My lunch date with Joanne Smith, financial services veteran turned entrepreneur, is long overdue. I have been using stalling tactics and to be honest it’s due to her area of expertise: compliance. (Read: boring box-ticker.)
But it’s a New Year and, cloaked in noble resolutions, I finally make the time to meet her at a modern Italian, Canto Corvino, a stone’s throw from Liverpool Street station. As we tuck into our plates of tasty nibbles, I quickly realise that my shameless stereotyping could not have been more wrong. (Who’s the box-ticker now?)
“For me compliance is the new rock ‘n roll,” says Joanne. “It’s gone from being one of the dullest jobs in the world to one of the hottest roles in the financial services industry. I can’t keep my compliance staff long enough because they’re in such demand.”
I am still a bit sceptical – so does compliance really excite you? “No,” she laughs. “It’s dealing with business that excites me and compliance is just about good business sense – there’s nothing hard about it. Unfortunately, it’s been dominated by people who get excited by looking at a rule book. But that’s not what it’s about. It’s about figuring out how to help the business go forward and stay within its parameters. And importantly, making sure customers are looked after. If people don’t get that, then they’ve missed a trick.”
She should know, having forged both a successful career and a lucrative business in this space. A northerner in accent and nature, Joanne left school when she was 16 to attend tennis college after being awarded a scholarship. She was a sports fanatic and dead set on becoming a PE teacher. But as the summer break dragged on and all her friends went back to college, boredom crept in and she started looking for a job. “At the time, if you wanted a job, you had to apply in the spring for the summer intake. As I hadn’t applied, my only option was a youth training scheme where the government would pay you £25 a week and cover your expenses to take up a job.”
She got a role working for Lloyds Bank and loved it. Five weeks later, she managed to land “a proper job with a proper salary” working for Royal Insurance in Liverpool. “I was 16 years old and had watched a television programme which said that, in order to get on in business, you had to say hello to at least 50 people a day – you know, just be friendly. So I would walk around the office saying ‘hello, hello, good morning’ all the time, to everyone. Eventually after a few days, people started saying hello back.”
At the age of 19 she got her first promotion running a complaints department and managing a team of around 40 people. By the time she turned 21 she had bought her second home. Her friends, meanwhile, were just finishing university and starting from scratch. Unsurprisingly, she didn’t give the tennis scholarship a second thought.
After a decade at Royal Insurance, she was headhunted to go to the regulator – then the FSA – as a monitoring supervisor, visiting banks and insurance companies. So she was one of those “visitors” that every business dreads, I ask. Joanne nods knowingly and smiles. “Mostly people just wanted help to get it right. We weren’t that good at giving proper guidance and could often get wrapped up in the rulebook. My background in the insurance sector and in life and pensions helped a lot. I knew how things were put together so I could help work on practical solutions.”
Following her stint at the regulator, she moved to KPMG as a regulatory consultant, where she completed an MBA. “We had to do a module called Vanguard management and they made us meditate in class. Literally. It was all about new ways of looking at management and examining what our goals were. I realised that I didn’t have any clear goals and so I set myself a target: six weeks to really think about what I wanted to achieve. Five weeks and six days went by and I hadn’t thought about my goals at all. The following morning I woke up, and said to myself, I know what I will do, I will start my own business.”
Three weeks later she moved down to London and started the Consulting Consortium with just two clients. That’s quite dramatic, I offer. “Yes,” she says, “but that’s the way you have got to do it. When you make such a big step, you just have to do it all out.”
That was 16 years ago. Today the Consulting Consortium is the UK’s largest independent regulatory and compliance consultancy, with a network of 3,200 consultants providing specialist regulatory compliance services to asset managers, banks, IFAs and the like, including a number of FTSE 100 and multinational companies. Joanne’s aim was to build a consultancy business that would provide a very different style of service to that of the traditional “Big Four” firms – tailored rather than “off-the-shelf” solutions and a focus solely on compliance.
Would she ever work for a big company again? “They won’t have me,” jests Joanne. “No, I enjoyed my corporate life and I learnt a lot but things take too long in a big company, decisions take too long. I love the entrepreneurial speed with which we do things. I am sure most people who work for big corporates either want to change the way the corporates are run, or they want to hide in them.”
It’s about the energy that someone has; the determination and drive… that’s far more important than an Oxbridge degree
Mid-way through our conversation, the waiter pops along and asks if we would like to order any wine. I glance apologetically at Joanne, “You go ahead – I am having a dry January.” “Me too,” she says but then owns up. “With the exception of last weekend.” She had good reason. It was her mother’s funeral, although she says it was more “a function than a funeral.” Her mother was diagnosed with dementia 15 years ago, and for all those years Joanne commuted back north every other weekend to help take care of her.
I offer my sympathies but Joanne is upbeat. “We celebrated her life. There were 140 people – it was standing room only in the crematorium. Afterwards we had a wake at the local golf club and put on a free bar and everyone just enjoyed themselves.”
They’re a close-knit family of four children and, until her diagnosis, her mother was the epicentre. When Joanne was five years old, her father visited the dentist for a run-of-the-mill filling, but he was left paralysed after too many shots of Nervocaine. Her mother had to take care of the family business while her father spent two years in hospital recovering. “My earliest memory of him was seeing him on the parallel bars, learning to walk again. That sheer determination…”
Meanwhile her mother kept the family business – a garage and car-parts outfit – going with her baby sister tagging along in the mini-van as her mum picked up car parts and took care of deliveries. “It was only at the funeral that I realised how much of a role model my mother was. She had four children under the age of 10 and had to manage a business in an extremely male-dominated industry. She kept the business afloat until dad was better.”
Like her mum, Joanne hasn’t let the male-dominated nature of the financial industry stop her. Off the back of the Consulting Consortium, she launched another business called RecordSure, which she believes is the potential answer to mitigating all future mis-selling of financial services products. RecordSure uses high quality audio recording and analytics to assess all face-to-face and telephone conversations between a firm’s financial advisers, complaint handlers and customer services agents and their customers.
“Fact finds don’t often stand up to scrutiny when looked at, but all of that can be solved if you just record the interaction. We also run very clever artificial intelligence over the top of that recording so that we understand what was said.” Joanne recruited the team behind the iPhone’s Siri technology to create the software.
That couldn’t have been cheap, I blurt out. “It wasn’t,” she confesses. So was it worth it? “Yes, absolutely. We’re going to revolutionise financial services and once we have done that, we’re going to revolutionise the legal sector and the health sector – why would you need to write notes when you can record conversations and give the customer access to the notes?”
She pauses for a second and says with a hint of trepidation: “It’s either madness or the best thing I have ever done. Only time will tell.”
Either way, Joanne has already achieved great success and she modestly admits to enjoying the benefits of having worked really hard. Happily married and happily not having children, she and her partner are avid travellers. Joanne loves the water, London and the river. That’s why she has a skipper’s license and a speedboat docked outside her flat in Imperial Wharf, a present to herself after selling a small stake in the Consulting Consortium.
Most people who work for big corporates either want to change the way the corporates are run, or they want to hide in them
I ask her about the challenges of running two businesses. She admits that it’s not easy and ultimately not sustainable over the long term, which is why she’s looking at the possibility of acting as group chief executive and recruiting for the day-to-day running of the two individual firms. “Wouldn’t it be quite hard, handing over the reins of something you’ve built?” I ask. “No,” Joanne answers without a moment’s hesitation. “Success is not about one person. It’s about what’s good for the business. As I get older, I realise there are a few people who have a bit more youth and vitality on their side.”
Joanne might be just shy of 50 but she certainly doesn’t look near it, which I put down to her happy disposition as she’s clearly put in long hours building her businesses. “Once you have a good team in place, you can to a degree hand over the reins.” As for the type of people she hires – attitude is everything. “It’s about the energy that someone has; the determination and drive. It’s really important to me to have someone that’s committed to what we’re trying to achieve – that’s far more important than an Oxbridge degree.”
Business, adds Joanne, is all about relationships. “People don’t sell, they build relationships.”
So, how did she go about building relationships? Joanne laughs. “I started by saying hello to 50 people a day…”
WHERE WE ATE
Canto Corvino, Spitalfields, 21 Artillery Lane, London E1 7HA
“Great food and drink”
The food here is excellent, very tasty indeed – surprisingly good… Service was excellent. I would certainly go back again. This may well be the best food in the City.
LADIES WHO DON’T LUNCH is a regular feature in which Maike Currie profiles a woman working in the City. All interviews are conducted at a restaurant table – as an exception, nothing is eaten within the proximity of a PC, with a plastic fork or out of a cardboard box. Maike writes about investments and money matters for Fidelity International, following a career in financial journalism. @MaikeCurrie