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Meet the man who left school with just two O-levels... but with a little hard work just sold off his firm for millions

Alan Nappin is the driving force behind the ARN Foundation, an independent charitable trust set up to support a wide range of good causes across Northern Ireland

Funding focus: retired businessman Alan Nappin is behind a new charitable foundation
Funding focus: retired businessman Alan Nappin is behind a new charitable foundation
Funding focus: retired businessman Alan Nappin is behind a new charitable foundation

By Laura Darragh

For those young people across Northern Ireland anxiously awaiting imminent GCSE and A-level results, it is perhaps a good time to remember that whilst education is important, the results achieved - if not the best - don't necessarily need to have a lifelong impact.

Businessman and philanthropist Alan Nappin left school at 16 with two O-levels in RE and Technology. As he points out: "I could have been a priest or a sheet metal worker - I hated school and couldn't wait to leave and get a job."

Alan was born in London but ended up living in Northern Ireland and setting up the highly successful Ansell Lighting. He sold the business in 2014 in a multi-million pound deal to a leading lighting company in Japan and at the age of 70 finally retired this year.

This success was by no means written in the stars. Alan's father passed away when Alan was just 18 months old, after which he along with his sisters and mother moved in with his grandparents.

By the time he was 18, striking out on his own with those two O-levels, Alan was living in an Ealing bedsit.

A series of jobs followed as Alan tried to figure how he would make a living. "I knew I wasn't going to go to university but I thought I might be a policeman. I tried City of London Police but didn't get in."

He subsequently delivered prescriptions for a living before working as a storeman in the electrical wholesale trade. Having been made redundant in 1974, he got a job on the construction of a Chelsea housing estate as a labourer.

By 1976, Alan's sisters had been living in Northern Ireland for a number of years, and he joined them there where he worked as a sales agent in the electrical wholesale trade. He says: "It was June 1976 and the Troubles were at their height but people were very nice to me. I earned £1,500 gross in my first year.

"Then in 1982 I started my own business Ansell Sales and Distribution. It was a buying and selling operation. I worked from a stable in Craigantlet and converted it into a warehouse. I got a trailer and started to sell cable and accessories to wholesalers from the back of the car."

The business grew over a period of years and by the mid '90s was selling mainly lighting products, employing eight people with a turnover of £1.5m.

In 2001 Alan expanded the business and by the time he sold it in 2014, it had depots in England and Ireland with offices in China, and had a turnover nearing £50m, far exceeding Alan's expectations from his days of selling products out of the back of a car. Now that he has finally retired, Alan decided to become more involved with giving to causes and communities in most need.

When asked why he decided to increase his philanthropic giving, Alan turns the question on its head. He says: "It's very difficult to put your finger on why you shouldn't give to something. Everything has a time limit, I have enjoyed what I've done and having been in business - you can't just stop. I've been giving to good causes for a long time but it's time for a new challenge which is why I decided to set up the foundation. Northern Ireland has been good to me so I wanted to give something back."

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Funding focus: retired businessman Alan Nappin is behind a new charitable foundation

Alan is keen to be involved in the giving equation. He wants to get more involved in the money that he gives, to see the impact that it can have on people's lives, to follow their story, to see progress. "Hopefully we can do an awful lot of good to a lot of different sectors but I'm crawling at the moment, I'm just getting an insight into how it all works. I'd like to think long-term we can help make a real difference to people's lives with the ARN Foundation."

And what else for retirement? Having worked hard for decades building a business from nothing in the 1970s, Alan is finally lifting his head from spreadsheets and targets. "I'd like to play a bit more sport and having travelled throughout the world for business, I'd like to see more of what's on my own doorstep - there's so much to be seen in the British Isles. You feel pressure when you are running a business, the buck stops with you. Now is my time to relax."

Alan's ARN Foundation is supported by trustees including Alan Campbell, Alice Garrad, Celia Worthington and Michael Blair. As Alan points out: "There's a lot involved so you need good people and good advice around you. I don't know how everything will pan out but hopefully I can do something good."

And for those wondering what step they might take when they leave school or college, Alan's experience just goes to show that you just never know how well things might turn out.

He says: "Never underestimate your own abilities. I never had any formal training, I based my business on what I learnt through various jobs in the '60s and '70s, but when new staff would join my company, I used to say if you know of ways to do things differently, just let me know.

"There's always something to learn and with hard work and patience, you can go as far as you want."

The ARN Foundation is due to announce its first grant recipients shortly. Under its first round of funding, the ARN Foundation chose to focus specifically on supporting organisations working with some of the 33,000 people in Northern Ireland with a learning disability.

  • The grant giving from the foundation is being managed by the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland. To find out more about the ARN Foundation or the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland go to: www.communityfoundationni.org

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