Eight years ago, Steve Jones, chief executive of N4 Solutions, had an experience that made him think twice about what he was doing with his life.
Jones was a passenger on one of the trains involved in the Paddington train crash in 1999. Luckily, he managed to pull himself out of a smashed window on to the tracks and escaped serious injury, but 33 people were killed in the disaster.
He says: “In these situations your survival instinct kicks in. I managed to pull my whole body out through that hole and drop onto the tracks. But as soon as I was out I felt guilty because the train was an absolute inferno.”
But Jones was not about to let the experience ruin his life. “When things like that happen you have two ways to go – you can either wallow in it or you can turn it into something positive,” he says. “I made a decision to become a campaigner, in inverted commas, to treat it as a positive experience and try to make some positive contributions in other ways.”
Soon after the crash Jones noticed a quote on a reception wall that read: “Achievement is enjoying doing your best.” He realised that, while he was making plenty of money, he was not actually enjoying himself and was not doing his best in a wider sense.
So in 2001 Jones set up N4 Solutions, a technology platform for the distribution and fulfilment of financial services products in mortgages, insurance and financial planning.
His aim was to deliver quality products and surround himself with intelligent professionals who shared this vision. He also wanted to create a fulfilling and enjoyable working culture – a goal he has achieved if the National Business Awards are anything to go by as N4 Solutions won the gong last year for Best Place to Work.
The company’s 64 staff exercise together at lunch and will soon have their own allotment to tend. N4 Solutions is carbon-neutral and recycles everything.
“I decided I would build something that had all the ethics and principles that I had in my head and recruit people who thought the same way. The idea was to put together my experience in financial services and distribution and their technology expertise and actually build some quality products. The first couple of years were about investment, about building products, building a team and creating a culture. We really focused on how we did business.”
Jones claims that technology companies are not renowned for delivering what they say they will. “Many technology companies accept that things will always go wrong and channel their energy into convincing the client that it is their fault instead of actually just delivering the product.
“The way I look at it there is only success or failure and there is not a great deal of ground in the middle. The biggest thing for me was building a group of people who believe that. We wanted people who are as focused on success and delivering something as they are about making money because I think that one follows the other.”
After his parents quelled his dreams of becoming an actor at 16, Jones embarked on a career in financial services, working for companies such as Legal & General, Lloyds TSB and Bristol and West.
At the time of the train crash Jones was working at The Mercantile Group, a company concentrating on technology distribution, and it was here that he realised technology was what he wanted to focus on.
“Technology was becoming a major part of distribution. I got into the whole thing about joined up distribution and removing the aggro for advisers and removing the aggro for customers. The industry has not made it very easy for people to buy things but consumers actually want to buy things and technology should have a role to play.
“The guy who wins the grand prix championship tends to be the one with the new car. If you want to buy the really safe car that has been around for five or six years it will probably not win you the championship.”
This year N4 Solutions plans to consolidate its position in the mortgage industry by launching new products to help lenders, brokers and consumers get things done more efficiently. Currently there is a facility for lenders to process property valuations online. N4 Solutions will make this facility available to consumers.
The company is also launching a program for buy-to-let investors which will allow them to historically value their portfolios, look at what properties have been successful for them in terms of rental yields and capital appreciation and generally keep all their property information in one, easily accessible and organised spot. This will be created in partnership with lenders, so if the investor finds a property they would like to add to their portfolio, the buying process is extremely slick and straightforward.
Jones has clearly achieved many of the goals he set himself after deciding to establish N4 Solutions. The Paddington disaster, however, made him realise that life was not all about business and money.
This summer he will compete in the Polar Challenge, a 350-mile race to the North Pole, to raise £100,000 for the Capital Campaign, an initiative to redevelop the National Star College for disabled young people with learning disabilities.
Jones has been training for a year for the race, which will take 11-15 days to complete. “I can be seen dragging tires around my local park. If you drag tires around a park you attract a lot of attention, particularly from dogs,” he says, adding that working with the college has been a real challenge.” It is an incredibly inspirational place which gets you out of your comfort zone. From a developmental point of view I have probably learnt more there than I have doing anything else for the past five to ten years.”
Born: Gloucester, 1961
Career history: 2001 to present, chief executive, N4 Solutions; 1996-01, founder and MD, Mercator Group; 1993-96, client solutions director, Marlborough Stirling Group (Now Vertex); 1990-93, group sales development manager, Bristol & West; 1987-90, regional director, Black Horse; 1983-86, IFA, A Plan Insurance Group; 1982-83, life inspector, Legal & General; 1980-82, client services, Trident Life Assurance; 1977-80 trainee insurance broker, Morgan Presdee Gloucester
Likes: Eating fresh simple food at his Spanish hideaway. Watching his sons learn about life. Spending time with passionate people
Dislikes: Political animals, meat, cooked cheese, smoking and reality TV
Drives: Bentley GT Continental
Favourite film: Notting Hill
Favourite book: Karluk: Great untold story of Arctic exploration by William Laird McKinlay
Favourite band: Beautiful South
Heroes: Fridtjof Nansen – Arctic explorer and humanitarian
Career ambition: To always have choices in life. To write a book – the adult’s Adrian Mole
If I wasn’t doing what I do, I would be… An actor or professional explorer
Best piece of advice I’ve received: “There is no such thing as a good year, just a whole lot of good days”