Old Aylesburian Of The Week – Ben Thirlwall, Vice-President at American Express

BenThiirlwall3GCPThe third in the O.A Of The Week series features a first Old Boy from the world of business. Ben Thirlwall joined the school for Sixth Form in 1990, and left two years later hoping to pursue a budding career in rugby at Wasps. A series of injuries after university curtailed his progress, and instead he began working in Business Development for a number of international companies.

Ben is now Vice President of Global Marketing and Product Management for Global Corporate Payments at American Express. That might not be the snappiest job title, but it means that he is in charge of a team that spans across Europe, Asia and Africa, and is changing the way that we pay for things online.


Hi Ben. What are your memories of AGS?

It was fundamentally a very happy time. I fondly remember the Sixth Form common room, and the best thing about becoming a prefect was getting to actually serve in there, which meant that I got to feed my voracious appetite for free!

Aside from that, it has to be the people and the teachers that stay with me. Like Mr Williams, who was Head of Sixth Form, and despite a lot of micky taking he had a lot of respect from everyone in the year.

I think the most colourful character was Mr Jones, my politics teacher. He was kindly nicknamed ‘Mad Dog’ by all that he taught, but was singularly the most entertaining and inspiring teacher from my time there.

What kind of pupil were you?

It’s a cliché but I had a work hard, play hard approach. I had to work pretty hard for my A-levels, and packed in a lot of sport. I managed to realise quite a few of my rugby ambitions, and I started playing for Wasps when I was at the school.

I was always enthusiastic and I got made into a prefect pretty quickly, so somebody obviously thought I was responsible! My barometer for success in making a good impression was that my younger brother started to hate me, because I’d come into the Sixth Form and all of a sudden stolen his thunder.

Do you have any favourite moments from your time at AGS?

In my Lower Sixth we came up against RGS at rugby, and at the time their scrum-half was (future World Cup winner) Matt Dawson. Me and a couple of the other forwards took great delight in being able to get hold of him and give him a good kicking!

In my Upper Sixth I started to play for the South-West division, and I remember that Brian Roberts who was Head of Sport at the school drove me to pretty much every single trial. It’s not just one moment, but that level of commitment always stood out. To me, that was a sign of how much the staff there will support you as a pupil.

Did you have any particular ambitions when you were at school?

No. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was driven by my sporting passion, and it was all about getting some academic qualifications while trying to play the highest possible level of rugby. I chose my University based on rugby, and I never foresaw myself in the position that I’m in now.

How do you feel that your time at school has influenced your life since?

At a basic level, it opened the door to a good university and gave me a springboard to move my career along. From a values perspective it taught me the importance of hard work; the ethos and the lessons that I learned at school are the same that I continue to apply to what I do today, even if I’m a bit older and greyer now.

At points I had to write five essays a week, so you’re constantly thinking about how to communicate a logical argument and base it on fact, that sort of stuff. That’s absolutely at the core of what I have to do now.

Do you have any advice for the boys at AGS today?

AGS was and is a great school. When you’re at school it’s a bit of a drag, but you appreciate it when you’ve left, so make the most of your time there.

Learn the lessons about how to collaborate with the people around you, work hard and fit in a balanced life with sport, drama, music or whatever it might be, and you’ll have a good platform for whatever you want to do with your future.