Back to school to become new captains of industry

University of East Anglia Business School. Picture submitted

University of East Anglia Business School. Picture submitted - Credit: Archant

The University of East Anglia's part-time Executive MBA is helping to create the business leaders of tomorrow. Business writer Stephen Pullinger spoke to alumni from across the region about their experiences.

Matthew Conway, director at Dipple Conway opticians, at work fitting glasses. Picture: DENISE BRADLE

Matthew Conway, director at Dipple Conway opticians, at work fitting glasses. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2015

Alexandra Marsden

It was a supportive boss at Aviva keen to invest in her personal development that led Alexandra Marsden onto the UEA's Executive MBA course.

However, part way through her studies, the then head of life and pensions sales realised that the ongoing restructuring and cost-shedding at Aviva could limit her chances of ever attaining the progress she craved.

So even before graduating in July last year she found a new challenge - involving relocating her family from Norfolk to Cheshire - as head of sales at Royal London, setting up a sales division from scratch for the company's newly-formed consumer team.

Rose Jenkins, a strategic development consultant for NPS Group.Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Rose Jenkins, a strategic development consultant for NPS Group.Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

Alexandra, 42, married to Andrew with three children, Spencer, 18, Rhea, 16, and Cameron, eight, is proud to have graduated with a merit - 'I was just one mark off a distinction' - having previously left education at the age of 16 with no more than GCSEs.

However, she said she could never have done it without 'great children and a supportive husband'.

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She said: 'It is really hard. I would recommend it to someone only if they are very committed to doing it. You sacrifice a lot of personal time, but the benefits for the cohort on my course were nevertheless huge.'

She said one of the most important things she had learned was to 'look at the much bigger picture in any organisation'.

'The course has also taught me you can achieve anything you set out to,' said Alexandra who joined Norwich Union after leaving school and then spent several years at the Nat West bank before rejoining the insurance giant in its rebranded Aviva guise and working her way up from selling car insurance on the phone.

She is now eager to use the skills she acquired on the MBA to achieve further career progress at Royal London.

Matthew Conway

Matthew Conway is confident that the skills he is learning on the UEA's MBA course will equip him to steer his family optician's business into a new century.

The father of two did a drama degree in London and with no interest in becoming an optometrist started his working life as an actor before moving on to other jobs, including one as a neuro-linguistic programming (personal development) coach.

However, after moving back to Norfolk, he became the fourth generation of his family to be involved in Dipple and Conway opticians.

Matthew, 33, who lives with wife Emma and children Elfie, four, and Arthur, two, in Portland Street, Norwich, said: 'With an arts background, I had no formal business qualifications and that is why I embarked on the MBA course.

'At the start I was very daunted and hoped just to scrape a pass - but in fact I have been getting distinctions.

'It is the hardest thing I have ever done mentally and academically - balancing it with family and work life - but it is a real learning experience.'

He said he had related every assignment topic to his own company and had already been able to apply his learning to the business.

Matthew, who has recently been made a director, said: 'When I first came back I was focused on growth but now I see it as a much more subtle thing.

'I have learned it is better to have a small, perfectly formed business rather than one that it massive but unprofitable.

'You learn from other people's mistakes through case studies on other businesses. On every decision I make I think, 'have I come across this before?' It has been a complete change of mindset. I was a different person before I started.'

Matthew, who graduates next year, said he now felt ready to take forward a business that celebrates its centenary next year.

He said: 'I see the future doing more of what we are good at, service in bricks and mortar shops, but we are also looking into online and recently launched a new website.'

He sees the business growing through acquisitions beyond its current three shops in Norwich, Diss and Swaffham.

Ali May-Khalil

Ali May-Khalil believes the kudos of the UEA Executive MBA contributed to him being approached for his current senior role at BMW just a month after graduation.

The 38-year-old father of two, who lives in Mulbarton with his partner Heidi Clarke, left sixth form college in Downham Market and found employment at the TSB bank rather than opting for university.

He recalled: 'I found it deadly boring and left after about six months. I got a job in the motor trade thinking of it as a way of earning some money over the summer and I am still in the business 20 years later.'

Ali steadily steadily climbed the tree, first at Anglia Motor Group and then at Thurlow Nunn after the Vauxhall dealer took over his first company.

He said: 'It was my mentor at Thurlow Nunn who suggested doing an MBA as a way of breaking through the glass ceiling into senior management.

'I had always wanted to finish my education and achieve a Masters as a personal challenge and to set an example for my children.'

Ali described the quality of the lectures and the calibre of his course cohort - 'such an interesting blend' - as out of this world.

He said: 'The learning was rich and varied and we got the chance to go to work in Prague on a consultancy project with Tesco.

'The ability to multi-task was one of the key attributes I learned. You might have two papers to prepare, perhaps one on leadership and one on economics, with close deadlines - and you have to juggle that with your job and your family.

'It demanded a lot of endurance, a lot of late nights and a lot of study.'

Ali, who graduated with a distinction, was a retail operator looking after Thurlow Nunn branches across the East of England when he was approached by BMW to become head of its business unit in Ipswich.

Rose Jenkins

Is an MBA manageable for a mother with two young children?

With her continuous assessment marks averaging out at a distinction since she started her UEA course in January last year Rose Jenkins, 34, gives an unequivocal yes.

The NPS project manager is adamant that the missed school plays and Christmas concerts will all be worth it in the long run as her children Robyn, seven, and Cameron, six, will stand to benefit directly from career progress afforded by her MBA.

She said: 'My employer might not agree but I believe that just being on the MBA is the reason my salary has seen a substantial increase.'

The interior architecture and design graduate insists she would never have had the confidence to apply for her latest project consultancy role at NPS without her MBA experience.

Now travelling across the country, she talks to new clients about setting up joint ventures and advising them on how to extract the maximum value from their property portfolio.

'With one client in London we are looking at demolishing the current civic headquarters to make way for 900 homes and to build a new civic building down the road,' she said.

Rose, who lives on the edge of Norwich in Dussindale, confesses to always having been 'very ambitious' and after seven years at NPS managing its interior design services team she felt she wanted more - even though she had taken it from scratch to a department managing £10m projects.

She said: 'The problem was that with no formal business training I could be in meetings with CEOs and not understand what they were getting at.'

The MBA was her necessary 'leg up' and after securing a place and a scholarship covering half the fees, an NPS director agreed to pick up the rest of the cost.

Rose said she was able to squeeze study in at weekends and in the evening - 'after the children have gone to bed or in hotel rooms when I am away' - but confessed she still leant on her husband Euan, an architect in Norwich, for support.

'It is 50-50 running our household or probably 60-40 towards Euan at the moment,' she said.

After graduating next summer, she wants her next job to be a director's role.

Could you be a MBA student? The Executive MBA is a two-year course, including a week of experience with a business in Prague. Costing £19,500, study is done on a part-time basis, including evenings and weekends.

For information, contact Julian Campbell, the course director, on 01603 591999 or e-mail The UEA is holding an MBA open evening on October 13, 6pm to 8pm at The Enterprise Centre.