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The Switch: From pilot to marketer

By Sue White

Since he was young, Matthew Tomlinson knew the career path he wanted to pursue.

"I'd grown up wanting to fly," he says. "My father was a customs officer in the UK, so I spent my youth in airports and joined the air cadets when I was 14."

Tomlinson applied to the British Royal Air Force when he was 17. "I finished school and applied to be an officer and a pilot," he says.

"It was a four-day residential selection procedure ... everything from interviews to aptitude tests and reasoning.

"I spent three years at university knowing I'd have a guaranteed role in the air force at the end. It was fantastic. For many people a job's a job but for most pilots it's absolutely a passion."

While he was at university, Tomlinson was required to be part of the university air squadron, run by the Royal Air Force.

"I was doing lots of flying. I had a ball," he says. But after he'd been in the air force for a year, disaster struck. "I was walking in my home town in Staffordshire, a quiet market town in the UK. I got mugged by two guys from behind. They threw me into a truck on the street and then scarpered," he says.

With a ruptured spleen and fractured skill, Tomlinson spent three weeks in hospital. Although he recovered well, the surgery spelt the end of his life as a pilot.

"My spleen had been removed because of its rupture. Without a spleen there was no chance of an air force career," he says.

Losing his dream left him "totally devastated", Tomlinson says, so he went on a backpacking trip that ended in Australia.

"I met my wife in Adelaide and settled there," he says, of the move that took him into his new career in pharmaceuticals.

"I ended up in pharma by accident. I saw a sales position advertised ... I did it for two years then applied for a marketing role in Sydney [with the same company]."

Tomlinson has now been with his current employer, sanofi-aventis, for eight years and is as surprised as anyone at how well his enforced switch has worked out.

"I wouldn't have thought it likely ... [but] sanofi has done a lot to keep me focused and engaged to keep me here," he says.

Tomlinson has a job spanning both marketing and sales. His role has an unwieldy title - transversal product communication marketer - but the aims of the job are simple: to break down the disconnection that can occur between the sales and marketing silos within a particular business.

"I try to get the marketing team to think about their decisions from a sales perspective ... and vice versa," he says.

Tomlinson's time in pharmaceuticals has shown him how complex the field can be.

"We work in an incredibly highly regulated environment," he says.

"It's impossible for our marketing teams or sales people to say anything that's not backed up by large studies. I think people outside [the industry] don't always realise that."

Out of the office, Tomlinson has now found a way to reignite his flying dream, this time as a hobby.

"I recently was granted six months unpaid leave and I went and got my Australian flying licence," he says.

A Royal Air Force pilot would earn £37,000-£45,000 ($57,000-$69,000). "It's surprisingly low but the exchange rate's not helping that," he says.
Work-life balance: "It was incredibly good. There's a great social life associated with life in the forces, which, while you are at university, is everything you want."
Hours:  "A fast-jet pilot [when not out on an operation] would probably only knock up 10-15 hours of airtime a month. But there's a lot of other work around the scenes going with it, including continual study and up-skilling."

Low six figures. "As an industry, pharmaceuticals pay relatively well."
Work-life balance: "I'd rarely work a weekend in my current role. I now have my microlight licence and have my own [microlight] so I fly on weekends."
Hours:  7.30am until 6pm, Monday to Friday. "That's not the expectation from the company, that's the expectation I put on myself. I'm fairly achievement-driven so I like to put the hours in to deliver."
Miss: "The team camaraderie. I see it in some areas in my [current] working environment but the situation is very different. We do a good job of it but it doesn't ever come close to the pride I felt when flying."
Challenges: "Continual change. The pharmaceutical industry is going through a difficult time, with a lot of blockbuster drugs coming to the end of their patented life."


Published: 10 December 2011

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