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'I went from begging for price of burger to running own firm'

Colly Bell (69) old fought alcoholism, mental health problems and lived as a down-and-out on the streets. Now a successful businessman, he lives in Ballymena with his wife Iris (58)

By Stephanie Bell

When I was four my father was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and wasn't able to work much after that so there wasn't very much money in our home. I managed to pass my 11 plus and go to Dungannon Royal School but I hated school and flunked everything and left at 17 years of age with no qualifications.

I joined the RAF and when I was doing my training, I had a nervous breakdown and was taken to the RAF mental hospital and given electric shock treatment.

I was based at RAF Marham where there was an American club and I got into a fight with an American serviceman and ended up in hospital again.

The RAF decided they didn't need people like me and so I was discharged. I came home and worked in various jobs.

In my 20s, I was a great dreamer and I played in a band called the Triffads. I suddenly decided that I wanted to be a roadie for singer Rory Gallagher and so I went to London.

Rory was on tour and I found myself penniless and living on the streets. I was about 25 at the time. I didn't see myself as a down-and-out as it was the Sixties and I thought of myself more as a hippie.

I learned how to beg. I was told not to ask passers-by for the money for a cup of tea but instead ask them for the money for a burger because you got more.

Myself and other street people would go to a sandwich bar late at night when it was closed for any leftover sandwiches. We knew a café in Fleet Street that let you sit all night over a cup of tea providing you didn't fall asleep and that's where we spent most of our nights.

After about three months living on the streets, a friend sent me my boat fare home.

I got a job as a salesman with a soft drinks firm but my drinking was becoming heavier and in 1967 I ended up in the mental hospital again and had more electric shock treatment.

I was told I would have to be on medication the rest of my life. I decided the best medicine was alcohol.

The firm was sold in 1973 and I started to work for a small company in Ballymena as a sales rep and I just thought it was the greatest job ever.

I was still drinking and then on the morning of February 21, 1974 I couldn't get out of bed. I realised that day I needed to change my life. I stopped drinking and haven't had a drink since and I started to turn my life around.

I became sales and marketing manager for the company and discovered I really enjoyed training people.

In 1996, I launched my own company Salesxcellence and now I travel the world delivering sales training. This year I have been to Malaysia, Dubai and Mauritius where I worked with two of the country's major banks and the government.

Someone nominated me for UK Sales Trainer of the Year which was very unexpected and quite exciting and tomorrow the three entrants who have reached the final will be announced in London. I never forget where I came from and I have a lot to be thankful for in my life. I have a gratitude diary and every day I write down 10 things that I am grateful for. I think if you are grateful you never feel down.

I'm not a religious person but I am a spiritual person and I do meditate and believe that everyone has some sort of higher power. When I walk into a room with 30 bankers to train them, my ego tells me I am not good enough to do it but my higher power tells me I am good enough.

I believe everybody has potential. I've been lucky in my life. I believe you have to make a contribution, you just can't keep taking and I work as a volunteer for the Princes Trust.

In June this year, the organisation gave me a special recognition award for my work with it. When they were presenting it, they said that I light up the room when I come into it.

I'm never lost for words, but I was when I heard that. I get more back from volunteering than I put in.

The young people I work with are very inspiring.

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