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Coming into the fold

Bella Hopewell is a managing partner with C. Hoare & Co.

Many younger generation members find themselves in the position of a predestined future in the family business. This personal experience argues that work experience outside the family business is good preparation

Family business literature is full of case studies and theories relating to the transfer of a business to the next generation. The solutions vary from 'leave it to all of them equally' to 'just one of them' via any number of variants of 'just to those that deserve it'. There are nearly as many solutions as there are family businesses, however it is usually the older generation who decides how best to dispose of their key asset.

Less has been written from the point of view of the younger generation – what makes them want to be involved and how they know when they are ready? I have no idea if my experience has been typical but there are some interesting lessons to learn. It is important, however, to distinguish between the bald facts of what I did and the personal motivation behind them.

Looking back it appears to have been a clear progression from a university degree in economics to a couple of years in the city then some variety from working abroad (in financial services) to joining the family bank at the age of 31. Of course at the time it felt nothing like that.

As I grew up I was always aware of the bank – it was after all where my father spent his working week. His pride in the business and its history was always clear although he was scrupulous about not pushing me into it. I am sure he was never offered the slightest choice of what his career path would be and wanted to ensure my brothers and I were able to grow up without a predestined future.

I was not a good student at school and did no more than the bare minimum to keep out of trouble. Unfortunately my judgement at that time was even worse than my work ethic and my A level results were frankly appalling. This necessitated both a retake of one exam and new applications to a different set of institutions. Having secured a place to read economics at City Polytechnic (now part of the Metropolitan University) I organised a trip to France for six months to learn French. I'm sure that all my parents had in mind was at best the semi-productive use of time and to keep me out of trouble. But the effect of those months is still with me today and I discovered a rationale for a personal work ethic that has driven me ever since.

I realised that, like me, the other English girls sent to this school (a finishing school in all but name) were filling in time and being kept out of trouble. It has to be said that many of them appeared extremely dim and my 'Road to Damascus' moment came when I realised that unless I started making the most of myself I would be classed as their equal, which to my teenage self was unbearable. I started really trying and found that I rather enjoyed succeeding!

My direct experience of the bank had been fairly limited. I had become a customer at the age of 17 and suffered the endless comments on the fact that the name on the chequebook was the same as mine. During my time at university I had a couple of summer jobs working on particular, extremely boring projects at the bank. At no stage in my mind was this preparation for coming to work there properly and I was never aware of being assessed by the partners or the employees – although this was undoubtedly what was happening.

I started my working life knowing I did not want to work in the family business. It is hard to understand why I was so adamant about this but a large part of me did not want to be seen trading on who I was. I wanted to succeed independently of my family and background. Going to work for Cazenove was not a very good place to achieve this, as the cross-overs between the worlds of the two partnerships meant that everyone knew who I was and where they expected me to end up working.

During this time I fell in love with a Englishman who was working in Moscow. After a certain amount of dithering I gave up my good job at Cazenove and joined him in Moscow. I worked hard to learn the language and by the end of 1994 was at a stage where I needed a job. Boris' advice was to break into stockbroking, which was in its initial stages following the voucher auctions in the autumn of that year. He also advised not to work in the front office as I would be a lousy salesman but to work in the back office where it was all about creating an organised working environment.

I took his advice and it worked out very well. I joined a small start up brokerage called Brunswick set up by a small group of individuals to exploit the opportunities in the new equities market. I was the second person in their back office and remained the number two for the period I was there. This could be seen as no real progress but being the second of two is rather different from being the second in a department of 35.

As a result of the phenomenal growth in the Russian equity market the firm went into a joint venture in 1997 with SBC Warburg (which became UBS). This was highly instructive in showing me the enormous difference between working in an owner-managed business and what it is like to be part of large global organisation.

In the global organisation you have to choose between two kinds of roles. One involves actually doing business, ie talking to customers or solving operational problems, but this comes with the downside of having to comply with the strategy imposed from on high. The other role is running a business. This is about making people do what is required of them and where success come to those who best manage the internal politics. Strategic thinking is only allowed once you have achieved several levels of success and by this time it is so long since you actually spoke to a customer that you are almost divorced from the reality of the business. I admit that I am a detail person, and would waste away if I was never allowed hands-on involvement. However I also dislike being told what to do and enjoy the challenge of thinking at a strategic level.

At the beginning of 1999 my job at UBS Brunswick came to an end, following the emerging markets crash in 1998. The discussions I had had recently with my cousins about joining the bank were extremely timely.

There are now two very distinct parts to the satisfaction I achieve from what I do. The first is that I am able to be hands-on involved in day-to-day matters while still being responsible for the long term strategic success of the business. This is probably more a function of the scale of the business, rather than the fact that it is family-owned. The second is the feeling that I am positively contributing to the continuation of a successful organisation. The bank would not be the same to either its customers or its staff were it not for the continuing involvement and ownership of the family.

In retrospect both of my jobs were excellent preparation in different ways for my role at the bank. I think this is only the case because I never considered any of my previous jobs as stepping stones for a career in the family business, but as a career in themselves. Knowing my own character, even the slightest sense of eventual entitlement to the job I have today would have debarred me from ever being ready for it.

I don't know what advice I can give to anyone else facing this momentous decision. You could view it as a similar decision to marry. The more you know of the outside world and the more you know about yourself the better able you are to both make the decision and a valuable contribution having done so.  

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