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Publisher's late career change led to journeys of inspiration in tour business
MARTIN Cowell has combined a love of travel with a successful business career to find himself running his own niche firm.
Absolute Touring offers mainly foreign visitors the chance to see the delights of the English countryside from the comfort of a coach driven by an expert guide.
It is a major departure from top managerial posts in publishing, but as a sales specialist Mr Cowell has been able to adapt his natural affinity with people to good effect.
Mr Cowell was born in “the other place” – Cambridge, where his father was a bookseller.
He had always worked in the shop in his spare time and, in a way, this helped determine his career path, despite completing a law degree in Leeds.
“My father saw a job as a sales rep with Oxford University Press (OUP) and I went there in 1969,” he explained.
At the age of 22, Mr Cowell found himself entering a very traditional world.
He said: “The average age of the workforce was over 62. Many of the staff had started there in the 1920s after the depression, thought themselves lucky to have a job and were loyal to their employer.
“All that was coming to an end.”
Wife Anne, whom he met at university, became a lawyer at Linnells in Oxford (now known as Blake Lapthorn) but Mr Cowell’s job was actually based in London until 1976 when the commercial department of the Press moved back to Oxford.
“I became sales manager in the late 1970s and the 1980s was a fantastic time to be there.
“There were a whole bunch of wonderful people who worked and played cricket together.”
But Mr Cowell was attracting the attention of other big publishing names and in 1987 he joined Faber & Faber as sales director.
“I had had several phone calls from people who thought London publishing was the centre of the universe. But when I got there I quickly discovered OUP knew more about publishing than most people in London.”
From there he joined Octopus publishing, and then he became sales director for Heinemann Methuen.
Eventually he was working in Rushden, Northamptonshire, linking the production and sales sides of the business.
“I met authors such as Jackie Collins and Michael Palin and I learned more about the logistics side of the business.”
Mr Cowell was really bitten by the travel bug when he worked in Canada for Reed Books.
“I lived in an amazing Victorian house and used to go to work in a tram. It really broadened my horizons.”
Having come back to Oxford in 1995, he continued to work for Reed until 2003 when he took early retirement.
“At 57 I was given all my pension and redundancy. But I had to start thinking about what to do with my time.”
He was called back to OUP on a short-term contract and started travelling extensively, culminating in a trip on the Trans-Siberian Express.
Back home again, he then came across a company called Absolute Touring that offered mainly foreign visitors trips around the Cotswolds and other beauty spots.
Mr Cowell started driving and eventually became a joint owner of the business with founder Angie Spendlove.
When Ms Spendlove decided to leave the business, Mr Cowell found himself running his own company.
Now, with drivers Noel Dresden and John Simpson, Absolute Touring is going from strength to strength with the emphasis on personal service.
Local knowledge is of paramount importance as visitors, often Americans, ask questions and often want to go further afield to cities such as Bath and even into Devon.
One of the more recent innovations has been the establishment of a tour designed to visit places mentioned in the TV drama Midsomer Murders.
With the series sold to more than 200 countries, many of those on the tour come from abroad, particularly Australia, and are taken to South Oxfordshire locations, including Warborough and Wallingford.
“They want to believe that England has all the pretty bits shown on the series – and we don’t disappoint,” said Mr Cowell.
Last year the company completed 600 tours and had a turnover of about £80,000. At 67, Mr Cowell is enjoying a new lease of life in a business he thoroughly enjoys.
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