I remember talking about Ian before I even knew he existed. Sharing a plastic beaker of snakebite in a student bar with my roommates we hypothesised about a “successful and moral” businessman that made profits and split them in favour of charitable work. Ian’s more rugged and far younger than the corporate philanthropist we’d imagined but he’s a pretty close embodiment of the idea. At 41 years of age he’s a solid bulk of British pride with a Scouse accent, a firm handshake and an impressive CV that includes raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity. It’s easy to imagine him in boardrooms motivating colleagues and clients with a bulldog charm that could be intimidating if crossed.
Riots to riches
Hailing from a middle-class family in Formby, just outside Liverpool, his story is not one of rags to riches, although his first placement was a baptism of fire.
“I joined National Westminster Bank, and my first role was at the Prince’s Road branch in Toxteth, Liverpool, the scene of the 1981 riots. It was the only branch in the UK that had automatic riot shutters. My first FX transactions were with ladies of the night who received foreign currencies from the dock’s visitors. I had to deal with their disappointment when they realised one million lire wasn’t as much as they had thought when converted to sterling!”
He was quickly transferred to the London head office. “It was here that I began to understand that I didn’t like banking.” Looking for a role in trading, Ian moved to the Guardian Royal Exchange Group (now Guardian Financial Services) where he was fortunate enough to work for investment manager Tom O’Connell. “Tom was a 23-stone beast of a man who has the mannerisms of a silverback gorilla, although I believe he is now very slim. I was his execution trader and at the time Guardian was responsible for some of the largest positions around. But I was crap; an appallingly bad trader.”
That was proved when he failed to quietly wind down a position GRE held for “five-times-a-night” Sir Ralph Halpern, the then chief executive of the Burton Group. Sir Ralph got the moniker after his one-time teenage lover helpfully enumerated their encounters to the tabloids, and aged 61 he fathered a baby with his former secretary. “We had a large position and we’d started to wind down that position prior to the scandal but Tom took a phone call from the press when the story broke asking him if he supported Sir Ralph. He said ‘Yes’ and then told me to ensure the wind down was done very, very quietly. I failed in my task and we ended up on the back page of the FT the following day in a story that said although publicly Mr O’Connell supports Sir Ralph, his traders have been reducing the position.”
During this time Ian, aged 24, continued his professional education, getting certified in fund and asset management. He then moved to Thomson and started selling its investment management software. In less than a year he’d won the company’s global sale award and in 1996, aged 25, he became European sales director. By 1997 he had a 19-strong team and had grown the business by 642 per cent.
“I had already realised that my particular skill set was the ability to attract the very best people to work with me.”
High courts and walk outs
When David Stoner, a bigwig at SS&C, tried to get Ian to switch companies, Ian replied: “I don’t think I’ll be able to perform in the European market against a team I’ve built.”
“Bring them with you then,” came Stoner’s response.
That sentence sparked an unprecedented high court action that saw Thomson file a writ against Ian and SS&C to enforce a non-compete clause. “It was a horrific experience. The reality was managing and reassuring 19 individuals plus dealing with an ex-employer who didn’t like us. Eventually Thomson overplayed their hand in the High Court and the team moved over to SS&C. That was the first time I was an officer of a publicly traded company.” He was still under 30.
After several years at SS&C “living in London, going out until 4am, adapting to quarterly earnings and sitting on a board,” Stoner asked Ian to run the European side of his energy training consultancy and software company, Caminus Corp. “We took it to Nasdaq in ’99 and we sold it four years later to SunGard for US$160 million.”
After a brief stint in Cannes on the French Côte d’Azur, SunGard asked Ian to take a role in Singapore. “My son was eight weeks from being born and my wife was very keen to investigate the opportunity. So we came over to Asia in 2003. I was MD of Asia-Pacific and in those days we were a business of around 200 employees. SunGard was then acquired by a private equity firm and we went from being the backwater of SunGard to the primary focus of their board. I left in October 2007 and we were just over 3,000 employees by that stage.”
So why did he leave? There’s no simple reason; it was a combination of factors that included wanting to do more for the charities he was involved in. The final push came when he attended the SunGard annual planning meeting in New York and “just couldn’t get enthusiastic about the year ahead.
“All I had ever wanted to do was be the CEO of a multi-national corporation and at that point I was pretty much in that position. I had all the responsibilities of running a multi-thousand-employee business. But over the years I’d built up an expectation of what that role would be like and when I got to that level I didn’t feel the way I expected to feel. Part of that can probably be attributed to the fact that I’d already experienced the wealth of a role at that level.”
The new direction
“I was nervous about leaving SunGard because I went from a substantial monthly salary to having to give more consideration to finances. In the last four years I have often woken up in the middle of the night and thought ‘What the F am I doing?’ But I continued with some consultancy work, and for the first twelve months I struggled to see it as anything but the right decision.”
Ian now runs several businesses but is most often associated with the Vanda Boxing Club and its white collar boxing events. Over the last four years, the black-tie bouts have raised over S$1.5 million for the Children’s Surgical Centre in Cambodia. Another of his businesses, The Vanda Sports Group, helps corporations to value their sponsorship assets. “The vast majority of pricing around sponsorship is generated through emotion. Businesses can’t market test the price or have any real monetary understanding of what the return is. Using my background in software, we built a model to assess sponsorship packages. It’s based on a value-at-risk model used in the trading environment.”
But his priorities in life are “family, friends and Everton FC.” [Lucky my partner’s a blue, otherwise this interview would have been jeopardised – Ed.] It’s certainly unusual to see a CEO take a phone call from his wife in a meeting because “she’s rung twice in quick succession so it could be important”. He says, “It’s hard to have any regrets in business when I get to drop my kid off every day at school. I take Conor to football every Wednesday afternoon, I read my children their bedtime stories each night and most evenings Sandy [his wife] and I have dinner together and then discuss the various businesses. I’ve never missed a parents’ evening and I’m sure I could be a better daddy at times but its very difficult to feel bad about my career decisions when I’ve got these aspects in my life.”
At the same time, he recognises that he’s happiest when working in a business environment. “I review the cash flow, debtors and other financials of all the businesses daily and I am never far from the business plan for the year so that I can review and develop it.” There must also be a charity angle to the work too, and all of his businesses place CSR as a key focus.
It’s hard not to remark on the similarities between Dog Breed Info Center’s guide to a bulldog and Ian’s personality. “Very affectionate and dependable, gentle with children, but known for courage and excellent guarding abilities. Also bullheaded and determined, this breed can be very persistent.” Having achieved so much, including competing in Sahara and North Pole races, it’s easy to forget that Ian’s only 41. But behind the enthusiasm, confidence and affability there’s a dogged determination that’s unlikely to be abated any time soon.
Ian’s tips for success as an entrepreneur
• Be very disciplined
• Have an inquisitive nature and be prepared to learn new skills
• Be prepared to live with uncertainty
• Invest in your people, this includes their welfare and motivation too
• Know that the entire feel, pace and tone of the organisation is going to come from your management of the team
“In Singapore, expat wives usually get involved in charity projects and fund-raising events, but guys can do more too. I’m not asking you to write cheques; it’s your time that’s more valuable. There are many organisations here that would love to benefit from your expertise, be that in business or sport coaching. It’s also good for networking. Everybody round the table at a recent meeting I went to was a CEO. It’s thanks to taking part in these charity projects that I have a Rolodex full of Singaporean business leaders.”