This story was originally published in a book written by BusinessBecause editor Marco De Novellis, in collaboration with Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business (CKGSB).
Jeremy Solomons was flicking through The Sunday Times business supplement when he came across a golden opportunity: an all-expenses paid, full-time MBA in China, courtesy of CKGSB and Scottish billionaire businessman Sir Tom Hunter.
Jeremy applied for the scholarship and was selected for an interview. A few weeks later, in CKGSB’s office in St James’s Square, London, he sat gingerly on one side of a table facing CKGSB’s UK representative, the dean of Cambridge Judge Business School, and Sir Tom Hunter himself.
“From studying economics at school and then at university, China was always popping up as an emerging superpower,” he says. “I didn’t know how I’d get there, but I knew China was the future and I wanted to be part of it.”
Jeremy spoke about his experiences as a budding entrepreneur; about taking over his father’s business at the age of 24; about the struggles and successes.
Before he knew it, he was on a plane to Beijing.
Growing up in north London, Jeremy helped his father with his long-established home improvement business, but his primary focus was on his studies.
When his father passed away suddenly, Jeremy was thrown in at the deep end. He tried to make sense of the notes, files, and boxes crowding his father’s study. While still studying business economics at university, he would meet new and existing clients, chase up customers for payments, and manage contractors and suppliers—learning as he went.
“That’s when I found out about the harsh realities of business—how difficult it can be—and how you have to step up, even in the worst-case scenarios,” he says.
After university, alongside running his father’s business, Jeremy started working part-time for a company owned by British export services firm Mark Cansick & Company. For 20-plus years, his mother had worked as a bookkeeper for the firm. She painstakingly recorded all of the company’s transactions, by hand, in ledger books.
But Jeremy had reached a crossroads in his career. Unsure of what to do next and looking for new opportunities, when the chance came to study an MBA at CKGSB in China, he grabbed it.
“When I arrived in Beijing, I’d never seen so many McDonald’s, KFCs, and Starbucks on every corner,” he says. “I thought I was in New York, not Beijing!
“I was seeing things I’d only seen before on TV,” he explains. “CKGSB’s campus was on the same road as Tiananmen Square. Our accommodation was among the huge skyscrapers at the heart of the business district—living in Beijing was just fascinating every day.”
A phone call
Enamored with life in China, Jeremy decided to stay in the country after his MBA. By that time, he’d brought his father’s business to a natural end. He was enjoying “living the dream,” he says. And he’d just landed an internship at the China-Britain Business Council in Guangzhou.
Then, out of the blue, he received a phone call from the UK.
The voice on the other end of the line was that of Christopher Cansick, the boss of Mark Cansick & Company; the “big boss” of the company Jeremy had worked for previously. He was looking to sell, and Jeremy was offered first refusal.
“I thought, my gosh, what has just been offered to me!” he laughs, still incredulous. “I guess he saw a young guy, travelling the world, with an enthusiasm for business, who had experienced working for the company before.
“This was something new—I wasn’t out there buying companies—but I knew I wanted to run my own business again and put in everything I learned from my MBA.”
Determined, but with a heavy heart, Jeremy left his life in China behind him and took the leap. After returning to London, he worked for the company he was about to purchase for two years as the acquisition process dragged on. He didn’t speak a word about it. “I was working alongside colleagues 35 years my senior!” he says.
Two months before taking over the business, a burst water main flooded his future office. The company lost £20,000 worth of equipment, and a health and safety inspection ruled no staff were to be allowed in the building until it was renovated.
“Anything that could go wrong in a business went wrong,” Jeremy continues. “But the work ethic CKGSB instilled in me, and the resilience you build up by studying an MBA in one year, helped me deal with all the problems on my own.”
Putting in the work
As Mark Cansick & Company’s sole director, Jeremy’s been running operations single-handedly for the past year. His phone is never off—office calls are diverted straight to his mobile.
Founded in 1949, the historic firm exports everything from construction materials to the Middle East and chemicals to the Caribbean, to fashion supplies globally. The company also owns a well- established male grooming brand, distributing gentlemen’s grooming products.
Jeremy is taking it into the 21st century, planning new processes for inventory management, marketing, operations, and finance—“everything an MBA can teach you.”
Now, he wants to use his MBA contacts to boost exports to China. In partnership with CKGSB, he hopes to connect China-based MBAs on consulting projects with British companies looking to expand. He still refers back to his notes from business school.
“I’ve seen how precious time is,” he says. “Taking over this company has been a real challenge and a real test of relationships as well, but I’m putting in the work now, so I can reap the benefits in life later on.”