In the first of a series looking at the importance of business relationships, BQ Yorkshire editor Mike Hughes meets former Seabrook Crisps owner Ken Brook-Chrispin and his tax advisor, Neil Sengupta, tax partner at Grant Thornton.
There are several key things a Yorkshire businessman would look for when appointing a professional advisor. Top of the list will be trust – that, as well as being equipped with the relevant specialist and technical knowhow that you need, your advisor acts with integrity, strives to understand you and your business and has your best interest at heart.
As well as all of the above, Ken Brook-Chrispin, former owner of Seabrook Crisps, also values “character” in the people he deals with and has stayed loyal to those who look after him at Grant Thornton - from the time when he owned the high-profile brand to his position today as the head of his family, looking to safeguard and grow the Brook-Chrispin nest-egg following his well reported sale of the company to LDC, the private equity arm of Lloyds Banking Group.
“I used to be in the habit of running a ‘beauty parade’ of advisors every three years and my relationship with, and introduction to, Grant Thornton started following their winning that process back in 2008. Since then Neil and his colleagues became an integral part of my team to the extent that I subsequently found I had absolutely no intention of running another beauty parade. During that time, as well as my trusted tax advisor, Neil has become one of my best friends too.
“What’s important for me is not just having excellent financial or legal skills, but having someone who will encourage me, who will challenge me and who will bring me their experience of working with other entrepreneurs and their businesses. I need someone who is proactive and won’t just say “here are five options – what would you like to do”. I want someone who is willing to recommend a course of action themselves, even if I decide against it. What people in my situation need is for someone to put themselves in my shoes and tell me “if this was my money and my business, this is what I would do”.
“I want to hear the downsides as well as the upsides and, as much as I can, I will listen to that advice and where appropriate I will temper it with other people’s views. I am a free thinker, skipping from one idea to another, so I need people to tell me if, in their view, I might be going down the wrong route.”
But that doesn’t seem to have happened very often for Ken – there is an instinct and a drive that have served him very well over the years, highlighted by his time at the head of Seabrook Crisps. “On taking over Seabrook, I brought in a new MD and handled some union issues affecting the sector. At that time Tony Blair and Jamie Oliver were on the attack over crisps in schools and we went from a turnover of £16m on the Friday to £11m on the Monday. What was most annoying was that we had been using sunflower oil for 25 years, which made us the healthiest crisp!
“But I still saw the latent potential in the business, and I went to the banks who gave me the money I needed to buy it. In my view, the company just hadn’t achieved what it was capable of and I saw an opportunity to grow it to a stage where it would at least provide a nest-egg for my family.
“Bringing in a great management team and surrounding myself with a great professional advisory team certainly helped me achieve my vision, and the advice from Neil and his colleagues was a very important part of that.”
From Grant Thornton’s point of view the relationship blossomed very soon after their appointment. “Grant Thornton’s heritage is all about working with dynamic and entrepreneurial businesses” said Neil, who had joined us for lunch in a private room at Quebecs in Leeds city centre.
“The prospect of working with Ken and Seabrook really excited us and was one that the whole office wanted to be associated with. It was important that we assembled the right team to look after Ken’s needs and that we got to know him and understand his plans and ambitions. We certainly feel that we’ve lived and breathed the journey with Ken, and we are thrilled that he has realised what he set out to achieve.
First and foremost Ken was – and is – a client, so there is that line in the sand that we will always acknowledge but from an advisor’s point of view, if you can work with and advise someone you happen to get on really well with, and whose personal company you genuinely enjoy, then so much the better!”
“I don’t think any business in Yorkshire has a crystal ball, the art in it all is to mitigate risk,” added Ken, a chartered surveyor and developer before he took on Seabrook.
“No matter how good something looks on paper, you still need the people around you to cross the ‘t’s, dot the ‘i’s and mitigate those risks. Now I am busier than I ever was and still need the guidance I have benefited from in the past. My daughter Sam and myself have always been free thinkers and problem-solvers. We are currently working on a number of exciting projects and ideas including one on bottle top technology that we have progressed quite far and on the food side, amongst other projects, we’ve invented a groundbreaking flavouring adhesive.”
“So part of the deal when I exited Seabrook was to make sure some of our ideas went with us and that we were allowed to compete freely in the market”. Such ground-breaking innovations and sharp thinking prove there has been no let-up in the family’s entrepreneurial drive and, if anything, Grant Thornton may be kept even busier with Ken’s new ambitions.
Neil commented “When Ken sold Seabrook we set up a Family Investment Company structure to efficiently manage the family wealth, protect the future Brook-Chrispin generations but also to give Ken a flexible platform from which to make whatever type of investments he wants and whatever types of business ventures he wants to explore in the future.”
“We are ready to go whenever he is with his latest business projects in terms of structuring them to suit him and his family’s needs.”
Ken is clear that his new ventures will involve the licensing of products rather than the actual manufacturing of them. He explains: “Licensing would be my preferred model now because I am 66 years old and I want to enjoy life – play more golf, more tennis and go on more holidays, but at the same time create value from my intellectual property and grow it so that it becomes a business commodity.”
“But I would be bored out of my brain if it was all just yachts and holidays - I just can’t stop thinking about the next opportunity and will tap into Grant Thornton’s experience for each one because I know they will protect me from a lot of things.”
His daughters Charlotte and Sam have obviously inherited the Brook-Chrispin entrepreneurial genes, but face a unique ‘checking process’ before dad will release any funds from the Family Investment Company to invest in any of their plans.
“For any ideas they have, they must create a business plan, take it to the banks and get funding offers from those banks. If they are successful then they can be assured that the Family Investment Company will make the investment,” explained Ken. “Of course, if I think it’s a great idea and the banks simply don’t get it, then I can always make that decision.”
With that sort of entrepreneurial drive in the family, it is clear that the Brook-Chrispin name is more active than ever on the Yorkshire business scene and will be a huge influence on its future – which is good news for the working relationship with Grant Thornton and a good omen for Ken and Neil’s firm friendship.
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