Lead Interview: Peter Wilson

Our lead interview in the INNOVATE issue of Suffolk Director Business Magazine is Peter Wilson, Group MD of Cory Brothers
Published in Suffolk Director Magazine, Autumn/Winter 2020

Create, Develop and Deliver

“I’ve always lived by my dad’s advice; to treat everyone as your equal. My ambition is based on an understanding that you can get on without having to tread on others to do it”

When asking people that know Peter Wilson, Group MD of Cory Brothers, how best to describe him, words such as positive, approachable, and friendly, would not be far from the top of the list.

One thing’s for sure, spend just a couple of minutes with him and you can’t fail to be caught up in his exuberance: both for the people he works alongside, and the company where he has spent all his working life. 

“I think the attributes and capabilities I bring to the business are positive leadership, accessibility and honesty. I have a real and genuine desire for our people to succeed and be happy.” Peter explained.

“There have been several firsts throughout my career and most of those have centred around my age and being the youngest. Yet, the thing I am particularly proud of, and feel is my greatest achievement professionally, is becoming Group MD of Cory Brothers two years ago, which at 38, made me the youngest MD in the company’s history.”

However, to fully do justice to Peter’s story, we should start at the beginning, when he was growing up in Essex.

“The youngest of five children, I was born in October 1980. There was a significant age gap between myself and my three brothers, (Steven, Robert, and David), so family holidays tended to be spent caravanning around Europe with just Mum (Pearl), Dad (Lynne), myself and my sister, Anita, who was four years 
older than me. 

“I had a very happy childhood. Dad was Plant Manager at Fords at Dagenham and he took early retirement when he was 50. I was only ten, and as he was around at home a lot, we developed a really close relationship, and I would say he is my role model. He is a great father and was my best friend when I was growing up; in fact, he was best man at my wedding. We did everything together and he was very involved in all aspects of my life. Anyone that knew me, knew him as well. 

“We lived in Horndon-on-the-Hill, a very pretty village that looked out over the River Thames. You could see the docks at Tilbury in the distance.”

Hating education

“I went to school at St Clare’s in Stanford-le-Hope. I wasn’t brilliant academically, but I was well behaved at school. Anita was the polar opposite. She was very clever and went off to university, so I tended to feel I lived in her shadow. I still looked up to her though and I was devastated when she tragically died last year.

“When I left school, I went to Palmers College in Grays to do some resits with the intention of going on to do A Levels, but I absolutely hated education. The learning environment was not for me. Something you pick up on later in life is that although there is the need to learn, there are many different ways to do it, and it doesn’t have to take place in the classroom environment.

“The rule in our family was you were either in education or in work, and as I didn’t want to do my A levels, I started to look for a job. It was the mid-nineties and at that time, all vacancies were advertised in the paper. So, I would scour The Evening Standard for jobs in London, and The Thurrock Gazette for anything that might be closer to home.

“It wasn’t long before Mum spotted that Cory Brothers, a logistics and maritime services provider, was advertising for a Trainee Ships Agent based at the Port of Tilbury. I knew the business as Anita had done work experience there when she was 15. They had treated her really well, so I applied.”

Although Peter didn’t have a lot to show on his CV when it came to educational qualifications, the thing that stood out for Cory was that he had a variety of other things that piqued their interest, so they gave him an interview. 

“I had done my work experience with a reinsurance company that my brother, Robert, worked for in London, and since I was 13, I had been an army cadet in the ACF. The force was one of the country’s largest voluntary youth organisations and I had reached the rank of Cadet Sergeant, the most senior cadet in Essex at the time. Growing up I had wanted to get a job in the military but was persuaded against it by Mum; she wanted me to have a career, not a lifestyle!

“I had the opportunity later on, to ask the person that interviewed me, why they gave me the job. He said that their reason for employing me was that I had shown I had outside interests, as well as work experience. Also, when they had asked me the question: “how would you feel getting up at three o’clock in the morning to board a ship?” I answered that as an army cadet, I was used to getting up at all hours of the night to take part in activities and training, so the fact that Cory was going to pay me to do it was a bonus.

“After the interview, I went home to Mum and told her that I thought it went well and that if I got the job, I would be paid £7,500 a year, and eventually get a company car and mobile phone. Although she told me that sounded good, she didn’t think for one minute I would get the job on those terms. However, I did get the job, and six months later I was promoted to Shipping Agent and had all three!”

This point also marked another first for Peter and Cory Brothers. It was 1998 and at 17, he was the youngest person in the team of 200 that worked in the business. And, as a car came with the job, the company’s insurance policy had to be amended to make sure he was covered. 

“My job involved boarding the ships berthed at the Port of Tilbury and the Coryton Refinery, checking things over and looking after the vessels on behalf of the owners and charter representatives in the port.”

Peter Wilson - CORY BROTHERS

Own up to your mistakes

“From day one, the importance of honesty was drilled into me. It didn’t matter what time of the day or night, if there was a problem and I didn’t know the answer, then I needed to call it in and tell my bosses, so that it could be resolved.” 

“That was a great lesson learnt and something that I pass onto the team at Cory today; be honest about your mistakes, as it’s easier for us to work together to put it right quickly, rather than trying to cover it up or fix it yourself, and it escalating to become a major problem that is more difficult to rectify.”

When Peter first started work at Cory, the standard dress code for a shipping agent was trousers and a shirt, but he – bucking the trend and because he preferred to – would always wear a suit to work. He would take the jacket off when visiting the ships, but as he was slightly more corporately attired, he was invited to events where he was able to network with colleagues and clients.

“I loved getting out and about meeting people and interacting with them. As the youngest of five, I had spent all my life with older people, so I was comfortable and confident in the company of adults. 

“Also, Dad had given me a great bit of advice which was, “treat everyone as an equal. It doesn’t matter if it’s the ship’s captain or a security guard, treat them the same and you won’t go wrong.” 

“That mantra has remained with me throughout my life and has stood me in good stead. It doesn’t matter to me whether it comes from the trainee or a director, every question that I get asked is just as important, and the way I answer it is just the same. 

“Although I enjoy my own company, I think I am a sociable person and try to get on with everyone. I’m a smiler, a straight talker, and I enjoy being among people, and for these reasons, people like me and have treated me well.

“Another thing I have tried to abide by is not burning any bridges. Over time, this has proved challenging, but I have always tried to remain on good terms with everyone; whether it’s friends, colleagues or family.”

After a couple of years as a shipping agent Peter wanted to try something new, and attracted by the hustle and bustle of London, went to work for ship owner, James Fisher Tankers in London.

“I couldn’t see where my future was in Cory and working in the City appealed to me. However, I soon realised I had made a mistake. Cory was a great family company where the MD knew everyone, and I missed that.

“Having left on good terms, and not burnt any bridges, I was still in contact with the people at Cory, and over a beer with some of them after work one evening, I was asked to come back.”

Leading on innovation

However, Peter didn’t just want to return and fall back into the old job he had before.

“I only wanted to go back if there was an opening for a more senior role that would enable me to be part of something where I could make my mark.”

So, Peter was offered a role as Commercial Manager. One of his responsibilities was heading up the Hub Team, an area of the business which was still in its early stages, and he was charged with taking the lead on setting up a new innovation for Cory Brothers; a proprietary web-based software system which oversaw multiple port agencies. 

Peter Wilson

“At this time, in 2001, the internet was in its infancy. Generally, as a market, we are behind the times, so having this level of innovation in the shipping industry was unheard of. Although global ship agency businesses like Inchcape working from 400 offices had this sort of thing, this was definitely a first for a modestly sized logistics and maritime company. 

“It seemed like a daunting task, but we wanted to develop and design the system in-house. So, using our own programmers and IT section, and armed with a load of enthusiasm, we sat down with sheets of paper and drew up what we wanted and how we wanted it to work. Key pointers for us were that it needed to be simple and user friendly. As well as creating reports and enabling people using the system to compare projections, it also had to provide information, updates, schedules and accounting data.”

The result was ShipTrak, a sophisticated web-based software that enabled real-time access to vessel operations information, and which integrated with other operating systems to provide a significant time and cost saving. 

“The launch of ShipTrak meant that we could develop the business unit further, to form a Hub Agency that links seamlessly with 99 percent of shipping-based systems and common office software. That meant less paperwork, fewer emails, and time-savings throughout the users’ organisation, as systems are updated directly.”

It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that the development of the Hub Agency and the integration of ShipTrak took the Cory Brothers business to another level. Peter worked hard and driven by ambition and to do the job as well as he could, he worked his way up the career ladder in the business, being promoted to Commercial Director in 2012, then Managing Director – Port Agency & Hub Services in 2018.

He was only in the job for nine months, when a restructuring of Cory Brothers was undertaken by the main PLC Board. As a result, it was decided that rather than having two MDs at group level (in addition to Peter’s role there was also a Managing Director – Logistics), it would be better to have just one Group Managing Director. Described as a “natural leader following a natural path”, and based on his merit, experience and leadership qualities, Peter was appointed as Group MD in November 2018.

“I have worked under three MDs in my time at Cory’s and I have learnt from what they did and how they did it; adopting their best attributes and making sure I don’t copy their worst.”

The family dynamic

In his role, Peter gets to travel all over the world, but he is the most content when spending time with his wife, Kez and their family.

“Personally, my blended family is amazing, and the thing I am most proud of. Between us we have four children. Kez has Keaton from her previous marriage. I have Adam and Sam from mine, and together we have Esme. To be honest, the kids and the dog are what drives me to get out of bed in the morning; that and the desire to keep moving the business forward like all the previous custodians of Cory Brothers.

Lead Interview: Peter Wilson 5

“The family always come first, but when I get the chance to take time out, I like stand up paddleboarding, I ride my bike and I love sitting down to watch a good TV box set that I can immerse myself in; it’s like chewing gum for the eyes.”

Despite the pandemic this year, the future looks bright for Cory Brothers.

“During lockdown, we made sure everyone was paid a 100 percent of their wages, no-one was furloughed, and we took on 13 new staff.

“We are busy fully digitising parts of the business and preparing for Brexit. When I took on the Group MD role, a priority for me was to upgrade and take ShipTrak to the next level. So, I’m delighted that the new improved ShipTrak+ will be launched early next year. Also, assisted by our external partners, over the next six months, we will be rolling out another new online platform, Cory+, aimed at helping importers and exporters with their purchase order management. This new innovation will enable customers to fully control their supply chain inventory (cargo, stock and goods); putting everything in one platform that integrates with all relevant operational systems in the business.

“There are challenging aspects to the job; loneliness is always apparent, along with the overriding sense of responsibility for our people. Upon Anita’s tragic passing, my work life balance was out of kilter and it was all too easy to let the balance tip in work’s favour.

“My sister was hugely influential in my life and I really miss her. Losing her was pivotal in changing my direction in life and led me to make key changes, and clear boundaries are now in place to ensure a healthy balance. 

“I feel that I have been treated extremely well by Cory Brothers. Their loyalty and respect – which is reciprocated – over the last 22 years has given me huge opportunities. Yes, I have put effort, care, and hard work into everything I do, but my colleagues have been brilliant and have always been supportive and honest. In fact, when I needed it most, they looked after me even more. We have a bond that I’m extremely proud of, which is why I will always vehemently look after the people that are in this business.

“Although over the years, I have had opportunities to move somewhere else, I think I have a moral compass, and I don’t want to make a move that will disadvantage the people I 
work with.

“Cory Brothers has been trading since 1842, so I’m immensely proud to be at the helm of such a resilient and respected business. The choices I make are based around continued success and the greater good concept. It’s about the business and the brand; those that know me well would say, if you cut me open there would be a little red dragon running through me!” 

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