How I changed career
I found my first job going through the Yellow Pages looking at the entries in heavy type. They thought I was the new cleaner on my first day at Deloitte. I did all sorts of audits, including the Bank of England (which included watching somebody counting the petty cash because everyone had to be watched) but decided I’d like to travel. I joined Radio Corporation of America’s corporate auditing team in New York.
I travelled to Australia, Italy, Jersey, Malaysia. It was wonderful but lonely so I came back to London and joined Touche Ross, in insolvency.
I worked up to senior manager and did a lot of household names. The liquidation of Laker Airways got me arrested in Majorca. I was sent out to collect the airline’s yacht (because I did a lot of sailing) and bring it back to St Katherine’s Dock. There was confusion over who it belonged to (some other liquidators had taken Freddie Laker’s racehorse) so I was held by the police until a report from Interpol cleared me.
As a senior manager I got to the stage where I didn’t meet clients and felt I was missing a lot of information. I didn’t hold the view that anybody who failed in business was a failure. I thought I could do it better so I set up Gibson Hewitt with another senior manager, Robert Hewitt, who was thinking the same thing. That was 29 years ago.
We started doing business advisory work and then a recession came along so we decided to use our insolvency licences. Robert was better at the technical side of things and IT and I was better at strategy and meeting people. The work naturally fell to who was most suited to what. We set up a compliance business because the common thread with most of our owner-managed businesses was they didn’t have timely, accurate numbers. We hired so we could offer monthly management accounts. We actually sold that through an MBO in 2015.
I do this because it gives people a second chance. It’s exciting because you never know who will come through the door and you’ve got to find a way to turn that business around. I can do so many different things with my licence. I can separate a business from its legal entity; have a moratorium of creditors, which means if people want to invest more money it’s not going on old debt; I can completely restructure the balance sheet; get venture capitalists in or out of a business; make part of a business viable even if you’ve got to close the other.
Insolvency legislation is so flexible in the UK, as long as you can get creditors to agree you can do almost anything. The turnaround culture is fantastic. There are two things that make it challenging to save a business – when the government changes legislation or if technology changes, so the market just disappears.
My typical day
My alarm goes off about 5.30am and I go to my yard, Stanley Hill. I found out there were three plots of land in Surrey adjoining each other, all subject to insolvency, so I bought them. There were four vendors – it was a bit like an insolvency exam question. I got a manager and staff and built it from scratch. I’ll turn the horses out, discuss any issues with my manager – it doesn’t matter what type of business you have, there are always the same type of issues. It’s just the product that’s different. You’ve always got staff, the clientele... And at the yard one’s also dealing with the horses and their welfare. I drive to the Gibson Hewitt office at about 9.30am and talk through problems and priorities with my managers. Then I spend my day managing the staff, having client meetings, liaising with solicitors, doing marketing. I tend to leave about 6pm and then maybe do some pilates or have a bit of fun. Both are full-time jobs but I’ve got good staff and I keep fit.
The challenges I’ve overcome
When my children came along I wondered how I would fit them in. The truth is, you just do.
The very worst thing was a sexual harassment claim from one member of staff about another when we’d just started Stanley Hill. We had a disciplinary process, a tribunal, protection for the claimant and the business itself… We had to start afresh, to invest more money. It was a humbling experience – it makes you aware of how fragile any business is. That’s why I would never judge anyone whose business has failed (apart from a crook, obviously).
Perhaps the biggest challenge in insolvency is you never know when you’re going to get your next client. You have to hold your nerve because you’re either too busy or you’re not busy enough.
In insolvency things happen: you’ll suddenly get a writ or somebody will ring desperate for a meeting because they’ve just received a petition or a CCJ and they want urgent advice. People come in in tears; you hold their hand and you show them a way, how it can be done. Insolvency is about giving new opportunities, new starts. An important part is releasing capital from solvent liquidations when people are retired or retiring. It’s a tax efficient way for them to get reserves out of their business. That’s lovely because you’ve got happy clients.
How the ACA helped my career
It makes you think about business: how they work; getting the balance right; delivering a product and making the end user feel special; measuring things, because if you make a mistake you never want to make that mistake again. The ACA is an all-round business education. It gives you all the tools and then you choose what you do with them. It’s a cracking qualification.
The habits of an accountant
You’re not working in the business, you’re working on it – building systems, training people and hopefully giving them a career, to do whatever they want in the world. Volunteering has also opened so many doors in unexpected ways. My qualification has put me in the local community and given me opportunities I’d never ever have envisaged. That’s what it does.