After Hurtwood: Hugo Bovill – globe-trotting essential oil guru
Updated: Jun 15, 2021
With Hurtwood presently celebrating its first 50 years, it was an enormous pleasure to catch up with a student who joined the school in 1975, the year that the original school shuffled off its manifestation as Leith Hill Place, and took up residence and role on the upper slopes of Holmbury Hill. Clearly a busy man, Hugo nevertheless found time to join me via Teams and share something of the wisdom and experience of his onward career journey. It begins, he tells me, with serendipitous work experience that randomly placed him in a world of flavours and fragrances then totally unknown to him; he enthusiastically shares the passion that it awoke in him and the exciting global career that then opened up, and which has kept him in fascinating employment ever since.
Establishing that he is indeed the ‘oldest’ past student that has emerged in this series, we catch up on a rather forbidding March day via a rather hazy Teams link. Articulate and focused, Hugo outlines his path to and through Hurtwood with clear overview and a surprisingly varied series of memories of his one year with us. Circumstantially, he is unsure exactly what it was that brought him to the school, but he describes 1975 as being in ‘Year 1’, with a scholastic ‘clean sheet’ in place after the more relaxed reputation that it had previously enjoyed at Leith Hill. He recalls little more than that his parents winced at the fees: they were higher even than Eton which he had just left. He acknowledges that he ‘just didn’t fit in there’ and felt at odds with the general approach to education. Having given (rather oddly, he believes) a year’s notice to the school, he embarked on the considerable demands of completing two A Levels from scratch in one year at Hurtwood. This sense of autonomy, of having chosen a very different approach to education in coming here, was empowering, but his two traditional and demanding subjects, English and Economics, really stretched him. Taught Literature by Richard himself, Hugo recalls studying ‘Sons and Lovers’ with rather more affection and enjoyment than Chaucer and did not find it an easy subject; he lights up, however, when he comes to speak of Economics, making clear that what he learned then remains in use and relevant to this day. Invited in this new scholastic system to ‘sit round a table rather than in a row of desks’ and treated as something nearer to ‘an equal’ he rose to the challenge of acquiring foundational skills for the working world. It is clear to me that what this educational move gave him was a sense of responsibility for his choices, and consolidated for him what has proved a lifelong passion for the world of business.
Arriving for the very first year of the school’s life in Hurtwood House (albeit a much smaller concern in those days) he recalls that his room was on the top floor along with the other boys, including Hans Zimmer. Names roll off his tongue, along with happy memories of what he calls ‘an electrifying bunch of people’. Clearly, much fun was had, alongside the considerable demands of the work. The girls were ‘unfortunately’ housed on the floor below, he tells me, but he recalls ‘how refreshing it was to be treated as an adult’ within a school atmosphere. The expectation was of course that they would behave as young adults, although, of course (and thank goodness) he confesses that this was not always the case. Joyous memories of jaunts across the hills past Mullards to the Royal Oak, a memorable trip to London in Richard’s Aston Martin, eating pheasant in the kitchen with both Richard and Linda, emerge. He recalls with warmth the sheer range of nationalities he encountered, preparing him already for the fascinating global travel that his career choice would very soon necessitate. His fellow students were varied: he recalls a few ‘delightful Iranian students’, a fascinating Nigerian chap and some great Americans. He quickly gathered from them that the move across from Leith Hill had brought in a new era of imposed discipline and rules, aware also that this demanded a sense of personal responsibility ‘that set you up’ for the wider world.
He muses over the particular memory of his Economics teacher, the somewhat legendary Val Bolan, who was bearded in person and eccentric in dress, mysterious and passionate. He was indeed ‘an unforgettable character’ whose inspiration remains with him to this day. ‘He brought the subject alive,’ he tells me. ‘I understood it; it was real to me,’ and has given substance to his working world always. He also obviously listened to the sound advice that he should ‘go and find a holiday job to begin to comprehend how a business works’. Seeking out work experience which was ‘not readily available in the 70s’, he soon found himself working for a company in Bury St Edmunds through an investment made some years before by his grandfather. Everything changed. The door was opened on a whole world of fragrances and flavours, an interest was ignited and a lifelong passion began.
In parallel with this new area of interest, Hugo found himself drawn into a real love affair with essential oils, their origins and, by association, Africa itself, with all its majesty and magic. This in fact had launched our opening conversation with evidence of this fascination in the bulging bookcase that formed the backdrop of our chat. It seems clear that from the start it was the age-old origins that were the draw: the full mystery of the essential oils in all their power and potential as the underpinning of so, so much of our day-to-day world, often in ways that are not always obvious. This swiftly became his world, dealing where relevant with the complex issues of chemical process and procedure, the subtleties of odour and flavour. Travel became central to his working world, and his life was busy, rewarding and full. However, in 2008 he experienced a seminal moment of change through a congruence of circumstances. The realisation that he still had many unfulfilled goals produced a rethink: he embarked on a six-month sabbatical that was to alter everything. Having risen through the ranks to become CEO at Treatt PLC, and served as president and Chairman of IFEAT, he stepped away from it all for what was to prove the trip of a lifetime. Challenging himself to the vagaries of a road trip, and with one companion, a sturdy car and tent, he set out to drive all the way across Europe, into Africa and down to its southern tip, Cape Town. Pragmatic decisions were made. The vehicle chosen for this trip was one that could be fixed by a regular mechanic – which proved wise. It was an extraordinary experience, and it seems clear that this changed his whole world view, if that doesn’t sound too much of a cliché. He had already a wealth of first-hand experience of the sources of the fascinating oils at the heart of his world, essential in all ways; what was added here was the sympathetic richness of the lives of the people whom he encountered, the rhythms of life, the beauty of the continent and the organic relationship of all these things. It sounds like it set his world in context.
Returning inevitably to his old world, he swiftly chose to reinvent himself, establishing a new consultancy role, which is where I currently find him. It has proved a great success, and, impressively during Covid, has kept him very gainfully employed. Undaunted in his passion, he nevertheless is feeling the claustrophobic pressure of lockdown like the rest of us, and is chomping at the bit to set off once again, to be at the centre of things, as well as advise and enthuse. Zimbabwe, Madagascar, Chile, Mexico and Peru: he works regularly in all these countries, alongside the UK of course. He is regarded, he tells me, as ‘the ingredient hunter’ for so many different areas of business. ‘Few people are independent like me,’ he reveals, and as such he feels ‘closer to the core’ of the amazing oils themselves. He bubbles with enthusiastic knowledge which is infectious, and I am not surprised to hear that he has been regularly invited to lecture on this vital element of industry, including at Nottingham University.
Time to get back to the working day: but what final advice can he offer to our students? Without hesitation he speaks of the richness of the potential career possibilities in this world of flavours and fragrances, and his advice is direct. Get out there as he did, and explore the variety until, like him, you find what excites you. He has repeated many times that he had no idea what career opportunities there were in this area, and considers himself blessed to have found his way in it. We have exchanged along the way all kinds of startling chemical facts about the Double D ‘Aladdin’s Cave’ of ingredients and outcomes, including the strange connection that chemically spearmint is identical to caraway and dill. The fact that a scientific dunce like me actually remembers this is testament to his passion and commitment. He offers to link up with our own Chemistry and Economics students to share his experience, and I for one hope we can make this happen: they will be the richer for it. Thanks for taking time to talk to us, Hugo: you left us quite a long time ago, but you are certainly still making us proud.