Mike Dalton pulls no punches over his current state of mind: “I am in a better place and happier now than I was 10 years ago. I had a mid-life crisis over my career. But I can’t imagine not doing this, I can’t imagine ever going back to corporate life.”
‘This’ is Dalton’s Shrewsbury-based mini coffee empire, called stop. coffee Ltd, which has grown in just four years into a three-outlet operation pulling in revenues of up to £400,000, and employing 25 full and part-time staff in the picturesque Shropshire town.
But coffee was one of the last things on Dalton’s mind back in his days as a £60,000-a-year head of regional public relations at the Royal Mail. That was where he spent 14 years at the corporate coalface as a polished PR practitioner, regularly called on by the suits to defend the indefensible, as he now freely admits.
The life and times of this straight-talking Salopian make for cautionary reading for PR types of all shapes and sizes in a world where spin doctors routinely attempt to annex the news agenda for their own political ends across an ever-shifting media landscape, populated by fewer hard-nosed journalists with an unerring eye for the real story.
But Dalton’s story is not simply one of a PR man turned enterprising Shropshire café owner. It’s also a classic example of a career corporate who in his mid-40s ditched the suit to take a gamble and set up on his own, tired of defending other people’s decisions in the public eye and forever dancing to the PR tune.
Today Dalton, now aged 50, is working seven-days-a-week to help meet a wage-bill of more than £2,500 a week and a similar sum on rents for his three outlets in Shrewsbury – and that’s before all the other overheads of running the business are taken into account.
“Our outgoings are constant,” gasps Dalton. “If you look at my quarterly VAT bill, I could wake up in a cold sweat. You are never off duty, I am never more than 12 hours from a till opening. In the early days, you sat there worrying if you hadn’t seen a customer for an hour or so. I still have doubts, it’s like a treadmill and you have good days and bad days, it feels as if I am in a constant battle.
“But I have developed as a person doing this. Every day, you learn something. As a PR man, I was often defending other people’s decisions, and sometimes you were defending decisions that you knew were wrong. Now, the decisions are mine to take.”
And that is quite possibly the key lesson of Dalton’s journey from 20-odd years in PR to going it alone. He is now the master of his own fate, a far cry from his days in the eye of the storm at companies like the old Railtrack and then Royal Mail. Back then, he often found himself going head to head with consumer journalists like Ed Doolan on BBC WM radio, publicly fighting the rail and then the postal group’s corner as complaints from a demanding public came thick and fast.
Dalton overcame initial nerves to enjoy his appearances on the regional airwaves – and puts his aptitude for the public arena down to his father, stand-up comedian of 40 years’ standing, Danny Dalton, ‘the cheeky comic’. Mr Dalton senior, now 78, trod the boards with the likes of Les Dawson and Bernard Manning. “He was not terribly PC,” says Dalton junior. “He was from the working men’s club culture. But he was a personality, he could work a room and maybe some of that rubbed off.
“I come from a close family and a lot of it was based on humour. It made me a show-off – I was the class clown. Making people laugh was ever-present in the house and I found that it gets you friends.”
But a 20-year stint in PR is not necessarily a guaranteed recipe for laughter, and at no stage in his career was Dalton tested more keenly than in dealing with the aftermath of the suicide of black Birmingham postal worker Jermaine Lee in 1999, amid allegations of bullying and racism from fellow Royal Mail workers.
Careers were ruined among senior management staff in Birmingham as the inevitable investigation into the tragedy left no stone unturned.
“The Jermaine Lee incident was horrendous,” remembers Dalton with a frown. “It was a tragedy for the family and awful for everybody involved. I had worked with a lot of the people who were subsequently investigated and penalised.
“It was horrible, there was an investigation and a centre-led line on everything. I think that Royal Mail genuinely learnt a lot from it, to treat people better, to listen to people. I learnt to be cynical – I was interviewed as part of the inquiry.
“You kept going back to the fact that somebody had died. I had dealt with fatalities in my time at Railtrack but this was a completely different complexion, and there was a lot of fallout from it.”
If the Jermaine Lee suicide was Dalton’s most challenging time in the PR world, there were plenty of other memories from his early days at Inter City trains, then Railtrack. He says: “Management were always at loggerheads with unions and I lost count of the number of times I locked horns with Ed Doolan.”
He also had a spell at Stafford Borough Council: “I quickly realized I had made a mistake – they were incredibly conservative with a small c.” Joining the Royal Mail in 1997 after a short stint in agency PR in Birmingham – “I missed the cut and thrust and the real stuff” – Dalton is candid about the problems he encountered and the difficulties still facing the postal group today in an era of privatisation.
“It was a really difficult management and union relationship on both sides. There were a lot of disputes and the wrong people were in the wrong position on both sides. There was no political will to allow the changes that needed to be made. You didn’t need two deliveries a day, and there was a massive amount of money being spent on the second delivery, which was such a tiny part of the operation.
“There was no real investment and what there was too little, too late. It was a Rolls Royce service funded on a shoestring.”
After 14 years with the Royal Mail and with the battleground of privatisation looming, Dalton decided to take voluntary redundancy in 2011. Two fleeting PR appointments at the Consumer Council for Water and train operators London Midland followed. But he says: “It was a climb down from what I was used to, I had no team to manage.”
That was when Dalton hit upon an intriguing route out of his self-confessed mid-life crisis, which began with a marital split and then grew into a desire for a wider change. “Maybe it was the age factor,” he says. “I was in my mid-40s, and was asking: ‘Is this what I want to do for the rest of my career?’”
An impromptu coffee with his new partner Nicola – they’d first met at school as teenagers – at a Shrewsbury hotel proved the catalyst for Dalton’s dramatic career change. “We stopped for a coffee at the hotel and both the service and the product were awful.
“We got thinking: ‘How can it be difficult to produce something like a good cup of coffee?’ We felt there were gaps in the market, there were not many good coffee shops in Shrewsbury.“
The Daltons – for the new couple soon married – were pretty busy at their Shrewsbury home too, with five children from previous marriages between them, although they’re all now young adults. But despite these domestic changes, they still poured time into researching the coffee world extensively, with guidance from West Midland entrepreneurial expert Simon Jenner proving invaluable.
“We spoke to a lot of people and Simon was very helpful. He gave us some really good advice about purchasing and equipment – he said: ‘Be careful of short cuts, they can be expensive.’ We maxed out on 0% credit cards, taking £5,000 across a number of them. And we have invested our life savings of £20,000.
“The banks were no help whatsoever. We went to an asset finance company and borrowed another £5,000. Their rates were 4%, with the banks offering 11% for a business loan.”
Dalton estimates expenditure of around £30,000 on the first stop. coffee outlet (it’s branded with lower case ‘s’ and ‘c’), with rental of a ‘shell’, plumbing, electrics and counter construction all part of the outlay.
He remembers: “We had income from Nicola’s teaching job but the business was slow to build, especially in the depths of winter, when you might only see a handful of customers. After a year or so, Nicola joined me full-time. We realised we had something, and we felt confident in what we were doing. If you feel things are going wrong, it drives you, there is nobody else to help you out.
“If you look across the three sites, we now have a workforce of 25 full and part-time. It is a hefty old wage bill, upwards of £2,500 a week, and rents are just under £2,500. We are not making a huge amount of money, but we have a reasonable lifestyle. It fluctuates with the seasons, the weather and the competition.
“But I am enjoying it and am proud of what we have achieved in a relatively short space of time. The business is making a profit, we are paying off our debts, we are providing employment.”
Typically for an ex-PR man who spent 20 years ‘thinking on his feet’, Dalton foresees further expansion for his stop. coffee chain. “Stop.coffee shop number four is on the way. We’ve just signed an agreement to open it in the newly refurbished Aberystwyth Museum from next May. We want to come up with ideas and the management of things rather than just making coffee and washing up.”
Dalton admits to a frantic working lifestyle, working literally every day of the week and weekend: “It is one day a week in the shop and the rest of the time is spent on admin, paying bills, looking for new suppliers, all manner of things. But it has freed my mind, because you have to be completely open-minded about things.”