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Graduate success story: Mike Johnson

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From his beginnings in Ashbrooke to heading up one of the world’s most well-known companies, the University of Sunderland has been a key part of Mike Johnson’s long and illustrious career.

Mike Johnson

Mike took his first step on the business ladder in 1973 when, while working as an apprentice at Whitbread, he graduated with a Business HND from Sunderland. Over four decades and countless high-profile roles later, he’s back at the University, teaching Business as a visiting professor alongside a host of other industry experts and guest speakers.

Looking back, Mike still remembers his time at the University with fondness, although he admits things were very different to the state-of-the-art facilities students have access to now at the Sunderland Business School.

“In those days Business was taught in a very small building at Ashbrooke and I thoroughly enjoyed my time studying there”, he recalls. “When I look back on it, that was a great foundation. I didn’t quite realise how important it was at the time, but that knowledge really did help lay that basic foundation for my future."

Mike would certainly go on to put his qualification to good use. Aged 25, he moved to Scotland, working as an account manager for Spillers Foods alongside colleagues who had far more experience. Despite his relative youth, he grabbed the opportunity with both hands, discovering his inherent ability to sell products and charm customers. It seemed inevitable he’d go on to bigger and better things, and soon had landed himself a job as Managing Director of dairy firm St. Ivel.


“I still wonder to this day how it all happened.”


Aged just 39, Mike had elevated to the lofty heights of executive boards and upper management. Unsurprisingly, he began to catch the eye of some the world’s most powerful companies. In 1993, he was appointed as Managing Director of Castrol UK, turning around the struggling business in four years. In 2007, after filling a host of top roles that took him across the world, Mike was appointed CEO of Castrol.

It had been an astronomical rise from his start as a business student at Sunderland, a rise that Mike himself still finds somewhat unbelievable.

“I still wonder to this day how it all happened,” he smiles. “There was never a point in my career where I sat down and thought ‘How can I become a CEO of a global business?’ - it definitely wasn’t planned.”

Yet, Mike’s incredible progression will surprise few around him, as he put into practice and expanded upon the building blocks of business he learned at Sunderland. After retiring in 2013, he regularly returns to educate the business leaders of tomorrow here and is optimistic about the future for graduates from Sunderland.

“Studying at Sunderland puts you in a group of elite people around the world to hold degrees from leading UK universities, but this is really just the first step. It puts you in the position to apply for jobs that most people can’t go for. But it’s an invitation to compete, rather than an entry ticket. You now have to earn that entry ticket.”


“Studying at Sunderland puts you in a group of elite people around the world to hold degrees from leading UK universities.”


In an increasingly connected world, students have access to more jobs than ever. You can easily apply for jobs in different regions, countries or even continents. However, as Mike notes, this can bring fresh challenges too, raising the bar for candidates across the board.

“The world is getting smaller. That has a big impact on corporations and how we compete, and has a big impact on you too.

“It means you can apply for jobs way beyond your geographical region, even your country location. Companies are looking for talent across the world. The bar has risen substantially and you have to make sure you rise to the same level to clear that bar.”

The business world has become more competitive than ever, but thanks to Mike’s expertise, students at Sunderland can ensure they get a head start on the rest.


Published: 8 September 2017