I grew up in Stoke on Trent, with no aspirations to go into private equity. My chosen path was instead chemistry. I finished working for my chemistry A level aged 14 and went off to study chemistry at Aberystwyth University, a boring place. After one term, I left for a period working in IT and then went to Lancaster University, where I again studied chemistry, did a lot of serious car rallying and built a man-powered aircraft.
After a few years at Lancaster it struck me there was no money in chemistry, at which point I decided to be an accountant. When I graduated I joined Cooper Brothers, later to become Coopers & Lybrand, and found myself based in the exciting world of 1970s Liverpool. At Coopers, I was supposed to be a computer auditing manager, but somehow I ended up doing insolvency.
There was a lot of insolvency work in Liverpool then, and I went through a bit of a crash course. I was in my mid-twenties, with plenty of power and no responsibility. At work I was responsible for everything from laying people off to selling businesses on. I worked with some great companies, like Bear Brand Limited, a manufacturer of tights and stockings which took 11 years of losses to go bankrupt and printed its annual accounts on silk.
In 1978, after five years helping Liverpool businesses to expire, Coopers shifted me to New York on a fast track promotion scheme where I worked on their new US M&A group. I spent the next three years working incredibly hard on mid-market M&A deals.
I remember I had little to recommend me apart from vigour of approach and an overpowering arrogance, but this didn't seem a problem. Coopers were all set to bring me back to the UK, where I might have become a partner, but I couldn't face it, given the rapidly declining joy of that trade. In 1980 I jumped ship and joined Citicorp Venture Capital in New York, a management buyout (MBO) house.
Citicorp was my first experience of MBOs, and I was in at the deep end. The first deal we worked on was a $250,000,000 buy-out deal for a group of Coca-Cola bottling plants. It was years before I did anything else of a similar size, but it gave me a feeling for what an MBO could be.
In 1981 I came back to London to help set up Citicorp Venture Capital, now CVC, in the UK. I didn't stay long. At the time Citicorp was an incredibly difficult and political place: the corporate finance unit was trying to take over the private equity unit, and my boss was the kind of person who interviews you with a six pack of beer on the table. Fortunately, I was headhunted after 4 years to launch Schroder Ventures, the private equity arm of Schroders.
I founded Schroder Ventures in 1985 and spent the next eight years running the UK operations. We had some great successes, including Parker Pen - a huge turnaround. However, while I was at a conference in Puerto Rico in 1992, Schroders decided to ignore a legal agreement and voted for the liquidation of the partnership running the private equity firm. I negotiated an amicable settlement, with a substantial sum to cheer me up, and took a week off.
My next proper job was with Apax Partners, a venture capital firm. Ronald Cohen, the founder and chairman, asked me to join and help run their ailing buy-out activities. However, after leaving Schroders I had six months gardening leave, so I ran a corporate finance consultancy called Amity Capital for a while. I made so much money doing that, that when the time came to join Apax, I rather regretted it.
I spent three years at Apax helping to improve the buyout group, which wasn't in great shape. But it wasn't long before I tired of an organisation centred around Ronald Cohen, whose operation it really was.
To cut a long story short, I left, and on the 20th January 1997 we opened the doors of Alchemy Partners. We've worked on over 100 transactions, with more than 1.25 billion of equity invested to date. Our best deal was Four Seasons nursing homes - where we made more than four times the investment of 75 million.
I'm a great believer in small operations. We manage a 2 billion fund, but Alchemy is still only eight people. Some people enjoy power and position, but I have never been bothered with that. I set up Alchemy so that I don't have a controlling stake: my colleagues can chuck me out whenever they like. I enjoy deals and activity.
Career success is a question of setting and meeting objectives, being confident in your own abilities, and accepting you might make mistakes. I'm lucky: I reached the stage in 1990 where I was realistically no longer working for money but for pleasure. It made a tremendous change: I haven't had to compromise since. I want to go to work each day.