How a double lung transplant saved life of Leeds businessman Ben Wolfenden

Ben Wolfenden has managed to overcome major hurdles to establish a fast-growing digital marketing agency, writes Deputy Business Editor, Greg Wright.

Ben Wolfenden
Ben Wolfenden

ADVERSITY makes us appreciate the fleeting moments of joy that give life meaning.

For Ben Wolfenden, just being alive to watch his son Max blow out the candles on his birthday cake was the sweetest triumph of all.

A year ago, the Yorkshire businessman’s life was hanging by a thread. His Leeds-based digital marketing agency Visibilis was storming forward, but his own health had collapsed.

Mr Wolfenden suffers from cystic fibrosis and was moments from death in May 2019.

Early last year, Mr Wolfenden caught the flu and his health deteriorated so rapidly that by May, he was rushed to Harefield specialist heart and lung transplant centre. His relatives were told to prepare for the worst.

On May 8, 2019, a lung donor was found and he underwent a double lung transplant. He woke up in an intensive care unit a day later, on his son’s fifth birthday.

His road to recovery is far from over; like so many transplant recipients, the current pandemic has brought more challenges and risks to his health.

“A year ago I was just thankful to be waking up with my family around me in hospital,” he said. “I never would have imagined 12 months later we’d have achieved such success for the agency.

“None of this would have been possible if it wasn’t for my donor and I’ll be forever thankful to them and their family. The change in organ donation law this month to become an opt-out system is a really significant step, it means that hundreds more lives can be saved, just as mine was.

“This year, I got to watch my little boy blow out his sixth birthday candles, which was the most incredible gift anyone can imagine.”

Mr Wolfenden created Visibilis in 2011 and the business is very much a family affair.

His wife, Daisy, is the firm’s managing director and they live in Bingley, West Yorkshire with their two children, Max, 6, and Ivy, 2.

Visibilis, which includes local companies such as Kiddies Kingdom and The Grand Hotel in York as its clients, hit the £1m turnover mark as Mr Wolfenden started the long road to recovery.

“We’ve built such a talented and resilient team who’ve managed to help us grow significantly over the past year under difficult circumstances,” Mr Wolfenden said: “It’s this team culture that has enabled us to adapt so easily to the current situation too.

“Because of my illness, as a business we’ve always placed a great deal of emphasis on creating a work environment that people enjoy, as well as encouraging staff to take care of their health and really value their time. This is more important in recent times than it ever has been before.”

As a teenager, Mr Wolfenden was told that he would probably die before his 30th birthday.

He’s defied this bleak prognosis to become an award-winning businessman, who believes other sufferers from life-limiting conditions must never abandon their dreams.

In 2014, he won the Stelios Award for Disabled Entrepreneurs, taking home a cash prize of £50,000 to help him grow his business. The awards are run by EasyJet founder, Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, and the charity, Leonard Cheshire Disability.

As well as hitting the £1m milestone, the past 12 months has seen a series of new business wins for the company, including Terry’s Fabrics and Lyme Bay Holidays. There have also been a raft of new senior appointments, including a marketing director and client services director.

In the past six months alone, the company’s team has grown by 25 per cent, including four new starters who have come on board during the lockdown.

Mr Wolfenden, who is now 37, founded Visibilis to allow him to continue doing what he loved. It also gave him the flexibility to work around his health issues.

“Having cystic fibrosis meant that a regular job role was never an option for me; I had to take control and build my own future,” he said.

“That sense of being a master of your own destiny and not allowing anything to hold you back is very prevalent in the culture we’ve created at Visibilis. “I woke up in the intensive care unit last year on Max’s fifth birthday. This year Max spent his birthday with mummy and daddy.

“I was in recovery for eight to nine weeks and finally came home at the end of last summer. The success we have achieved is a testament to the strong team we have built.

“We are very fortunate because we haven’t been drastically affected by the pandemic. Areas like hospitality have been affected, but online retailers have had some of the best trading they have ever seen. We have had more new business pitches over the last few weeks.”

He believes some of the working patterns set by the lockdown could be here to stay.

He added: “It’s amazing how much time has been saved through new ways of working. People don’t need to be on the motorway when they can have an online conference. This is the new normal.

“We are looking for clients we know we have a chemistry with. You know from the first phone call if you are aligned with their values.

“We now have 25 staff compared with 15 to 16 staff a year ago.

“Success is all about perseverance,” he added. “There will always be days that don’t go to plan. You’ve got to look ahead and be optimistic. There is always the potential for better days to come.

“This was much more than my own journey. It’s about the love and support of my family and in particular my wife, Daisy, who has not only kept me going, but also our children and the business we’ve created and developed together.

“As they say behind every great man is an even greater woman and she is testament to that.”