Charlie Parker: Meet Leeds's own go-to man
If you want something importing and branding, Charlie Parker is your go-to man. He talks to Neil Hudson about the ups and downs of life
Charlie Parker is not one of those people who takes things lying down. In his 30-plus years as a salesman, he’s taken more than his fair share of knocks.
Perhaps the biggest of those came in 1999, when he lost his wife, Victoria, the mother of their five children, who were then aged between 14 and four. She died suddenly from a brain haemorrhage and the loss came as a bombshell to the family. As if that wasn’t enough, Charlie was later swindled out of $60,000 by a con-man and when the financial crisis struck in 2007, he was pushed to the brink of bankruptcy.
But he refused to give up and vowed to continue his business - Parkers Promotional Products (www.parkerspromo.co.uk) - rather than sit at home on benefits. Now, having recently fallen in love and re-married - he met wife Janie on a night out with one of his sons and the couple married in 2014 - he has turned his business around.
When I meet him in his offices on the outskirts of Otley, the 57-year-old is friendly, energetic and full of charm, clearly proud of what he and his team - Janie has been a major part of his revival - have achieved but also clearly a born salesman.
It turns out Charlie is the go-to man for just about anything you could imagine.
“If you want 100 pens with your branding on the side, I’m your man,” he enthuses. “If you want 100,000, I can do that too.” And it’s not just pens. He can pretty much get his hands on anything you want. He adds: “If I don’t know anyone, then I know a man who does. If time is on our side we can get the best deal from China but if” a customers want something quickly in a week it can be sourced within days from across the UK.”
Most of his merchandise is imported from China, which he visits about once every two years.
“I go to China and I find things I think will sell,” he explains, pulling a ratchet screwdriver from a bag of assorted tools and other nick-nacks. “Whatever you want, I have a man in China who can do it. I have several people who are just general agents, like me but based over there, they know all the people who make mugs, umbrellas, key rings and la-de-da... on it goes. If I don’t know a man who makes it, I know a man who does. What I try to do when I go to China is to find the hair clips manufacturer, to find the umbrella manufacturer, because then I can cut out the middle man and save my clients money.”
His company has just imported and branded 15,000 pairs of socks, 11,000 pairs of ear muffs and 15,000 flip flops but he’ll happily trade in just about anything from T-shirts and torches to gaezebos. He supplies Aviva Rail North formerly known as Northern Rail, all the lanyards at the Palace of Westminster, Arla Foods and the University of Leeds but his products can also be found in well-known bingo halls and even Asda, whom he used to supply directly until a few years ago.
He’s candid about the mistakes he’s made too. “I sent $60,000 to a man in China and I ended up getting nothing, this was 15 years ago. You start trading with China and inevitably, China starts trading with you. I get 45 emails every morning from people in China wanting to sell me stuff. I started talking to a man who said he sold remote controlled helicopters. We were thinking of ordering about 4,000 to give-away as part of a company promotion. We got to the point where he said he had delivered them to the port and he had a bill of lading, which proves its on a ship bound for a port... I very naively sent him money without the bill of lading and it just vanished.
“I cried a lot. Into my beer mainly. But I’m a fighter, I’ve had a few knocks, a few things go wrong. I learned so much from that, that’s why I have such a good trading relationship with my friends in China. I was determined for that not to happen again and the only way to do that is to get to know the people, to actually go there. It was a knock at the time but I learned a fabulous lesson out of that.”
But perhaps his biggest blow came in 1999, when his first wife, Victoria, died suddenly.
“We’d moved to Coniston Cold. We were organising a party for the Millennium. On September 14, Victoria complained of a headache and went to bed.” Moments later she died from a brain haemorrhage. “Everything was going fine and then one moment it was absolute chaos. There’s no template for what you do, you have to make it up as you go along. I mean, my kids are not over it yet. It’s affected us all.
“I remember the first time I went out socially after she died and, because it’s such a tight-knit community, everyone knew who I was and that I’d lost my wife and had five kids.
“I had a series of nannies, most of whom were fired until I was approached by a woman called Gilly Cowburn. She knew who I was and offered to help. It was a godsend. She came at 8.30 ever morning for seven years, which allowed me to go out and work.
“It was so tempting to say I’m going to be a full time father, not work and take money off the state for the rest of my life, I had five kids, I would have been on some phenomenal package. What tickled me was I went to the DSS to say I was going to make about £100,000 a year working and pay tax on that, could I get tax relief on employing a nanny for £20,000 and they said no, which I thought was unfair. But it narked me so much I thought, right, I’ll show you... I’ll make £300,000. I got properly stuck in.”
He won’t talk about his second wife but his third, Janie, he is besotted by and calls her “an unbelievable girl”. She’s 44... he’s 57. He met her in a bar on a night out with Edward, his eldest son, and spotted her from afar. In true flamboyant style, he sent a drink over courtesy of the maitre’d, who came back to say if he wanted to buy her a drink he would have to go over in person. So he did, the pair clicked and the rest is history and Janieey, an accountant by trade, now works as the company’s financial director.
He puts much of his tenacity down to his late father, Albert, a real Yorkshire thoroughbred who died in March aged 86. He was a larger than life character who obviously left his mark on Charlie, who comments that they were “not just father and son, but also friends”, something he’s tried to pass on to his sons too.
“He played rugby and cricket, I remember him coming home one day, I was about nine and he said ‘Yorkshire RFU have told me to stop getting drunk at county matches or resign.’ I thought, right, so you’ve only one choice. Then he said: “So I’m resigning.” His father went on to found the The Luddites, which ran for 20 years and 10 British, 22, internationals and 140 county players but it was his career as a salesman which had most impact.
“He took up a job selling door to door with a company called Starline and he was the first salesman to reach £100,000. When he was making his rounds, people would ask him for things which he didn’t sell. That’s how this business started.
“I’d had a series of jobs and been sacked from them all - perhaps the worst example of that was being a waiter, I was sacked for smoking a cigarette as I served drinks to the owner in the bar. Clearly, it wasn’t for me.”
He had other jobs, including a builder’s mate and estate agent but it was in sales where he excelled, building the business up to a £2m turnover, a peak he has just about returned to in recent times.
His mantra? He never turns anyone away.
“I’ll take all-comers,” he raptures. “I’ll give you an example. A local builder bought £30 of matchbooks from me, with his logo on and he put them in a few local bars. Before long he got a call from the company who won the contract to do the Aire Valley trunk road. They hired his digger for five years. I’ll do business with anyone. Every product under the sun is out there somewhere, it’s my job to dig and dig until I find it.”
Charlie has a penchant for ancient history, having been taught it at school and is a fan of Con Iggulden and Bernard Cornwell
In his time he has worked as a builder’s mate, estate agent and waiter - he was ‘let go’ from the latter position after serving drinks to the owner while smoking - he remains on good terms with them
He imports 1m key fobs a year
On Sundays, he says likes to: “Collapse. And eat potato.”
Favourite place: Bolton Abbey
He likes rugby, cricket and golf
Tel: 0800 052 0046