An article was doing the rounds on Twitter last week: Don’t let Boris Wooster bugger up Brexit. This is how David Harrison, founder of two multi-million pound financial services firms and former builder, feels about our irrepressible foreign secretary.
“He’s not helping Theresa, is he? A loose cannon who walks on sounding like he’s just had his nose in a Beano. The way he spoke to the French – you wouldn’t run a business like that. Another issue is that he always looks like he’s been in a scrap. We don’t have a dress code, but I always say to people, if you’re meeting a client for the first time and in doubt about what to wear, just get a suit and tie on.”
When he was 33, builder and firm owner David Harrison broke his leg, ending his career in construction. After a stint as a “difficult employee” for others, in 1997, he set up Positive Solutions with colleague Maurice Cotter, an independent financial advice firm. By 2001, it was the largest privately-owned IFA in the country, turning over more than £10m. A year later, it was sold to Aegon for £130m.
Born in Wales, Harrison was adopted by a Country Durham family, and grew up in a mining village. We get on to tin baths quickly. “Yes, I had a tin bath, but everyone did. It was a normal upbringing in a northern village; perhaps I should get a knighthood. And I didn’t sit in the tin bath having all these dreams and ideas – I’ve never had a grand plan. I’ve just stumbled through life trying to make money.”
Rather than retire early, the now 66 year-old went on to set up True Potential, a fintech investment management firm offering advice to the public, workplace pensions to thousands of SMEs and tech services (via its platform) to 20 per cent of all UK financial advisers.
Harrison launched in 2007, just before the crisis. “That was a bit of bad luck. Not many people would choose to do that – let’s drink water and eat dry bread for a few years. But mostly, I have just been lucky. I was lucky to end up in financial services in the eighties, to realise you made money by employing others, in a sector where sales people are paid more than in other sectors. And actually, if times are bad for all and you’re strong and tough enough and can survive without oxygen, you can pop up when everyone else is dead.”
On the current climate, Harrison is more than optimistic. A Leaver, but “not fervent”, he was stranded in London on the day of the referendum, so didn’t manage to vote – “which puts me in a spot, because I think if you don’t vote, you don’t get a say. Ninety-eight per cent of business people in the UK have not been affected by any of the Brexit stuff at all. It’s been highly beneficial for our clients, because our funds shot up as a result of the drop in value of sterling.
“I’m reading a book by (Brexiteer) Daniel Hannan called What Next? How To Get The Best From Brexit. We had him along to a conference we ran for IFAs in 2015. He likened himself to a financial adviser, saying he never felt welcome anywhere. I thought he’d have to leave the stage, but he was so passionate that he won the audience over. I feel pretty positive about the whole thing, and I like Theresa. My wife likes her, which is always a good sign. Although she did like Tony Blair in the early days.”
True Potential recently sold shares to an American private equity firm, which brings Harrison to the fintech label. “They call us a fintech firm. I don’t care, if people are willing to pay, but I do think “fintech” is now a broad church full of bulls***.” The self-made entrepreneur has a lot of admiration for many new firms in his industry, like Nutmeg, for instance, but he’s also keen to shed some bravado.
“First, many of these firms are just latest versions of what’s been around forever. Second, the technology is a means to an end – making things better for clients. Third, the next time I meet someone with a beard and skinny legs who lectures me that they’re not building a business for them but for the greater good, I’ll have to lean over the table and pull their head off. I wouldn’t give them £1 of my money. A lot of people do, but then it’s not their own money – they’ve put nothing in themselves, they’ve got no skin in the game. They build a swanky website and spend someone else’s money until it’s all gone. They’re not even half pregnant.”
Skin in the game
To set up Positive Solutions, Harrison and Cotter remortgaged their own houses. Now, the former lives in one of the largest houses in the North East, next to a fort and Hadrian’s Wall. But getting there has meant big risks. “Even for True Potential we had four new partners and we all put money in. That’s the kind of team you want: when losing that money isn’t the end of your life, but is a huge stumbling block – you’d lose your house.” Harrison applies a similar attitude to the products he offers. “You wouldn’t buy a Ford from a car salesman driving a Merc. I’m a client of my own firm, and that’s important.”
Now, Harrison advises the government on savings policies. “If it was just down to me, I’d scrap pensions. It’s not going to happen any time soon because people already have them and there are so many vested interests. But we need a truly level playing field: one product, the Super Isa. £25,000 limit with no strings attached on how you can spend it. Auto-enrolment has worked for the consumer, but we still have nowhere near enough financial advisers to service the UK public.”
Making a difference
Putting his money where his mouth is, under Harrison, True Potential has invested “the thick end” of £2m to help set up a Centre of Excellence with the Open University to research personal finance and offer free courses. Meanwhile, the Harrison Foundation has donated more than £500,000 to charities across the UK. “It’s very important to me to actually go and see where the money is going, so I do. Living on Hadrian’s Wall, I see a lot of runners going along for charity. That’s great, but if you’re writing the cheque you should know where it’s going. My daughter used to work for a charity where directors were on £80,000. That’s disgraceful.”
With son Daniel working alongside him at True Potential, Harrison has also set up the Harrison Partnership with three of his children, undertaking a multi-million pound renovation of Walwick Hall in Northumberland and turning it into a luxury hotel, which opened its doors last October.
“I’m often asked to do talks, and to be honest it feels bogus. Financial services was easy to get into. I’m not stupid, but I’m not a genius. Others say they had a strategic plan to do x, change the world and make money from it. That’s not been my life. I’ve built businesses because I believe technology can play a part in delivering a product or service at a much cheaper price. That’s all.”