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

James Bullen gave up a £1.1m a year salary to do wood-working and millions of others now plan to turn a hobby into a profession

James Bullen with a mallet in a workshop 
James Bullen is a pupil at the Chippendale School of Furniture in East Lothian Credit: Chris Watt Photography/Chris Watt Photography

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 his own woodworking 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.

Mr Bullen used to leave for wrk at 4.30am and return at around 9pm Credit: Chris Watt Photography/Chris Watt Photography

Another Chippendale pupil, Iain Stirling, gave up a £100,000 salary to pursue woodworking. The 45-year-old investment analyst turned down a promotion, opting for redundancy instead so he could "learn a new skill rather than do the same job for the rest of my life". He said his redundancy pay would cover his living costs for the first year. 

Other creative pursuits are flourishing, too. For some, staying at home during lockdown kindled a new-found interest in gardening

John Lunn, 52, walked away from his £200,000 salary as a management consultant to start a horticultural business. He has a long-held passion for plants and recently completed a course at The English Gardening School in Chelsea.

“Everything I’d done before felt very scripted: I got my degree, then a master’s in business administration, worked in consultancy and ended up running a business which we sold for a good price. After that I just wanted to follow a new path,” Mr Lunn said. 

“Coronavirus has got everyone interested in their gardens and how they can improve mental wellbeing. I think there’s an opportunity to make gardening more accessible and want to bring together my corporate knowledge with the creativity I’ve picked up from the course.” 

At least half of his fellow students had enrolled because they were bored of their corporate jobs, he added. 

Gareth Hemming, of Aviva, said: “Lockdown meant that people found different ways to use their time and in some cases developed new skills. It allowed time to reflect on lifestyles and vocations, so some people may now be forging new career paths with their talents.”

For those looking to turn a corner, many higher education centres including the Open University and Edinburgh University are offering free online courses in everything from artificial intelligence to forensic psychology.