An Interview with ... Sam Smith, CEO of finnCap
Sam Smith, founder and chief executive of the corporate advisor and brokerage firm FinnCap, shares her perspectives on her career, being a working mother and workplace culture in the City.
Q: You’re CEO of a fast-growing City stockbroking firm. What’s your work-life balance like?
A: I definitely haven’t cracked this question of work-life balance! Looking back over the past 5 years since becoming a working parent, I would honestly say that I haven’t successfully achieved a ‘balance’. It’s more of a constant ‘work in progress’. For me, if I have balance for 2/3rds of the time, then that’s great.
I’ve tried different approaches to managing my home and work life – late starts, early finishes. I’ve settled on the one thing that works for me: getting to the office early 4 days a week and working from home every Friday. I may be on calls from home that day, but I never go into the office for meetings.
Q: What are you proudest of in your career so far?
A: Making my vision of building something different in the small client advisory space a reality. At age 23, I was appointed to set up the corporate finance function for JM Finn & Co, private client stockbrokers. I spent 10 years building the division to a team of 25. Then we wanted to really own the business and start moving it forwards. So after 3 years of negotiation, on 1 August 2007, we bought the business out and created finnCap. We put not only our clients first and foremost, but also our people.
We’ve grown our turnover consistently; it took us 4 years to become the largest adviser to AIM companies and 2 years later, the largest adviser to all stock market companies. Our total market cap of clients we act for has grown from £200million to £11 billion.
Alongside this, I’m proud that we have created a company which genuinely puts people first. By this, I mean we strive to listen to them, to involve them in decisions, and to operate with fairness and inclusion. I’m also proud of the fact that when we started, our team was 10% female but we’ve now reached the point where we are 40% female and we’re pushing towards 50/50. I think this is because of the culture we have created and having a female CEO also creates interest among other women in joining us.
Q: What was your experience of taking time out from work when you became a parent, and then returning to work?
A: Well, our baby arrived 2 weeks early, exactly as I was about to start my maternity leave! So I didn’t get that ‘downtime’ before the birth that I was expecting. For me, it was very important to still be connected to the company whilst I was on maternity leave, so I continued participating in calls and responding to emails from home. However, I gave away 45 of my responsibilities and kept 5! I really stopped micromanaging the operational detail and relied instead on colleagues to do this. And I never took those 45 responsibilities back on when I returned to work. This helped me to create some kind of balance after my daughter’s arrival.
But in all honesty, those first 2 years of parenting were a fog, where I was focused on just getting by. I had bad sleep deprivation, I was still putting a lot of pressure on myself to work the same way I had before, and I nearly had a breakdown trying to manage it all. This experience changed the way I viewed maternity, and parental leave, for our organisation. I realised, as the first person ever to have a baby at our company, I needed to be the role model for others and that supporting other mothers and fathers through their first 2 years of parenting is the most important thing we can do.
Q: You talked about the ‘individual guilt threshold’. What do you mean by this?
A: I think everyone has a particular need that they want to accommodate in their work/home lives, in order to feel that their own pattern of living is sustainable. For some, this threshold might be the need to work from home 1 day a week, for others it might be about coming in later 1 or 2 mornings a week. If we don’t manage to make this happen, then all too often the demands of our work/home lives can feel unsustainable and we feel guilty that we’re not doing the things that are important to us.
Q: What helps you to deal with tough stages in life, whether at work or at home?
A: So in the last 12-18 months, new industry regulations in the form of MIFD II came in, we undertook our first acquisition and as a condition of that, we had to do an IPO at the same time. This was a huge amount to take on all at once. We actually advise our IPO clients not to do both an acquisition and IPO at the same time! Last year I became a single parent and moved house. I had to think long and hard whether I was really prepared to take all of this on.
To help me, I rely hugely on a support network, both at work and at home. This means that when I’m at home, I can focus 100% on parenting and having quality time with my daughter. I have a coach who I meet fortnightly, who helps me to prioritise and find solutions. Over the years, my coaches have been instrumental in helping me to deal with the 3 or 4 ‘crunch points’ that inevitably arise.
Q: How do you keep on top of the ‘to do’ list?
A: I do try and clear my inbox by the end of every day. I also look for ways to save small, incremental amounts of time. Each one may only save me 2-3 minutes, but these add up over time. So after one month, I’ve free up 15 minutes and over 5 years, these time-saving ideas have helped me carve out valuable space and ‘thinking’ time. I find this essential in terms of maintaining clarity of thought and helping me deal with everything. If I don’t have this thinking time, I quickly notice my stress levels rising.
Q: How important do you feel flexible working is in the City, and how do you approach this at finnCap?
For me, the concept of the individual is so important. Getting flexible working right means being flexible to the individual and their needs. A ‘one size fits all’ approach isn’t ideal.
In my view, in the City many firms are saying and doing good things around flexible working. But the reality in investment banks is not good. Someone may be permitted to work a 4 day week, but this means they are unable to make a key work dinner, for example. As a consequence, their client relationship is handed to someone else.
At finnCap, we try to make things work for the individual. This might mean trialling a request we feel initially sceptical about, but in a number of cases, we’ve managed to make it work both for the business and for the individual. I firmly believe that by investing this way in the individual, the company is rewarded with loyalty and commitment over the longer-term.
Q: Tell us about a memorable experience from your career
A: In 2017, I was on a 3-day speechwriting course, as one of my goals as CEO to develop my public speaking skills. It clashed with my daughter’s Nativity when she had the role of Mary – despite my best efforts, I just couldn’t make the play and I felt awful about it. I did make the dress rehearsal though.
Imagine how I felt when last December, I discovered our IPO was scheduled to take place on the same morning as my daughter’s Nativity! I was determined not to miss her performance for a second time. I was at the Stock Exchange at 7.15am for journalist meetings, we opened the stock market at 8am and I did a quick speech to the staff. Then at 8.15am I hopped on a limo bike in my dress and got to my daughter’s school with 2 minutes to spare before her play started. It was pretty stressful but it was also one of the best days of my life – I had IPO’d my business and I’d actually made it to my daughter’s Nativity!
Released On 7th May 2019