This is the story of a fantastic journey.
But first, I have to explain something. I’ve been in far more pitching sessions – either raising money myself or as a potential investor – than I can remember. I’ve met, worked with or employed innumerable consultants. I’ve watched hundreds of senior directors as they’ve sat in countless board meetings. I’ve written and read acres of financial reporting. I’ve worked with a few hundred wealth and asset management professionals. I’ve led a good few investment research teams.
And the one question that has hung – unanswered – in the air over and over again has been this: “Why on earth is it that the majority of these people have clearly never bothered to educate themselves about the one matter that lies at the heart of all business: finance?” Why are they sitting here, so evidently naive and so clearly bewildered about even the most basic concepts that make finance tick? Are they really that unaware of how unprofessional, how much less relevant to the conversation, they appear compared to those folk in the room who have got their heads around finance?
I’ve always believed that it’s not only indefensible to get involved with business without a sound understanding of how finance works, but that it bestows such a huge (and easy) career advantage. Moreover, it’s just not that hard to learn.
And those are three dirty little secrets about finance. First, you’re handicapping yourself badly if you run away from it; secondly, it really quickly sets you apart from everyone else if you do understand it; and thirdly, it’s much easier to learn than most people think.
But there’s a fourth. It’s subtler but probably even more powerful: to think of finance as simply being about accounting is to make a huge error. Accounting is one small part of finance. I’m not an accountant. I don’t have the disposition for it. But I do know finance, and to me and others like me, finance is up there with great marketing, or engineering or product design. It’s inventive. Creative. It’s future-oriented, and is all about building value, serious value, for yourself, and for the business (and about avoiding destroying value – something the financially illiterate are all too prone to do).
So in this short series of articles, I’m going to argue that one of the most powerful things you can do – in terms of your own career development – is to take some time to learn about finance, to understand the principles and the language that preoccupy the great entrepreneurs, the great business leaders, the great consultants, in a million conversations a day, in every business environment around the world, and that by doing so you will present yourself in a whole different class from everyone else chasing the same roles, the same opportunities, and the same careers.
Let me start off by painting a picture of my own career so far.
How did I first get involved in finance? Pretty easy really. I was in my early-20s, drifting around a little, unsure of what to do with my life, when I had a life-changing conversation with my father. I’ll tell you his exact words at the end of this article but, broadly, he pointed out that in every domain of human endeavour, finance was involved. Made sense. So I enlisted on an evening program, two nights a week for a year in a post-graduate diploma in finance.
At the time, I had just started working as a computer industry journalist – despite knowing nothing about the computer industry (in my first week my editor bought me the Ladybird Book Of Computing to help things along). But just by virtue of choosing to study finance, by committing to it, my editor made me the finance editor of that publication. Fast forward about nine months, and I was recruited by another publishing company to be the editor of a publication that wrote about investment in technology companies. My salary doubled. Fast-forward a year from that, and I was recruited by Union Bank of Switzerland to be one of their securities analysts specializing in UK and European technology, telecoms, software, that sort of thing. My salary quadrupled.
But then a year later I was then made head of Small Caps research which meant I could poke my nose into any industry I was curious about. And, boy, I did. I dived right in and spent time looking into a huge range of businesses and questioning the Chairmen, the CEOs, the COOs, and the CFOs about how those different industries and their companies worked. (And my salary went up about 50%.)
I looked at computing, software, telecommunications, electronics, biotechnology, power and optical cabling, defence electronics, estate agency, open clay mining, furniture manufacture, lace manufacture, lingerie manufacture, the music industry, the funeral industry, health & medical businesses, publishing companies, and many more.
Endlessly curious, after seven years I left the investment banking world – having also worked with UBS and Natwest Securities) and then spent a decade flying between London, Hollywood and the Cannes Film Festival, financing the film industry. That in turn led me again into the music industry, animation, digital content, television and from there into live entertainment.
By this time I was operating in more entrepreneurial environments, too, better described as venture capital and private equity, more complex financial engineering. I got involved in financing food businesses, more in health and medical technology, restaurants, bars and clubs, into fintech, insurance, sports, and time in renewables (wind energy, solar energy, anaerobic digestion etc.), countless start-ups in countless fields, then most recently in life sciences, artificial intelligence and educational technology.
It’s been an extraordinary journey and an incredible education. And throughout all of that, I’ve seen and been involved in some spectacular moments of artful, clever, inventive financing that have elevated ordinary businesses, that have made the difference between founders abandoning their own business or becoming spectacularly wealthy.
And, remember, I’m not an accountant. But certainly I studied, although it was only after leaving investment banking that I studied an MSc in Finance at the London Business School.
The point is finance has opened countless doors, created countless opportunities, shown me countless fascinating situations, and it’s been vibrant and creative and endlessly refreshing.
So in the next few articles I’m going to show you how easy finance actually is. How it breaks down into 12 basic – and entirely common sensical concepts – that individually or in combination lie behind every aspect of finance. They just require familiarity and a confidence with the language. (Oh and some very simple arithmetic.)
So, to come back to what my father said to me all those years ago, “Get your head around finance, son. It’s everywhere, not enough people understand it, it will open endless doors, and I guarantee that no matter where you are or who you’re with, you’ll never, ever be the dumbest guy in the room”.
Adam Page is CEO of Adam Page Training. Go to adampagetraining.com.