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Alumni Feature Profile:

Mike Johnson

HND Business Studies 1973

Mike Johnson has a truly international career, most recently as Chief Executive Officer of multinational company Castrol Oil where during his tenure he worked in Latin America, Asia and Europe, and spent most of his working life travelling around the globe. Inspite of his global success, Mike is adamant that none of this was planned with little idea that he would go on to be head of one of the world’s biggest corporations.

Mike made a triumphant return to the University recently as he spoke to Business students at the Sir Tom Cowie Campus. It was by no means his first time back, as a lifelong supporter of the football club, but he is quick to point out that Sunderland students today enjoy a very different experience from the one he had when he studied his Business HND in the 1970s. 

Back then it was very

common for apprentices

to do day or evening

release, what Whitbread

did– which was

extraordinarily good

timing for me –

was choose me to

be their first ever

management trainee.

Soon after they

introduced it right across

the country. I was very

fortunate to be in the right

place at the right time.

“In those days Business was taught in a very small building at Ashbrooke and I thoroughly enjoyed my time studying there. I was working for Whitbread, and studying subjects that were really helpful to my position at the time but which I really enjoyed too; law, economics, finance. When I look back on it, that was a great foundation. I didn’t quite realise how important it was at the time, but that knowledge really did help lay that basic foundation for my future."

“Back then it was very common for apprentices to do day or evening release, what Whitbread did – which was extraordinarily good timing for me – was choose me to be their first ever management trainee. Soon after they introduced it right across the country. I was very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.”

Mike claims to be “more lucky than talented” – but the facts really do not bear that claim out. After two years of study his results were so good Mike was offered the chance to study full time. “I snapped their hands off,” he admits.

“The interesting thing about my time at Castrol, was that most of the people who worked for me came out of Oxford or Cambridge, with MBAs and PhDs – but I stopped at HND Business. There’s no way I’d get my job today!”

Mike returned to Whitbread after his studies, where they wanted him to train to become a brewer, or to work in distribution.

“I really didn’t want to be stuck in an office,” admits Mike, “I said I wanted to go into sales, but Whitbread weren’t keen.” He saw a post advertised at Spillers Foods, based at the Tyne Tunnel trading estate and applied.

“I ended up selling dog and cat food to Asda and Tesco, and found I loved selling and had a natural ability for it. My career blossomed, and I moved to Scotland aged 25 where I was the youngest key account manager there by eight or nine years.”

Mike then landed a role at the dairy company St Ivel as their Sales Director, and was appointed Managing Director when aged only 37.

“At 39 I realised that I had never worked internationally, and I realised I probably never would. The problem was I had become too senior – how do you become CEO of an international business when you have no international experience? Around that time I was approached to run Castrol UK. For a variety of reasons I said I would take the job, but on the understanding that if I could turn Castrol UK around I would have a shot at working in an international role.”

Mike did turn the UK business around, and three years later was offered a role in Latin America for a year. He was then appointed Vice President for Global Marketing.

“I ran their marketing arm across the whole globe, after Latin America I had four year in Singapore running Asia, two years in Europe, and in the last six or seven years I’ve been based all around the globe.

“I spent about 70% of my time travelling – to India, China and the US at least once a year, and the other major countries like Russia, then Australia every two to three years. The world’s a big place, and even in the major countries it can be difficult getting around. 

"I still wonder to this day how it all happened! There was never a point in my career where I sat down and thought 'How can I become a CEO of a global business?'- it definitely wasn't planned."

I still wonder to this day

how it all happened!

There was never a point

in my career where I sat

down and thought ‘How

can I become a CEO

of a global business?’ – it

definitely wasn’t planned.

Recently retiring from his role at Castrol Mike says that he would like to "do a little more work with the community, and spend a bit more time in the region."  In the Autumn of 2013, the University appointed Mike a Visiting Professor in the Faculty of Business & Law.  Mike now supports the University's globalisation agenda and through his networks is helping grow support amongst his professional network for key areas across the University.  He was proud to address graduands at the summer 2014 graduations with an inspiring appeal for them to go out and achieve their career ambitions.

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