Amy Reeve 4 May 2018 03:27pm

Against the odds

When Paul Taiano broke his neck in a racing accident, it ended his ambitions as an amateur jockey. Not so his career as an accountant. He tells Amy Reeve how, from holding board meetings in hospital to adapting his second-floor office, he’s determined to go the distance

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Caption: Photography by Andy Lopo
In 2005, Paul Taiano, an amateur jockey as well as a chartered accountant, received a life-changing injury when the horse he was racing – “probably one of the nicest young horses I’d ever ridden” – broke its hind leg as it was about to make a jump and threw Taiano to the ground head first. “I wasn’t unconscious; I knew something was up because apart from not being able to move it felt as though my legs were in the air,” he recalls. The horse, which was expected to win that race, was destroyed; Taiano was airlifted to hospital with a broken neck and life would never be quite the same again.

And yet life continues, and in impressive form. Yes, he is in a wheelchair and is dependent on his wife Alice (“without her I can’t even get up in the morning. She’s my carer, she does everything”). But Taiano has a full-time job specialising in the entertainment industry at Nyman Libson Paul, which he joined as a trainee in 1978. He has (and has had since the accident) a number of successful non-executive roles – most notably at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and the Jockey Club Racecourse at Huntingdon – and was awarded an OBE in the 2018 New Year’s Honours list in recognition of his services to drama training and horse racing welfare. He has a severe disability but he doesn’t let his injury define him. His life is full. The show, as they like to say in his manor, must go on.

Horse racing is still a large part of his life, and why wouldn’t it be? He rode ponies as a child, started racing point-to-point at 16, and his father was an on-course bookmaker. He admits he only did a degree (business studies with accountancy) as something to fall back on because the sport was risky and there wasn’t much money in it then. “My uncle ran a dress manufacturing company, his accountant was Nyman Libson Paul, and he managed to get me a job. I’ve been there ever since,” he says with a smile.

The smile is because “ever since” is 40 years and counting. Although people “stayed put a lot more in my day”, there are more meaningful reasons for the longevity. He quickly worked his way up to manager and then, just shy of turning 30, partner; he loved the entertainment niche; he liked the people he was working with; he was able to fulfil various rewarding roles outside of his day job; and, after the accident, the firm supported him back to work.

He says its entertainment connection goes back to the days when the firm was founded in 1933. “We have a wonderful photograph in the office of our founding partner, Nyman Libson, on the set of White Christmas with Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby. We’ve acted for every single Bond film, and still do. We gave tax advice to Cubby Broccoli [who produced many of the James Bond films], so that’s where that started. Then Nyman Libson’s son, John, went to school with Michael Codron, who became a West End producer, so we did theatre work with him.” The firm now has clients across the creative industries.

Taiano says he enjoyed it from the offset. “I got on well with the people, I seemed to understand what it was about – like any sector, it has its own parlance – and you build a reputation. I like helping people, it’s different every day, and it’s not massive companies where you’re involved for months on end. The pressure is immense, because you run from one deadline to another, and that never seems to go away. Even if people are on holiday they chase you with whatever mobile device they have with them at the time. But I enjoy it.”

He says access to finance is probably the biggest challenge for the sector. The cost of staging productions is “massive” and it’s the big musicals in the West End that make the money, not the plays. “People are expensive to hire, to attract the audience you quite often need a star name, there’s the complexity of the set that you need to build…” All of which means there are not many individual theatre owners left, or even council-owned theatres. “They’re owned by a relatively small group because the cost of running them is expensive, they’re often in old buildings, the maintenance is high.”

The introduction of tax credits for film and theatre has been a boon though, not just as “a brilliant source of new work” for Nyman Libson Paul but also to the sector. Although not straightforward, they have helped finance productions: “Film tax credits are on a use and consume basis, so the expenditure has to be in respect of work in the UK. You can’t buy a camera in the UK and shoot in Germany. If you bought the camera in Germany and came to England to use it that qualifies. For theatre tax credits, it’s for the core production expenditure – the building of the set, rehearsal costs and so on.”

It’s no surprise he was attracted to a role at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, which he says is “literally 10 minutes down the road from the office”. He joined the audit committee in 1996, which he chaired from 2004, and went on to serve as chairman of the board of governors from 2005 to 2017. You’ll note the start date. He snorts at the memory: “It was actually about two weeks before I went and broke my neck. The first board meeting I did, I took over the boardroom at Stoke Mandeville [the hospital where he was treated, which is acclaimed for its spinal injuries unit] and they all came. I was working fairly quickly, even in hospital. I got a laptop brought down as soon as I was capable, which was probably about six weeks after the accident. They gave me a room I could work in between physio sessions.”

It may have been an inauspicious start, but Taiano ended up serving three four-year terms as chairman. He’s proud of what they achieved in that time. “We were an independent university, we used the Open University to validate our degrees, but during my time there we obtained our own degree-awarding powers, we were then admitted as a federal college of the University of London, gained royal status and became a Centre of Excellence. That boosted the funding by around £1.6m to £4m a year, a massive difference.”

Because it’s a specialist institution, and relatively small in size but with “a high cost provision”, he says Central has had to charge the maximum tuition fees. Students feel more like customers, he notes. Nevertheless, they think carefully about access to education and try to encourage diversity on the admissions side.

Taiano stepped down as chairman in July 2017, passing the baton to John Willis, a former chairman of BAFTA, who declared Central to be “in rude health”. Taiano says: “I certainly left it in a very good position. I was pleased by where we had got to by the time I finished. In the final year we probably had the most financially successful one.” He’s about to finish another chairmanship this year, at Huntingdon Racecourse, a Jockey Club venue. I was surprised to learn that the Jockey Club is a not-for-profit organisation that puts its (sizable) profits back into the sport. “It’s purely for the benefit of racing,” Taiano exclaims, his eyes bright. “It’s a brilliant organisation, with the best racecourses in the UK: Cheltenham, Aintree, Sandown, and Huntingdon as well.”

Taiano clearly believes racing is a wholesome, family-oriented spectator sport, not a hotbed of gambling and iniquity. “The challenge is getting a wider audience to buy into it,” he says. “It’s not an expensive sport for people to go and watch. Three hours of entertainment, quite often for £15. Anyone under 18 goes in for nothing.”

His ambition for Huntingdon is for it to become the best small course within the Jockey Club. When you’re talking small, that’s around 6,000 capacity on Boxing Day compared to Cheltenham’s 60,000. But Huntingdon has something special, he adds. “A lot of the top trainers use it as a training ground for future stars. Equally, we’re a training ground for staff as well. Huntingdon is invariably someone’s first job as a manager.” He tries to get to every race meeting as well as “three or four” board meetings a year: “So I’m there quite a bit.” He points to the flat screen TV on his home study wall, which means he can watch sport whenever he fancies as well. I marvel at how he fits it all in. “I enjoy working,” he explains. “I’m not fussed whether it’s Monday or Sunday. Whatever work has to be fitted in gets done. Realistically, I’m so restricted in what I can do, if I didn’t enjoy it I would be in a worse position.”

That’s the first time he’s mentioned any inconvenience, which leads to a discussion about his injury, how it affects the way he works and his thoughts on how organisations cater for those with disabilities. His recollection of the accident and his convalescence has something of the gallows humour to it – he describes the “delightful” treatment of traction, where bolts are inserted into the head so that the neck can be stretched out with weights – combined with gratitude towards all those who have helped him along the way, from the Canadian former air force paramedic at the racecourse who spotted how catastrophic his injury was, through to his partners and clients who would travel to the hospital to discuss business.

He even made a new friend in hospital: “A young guy was brought in called Matt Hampson, he was an Under-21 England rugby international, and he dislocated his neck in training resulting in near total paralysis. We were in beds opposite each other, and now we’re the best of mates.”

And his wife Alice has been a tremendous support. “It takes a minimum of two and a half hours from when she comes and gets me up in the morning to when I get out the door,” he says. Once he’s at work, he’s still reliant on others, even in an office that has been adapted over time. “The office wasn’t easy to start with. I was on the second floor so it was tricky. If something goes wrong with the electricity… I’ve been lifted downstairs so many times on my chair it’s unreal. Because I can’t use my hands (I can move my wrists), I can’t get my chair in and out of the car myself. I’m reliant on someone getting it out of the boot for me,” he says.

On reflection, that’s the most upsetting thing. “Particularly for someone with severe disabilities, it’s the loss of independence. Mentally, it’s probably the biggest challenge to overcome. The fact that you’re absolutely dependent on someone pretty much all the time.”

“Central was an independent university, we used the Open University to validate our degrees. During my time we obtained our own degree-awarding powers, were admitted as a federal college of the University of London, gained royal status and became a Centre of Excellence. That boosted the funding by around £1.6m to £4m a year”

The current UK government has an ambitious vision to see one million more disabled people in work over the next 10 years, and for a society in which all disabled people and people with long-term health conditions are able to go as far as their talents will take them. Taiano says it’s getting better but there is room for improvement. Pavements, toilets, access to buildings – all can be challenging. “It sounds daft but you can go into a supposedly accessible toilet and the flush is up where you can’t reach it; or the mirror is above your head. The people that build these things don’t ask someone in a wheelchair for advice. They just don’t think about it. It’s those silly little things that keep reminding you that you are disabled. And it takes a long time to get mentally used to being disabled.”

Which makes the rewards that much more gratifying. Taiano is delighted with the latest three letters he can boast after his name. “When I was finishing my term as chairman, Central awarded me an honorary fellowship, and I thought that was wonderful. So to get the letter from the Cabinet Office in November was just unreal. And it was nice that they’d been in touch with the Jockey Club and included horse racing welfare as well as drama in the OBE,” he says. Taiano may no longer be able to ride the horses he cares for so passionately, but he’s a long way from letting go of the reins behind the scenes.