‘I left a seven-figure salary in my 30s to become a cabinet maker and couldn’t be happier’

Linda J. Dodson

Workers have been ditching six or seven-figure salaries in search of more meaningful work, with the Covid crisis acting as a catalyst for change. 

More than half of UK workers (53pc) are planning to change careers in the next year, according to new research by Aviva, an insurer. Five million people said they were intending to turn a hobby into a source of income.

James Bullen, 41 from Essex, gave up a job as a commodities broker at JP Morgan, the investment bank, where he was earning around £1.1m a year in order to take up woodworking.

In 2019 he enrolled at the Chippendale International School of Furniture to learn how to make cabinets. Once he graduates, he plans to move to America to set up a school and live off-grid with his wife, four children and dog. He has already had commissions for his new business, which is called Black Bear Bespoke Furniture.

“The big salary was great. We went from living in a three-bedroom cottage to a seven-bedroom house with grounds and pool,” Mr Bullen said. “But something was missing. I hit 36 and realised I didn’t want to spend almost every day until my 70s commuting and missing out on my kids growing up, so I quit. I’m so much happier now”

Mr Bullen was leaving for work at 4.30am and returning at around 9pm.

“I’d started at JP Morgan at 16 earning £7,500 making tea and fetching laundry. I worked my way up until I was earning £250,000 as a base salary and bonuses of £800,000 to £900,000 on top of that. It was a lot to give up and there have been moments where I’ve thought it would have been easier to stay in a normal office job, but as long as you have enough money to eat you’re ok,” he said.

‘It’s still a concern whether we’ll have enough money to get by’

In between Mr Bullen quitting work in 2015 and enrolling at the school, the family moved from London’s commuter belt to Canada then Alaska to live in log cabins and learn how to chop wood and fish for salmon.

“We spent most of our savings then. The rest has gone on the £20,000 fees for the woodworking course, so it’s still a concern whether we’ll have enough money to get by,” Mr Bullen said.

However, he has been lucky enough to have plenty of former colleagues with money to spare who have been keen to commission him to make furniture for them. “One paid £20,000 for a two-metre high humidor to keep his cigars in,” he said. He has boosted his income further by launching a crafts fair for local artisans in his home town.

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