SOMETIMES, it’s not where you start but where you finish.

When Les Cooper was younger, one of his first brushes with the world of employment saw him tasked with picking the eyes out of potatoes during work experience in a college café.

It wasn’t all bad, however.

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“One good thing to come out of it was that I met my wife,” he says.

“She was on the other side of the counter and I had to serve her dinner.”

Out of the kitchen, Mr Cooper began his career for real as an apprentice sheet metalworker at engineer Baker Perkins.

He worked at the company’s South Tyneside plant for nearly two decades before moving south to work on shop-fitting projects in London and the South-East.

After a couple of years, he moved back to the North-East and joined Pearce Security, working on the upgrading and improvement of security at banks and building societies.

The firm provided bullet-resistant glass screens and was one of the first to develop a new system of high-speed pop-up steel security screens to protect staff, with Mr Cooper helping test and fit the apparatus.

He returned to Baker Perkins, then known as APV Baker, and was working on temporary contracts as a sheet metalworker until a work-related accident enforced a long lay-off.

It was during this break that Mr Cooper, who was born in Jarrow, South Tyneside, decided to change career direction.

After studying at colleges in South Tyneside and Sunderland, he gained a diploma in occupational health and safety from Nottingham Trent University.

The qualification opened doors and Mr Cooper’s first job was as a sub-contracted health and safety officer working in shipyards across the country.

At the same time, he was tasked with setting up an asbestos removal division for one of the contracting companies he worked for.

Sub-contracting himself out to other businesses as KLC Safety & Training Consultants, Mr Cooper was involved in carrying out risk assessments and writing safety procedures for the outage maintenance of nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point, in Somerset, and Hunterston, in South-West Scotland.

He was also involved in the decommissioning of Wales’ Trawsfynydd nuclear power station, which allowed Mr Cooper to continue his interest in asbestos, as the works included the controlled removal and disposal of the substance.

It made him realise there was a gap in the market for training people to work with, and remove, asbestos, but also to manage and be aware of the substance.

He started writing and providing training courses in the mid-1990s.

Around the same time, there was a change in the law requiring employers to have more stringent controls and more suitable and appropriate asbestos training.

In 2003, Mr Cooper set up a new venture, UK Asbestos Specialists, with a business partner, and went it alone in 2010 – after which the Hebburn-based business has boomed.

It’s now hit the £1m turnover mark, but Mr Cooper, the firm's owner and managing director, doesn’t intend to stop there.

He said: “We’re known as the asbestos specialists and growth has been strong for the past six or seven years.

“However, it has been spectacular over the last ten months and we’re delighted to have achieved the £1m figure.”

The company works with national construction and refurbishment companies, local authorities, social housing sector operators, schools, colleges, universities and sole traders in the construction industry.

Its clients include Durham County Council, Newcastle City Council, Sunderland City Council, Isos Housing, Gentoo, Dale & Valley Homes, Huntsman, Aberdeenshire Council and Sonic Rail.

“Asbestos is known as the silent killer because of its link to various forms of lung cancer and mesothelioma, and is still responsible for the deaths of more than 5,000 people a year in the UK, so it’s important work we do,” said Mr Cooper.

“We work with all sorts of companies involved with building, refurbishment or demolition where working with asbestos may be involved.

“It’s UK law that any worker who is liable to disturb asbestos, or anyone who supervises these employees, must get the right level of training, and that’s what we do.”

Mr Cooper said the firm’s success has also been helped by the arrival of business manager Sarah Young.

“We’ve done so well over recent years, but the appointment of Sarah last January was the key to what has been an incredible 2017,” he said.

“We’ve grown more than 40 per cent over the last 12 months, and one month alone had growth of 83 per cent compared to the same month last year.

“I knew Sarah through our shared love of Sunderland AFC and she’s introduced new ways of thinking and new ways of doing things, and they’ve worked really well.

“I’m sure the secret of our success is down to the way our team of expert training advisers works with our clients.

“We don’t try to bamboozle them with science and we listen carefully to their needs before delivering what they want.”

So, what of the future?

“Our ambition is to continue growing, but we are a company built on honesty,” he added.

“We’ll be doing more innovation online and we’re working on a few digital ideas, which will keep us ahead of any competition.

“We have a good website and a successful app, but I think there’s more we can do.”

Five minutes with... Les Cooper

Favourite North-East building and why? It’s not so much a favourite building, more an area. I really like Grey Street, in Newcastle. The architecture is stunning and the street is iconic. Although we no longer live on Tyneside, we still love to go back and Grey Street is always our port of call. The view leading down to the Quayside is stunning and always vibrant and alive with people.

What was your first job and how much did you get paid? My first real job was an apprentice sheet metalworker. My wage was £16.45 per week.

What is the worst job you've had? By far the worst job I ever had was picking the eyes out of potatoes, as part of work experience in the cafeteria at Hebburn Technical College. However, one good thing to come out of that time was that I met my wife at the college. She was on the other side of the counter and I had to serve her dinner.

What would you cook for me if I came around for dinner? I’m the cook of the house and have been for some time. The starter would be scallops and king prawns, the main would be pan baked roast chicken over peas, leeks and a touch of Vermouth, while the sweet would be a bought-in vanilla cheesecake.

What would your superpower be? To see into the future, win a massive lottery jackpot and make sure every charity I support is well off.

Name four people, dead or alive, who would be at your perfect dinner party: Billy Connolly, Spike Milligan, Michael Cain and Joanna Lumley.

Most expensive thing you've bought - other than car or house - and how much? A camera. I like to dabble a bit on the photography side, though I’ll never be as good as my brother. There’s something about the feel and quality of a good camera that I cannot resist. I’m not going to reveal how much it was though.

Who is the best person to follow on Twitter and why? Although I don’t do Twitter, our business does, but to be honest it is something I just haven’t been able to pick up yet.

Favourite book? Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, by Carlo Rovelli. Few will believe that who know me, but I heard about this book while listening to Radio 2. It’s a plain and simple book with only 96 pages and it’s everything you need to know about modern physics, the universe and our place in the world in seven enlightening lessons.

When did you last cry? December 28, 2016. We lost one of our cats. We have had two cats for 17 years, and losing Molly was like losing a close friend or member of our family.

What is your greatest achievement? I have had many achievements in my life, most of them to do with building our business up and being able to employ people. Also, being able to help and support local communities through The Foundation of Light.

What's the best piece of advice in business you've ever been given? I have picked up many sound pieces of advice in the last 20 years or so, but the obvious one was when we had to restructure and re-launch our business in 2010. An old employer of mine simply said: “It’s better to fail in originality, than to succeed in imitation”. What he meant was that it's better to be a leader than a follower. We have stuck with that and still use it today.

Favourite animal and why? The gorilla. A noble, proud animal with such a close relationship to our own humanity. I am mesmerised by any programmes or footage of mountain gorillas in their true habitat and especially when showing family groups in the wild.

Most famous person on your mobile phone? Clive Russell. He plays Blackfish in Game of Thrones. A really nice fella and very funny as well.

What was the last band you saw live? Not a band, but I did see Beyonce at The Stadium of Light. She was top notch, but not really my scene. I was only there to foot the bill for my wife, my daughter and her friends.

Describe your perfect night in: A cold winter night outside, log burner flickering away, Indian takeaway, lashings of red wine and chocolate, and a good box set.

In another life I would be... A member of the production team on a David Attenborough wildlife series in the Antarctic.

Who would play you in a film of your life? I can’t imagine a film of my life ever breaking box office records. However, if for some very strange reason it happened, I’ll go for Vic Reeves.

What irritates you? Lack of punctuality. It really annoys me when someone sets a time and is then late. I also get very irritated by indecisiveness.

What's your secret talent? To help me relax, I am very good at 1/6 scale military figure kit bashing. Few people will know what that means, but it’s become my main pastime when I want to chill out.