they had plans to do this, or buy that etc. I say, go and do it today, even if you have to put it on a credit card because you never know when your time is up. Also I try not fall out with people if I can possibly help it. Unfortunately people don’t think, for instance, if you’re in your mid 40s your life’s practically half over, it’s a sobering thought!”
David moved to the Island in 1990, and quickly established himself. “I wrote a couple of letters in the County Press and the next thing I knew I was being asked if I would like to stand as Councillor, this must have been around 1998! “I was on holiday at the time and I arrived back with only two weeks to go before the elections. I rushed round making and delivering leaflets with my kids, bearing in mind at this time I was not even a member of the Conservative Party, to try and win the seat for Freshwater.
“At the time Ron Smith was councillor who by now was in his 70’s. As I was going round canvassing I quickly discovered that he was not as popular as I thought he was. On Election Day I was shocked to hear that I had been elected. I never knew anything about the system, I was really naive at the time. The first job I was given was Vice Chairman of Planning. At the time Shirley Smart quietly said to me “You’ll never chair a meeting”, and I thought what a horrible thing to say, what a nasty woman.
Within six months of the appointment David received some bad news that one of his elder brothers had unfortunately committed suicide. “About six weeks after I had received this news I had to be in London for an important meeting, however I could not go because there was an important council meeting that day. I remember sitting round the table for hours listening to everyone, eventually it was my turn to speak, I simply raised my hand and informed the committee that I was going to resign. And that was the end of my political career, 9 months in total.
Whilst David was a councillor he had done a few radio interviews and suddenly developed a passion for it. “Alex Dyke was off on holiday and I was asked if I could run his show for a week whilst he was away and take care of the notorious phone-in. I laughed and said of course I will, no problem. The first day I was terrified, I had thousands of people listening to me and I had to keep them amused with interesting subjects. I spent the most exhausting hour of my life trying to keep this phone-in going. No one else wanted to do this, it’s the hardest job in the world to do a radio phone-in.
“The funniest thing I remember was the first year I ran The Garlic Festival. The BBC weather forecast that weekend predicted rain on the Sunday and I remember on the way to the field calling the radio station and asking them to change the weather! Please say we were expecting light breezes with sunny periods, they obliged and we had a terrific turnout, the power of radio!” From this David has become a regular on Isle of Wight Radio and is now an integral part of Alex and The Doc.
“I try to keep Alex under control because sometimes he does overstep the mark, I’m what you might call a restraining influence over him. It’s been said in the past that we gang up on people, we can’t get away with this because nobody would call us, so there would be no radio show.” Throughout David’s long and varied career he has had to gamble his house many times in order to secure deals. “It’s something that anyone like me has to do, I don’t enjoy doing it but it has to be done I’m afraid. If you want to succeed in life you have to constantly be sticking your neck out, there’s no comfort zone.”
David, now in his mid 40s has had to slow down, “I used to get up every morning, catch the ferry, drive to London and return in the evening, 5 days a week, I can’t do this anymore, it takes it out of me. I am now 40 something (half way there) I have my funeral business, Isle of Wight Radio, The Garlic Festival, voluntary Director of Wight Crystal and finally property development. Hopefully new things will crop up, and I’ll stay busy…who knows!”