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Neil Cook, Founder of COEL, steps down 

A short history of COEL

COEL has grown immensely over the years, into a dependable team of specialised experts and a portfolio of some exceptional projects to be proud of but, this is a far cry from where is started with one man and an ambitious dream.

Neil Cook, founder of COEL, grew up with a very happy childhood in Milton. As he entered his teenage years, he left formal education to become an apprentice gas engineer. Whilst Neil enjoyed the work, it wasn’t long before his entrepreneurial spirit came to the fore.

From tiny acorns mighty oaks grow

Having observed the emergence in companies wanting to provide staff with modular partitions to define their individual space within the office; Neil wanted to corner this gap in the market. His rapid response and can-do attitude led to an immediate stream of clients. As a result Cambridge Partitions was founded in 1986.

In the next few years, Neil established a trusted team who would help him grow the company, many of whom are still on the management board today. Firm friendships were formed within the team and during this time water polo became a regular team sport which several members would play together outside of work.

This period wasn’t without hardship and during the early 1990s recession Neil had to sell his house and – without money to invest in a van – he took to using his Cavalier to transport goods from job-to-job. Due to the resilience and commitment of the team, the company weathered the economic storm and continued to grow.

The birth of COEL as we know it now

Headquarters for the team up until now had been a mobile unit in his dad’s back yard in North Cambridge, but, in 2000 big changes happened.

Cambridge Partitions was rebranded to Cambridge Office Environments Limited, otherwise known as COEL. The successful team moved to their new premises in Chesterton High Street. Most pertinently they had evolved from being a small outfit delivering subcontractor work to a main contractor renowned for their high-quality work within Cambridge.

Neil had a keen eye for talent and in 2004 he recruited Alistair Rumbelow who heads up the company today as Group CEO. It was during Alistair’s early days that COEL gained some prestigious clients including CSR, which became a landmark in COEL’s trading history with a project that gained them £1 million in just one year.

Over the next few years the company’s client base expanded rapidly, in no small part due to the strong friendships which Neil had developed within the Cambridge business community.

Diversification to move towards a full turnkey offer

An expansion of the services which COEL could offer was also on the agenda and Neil took on Dean Powell to set up a mechanical division within COEL. This specialised department was named CPMS and has been a success since its early foundations.

It is still run by Dean Powell and has been fundamental in helping provide electrical, mechanical and plumbing services for a wide range of clients. It continues to grow with the surge in demand for laboratories and the requirement for supporting services.

Defying all odds, the company continues to expand

In 2008, the Great Recession hit and the team worried about how that would affect COEL’s success. However, amazingly, and due to the extraordinary efforts of the team, the company grew during this time.

Success continued to the point where a new premises was needed and on 22nd July 2013 COEL took up residence in 11 Nuffield Rd close to Cambridge Science Park. At this point COEL had already completed some incredible projects including VOLAC and Spiral. The COEL portfolio was impressive and they were known as the go-to design and fitout providers.

With the unprecedented onset of the pandemic, Neil showed his leadership skills in taking on a very challenging project involving refurbishing a Victorian hospital to prepare it for recovering patients. Having been approached by the client on a Sunday, Neil visited the site on a Monday and mobilised 150 men to be on site by Wednesday that week.

Partnered with Munro Mechanical Services to carry out the work, COEL was led by Northmores. The team worked overtime shifts and weekends to get the work done in a very tight timeframe. The result was several million pounds worth of work being completed efficiently and effectively in 3-4 weeks – this type of project would normally take around 3 months!

COEL stays within the family

COEL has been trading since 1986, when Neil Cook launched the company as a sole trading subcontractor. In 2021 there was a monumental shift, as a management buyout (MBO) takes place with Alistair Rumbelow, David Williams, Jerry Overhill, Dean Powell and Barnaby Clark taking control of the company.

Family values have always been a priority for Neil and this has translated into the way he has run COEL. Whilst Neil had been offered a trade sale, he chose not to go with it as he worried the company would be diluted, saying:

“It’s the continuation of COEL as a team, which is my driver.”

Commitment to giving back

Neil is passionate about the things he cares about. Very high up on his list is charity – and specifically the work he does for The Phoenix Trust. Regularly seen cooking up a storm in their kitchen, he also sets himself mammoth challenges for the benefit of this very deserving charity.

In the last few years, Neil has arranged for a games room to be built, organised the delivery and instalment of two storage cabins and helped host a fund-raising golf day for the Phoenix Trust.


Jude Tustian, manager at The Phoenix Trust, comments:

“Neil’s support of The Phoenix is fantastic – he doesn’t just provide business acumen and networking skills, but also brings so much energy and enthusiasm with him every time he sets foot on site.

“His affection and respect for the co-workers is very evident, and mutual, even if they do groan at his sad Dad jokes! An added bonus has been all the wonderful COEL staff and associates that Neil has also introduced to us along the way – it has been great becoming a small part of the COEL community. Good luck Neil in the next phase of your life.”

What’s next for our Founder?

In the secure knowledge that he is leaving COEL with a solid and trusted management team, Neil is now stepping down and looks forward to spending more time with his family, helping out at The Phoenix Trust and travelling.


“I promised myself that COEL would be autonomous of me by the time I’m 60, which is this year. They’ve done it and I’m so very proud of the COEL family, and where they are taking this fabulous company.

I will be standing back after Christmas but very much still on board as an ambassador and networker, with all my usual contact details.

Thank you to all my very good business friends that I’ve made over the years, who have made all this possible.” 

A final comment from Neil’s COEL family

After close to forty years of working incredibly hard to build a highly successful business, the COEL team wish him all the very best. Never one to keep still for long, there is bound to be more excitement to follow in the next amazing chapter of Neil’s life.

“Neil’s incredible dedication to the company has augmented all of our lives for which we are all grateful; whilst at the same time we look forward to building on his achievements, advancing and developing COEL both locally and nationally.

Our best wishes and thanks go to Neil and his family.”

Alistair Rumbelow, Group CEO, COEL

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