Sam Smith is the CEO and founder of finnCap, the largest broker and adviser on the AIM* market for over 120 companies.
We trade in all UK equities on behalf of our fund management clients and act as a market maker (set prices in companies) to 150 small company stocks. We are one of the few broking firms that have remained profitable throughout the downturn, without having to cut service levels, something that we are very proud of. We now have over 70 staff and have been the fastest growing small cap broker since our MBO (Management Buy-Out) seven years ago.
It all started 17 years ago when I left KPMG as a newly qualified accountant. I joined JMFinn to set up a corporate finance function after realising big companies were really not for me. I steadily grew the division with a small number of people for the next 10 years – always remaining profitable, keeping very tight control of our cost base, but always offering the highest possible level of service. We won all our business through word of mouth referrals, delivering a great service and being able to raise money for high potential companies.
As a management team, we realised our service levels were winning us a major market share in a competitive market and that we had to make a decision, whether to continue as we were with a small number of individuals as a division of a larger firm, or grow the business for ourselves and invest our profits. We took the decision to grow; this meant we wanted to own our own business so we negotiated with JMFinn to buy out the business. We completed the MBO in 2007, which was when my role changed from being head of a division to CEO of the business as a separate entity; at this point I had 28 clients and 28 staff.
We believed we could do something different in the small companies space by really focussing on our service provision, and in particular, in the aftermarket once a company had raised money. So, that’s exactly what we did. Having our own independence and 95% share ownership by the staff helped us to drive the business forward in a very small market in an economic downturn.
As the only female CEO of a broking firm, in what is a very male dominated industry, I often get asked about the barriers that I have faced being female in the city and in this role. I have to say very few of the issues I have faced to this point, have been related to being female. In fact there are a number of plus points to being one of the few females in such a male dominated world.
My learning points from my career so far have been:
- Supportive managers and mentors – I have been very lucky as I always had managers and mentors who have been very supportive of women. I had a very supportive manager and a very supportive Chairman post MBO – John Finn and Jon Moulton (Jon recruited the first female dealer in the city some 30 years ago).
- ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’ – The right culture is crucial to ensuring women feel that they can progress in a firm. This is something that we try very hard to do at finnCap; we now have 25% women in the firm.
- Value of role models – To get to board level involves politics and difficult people. Having good role models is a key factor here, as well as the determination and resilience to resolve issues. One thing that I found difficult was having a peer group of CEO’s who were all male. But through experience and time I learnt that I did not have to follow suit with the male CEO’s; that I could be different and run things the way I wanted. I am very passionate about other young girls wanting to come into business and in particular, into the city, as well as having role models that can help them believe they can progress and do things differently. After all, I did it, so anyone else can too.
* (AIM – Alternative Investment Market which is part of the London Stock Exchange market for smaller, growing companies)