From Post Room to Partner – the journey of a senior executive who worked his way up from a humble start

Stephen Jarvis
Corporate Partner and International Brand Ambassador, Ince Gordon Dadds 

We met Stephen for breakfast in one of London’s City restaurants, just as many thousand others were doing the same day. Observing the person that was sitting in front of us one could quickly to jump to conclusions about the life he has had – wearing a well-made blue suit, looking confident and relaxed, one would not guess the story he was about to tell…

Too often we are all at fault for judging people too quickly, making assumptions and often there are great stories that lie behind the person. Stephen is one such example. As one reads the following story, one is struck that Stephen’s career was influenced by fortune, misfortune too, but through a process that always had Stephen placing himself into a place where opportunities happened. The following story is a lesson for those seeking to rise up the career ladder and maybe do not have all the advantages that life can bring. It does take some real character, resilience, hard work mixed with fortune’s favour.

As a child, Stephen lived with his younger sister and brother in a terraced house in Upminister. They did not have a car and never went on holiday abroad. Life had few luxuries. Stephen was expected to find a job and to help support the family once he left school at the tender age of 16. It is easy to say that this would not happen today but in those days, Stephen was just another young man having to start work at an early age.

However, Stephen had shown how life’s fortune would smile kindly on him from an early age. He had gone to The Cooper’s Company and Coborn School in Upminster. At the time, there was a rumour that in order to get in you had to play chess. During the interview, the Headmaster asked him if he played chess and then produced a chess board asking him to make a move. Stephen was granted a place. At sixteen he went to his first job interview. The school had a connection in the City, and arranged for him to go to various interviews there.

Two years later he found himself asking the same question that many of us ask at times “Was I really going to travel to London for the rest of my life?”

His first job

Stephen went to work in the post room for Clyde & Co, an International Law Firm. His role was simple – he was helping to sort the post and he hand delivered it around the offices to all the lawyers before moving on to taking court proceedings up to the court, have them issued, stamped and ready to be served. It was a very manual job, without any involvement in the law – but he was on the first rung of the ladder and his career, to come, was taking root – even if he did not know it at the time.

A colleague encouraged Stephen to join the Institute of Legal Executives, which was an alternative structure to get into the law for people who did not have a degree. To achieve this, he decided to start doing part time courses whilst working. One of the modules on his course was to do with company law and corporate law, which he found interesting.

Aged nineteen, Stephen asked if he could start focusing on corporate law. He was told that he was very lucky because they had just hired three corporate partners who needed a “gofer” – a junior that they could boss around. Stephen was prepared to be that person and was happy to learn from the bottom.

Two years later he found himself asking the same question that many of us ask at times “was I really going to travel to London for the rest of my life?”  He felt that he had missed out on all the things that other young people were doing. He decided that he needed a new challenge in life and what he really wanted was to go to work overseas so he enquired about any opportunities to work in the Hong Kong office. There was no opportunity in the Hong Kong office, but Clyde & Co had just opened a new office in Dubai.

An empty plane to Dubai

In 1990 he flew out to Dubai for the weekend and fell in love with it. However, that summer Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. It was the beginning of the first Gulf War and due to the situation Stephen’s transfer was temporarily postponed – however, the war was relatively short lived and on 8th January 1991 he flew out to Dubai on an otherwise almost empty plane.

The Gulf War had meant there was little work in the office. It was the strangest of times for many but Dubai was about the start its journey towards the world class centre that it became over the next twenty years.

For the first 6 months, Stephen was meeting people and building relationships. Given the circumstances, it was a fascinating time and arguably was the period in his life that really allowed him to flourish as a character. He lived in an apartment designed for a partner – not a junior lawyer – which was a 3 bedroom villa with a swimming pool, garden and the housemaid who cooked fabulous food. Stephen focused on corporate work advising companies aiming to set up a branch office in the Middle-East , including BMW and other multinationals. He learnt that the key lessons for a commercial lawyer were knowing what your client wants, understanding their business plan and having attention to detail.

Whilst he was in Dubai, he was still studying to become a legal executive. He took his exams sitting in a Portakabin attached to the British Embassy and became a Fellow of the Institute of Legal Executives. He realised that he could only continue to progress in his career if he became a solicitor and so Stephen, with his wife and newborn child, returned to the UK.

Ince and Co

He found a job with Ince & Co as a part of their corporate team and they agreed to sponsor his legal courses. After qualifying he became a junior salaried partner. During the early lunches for partners he felt he did not belong there, he kept quiet for months trying simply to fit in. However, having a “Partner badge” made it easier to win work.

Eventually he became an Equity Partner and then Global Head of Corporate and a few years later aged 49, he joined the board of directors.

Most recently Stephen worked closely on the merger of Ince & Co with AIM listed Gordon Dadds plc to create the international law firm Ince Gordon Dadds. Having worked all over the Christmas period in 2018 the transaction signed on 31st December 2018.

Stephen was off work for several months and during his recovery he experienced depression and began to seriously re-evaluate his life.

Life can change in a second
In 2014 Stephen was taught an important lesson about life.

That winter Stephen had a bad accident whilst cycling. He slipped on an icy road, breaking his leg in five places. As misfortune would have it, the accident happened on the boundary between Essex and Greater London and there was a dispute over which ambulance service should attend. Screaming in pain, he had to wait an hour and a half before the ambulance arrived and the injury became life-threatening.

 
Stephen was off work for several months and during his recovery he experienced depression and began to seriously re-evaluate his life. From the day he started work in the post room at 16 years old to the day of the accident in January 2014 he had not stopped in his pursuit of success. The accident and subsequent recovery had forced him to look more closely at his life.
 
 “I was beginning to become a bit too self-important, charging around, flying all over the world, neglecting my family and my children in particular”, he noted.
 
The accident was a sharp reminder of the transience of life and how we should value our life and that all we really have is that present moment. The here and now.
 
“I love my job; I am passionate about my job and the people … but it is, just a job”.
 
Today Stephen tries to remember this, tries to keep a good perspective about work and life in general – and has kept to his vow to spend more time with his family and those he loves.
 
So what can we all learn from Stephen’s story?
 
On a simple level, that hard work, determination and being in the right place at the right time all contributed to Stephen’s success. However, his story is a touch deeper – it is one of a young man that quietly accepted life’s challenges and always sought opportunities to progress himself – from playing Chess with a headmaster to the move to Dubai, to even how he adapted to being a partner. However, maybe his greatest success is that he always knew who he was and always kept a perspective on what was important in his life.