Q: Why did you decide to join the world of private equity?
I was working as a consultant in manufacturing a couple of years after my engineering degree, and I became involved in a notable project where I noticed the clients were only really interested in the financial outcomes. That’s when realised there was a whole word of financial motivation and corporate improvement out there that I just didn’t understand, so I decided to find a role that was more financially orientated. I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing, but I applied for numerous financial jobs and eventually started a role at 3i, which thankfully recruited from a broad range of backgrounds. So, by complete fluke, I ended up in the world of private equity in a job that allowed me to leverage my operational experience whilst also developing more financial experience. And I never looked back.
Q. You joined Livingbridge in 2005. What first drew you to the firm?
I had just left my role as a director at 3i as the company was starting to significantly reduce its UK office network and was mulling over what to do next. I was based in Leeds at the time and happened to know and like some of Livingbridge’s northern team members – notably Pete Clarke. He had invited me out to a dinner once which I couldn’t attend, but I remember thinking how kind it had been of him to extend the invitation after I’d left 3i.
I can’t quite recall the sequence of events, but I ended up having an informal interview with Livingbridge’s MD Wol Kolade and Partner Mark Advani about a potential role, and immediately felt very attracted to the company. The whole team was quietly ambitious, with the drive and competence far outweighing any ego or overt confidence. I was also struck by Wol’s determination to build Livingbridge up as a proper business within private equity. Many of the other firms at the time were essentially a group of guys running a fund, but Wol was bent on building a proper sustainable growth business investing in infrastructure and systems. And that’s exactly what the leadership team has done.
Q. You are one of the partners in Livingbridge’s mid-market team. What do you enjoy most about your work?
From a purely selfish point of view, I still get a kick out of the learning process. I’m a curious person, and this job allows you to get exposure to different businesses, with different leaders, in different markets. That’s fascinating to me. I really enjoy those early meetings with a new contact where you’re just soaking up how the business addresses its market and gains competitive advantage and building an impression of it in your mind.
From a more selfless point of view, I really enjoy my involvement in recruiting and training people with a bit less experience. The younger team members are bright – brighter and more hardworking than me! – and it’s a pleasant challenge to try and keep up with them, but I do have the benefit of some experience, and I like chipping in every now and them to help push them up their learning curve.
Q. How do you work to establish a synergistic relationship with the management teams you partner with?
One of our values which I totally support and aspire to is “investing in relationships”. That’s an easy thing to say but given the demands on our time and the fact that we’re working in competitive processes, it’s not always an easy thing to do well. The key thing is to always put the relationship with your peer principal as your first priority and approach each new contact as someone who you might end up having a five-year working relationship with. You genuinely must care about the people in the leadership team that you are working with on a project. If you care for them on a human level, then you’re just drawn to spend more time with them and understand them as people, not just appreciate their roles in delivering for the business.
The importance of being respectful to and decent with the people you work with is something I learned early on in my career, and there are two very early experiences which I found instructive. I remember a management team I met with when I was early in my career, who were meeting with six private equity firms and six banks. The chief executive told me I was the only person who had shown up in good time for the meeting, and I’ve never forgotten how he must have felt when 11 parties couldn’t be bothered to turn up on time.
The other experience that stands out was when I was in competition for a business with quite complex financials, and I was one of several parties trying to make good impression. After four meetings with the chief executive, I had to admit that I still didn’t really understand how the financials worked. He laughed out loud and said that no one really understood it, but that I was the first person to have admitted it, and he really appreciated my candour. That’s when I realised that it’s the small, honest and courteous things we do that make a difference.
Q. What are some of the characteristics you look for when identifying a business to invest in?
I trained as an engineer and I’m a bit of a scientist at heart, so I’m naturally attracted to smart or clever business models.
When I’m thinking of smart and disruptive business models, tech enabled services immediately spring to mind. I really appreciate when a business can use technology to revolutionise and improve customer experience, but without the customer having to buy or learn a particular technology product in order to facilitate that. To be able to do that, you need to have a very strong customer focus and curiosity about their stress points, and you also need to be savvy about how you use IT.
The best example I can think of is Nexus Vehicle Rental, which created a slick, intuitive method of allowing corporates to procure all their vehicle hiring needs as a one stop shop that was better than anything else in the market.
I have also learned to love simple business models – a lesson learned at my cost to be honest. When businesses are too complex and have too many things going on, it often that tells you something about the firm’s leadership. There is a something pure about keeping a business simple and just doing one thing exceptionally well.
Q. You have a passion for triathlons – what sparked that interest, and how have you cultivated it over the years?
My brother and sister both did more competitive sport than me, and basically dragged me into it. My sister used to be a competitive cyclocross racer and my brother does endurance events, including triathlons. I always joked with him that he mysteriously did longer endurance events requiring more training when his daughter was going through the Terrible Twos…
I finally decided to give triathlons a go too and loved it. I’m now competing in 70.3 Half Ironman Triathlons, and I’ll do at least two this year.
The tri community is great fun and very welcoming, and I like the fact that everybody knows they’re rubbish at one thing – the swimmers often hate the run, and the cyclists always hate the swim, and so on. Personally, I really like the cross-training aspect of it, and I’m currently fitting in about 8-10 hours a week. I’m not looking forward to less time in bed when the commuting starts again… I’m not fast or ever going to challenge at the pointy end of races. But triathlons are a great example of the “you versus you” aspect of competing, which surely is the point at our age? And it’s a great excuse to buy another (or n+1) bike.