'Have fun, make money, respect people'

'Have fun, make money, respect people'

In 1995, Colin Lawson branched out from his job to become an entrepreneur. We chart his growth from Applewood Financial into Equilibrium Asset Management, through his experience of breaking the business to make it better, to a person with a work-life balance he fights for.

"I was a broker consultant," Colin says, as I ask him to take me back to his beginnings in the industry, "and I saw a lot of businesses of different shapes of sizes, mostly being very successful. But I also saw a lot of things I thought they could do better – and I was young enough, and arrogant enough, to think I could do better myself!"

That’s probably a disservice, considering what Colin has achieved in his career to date. Closing in on seventy staff, the financial planning specialist now looks after more than 850 families and manages over £595 million worth of assets. 

But back then, it was just him, and he found his feet working from home, by himself, largely dealing with people late into the evening.

"Whilst it was successful, and making money, I sat down after the first two years and thought ‘I’m working twice as hard and making the same money, and I definitely don’t want to be doing this for the next 20 years!"

"I wanted to build a business, and my definition of that is something that can stand on its own two feet and still provide you with an income if you aren’t working in it any more.

"And so that’s what we set about building; we went after the retired investment market, to fit in with where we thought the opportunity was."

Being an employee definitely didn’t suit Colin. It didn’t suit his drive, his personality, or his ability to think creatively to solve problems and make improvements.

"The problems I was having in the corporate world as an employee, was that I knew I could do things better and do things differently – but you’re in this immovable structure, and that’s incredibly frustrating," Colin says, and it quickly becomes clear that the business he has built really operates very differently from those he’d experienced.

"I’m rubbish at recruiting – I am a salesman, so I spend more time promoting the business than I do interviewing the candidate!" And recognising that the whole ‘people’ aspect is a personal weakness has become a strength of Equilibrium in the longer term.

"Somebody told me to write down everything you do in a day, then rank them as to how much you enjoy them and how good you are at them. If you have something that you hate doing, and you’re incompetent at, there’s your first hire!"

Applewood grew, Colin took on some partners in the firm, and the growth trajectory was healthy – but on the horizon, there was a real need to change some fundamentals about the way the firm operated to make it healthy for the longer term.

"We made a major change. We moved to a fee structure, abandoning commission. We introduced discretionary fund management. We changed our name. And we removed a partner who didn’t fit with our longer term plans.

"We decided to make the changes across the board and just run with it – and it nearly killed us. We were left with a big gap to fill. Turnover dropped dramatically; we were lossmaking that year.

"By the time we got to the other end, two years later, it was great… but that change left lots of holes that hadn’t been filled. Holes in processes, in getting the team right. We’d neglected the infrastructure.

"And we had some hard conversations about downsizing the business, whether it would be easier, and we’d have happier lives, if we reduced the number of clients – I even wondered if I should leave, and go back to working from home!

The Equilibrium team brought in a coach; someone with an external perspective, to take a good look at the business and help them to make an informed decision about their future. After three months, they decided to stick it out.

 "It probably took about two years again, to fix it all, and think we could run forward and really grow the business as fast as we can."

"It transformed the business. Sometimes you have to break things as you go along and fix them later, you’ve just got to be prepared for it."

"You don’t have to have a ‘culture policy’ – what you do, day to day, how you interact with the staff becomes the policy. Once you start to get bigger it becomes more difficult. You have to communicate," he says, pointing out that different departments all get really isolated views of how the business is done. And their culture is so simple, it’s represented in just six words.

"Have fun, make money, respect people."

"Have fun – we all spend far too much time at work and we want people to enjoy it. You’ll have bad days and bad moments, but you can progress and you get rewarded.

"Make money – for the clients, for the business and for yourself.

"Respect people – sounds obvious, but difficult to always be respectful of the whole team, the clients, the people we work with."

And when we talk about whether the Cheshire firm has ever considered branching outside of its geographical boundaries, it’s something that has been lamented by Colin and his team many times over.

"Part of the strength of this business is the culture within it; the way the team works as a whole. To maintain culture, the key people who reinforce that message have to be there. If they’re not, it’s easy for things to drift, and we felt that going into new areas represented a danger to that culture.

"Having said that," he swiftly adds, "we do have a plan for expansion to five locations and we know what that looks like. So whilst the culture thing is a stumbling block, it’s not necessarily insurmountable…"

Colin’s voice becomes that of a conflicted entrepreneur; he values his work-life balance, but he is aware that his feet might well become itchy too.

 "I work four days a week, I work 9-5," he says, and I know his is the voice of a man many will envy. But that doesn’t happen by accident, that happens absolutely by design; a Friday can be his overflow, if it’s essential. Sometimes he doesn’t come in to work, he comes in to talk to his team and make sure he understands what’s happening in their lives too.

That they’re having fun, making money, and respecting people – just like him.