NEIL O’CONNOR’S career started with seven years flying high in the RAF in Wales when he met his wife, Lisa, who hailed from Trimdon.

After his move to County Durham he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do but in his own words stumbled into car sales with what was then CD Bramall in Darlington.

He found his passion lay in corporate sales and helping businesses build their vehicle fleet but then the recession hit and his career path faltered.

He decided to become self-employed and set up a commercial cleaning business from scratch which he said taught him a huge amount, in particular about cash flow. Reflecting on that time he said: “On paper this business was fantastic but the need to pay my staff regularly with my clients waiting a while to pay their bills for me, meant it was always quite stressful. After three years I made the decision to sell it.”

His next move was to be a sales director for a car rental business. This was followed by a period with a local training company. After this position was made redundant as the company went bust, he decided to launch his own business again, armed with the knowledge from his previous business.

This new venture, Fleet Recruitment, filled a gap he knew could be lucrative due to the undersupplied market for specialist automotive personnel at all levels up to MDs.

He said: “I had no money behind me but I had very thorough knowledge of the precise competencies of both employers and staff in this sector. We have now grown to have six people in our team and work for some of the biggest, global brand clients.

“My business is thriving and this is mainly due to learning so much early on in my career. I think, with hindsight, I was too much like a bouncy Tigger, overly optimistic. I now have a non-executive director who keeps me right and ensures I see financial information as very black and white.

“My approach is that in a sales career to sell, you have to stop selling but instead help the customer to buy. I always say you have to earn the right to ask someone for their business and be clear how you can help them. Its basically dig, dig, dig, through an honest conversation.”

Fleet’s consultants go to great lengths to understand their clients and are unafraid to ask difficult questions.

Neil O’Conner said: “A consultant should have the strength and depth of character to ask challenging questions. It’s vital that a vacancy is positioned properly to candidates. This has to include the contribution and impact the company is expecting the employee to bring, the expectations of how quickly that needs to happen, the associated targets or key performance indicator.

“We also have to bottom out the rationale behind them, the infrastructure that supports the role, the team dynamics, the internal and external factors that could affect the person’s ability to achieve targets, any operational issues, company politics and of course the rewards and career opportunities.

“We never work from a job description because they rarely reflect the actual day in the life and we are unafraid to challenge clients if we believe targets are unrealistic, in fact we often provide consultancy in these areas and it’s a fantastic value add for our customers. We help clients make sure that the new employee isn’t set up to fail and informing a candidate about the expectations, targets, rewards, culture and challenges is vital and ensures they join the business with their eyes absolutely wide open. Our retention rates are outstanding as a result and we are growing our business as a result.”

Five minutes with... Neil O'Connor

Favourite North-East building?

I really love the little church in Trimdon Village. It’s thousands of years old, tiny and looks like a picture postcard.

What was your first job and how much did you get paid?

I was on a Youth Training Scheme training to become an installation electrician and placed with a company who paid me £28 a week, but I left to join the RAF Police at the age of 18.

What is the worst job you've had?

I’ve enjoyed all the jobs I’ve had, but there have been some elements that I’ve hated doing. In my current position it never gets easier when we have to tell candidates that they were not successful. We really care for people and those calls are so tough.

What would you cook for me if I came around for dinner?

Chicken a la O’Connor. A dish made by my grandfather about fifty years ago. Friends ask for the recipe but we never give it because you have to be in the family. That started as a joke, but over the years it got serious and they wouldn’t let me share it with my wife Lisa until we had been married for about two years! It’s like the official Secrets Act but with poultry.

What would your superpower be?

I never look backwards, but I quite like the idea of being able to see forwards. If there was a superpower that let me go into the future, I’d take that.

Name four people, dead or alive, who would be at your perfect dinner party.

Billy Connelly because he is a comedic genius. Arnold Schwarzenegger, because he achieved so many things and would be fascinating. Rick Stein, because I love his laid back personality and because he might help me do the cooking and Robert De Niro, just because he is a legend.

Most expensive thing you've bought - other than car or house - and how much?

I’ve never really been into buying expensive goods. I drive a modest small Toyota and I’m not into flashy watches, suits or material things. I did splash out on a family holiday to Las Vegas last year. As you get older you realise what’s important and I would rather spend money making memories.

Who is the best person to follow on Twitter?

I guess it depends on what you are interested in. I really like following Durham Constabulary. You learn about the amazing work they do to keep us safe and see the human side of the people behind the uniforms.

Favourite book?

I really like a book called, Solve for happy, by Mo Gawdat. It was introduced to me by John Doyle, the former Cleveland Fire Brigade Chief, who is now one of my business partners in another company I own. It’s a very thought provoking read that could change your life.

When did you last cry?

It will almost certainly have been at the end of the last episode of DIY SOS. Its ability to make me cry is second only to tear gas.

What is your greatest achievement?

I recently cycled in a team that rode 244 miles from County Durham to Belleek in Northern Ireland in just 23 hours. We made over £2,000 for The Royal British Legion. I was absolutely broken, but it’s a heck of a story for my grandchildren one day.

What's the best piece of advice in business you've ever been given?

I have a great friend and business mentor who is a very senior industry accountant and business leader. He helps me sense check my strategy, planning, financial forecasting, cash flow and business targets. Whilst sat with a spreadsheet looking at my projections, he once said to me, “Neil, only you know if you are fooling yourself”. It really stuck and if you’re ever the optimist like me, it’s easy to become a spreadsheet millionaire.

Favourite animal?

I adore dogs and have two. I love their infectious excitement every time I see them and they just make me smile.

Most famous person on your mobile phone?

I have a lot of well known business and public sector leaders in my phone as contacts, but nobody famous in terms of being a celebrity.

What was the last band you saw live?

I went to watch Fleetwood Mac in Glasgow about three years ago. They were absolutely brilliant.

Describe your perfect night in?

A big bag of prawn cocktail skips and back to back Columbo films. But, it would never happen because it is Mrs O’Connor’s most unimaginably bad night in.

In another life I would be...

This sounds cheesy, but devastated, because I honestly love the one I have.

Who would play you in a film of your life?

It would have to be Arnold Schwarzenegger, just because it would be so funny.

What irritates you?

I’m really easy going but I have very high standards and strong values. I get really irritated by organisations that are dreadfully poor at communication and employee engagement. Sometimes it’s obvious that a new employee is being set up to fail because of unrealistic expectations, targets or because of a complete lack of infrastructure supporting the role. I am more than happy to encourage my colleagues to walk away from that recruitment opportunity.

What's your secret talent?

I’m brilliant at doing impressions and regional accents from around the UK. It’s great because I can mystery shop my own colleagues. They are never quite sure if an inbound call is me. They do get me back though and we love a giggle.