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Richard Brown

Whatever happened to Thatcher&#39s children? They left the 1980s&#39 Porsche behind and tried to run a building society instead.

Richard Brown, Bristol & West general manager for intermediaries and direct business, is remarkably likeable despite the fact that, at 34, he has already been a company director, written off a Porsche, has more than 400 staff and proudly lets you in on all his many achievements.

He is likeable because he is also proud of his disasters, which are many. The Porsche – "It was red, I&#39m afraid" – blew up after he tried racing against another Porsche just off the M25. He bought his first shares – "I didn&#39t think you could go wrong on penny shares" – in August 1987 and he mortgaged himself to the hilt – "There&#39s never a bad time to buy property" – in March 1988.

A Ripon Grammar school boy, he went on to study economics at York University, only to find to his horror that an accommodation grant was not forthcoming because he was a local. Faced with years of living with mum while his mates were shacked up at college, he hurriedly applied to Bath.

He lives in Bath today. Nearly all his post-university jobs have been not far from Bath and he still loves the city.

His first job after university was MetalBox&#39s information technology department in Worcester. He says: "The choice at university seemed to be between chartered accountancy and computer programming. Computing seemed to be the lesser of two evils but it was horrendous. It was a nine-to-five deskbound job with no prospects and I left after seven months."

Brown&#39s next move was to Gloucester, where he joined software firm Sherwood and made his first contact with the world of financial services. He says: "Peps had just been invented and we were creating systems that were compliant with the new legislation. We had to rip it up and start again and again as the rules were changed."

Sherwood soon spotted that Brown the programmer would do much better as Brown the salesman and he swiftly moved up through sales support and sales management.

Sherwood was not the only company to spot Brown&#39s sales skills. Slim Systems, a mortgage systems specialist, offered him a directorship to join the company and sell its systems to the major lenders.

At the age of 26, less than five years after leaving college, Brown had become a company director with all the trappings and he confesses that he lived and loved the classic yuppie lifestyle.

Slim Systems boomed after it signed a deal with Siemens Nixdorf to market its mortgage system under the Siemens label. Suddenly the doors opened up at big lending institutions around the country.

He says: "I was charging around the country selling these systems. Siemens were putting huge amounts of money into it to establish themselves in the UK and we did very well out of it. I&#39m not so sure if Siemens did, though."

But with his wife now pregnant, Brown decided that his days shooting round the country in a Porsche were numbered. Yearning for the West Country, in February 1992, he applied to Bristol & West to be a systems business analyst.

The society was suffering its darkest days. In September 1992, it suff ered an unsolicited credit downgrade and was beginning to creak under a mounting arrears&#39 problem.

"I joined at about the worst time and it has been getting better ever since I arrived. Of course, that&#39s purely coincidental," he says, only half meaning it.

After 18 months in systems, Brown moved to operations, which covers all Bristol & West&#39s customer front-line activities, including the branch network and relations with intermediaries.

He began with expanding Bristol & West&#39s dealings with professionals such as solicitors and stockbrokers. "It is now five times bigger than three years ago," he enthuses. He worked on the Guernsey postal account. "Sainsbury&#39s goes on about how it took £900m into its account. We are taking £350m a month."

Brown is not shy about rubbishing the competition. Cheltenham & Gloucester used to be the low-cost, super-efficient standard bearer, he says. Now it is part of Lloyds, it has increased rates to cash in on the stronger distribution. "We can now easily compete against anybody on rate," he says.

The enthusiasm goes on and on, perhaps explaining why, in a book on Britain&#39s best 100 employers, Brown was picked out as the sort of fast-track material that well-run companies rapidly push into positions of responsibility.

He even believes that Bristol &West, now under Bank of Ireland ownership, will be in the top five of all lenders, including the banks, in the next five years.

Expansion will be on all fronts, with all existing sales channels and brands kept open. "It is not going to be one big homogeneous operation like Nationwide," he insists.

The CMS centralised lending operation in Solihull, dealing with the UK&#39s 25 biggest mortgage brokers, will remain. IMC, the broker direct operation in Bristol, will continue to deal with smaller IFAs while Bank of Ireland Mortgages in Reading will develop into a specialist niche lender although it will not withdraw from offering mainstream products.

Two other expansion options are also being closely considered – the future of the tie with Eagle Star and the possibility of further society acquisitions by Bank of Ireland.

On the Eagle Star link, he says: "We need to have the ability to design our own investment and life products. We might still outsource but we want to have our own brand and more control.

"Should we set up our own life company, buy a company or keep the tie? We are looking at all these in a project that is already a long way down the line."

He is also candid about acquisitions, saying that he has his eyes on four building societies with assets of more than £2bn, but admits it is a sellers market.

Will Brown achieve all these objectives? He has swopped the Porsche for an Audi Estate but gives the impression that he is speeding through his career with the foot hard on the accelerator.

The sales side of the financial services industry is littered with thirtysomething blow- outs but one gets the impression that Brown will just about swing it when he hits a sharp bend.


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