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Life of the party

After being honoured for his political volunteering efforts, Jim Cooper OBE tells Peter Taylor-Whiffen why everyone needs to take politics to heart

Jim Cooper says he’s thrilled by his recent OBE. But is more delighted that it recognises his work as a politically active volunteer. “People from all parties go out canvassing, campaigning. It’s great that awards like this acknowledge that,” he says.

“It takes a lot of time and commitment to knock on doors and it disappoints me that election turnouts are so low. I want to say: ‘Do you pay tax? Do you buy food? Do you drive a car?’ Politics affects everything we do. “In fact,” adds the lifelong Conservative, “I truthfully would much rather they are sufficiently engaged and vote Labour than have no interest at all.”

Cooper has done his share of doorstepping – and much more. He’s been steeped in campaigning since he was a boy and his parents ran the local branch of the Tory party. “I delivered leaflets, then joined and later chaired the West Midlands Young Conservatives, and then became a national vice chair to Eric Pickles.”

He stood for parliament, losing on a recount, but kept his hand in regional politics alongside a successful business career that began at Price Waterhouse in Birmingham. “My degree at Oxford was in chemistry, but I liked the insight accountancy gives you into different businesses. I joined Price Waterhouse’s graduate scheme and worked with numerous West Midlands manufacturers.”

His career took him to motor industry component maker Lucas Industries, Oldbury chemical component firm Albright & Wilson, and IMO Industries, but he rejected an opportunity to move with IMO to Richmond, Virginia, and instead did interim management consultancy – which led to a life-changing break.

“While doing work for RAC subsidiary Lex Service, I and three colleagues founded Nationwide Auto Centres and took over a few of their centres. We then acquired 96 Lex Autocentres from the RAC and 54 Stop ’n’ Steer garages from Kwik Fit.”

After eight years they sold it in 2010 to Halfords. “I could have retired,” says Cooper, but instead, with fellow former Nationwide partner Tom Dunn, he founded pilot training company Aeros. “It’s a great business,” he says.

“The turnover is less than £5m but it’s exciting – we started with flying enthusiasts, but there’s such demand for training that our clients are now almost entirely commercial pilots. We’re proud that every one of those we’ve trained has landed a job.” Cooper, who lives with Pam, his wife of 37 years, in Meriden, works part-time at Aeros, while the rest of his days are mainly taken up with party work.

“I’m regional chairman, overseeing 59 constituencies. “It’s really rewarding work,” he says. “I thoroughly enjoy it – but I was a bit worried when I got the letter about the OBE. It was in a seriouslooking envelope marked ‘Cabinet Office’. I thought I was getting hauled down to London to be told off!”

Originally published in Economia on 2 May 2019.