In a new monthly column from the highest reaches of The City, Professor Stefan Allesch-Taylor CBE — Professor of Practice of Entrepreneurship, King’s College London and serial entrepreneur — guides us through the thorny financial issues of the moment.
Over the last few weeks we have seen heavy criticism of former politicians and others leveraging their experience for personal gain. It’s kicked up both some genuine surprises and a great deal of ‘faux outrage’ as the story has gathered momentum
I have seen very few successful scale-up companies that haven’t boasted an impressive advisory board drawn from a broad church of experience. Remuneration for these people tends to be share options in the company. Early investors are more inclined to support a business if the rewards for the, invariably impressive, advisory board members are aligned with their own returns.
Advisory boards give investors and the market confidence concerning the finer points of the venture, to some degree. Much more importantly, these people are appointed for their ‘experience’. That extends to their connections. Advisory boards have been incredibly helpful in guiding companies, including my own, through difficult times and this includes securing tough-to-achieve meetings so cases can be made. That’s how business works and that’s how it should work. People with experience helping new and established businesses avoid pitfalls and making connections at the highest levels.
Much has been made of the myriad of folks involved in the now defunct Greensill Capital. Long before the torchlight hit the spider’s web of interconnected parties, I suspected that this story was going to run. In his defence, former PM David Cameron — who will give evidence to MPS next week — was not a shadowy lobbyist: he was a much-publicised paid advisor to the company. As a Senior Advisor at Greensill, it was his job to advise and to ask people for things. It is the recipient’s job to determine the appropriateness and probity of ‘the ask’.
Frankly, in 30 years of business leadership, and having created a few advisory boards myself populated by ‘the great and the good’, I have never seen or even heard of anyone working as hard for a company as Cameron did for Greensill. The man was everywhere, talking to everyone. If I’d known his energetic work ethic, I would have hired him myself. The late, great Sir Ronald Grierson, a former Lt. Col in the SAS and Vice Chair of the then mighty GEC plc, was so busy people used to joke that he would pass himself mid-Atlantic, flying to and from NYC on Concorde. I think Cameron may have topped this.
However, the Greensill scandal is notable not just for this onion peeling process being played out in public about whose interests may be bridging the public/ private realms. It’s notable too because I suspect, appallingly, that if Greensill had not gone bust no-one would care about the symbiotic roles of its advisors and directors. The impressive advisory board of the on-demand lender Earnd (which included former Labour Cabinet Minister David Blunkett) bought by Greensill in March 2020, presumably didn’t care. Indeed, former City Minister, Paul Myners, had been demanding an enquiry about the number of meetings Greensill was having with the Government in 2019 and nobody cared either.
"If Greensill had not gone bust no-one would care about the symbiotic roles of its advisors and directors..."
Sadly, Greensill did what many banks have done over the years and took a good thing and abused it. In this instance: the lawfulness of people formerly in public service with terrific experience being able to work for companies. If that seems unkind, remember that there was nothing wrong with securitisation, either, until the industry wide abuse of it caused catastrophic damage to financial markets, saved only by government(s) intervention in 2008.
My own experiences of working with professionals who had careers in public service were invaluable in educating me as to the reality of business life: the lawyers who guided us to achieve regulation who once worked for the Financial Conduct Authority; the former politicians who advised us how to speak the language of ‘Government’, as weird as that may sound. It’s a long list of meaningful help and it spans 30 years.
Sadly, the fallout from Greensill may put off good people equipped with deep experience in the inner workings of government and other closed environments (like the NHS) getting involved in many start-ups and scales-ups that really need them. This type of scandal creates a pervasive fear in many of the very people we need to engage in business that maybe it’s just not worth it for them. That would be a terrible loss and diminish the chances of success of many start-ups. One in ten start-ups succeed, and only one in ten of those scale.
"We need more understanding between business, regulators, Government and the public, not less..."
I just hope that the aftershocks of the Greensill affair don’t deter people from bridging the public and private divide. We need more understanding between business, regulators, Government and the public, not less. In the meantime, I am sure David Cameron has never been so happy as the day his long running front page domination was eclipsed by a Johnson piece of eccentricity. This time over soft furnishings and wallpaper…