IonStar founders Liz and Tim Hughes talk connecting City talent, lifeboats, piano lessons and how to make a real difference

 
Harriet Green
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Liz and Tim Hughes at their home in Mortlake, south London

Like most couples, Tim and Liz Hughes got to the stage in life where they wanted to start a family. The challenge they faced was that, as successful professional people, they wanted to make the most of their skills and abilities – but also their family life.

“Throughout my career, I’ve watched women above me try to juggle work and family – some successfully, some not so successfully,” says Liz, whose career as a compliance officer spans JP Morgan Chase, AllianceBernstein, Lehman Brothers and Kaupthing Singer & Friedlander.
After their two children arrived, Liz wanted to work, but couldn’t see herself going part-time for a firm. “I’d been part-time before our first baby, and I just wasn’t willing to play that game. Like others, I’d found that I wasn’t being given the same intensity work-wise”.
But rather than wallow in defeatism, Liz decided to act – to create something that would give her the balance she wanted, and that could offer the same to others. She set up Professional Compliance Consultants in April 2012. It wasn’t the catchiest name, she concedes, but having something that did what it said on the tin “was perfect at the beginning”.
The firm (now called ionStar) offers professional mums, individuals having mid-stage career breaks, and those moving towards the end of their careers and who’d like to cut back, the opportunity to join a network of independent compliance experts. It provides a bespoke service to financial and professional services firms, matching consultant with client. As Tim explains: “Good compliance can be a massive headache for financial services firms. And there’s a bit of a market inefficiency – a lot of talent is floundering on the sidelines, because there’s no easy way for professionals who have had career breaks to make contact with the companies that need their services”.

SOLID GROUNDWORK

IonStar got off to a good start and, over the next 18 months, provided what Tim describes as a “sound proof of concept”. And that was enough to get him on board. Tim is a former managing director of IG, but he recognised that his wife’s venture had legs. “I left IG in the middle of 2013. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to do. It seemed that the best course of action was to join Liz and see if we could grow this thing.”
“This thing” is now a definite joint venture. When Tim came on board, they rebranded. “It was clear to me that the model had potential – and could work across different sectors,” says Tim. In the compliance industry, the Hugheses are, to date, alone in what they offer – but they’re confident it’s the right place to be. “Flexi-working in the workplace is still in its infancy. Opportunities will continue to grow; people want more control and freedom,” says Tim.
Less than a year after the rebrand, and ionStar has seen a five-fold growth in consultant numbers. The range of expertise those consultants bring vaults across big name companies – Barclays, Citi, HSBC, Axa, Deloitte and Legal & General.

TWO’S COMPANY

And now, the two-man band is looking to grow the team, focusing on marketing and PR, and they’re carefully farming out some of the project overseeing. One vital element of starting your own business, they agree, is knowing what you’re good at, and moving quickly to outsource what you can’t do. “IT, for instance, is not in either of our skill sets,” laughs Tim.
Most of the time, it’s actually unlikely that you’ll find Liz and Tim together. Their days are usually quite separate, working on different parts of the business. While Liz’s expertise enables her to work closely with the consultants, orchestrating projects the firm is working on, Tim’s knowledge allows him to work closely with the large corporates, while ensuring that projects are well scoped and tailored to the brief.
All the same, being married and running a business together requires healthy boundaries. “Now, we’re very good at not talking about it. Obviously we’re as passionate as ever, but we realised that we can’t work and live together and talk about the business all the time,” explains Liz.

REALISING DREAMS

The desire to set up their own business has always been in both their minds. “We both wanted to climb the corporate ladder, but in the back of our minds, we thought ‘one day we’ll set something up’. This started evolving, and suddenly it was right in front of us,” says Liz.
For her, taking the step wasn’t just a practical response to a problem, but a question of reclaiming confidence – “while I was out of the market, my confidence plummeted”. IonStar’s approach to helping professional women back into the workplace reflects this: there’s the pragmatic element of providing work, but the Hugheses have also focused on creating a supportive community, with a personal development pack designed to help emotionally ease individuals back in.
Liz cites Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, which posits that women, having “leant out”, can be reticent about going back to work after choosing to leave a career. “If I’d gone back to the City full-time, I would have felt compromised. IonStar gives me the option to scale back. We need to be reminded that you can get something if you want it – you just need to go for it”.
Now, the couple are making sure that they “walk the walk” – really leading the life they want to help others achieve. When I met them, they’d just returned from a weekend in Pembrokeshire with their young children. Liz is making time to learn the piano and, keen to give back, she volunteers at her children’s school and nursery. Likewise, Tim volunteers at Chiswick Lifeboat Station.
And while Liz is on the committee for Women in Banking and Finance, Tim is on the advisory board of innovative crowdfunding company CrowdBnk. “We really want to empower people, giving them the vehicle to have more control over how they live and spend their time,” says Liz.

LIZ HUGHES CV

Company name: ionStar
Founded: 2014 (following relaunch from 2012 original company)
Turnover: £250,000
Job title: Founder
Number of staff: 2
Age: 35
Studied: University of Surrey, BSc Business Economics with Computing
Drinking: Vodka & diet coke
Eating: Chips and chocolate – not together
Currently reading: The Gruffalo, each evening at 6.30pm to the children
Favourite Business Book: Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg
Talents: Throw a great party
Heroes: Anyone who manages to juggle a successful career with kids and stays sane
First ambition: To be a pilot
Motto: “Be true to yourself and remember to have fun”
Awards: Shortlisted for the Women in Compliance Awards

TIM HUGHES CV

Age: 37
Born: London
Studied: University of Sheffield, BA Economics and Politics; EMBA at London Business School
Drinking: G&T
Eating: Steak
Currently reading: The Happiness of Pursuit, by Chris Guillebeau & The Wellness Revolution, by Paul Zane Pilzer
Favourite Business Book: EMyth, by Michael D Gerber
Talents: Passionate and persuasive
Heroes: Eckhart Tolle
First ambition: To be a surgeon
Motto: “Acceptance is the art of letting go”
Awards: Timewise Power Part Time List 2014

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