How adventure made Stefan Lepkowski a better leader

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A passion for adventure and extreme sports led Stefan Lepkowski, a South African-born descendant of a Polish diplomat to set up an award-winning PR and marketing agency in Newcastle

Life has been one extraordinary adventure after another for Stefan Lepkowski. He has skied off a cliff in France, caught snakes in South Africa and paraglided off a mountain in Turkey. But the story begins with a plane crash just off Gibraltar and one of the great controversies of the Second World War.

Lepkowski’s grandfather, Stanislaw Lepkowski, was consul general to the Polish prime minister and formed a government-in-exile based in London during the conflict. He also helped 500 war orphans to relocate to South Africa and was in the process of setting up Polish consulates around the world when a plane carrying Poland’s prime minister, General Sikorski, crashed soon after take-off in July 1943. Conspiracy theories persist to this day that Sikorski was assassinated. His death paved the way for Russia to turn Poland into a communist state.

Lepkowski says: “My grandfather was exiled. If he had returned [to Poland] he would have been executed.” Instead, he stayed in South Africa and his grandson grew up spending much of his youth exploring the great outdoors in the Veld. However, Lepkowski’s father yearned for a move to Europe and, in 1979, the family settled in England. “In life you have pivotal moments. Growing up in South Africa, having absolute freedom to enjoy the outdoors was one thing. Then I moved to a boarding school in Bath, which felt more like a prison,” he recalls.

He left school with no qualifications, packed his bags and embarked upon a European adventure. “I had this desire to experience snow and ski on mountains. I remember the first time I saw snow fall in Austria. I couldn’t get enough of it!”

Several jobs (and countries) later, Lepkowski was working at an activities centre in Corsica when he met the owners of Berghaus, a leading manufacturer of outdoor wear. It was at that point he began turning his passion for adventure and extreme sports into a successful career. “I was offered a job at their shop in Newcastle called LD Mountain Centre. It was a brilliant experience. I was put on a management training course where I did everything from working in product design, the warehouse, exports, sales, everything. I could understand how the whole business was stitched together.”

His boss said he had a flair for communications and PR and, six years later, Lepkowski decided to go it alone when he set up Karol Marketing on Tyneside (Karol is his middle name). Since 1992, the agency has worked with some of the biggest brands in outdoor clothing and equipment, including O’Neill, Nike, Karrimor, Reebok and Kathmandu.

Leadership lessons

Lepkowski firmly believes that doing extreme sports such as mountaineering, paragliding and windsurfing has not only helped to land prestigious contracts but also made him a better business leader.

“That gave us real credibility in the early days. But, more importantly, in doing extreme sports you have to make decisions that can be life-changing. You have to be totally confident that what you’re doing is right. That gives you a lot of strength in business, that you can make decisions others might fuss over. You can see what needs to be done and you’re not afraid to deal with it.”

He cites a recent campaign to promote a book about St Francis of Assisi as a perfect example of how travel broadens the mind. The Way of St Francis follows the route he took from Florence to Assisi and Rome. “The publisher said ‘the Italian Tourist Board wants to do a big launch’. They were looking at London-based agencies. So I suggested they pick up rocks from the route along with olive branches and we mailed out bespoke invites.

“Our target was to get 30 journalists to attend an event at Foyles bookstore in London. In the end 70 turned up, the Press Association turned up, even Newsnight turned up. I got the idea because I’ve walked on those sorts of trails and I’ve been on those adventures.”

These days, Lepkowski windsurfs and paraglides in locations across Europe but gave up climbing after an expedition with world-famous mountaineer Chris Bonington. “We were due to do the Haute route, a famous ski mountaineering route. I accidentally skied over a small cliff and caught the rocks at the edge so I went down on my front and my arms were outstretched. My left arm went through soft snow and then through snow that had been in the sun, so it was crusty.

“My body rolled and it ripped my arm out so the shoulder joint was stuck in the front of my chest. The funny thing about it was that we were having lunch beforehand. The ones who had money were sitting in the restaurant. They said to me ‘did you know Chris has no medical training?’ The friends I had lunch with didn’t know this, were the first to arrive and said ‘don’t do anything, just wait till Chris gets here!’ That’s when paragliding started. I thought it was easier to fly up the mountain than climb it.”

Yet his greatest challenge came in 2006 when he began converting a disused mill in Morpeth, Northumberland. The five-year saga was featured on Channel 4’s Grand Designs and viewers were left wondering was it worth the hassle? Lepkowski says: “I can get in a car and within an hour and a half I can be paragliding in the Lake District, or Scotland. Within half an hour I can be windsurfing on the Northumbrian coast. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

Gallery: Stefan Lepkowski windsurfing

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About author

Ryan Herman

Ryan Herman

Alongside his work for Director, Ryan has written for SportBusiness International, VICE Sports, Populous, Audi and Gallop Magazine and was previously editor of Sky Sports Magazine.

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