Phil was never happier than when he was solving a problem. Whether that problem was a better method of laying out the instruments for an appendectomy or designing an amnioscope that puts light where the doctor needs it most. His dad was a clockmaker who handmade spare parts he could no longer source. As he mended cars or fixed up houses in the south of France, Phil knew he had inherited some of his dad’s practical abilities. As he got older, he found some of his father’s persistence, too. Although, some might be forgiven if they took Phil’s determination for stubbornness.
Phil was never going to be comfortable working for someone else. Trained as a chef, his first business venture was a pub-restaurant in Hungerford. That’s when he got his first hard lesson in the importance of positive cash flow. Looking for more steady employment, he joined the National Health Service and its training program for Operating Department Assistants. A practical course that helped the NHS boost operating theatre staff numbers, it came with a City & Guilds certificate and the opportunity to work with lots of very smart people. And nurses. One of Phil’s favourite aphorisms was, ‘Life takes you where it wants you to go.’ Life took Phil down a path towards medicine. A path he would follow for the rest of his life.
Every Wednesday for two years, Phil and I left Oxford and rode in a VW bus to our day release program in Northampton. Our friendship formed over anatomy pop-quizzes, obscure surgical techniques, and a nyuk-nyuk sense of humour. Five years older than me, he was the senior man on the course. It turned out he was as competitive as I was, and my test scores increased as a result. When we graduated Phil took top prize, while I settled for second. Without his steadying influence I’d probably have muddled through, like Ferris Bueller.
We worked in the Oxford hospitals long enough for Phil to marry Bev and start planning a family. Long enough that Phil knew he wasn’t going to make his fortune passing surgical instruments. Worse, now the training was over, the learning curve flattened, and the routine began turning into a grind. So, he took his skills and experience and joined a company I had never heard of as a clinical trainer. That was my signal to pack up and become a sales rep at another company I had never heard of.
About a year later Phil called me and said Hewlett-Packard Medical was looking for sales reps and suggested I apply. Later I learned he had applied for the sales job but was turned down because of his perceived lack of experience. It was a generous call as I stayed with the company for the next 25 years. Phil had my back, the least I could do was step up.
Eventually, he landed a sales job with HP and did well at it, but he was still an employee. Thus, when the opportunity to set up his own medical sales and distribution business came, he jumped at it. Bev had grown up in an entrepreneur’s household and knew the implications for their growing family. Knowing her husband, she encouraged him and supported the family with her eyes fully open.
Cardiac Connections wasn’t Phil’s first or last company, but he was once again at the start of a steep learning curve and back in his element. Taking all his clinical and sales experience he built the business as far as he could, then sold it in anticipation of his next steps, which included more education and loftier business goals.
Around the time he finished his MBA at Oxford Brookes University, Phil was diagnosed with the ‘Scottish Disease’, multiple sclerosis. As the disease began its slow course, he knew time was no longer on his side. By the time he gave up his crutches for a wheelchair ten years later, he had built Clinical Innovations into a multimillion-pound enterprise with distributors across Europe.
In addition to keeping the domestic front stable, Bev ran her own wellness and therapy business. The family thrived. Natalie and Jonathan went off to university, where (eventually) both would study medicine with great success. Meanwhile, youngest son Tom’s prowess with the guitar and bass fulfilled Phil’s (vicarious) fantasy of becoming a rock star.
We stayed in touch as good friends do. Our families crisscrossing the oceans for joint holidays that became rarer as the kids grew older with their own interests. Cards, letters, dropping in for visits as travel schedules allowed, always picking up the conversation where we had left it the last time. And for a few months after leaving corporate life and setting up my consultancy I worked for Phil, helping ease a transition for both of us.
But MS is a relentless disease. Between pain and loss of mobility and increasing isolation it changes people. Terminal illness shrinks the world of the sufferer by making everything in life more difficult. Work, relationships, and the simplest things become harder and harder. In the face of that reality, Phil stubbornly kept working. Clinical Innovations was sold and Bridgemaster Medical established with more modest goals for product design and licensing. His doctoral thesis, which had years of work invested in it, remains a couple of revisions away from completion.
As his world shrank, its core, the heart of his life, settled in on his love for his children and his pride in their successes. He knew that his children’s lives were just like his, except they were on their own path. That life is going to take them where it wants them to go. That the best we can do as parents is inspire them, support them, and be their guardrails through life’s turns for as long as we can.
Phil understood success in business requires vision and the tenacious problem solving that only education and experience provide. He knew that success in life is built on trust and relationships. Like all good friends we didn’t always see eye to eye, but I always knew he would be there if I needed him. We should all be fortunate enough to live a life so full, and to have friends like Phil.
Phillip Martin Barclay – August 31, 1954 – January 18, 2021
Donations to the MS Society (UK) in Phil’s memory: www.justgiving.com/fundraising/phillipbarclay