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Career change champion

Wednesday 21 November 2012 5:00

By Andrew Mernin

Paul Ferris talks BQ through his unlikely career path from beautiful game to books, bar and boardroom.

The days of ex-footballers being restricted to opening pubs or fronting property investment pyramids are a distant memory. Media careers, social enterprises and, in one goalkeeper’s case, exposing the world’s reptilian bloodline, are among the options available once boots are slung onto the peg for the last time.

Of course, with some players now on wages as high as £1m-a-month, finding a new career path may not be a necessity for the sensible thrifty few.

This freedom was not afforded to Paul Ferris, however, after his career in the upper echelons of the football league was cut short just 13 games into his Newcastle United days. After becoming the club’s youngest ever debutant in 1981, injuries soon dictated a move to lower league Barrow FC, where he lifted the FA Trophy, before moving on to Gateshead.

Today, three careers later, he now finds himself in his first managing director’s berth. But this is no glorified leadership title at his own one-man-band. It is in fact working for perhaps the North East’s most successful entrepreneur of modern times, Graham Wylie. The Sage software founder initially entrusted Ferris as his wing man in a new venture. Ferris was asked to fly to the States to give his verdict on a new strand of fitness equipment.

That trust stemmed from Ferris’s years spent as Newcastle United’s physio under manager Kevin Keegan in the nineties and during the ill-fated eight weeks of Alan Shearer’s interim managerial tenure.

“Graham asked me if I’d go to America and give an independent opinion on a piece of equipment he was investing in.”

Ultimately Wylie ploughed US$500,000 into the SpeedFlex system’s research and development, and launched it in a specialist gym in Newcastle.

With Ferris at the helm, the company is going great guns since its official launch in September. The machines are said to burn 1,000 calories in a 30 to 40 minute session and leave users with little muscle soreness afterwards. They work by enabling users to perform cardio and resistance exercise safely at speeds which were previously impossible.

The move from footballer to physio to boss of a sports company may seem a fairly rational career path. But being a self-confessed curious soul, northern Irishman Ferris has also managed to squeeze 'qualified barrister' and 'published novelist' onto his CV.

“I keep telling Graham I’m not a business man and I’m having to learn very quickly. But I have lots of other experience I can bring to it; so the law stuff hasn’t been wasted.

“The reason you jump off a physiotherapy career to do law and to do other stuff is because you’re curious and you want to learn. I always want to learn and who better to do it from than Graham Wylie.”

Although a likeable, mild-mannered chap, surely Wylie is a tough taskmaster to work for given his prolific success rate in business?

“He’s got a very sharp mind but after knowing him for 18 months, it’s fair to say he’s a gentleman as a person and as a business man. He lets me find my way and has let me make mistakes which I’m here to learn from – so I’m happy with that.”

Ferris also holds a stake in the business, as does Alan Shearer. And the MD insists Shearer’s ambassadorial role is far more hands on than traditional sports endorsement arrangements.

“He’ll have a huge impact on the business and it’s great that we've got him to really believe in the product. I wouldn’t be interested in having Alan here as some sort of figurehead that gets wheeled out because he’s my friend, or because someone paid him to do it. He’s here, as well as Rob Lee and Ben Shepherd [ex-footballer and TV presenter respectively, also brand ambassadors], because he believes in it.”

Ferris first started his SpeedFlex journey after crossing paths with Wylie at Alan Shearer’s 40th birthday party. At the time his career was in limbo, having trained as a barrister and also been lined up by Shearer to serve as his physio at a potential new managerial post.

“Alan called me out of the blue to ask, if he became manager, would I be part of his team and run the sports science and medical side. It seemed like a really great offer so I was waiting for that to happen. Then I was at his party just passing time waiting for Alan to get the job. That’s when I met Graham.”

In the end Shearer didn’t get – or accept – the mystery new job, much to Wylie’s relief perhaps.

In the meantime, Ferris, who already has one published novel to his name, remains interested in writing.

He’s written 10,000 words, he says, on a football-related story. He hasn’t had time to see it through just yet and he admits it may be some time before he completes his follow up to his debut crime thriller An Irish Heartbeat.

If SpeedFlex continues to progress as Wylie plans, maybe Ferris’s next tome will be a management book in the vein of Jobs, Branson or Bannatyne.