cover

CONTENTS

Cover
About the Book
About the Author
Title Page
Dedication
Preface
Foreword by Sir Richard Branson
Prologue
1. Early Times
Fighting Back
University of Life
Colour Blind
Dinosaur Park
2. Part of the Union
Making a Break
I’m Only an Accountant
Can You Help Me?
Hello!
3. Becoming a Virgin
Project Jam Tart
Dinner Time
Uncommon People
Business Unusual
Making One Day Today
4. Life at RBS
Losing Our Virginity
Making It Happen
Project Stone
The Great Escape
5. Building a Bank
Back to the Future
The Run on the Rock
Project Arrowa
An EBO Business
Building Society
6. Northern Rock…and Beyond!
Who Cares Wins
Project Sapphire
Creating a Crisis
You May Know Me as Richard. But Now I’m Going to be Frank
Payback Time
Prices and Rockets
Going Public
The Extra Mile
Women in Finance
The Public Eye
7. This Much I Have Learned
Diversity Matters
Hoping and Coping
Supporters and Detractors
Afterword
What Happened When
Picture Section
Index
Acknowledgements
Photo Credits
Copyright
Title Page for The Virgin Banker

To Mum and Dad, supporters always

PREFACE

THE YEAR 2016 was one of change for me – personally, politically and professionally.

Some of my closest friends and colleagues have retired from Virgin Money. Our political world has been turned upside down. And both of my parents died within weeks of each other. I don’t mind admitting that I struggled to come to terms with it all and to conceive of a new and positive future.

At the same time I was being invited, more regularly than I deserve, to talk to groups of women in financial services about both the Virgin Money story and my own.

Then, in the summer of 2016, Kevin Revell, a friend and colleague for more than twenty-two years, suggested that he would write the Virgin Money story if I could sketch out the outline while on my summer holiday.

On the plane out to the sunshine I started what I thought would be an hour or two of writing. And then the whole thing just poured out and Kevin didn’t get a look in.

In writing down the key episodes of my career over the last twenty-five years, three lessons seem to me to be important.

First and foremost, that it is the tough stuff, the difficult moments and the sporadic crises that drive us forward to achieve our dreams. Never give up.

Next, that we need true supporters to succeed. I have been extremely fortunate to have been blessed with some amazing supporters. Above all, Sir Richard Branson has taught me the power of doing good business, finding good people and of saying, more often than not, the word ‘yes’!

And finally, just be yourself. Too often we are expected to conform to established norms. But conformity does not always create innovation and growth. We need diversity in business to mirror our society and to be innovative, creative and relevant. Don’t do what is expected. Do what you believe to be right.

So, here, in my own words, is my story of being a woman in business and a Virgin banker.

Edinburgh, January 2017

FOREWORD BY SIR RICHARD BRANSON

MY FIRST EXPERIENCES with banking were not pretty. Back in the sixties, if you were a young person dressed as a hippie, you weren’t exactly made welcome inside banks. If you had bare feet, you’d barely make it through the door. Added to that, I happened to be in the record industry, which the bankers viewed with enormous suspicion. Their disdain for the music business was only matched by their distrust of the airline industry, which is where I started my next business. I was treated as an accident waiting to happen, a risk not worth taking. More than once, I had banks threaten to close our accounts and shut down the Virgin brand for good. On one occasion I can still vividly remember, a bank manager came to my houseboat to tell me he was foreclosing on us. I pushed him out of my home and told him in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t welcome back. We managed to scramble every last penny we could beg and borrow and survive to fight another day. But back then, if you had asked me what I thought of the people who run financial institutions, my reply would have been short and to the point: ‘They are a bunch of absolute bankers.’

Somehow, in October 1997 I found myself in London, dressed up in a bowler hat and pinstripe suit, cutting a red ribbon. We were introducing the world to the Virgin One account. I was officially a banker. How the hell had that happened? One of the chief reasons was the woman standing beside me, all six feet two of her. If I had to name one person who has changed my mind about what bankers are like, and what banking can positively do, it would be Jayne-Anne Gadhia. As you will learn in this book, Jayne-Anne and I are quite different characters, but we have some things in common – a love of people, a sense of humour, a stubborn streak – that have made Virgin’s journey into banking one of the most exciting and enlightening rollercoaster rides of my career. Now, they aren’t words that you would usually associate with banking, but Virgin Money isn’t a normal bank and this isn’t a normal book.

The best ideas come out of frustration. I hated the experience of flying with other airlines, where customer service was non-existent and you were lucky to get a lump of cold chicken chucked on your lap. So we started Virgin Atlantic to create a flying experience people loved. If it could be done on planes, couldn’t it be done in banks? I always found it silly that bank staff had to sit behind glass windows, making the interaction with customers really impersonal. We’re getting rid of the glass in our stores – so that we can get closer to our customers. There were concerns about security, but we worked to address the risks, as we always do. We wanted Virgin Money to feel as close as possible to Virgin Records and Virgin Megastores – places you were comfortable relaxing and meeting friends. Why should the experience of buying a financial product be worse than buying an album? Jayne-Anne and her team soon proved a really obvious point to me that many people missed: the people who work at a Virgin bank aren’t really different from the people who run a Virgin record label. They all have the same values, desire to help and sense of fun (though they may have different haircuts!).

Speaking of which, the day we decided to launch Virgin Direct, which went on to become Virgin Money, something was tickling me. It was the idea that the bloke who brought the public the Sex Pistols and Never Mind the Bollocks could be the one to sort out their finances too. As everyone left the meeting in the attic of my house in Holland Park, Jayne-Anne asked what was so funny.

‘How life moves. One day we’re managing the Sex Pistols, the next day we’re dealing with pensions. See that seat? Sid Vicious was sitting there not so long ago.’

‘Really?’ she asked.

‘Yes, and you see that corner over there? That’s where he threw up.’

Since then, Jayne-Anne has constantly surprised me. From stealing watches to floating companies, from hunting treasure to running marathons, we have been through a lot. One of my favourite quotes I tell fellow London Marathon runners sums it up nicely: ‘Don’t worry if you fall flat on your face – at least you’re moving forward!’

In the future, I am sure that technology will disrupt banking enormously, as it is already changing so many sectors. I am an interested follower of Bitcoin and investor in Blockchain, and while it may not end up transforming finance itself, it will help pave the way. But what I am convinced will not change, no matter how far technology takes us, is the need for personal touches, human interaction and strong, purposeful leadership from organisations. I have started more than 400 businesses for a single reason: to make a positive difference to people’s lives. The purpose of Virgin Money, to make everyone better off, is something that really chimes with me. The creation of Virgin Money Giving, which is not-for-profit and committed to making more money for charity, is a great example. I don’t just want a bank that makes profit, I want a bank that creates experiences, builds relationships and enriches people’s lives. When I walk into Virgin Money Lounges, where no actual banking takes place, I see people relaxing and talking to each other. I think it’s a little glimpse of the future, where business is increasingly online, but only works if it is enhanced through human conversations.

One major change that has to happen in finance is diversification. I was so proud when Jayne-Anne launched her report into women in finance, calling for fairness, equality and inclusion for men and women. It is long overdue: the situation is outrageous, and it has to change. One way progress can be made is by empowering more entrepreneurial leaders to shake things up and screw business as usual. Jayne-Anne is one good example; her partner for the first years at Virgin Direct, Rowan Gormley, is another. He founded Virgin Direct for us, with Jayne-Anne and then went on to build his own wine business, his real passion. He now runs Majestic on the UK’s high streets. It is vital to find brilliant people, and then empower them to grow themselves as well as their businesses. By giving them the space to try things and the freedom to fail, eventually they will succeed. That’s definitely been the case at Virgin Money.

This is a story of taking risks, making mistakes, celebrating triumphs and learning from successes as well as failures. It’s a unique take on a unique world I never thought I would be a part of. It turns out banking without the bollocks wasn’t such a bad idea after all. And, as I often tell Jayne-Anne, I’m more than happy for you to call me an absolute banker.

London, January 2017

PROLOGUE

‘It’s so odd to have all you bankers here. It wasn’t that long ago that the Sex Pistols were in here being sick in the corner.’

IT’S A CRISP autumn day in 1994, and I’ve set off from Norwich train station to London, and to Holland Park, a place I’ve never been to before.

I come out of the tube station, turn left along Holland Park Avenue, and up a slight hill to a row of expensive London townhouses.

Number 11 is on the left as I walk down the street. It’s a huge white, double-fronted mansion with a wrought iron porch. Outside are several black Range Rovers.

I can’t actually believe that I am going to Richard Branson’s house. He’s cool and famous. I’m anything but!

I walk up the little stone path with criss-cross mosaic tiles and press the silver intercom to the right of the door. I can smell the autumn leaves and hear, in the distance, the shrill ring of the doorbell. I’m very, very nervous. I’m on my own and have no idea what will happen next.

But a woman’s voice comes over the intercom, and she seems to be expecting me. The door swings open – there’s no other security – and in I go. I’m expecting to be met but there’s nobody there.

I step tentatively into the huge hallway. On the right is a large wooden sideboard with a big carved mirror above it. And underneath, boxes and boxes of white unbranded cans. I’m soon to discover that this is the day that Richard Branson is launching Virgin Cola.

As I look to see where to go, I turn into the living room on the left. It’s huge and runs from the front to the back of the big house. I’m taken aback by how homely it feels – big yellow grand piano at the front, huge squashy sofas in creams and lilacs at the back – with big doors leading out into the garden. Scattered among the family photos – and there are many – are little model aeroplanes, all customer service awards for Virgin Atlantic.

There’s still nobody around so I walk back across the hall into the dining room. There’s a big oak refectory table in it with benches down both sides. You could have a lot of people for lunch there.

On the floor, propped up against the walls, are framed pictures. I especially notice a framed letter from Princess Diana – and the platinum album of Tubular Bells!

I venture upstairs, towards the faint buzz of people talking. By the time I get to the third floor there are photocopiers on the landings, and people – cool, young people – rushing about – there’s a general feeling of excitement.

At least three of the bedrooms have been turned into offices. It amuses me that one of those rooms is the headquarters of Virgin Brides.

Finally, a young girl comes to rescue me and points me up to the very top, attic floor, where there is a full-size snooker table as you emerge from the stairs. To the left, and in the eaves looking over the back garden, is a separate table and a flip chart.

And that’s where we start to discuss the business that will become Virgin Money.

Chapter 1

EARLY TIMES

‘You don’t want to know what this lot are saying about you.’

‘Grandad seems okay,’ I said.

‘Grandad’s blind. He doesn’t know you’re white.’

Fighting Back

MY JOURNEY TO the attic in Holland Park that autumn day in 1994 had been an accidental one.

I was the only child of a working-class family who were determined to better their lot – my parents sacrificed much to give me a good education and I did well at school, where I was good at the academic stuff, but dreadful at games and singing and drama. I had grown too big from an early age (I was over six foot tall by the time I was fourteen), and felt awkward in almost every situation.

I started out in an all-girls’ school in Worcester but, when my father lost his job, we moved to East Anglia and my parents dug deep and enrolled me in Culford School. This had traditionally been an all-boys’ school, but I was one of the first seventeen girls who joined as the school went co-ed.

The four years that I spent at the school were a pretty brutal experience. Instead of the organised structure of the girls’ school, I remember tables and chairs in heaps in Portakabins, and having to fight for your seat in most classes.

Given my gender, size and awkwardness, I guess it’s not surprising that I was the butt of many jokes from the teenage boys, who used to hide around corners and scream in horror when I appeared. Of course, because my parents struggled so much to send me there (and my mother reminded me of that frequently), I couldn’t tell them about the bullying. And as an only child there wasn’t really anywhere else to turn.

So I just sort of dug in, kept my head down, and fought back when the need arose.

I ended up loving the school (although I got screamed at until the very day I left!) and learning a lot. But probably the best lesson of all was never to give up and never to let the bullies win.

I was young for my year at school, so I finished A-levels in history, English and French when I was seventeen, and took a year off before heading to university in London.

I got a job, on the very day I left school, at the Unemployment Benefit Office (UBO) in Diss, Norfolk. I worked there until the day before I left for university, and worked there during every break – from the day the holiday started until the day we went back.

This was 1979, and the number of people out of work was beginning to increase. Sadly, some of the few areas that were expanding and recruiting were benefit offices. I found myself dealing with claimants from all manner of backgrounds, many of whom had found themselves out of work for the first time in their lives. In many ways, the UBO was a better education than university.

I was on ‘fresh claims’, which meant taking the details of people who had newly lost their jobs and who were ‘signing on’ – literally signing a piece of paper to say that they were unemployed. I had to fill in a form called a UB210 for every new claimant, and then fill out another form, a UB40, so they were registered on the system and then received the money they were due.

The actual process was quite satisfying, although as I look back on it now I feel positively ancient. You filled in the form on the left as normal. On the right, you had to translate the form details into computer speak, and then, in my case, pass the form to Yvonne in the machine room, who would enter the computer language into another machine that spat out a long, white, snake-like length of paper, about two inches wide, with punch holes representing the code. Then you would feed the punch tape into another machine to transmit it to a central office somewhere for processing.

I loved it. But what I loved most was meeting the people who came to claim and to be paid.

I especially remember (and don’t forget that I was only seventeen) being told never to speak to any of the claimants out of the office – and certainly never to give them money.

But one day I had signed on a young, grubby, cheeky lad with blond hair and freckles. We’d had a laugh together, and he was definitely trouble.

A few days later I bumped into him in town. ‘Hello, love,’ he said. ‘I’ve run out of money and I just fancy some fish and chips – can you lend us a fiver?’

Of course I shouldn’t have done. But of course I did. Even though I would have been sacked if the office found out. And that would have been a problem, as I was giving my mum almost everything I earned as rent. So I worried about it. A lot.

Then, about a month later, in the middle of the afternoon, the lad came into the UBO and asked to see me. Quietly, he gave me my £5 back.

‘Bet you thought you’d never see that again!’ he said. ‘But I really needed it. So this is a thank you for trusting people like me.’

And I have, ever since.

University of Life

I went to Royal Holloway College, University of London, to study history. I’ve always thought it an underrated subject. In the end, human behaviour seems to be at the centre of everything – and it has never really changed, despite our changing times.

But it wasn’t the history lessons that changed me at university. It was the people, the experience and the independence.

I didn’t really want to go as I was enjoying work at the UBO. But I knew I had to go, not least to satisfy my parents. Like most freshers, I turned up early for the first term and found myself in halls of residence made of breezeblock, and where the freezing communal bathrooms had that crunchy, greaseproof paper stuff for loo roll. That first night everyone headed for the bar and almost everyone was feeling down.

The surroundings – all being grey blocks – were pretty depressing and everyone was a bit homesick. There was a girl there, Sandie, who was particularly upset, and I was comforting her while some of the more senior students were playing snooker. They were all Indian. And one of them was to become (and still is!) my husband.

A couple of days later, it was the freshers’ disco and I was surprised to see one of the Indian snooker players – Ash – on the door as a bouncer. We were chatting when the local skinheads arrived, trying to get into the party. Ash threw them out and I remember being rather impressed!

Not long after, Ash and I were in the Chinese takeaway in Egham. Just as we got to the counter, he said to me: ‘Just do what I say – turn round, walk out and then run like hell!’

Charlie, the leader of the local skinheads, had come in looking for trouble. It was the first time that – awkward or not – I ran properly fast!

Colour Blind

After that, I moved in with Ash and was introduced to Indian culture. Don’t forget, this was over thirty-five years ago and mixed relationships – let alone mixed marriages – were the exception, not the rule.

There are lots of things that, looking back, are hard to believe. Until I met Ash I had never peeled a clove of garlic or tasted a mango. I had never contemplated a view on life different to my own. And I had certainly never come across the idea of arranged marriages.

Ash would disappear from time to time to see potential wives. But our lives together would carry on as normal.

He was two years ahead of me at university and so, at the end of my first year, he left and needed a job. He was able to get one at the UBO in Norwich – and to live with my parents.

One weekend my dad was working away. He was a refrigeration engineer at the time and was working in Hungary. Ash brought my mum down to college for the weekend. We went out and about in London and had a lovely time.

When Ash and my mum got home, they found that the house had been burgled. And not just burgled, but well and truly burgled. Everything portable had gone. The house had been trashed. And there was human shit where you’d never hope to see it.

Just as Ash and my mum were trying to deal with that, his mum called and he told her what had happened.

‘We’re coming up,’ she said.

‘You can’t,’ he replied. His family had no idea that he was living with my parents – and an arranged marriage still loomed.

To cut a long story short, Ash told his parents about me. They disowned him for about an hour. Then they rang back and said, ‘Bring her here tomorrow.’ I have never been more terrified in my life.

So off we went in our bright blue Ford Escort. Brown furry seat covers and dice hanging from the rear-view mirror. I kid you not.

And we arrived in Hounslow to meet the family. The house, I remember as spotlessly clean and very white. There was an enormous number of people there, all talking a language I didn’t understand – very loudly!

I sat on a soft chair and two of my husband’s young cousins came to sit on my lap. They were about two and five years old. Ash’s grandad was there too.

The eldest child said to me: ‘You don’t want to know what this lot are saying about you.’

‘Grandad seems okay,’ I said.

‘Grandad’s blind,’ he replied. ‘He doesn’t know you’re white.’

And so started my introduction to the rich and varied Indian culture that I have come to know better and love even more. But it didn’t come easy and there have been some embarrassing moments along the way.

In 1987 Ash’s brother Hitesh married Anita in a full Hindu wedding ceremony. As soon as we arrived, Ash and I were separated into male and female groups. I was the only English woman there. I didn’t understand the Gujarati language and never before had I experienced the customs and costumes of a Hindu wedding. I remember clearly that I was wearing a blue matching top and skirt with white flowers all over them. The outfit was a world away from the colourful wedding saris of the beautiful, petite Indian women who were dancing in a room where Anita, soon to be my sister-in-law, was sat in a lovely chair, on a platform, in her heavy wedding sari, with henna hands and weighed down with gold jewellery.

I was feeling awkward, as usual, standing head and shoulders over the rest and not having a clue what I was doing. Imagine my discomfort, then, as the chant went up: ‘Janey, Janey, Janey.’ It took me a moment to realise they meant me. I was pushed to the front of the room by the platform where Anita was sitting.

An aunt came forward, bearing a silver tray upon which was a small pot of red paint, some brown nuts and a bowl of granulated sugar.

The chanting got louder and the language got more and more confusing. I had no idea what to do until I realised that the bowl of sugar must surely be some sort of confetti.

I took a handful, and, I’m not joking, I threw it over Anita. It was only when everyone screamed that I realised that I had done something terribly wrong. I should have taken a few grains of sugar between my thumb and forefinger and placed them on Anita’s tongue as a sign of sweetness between sisters-in-law. Instead, Anita had to go through her long wedding ceremony sticky and glistening with granulated sugar.

I was furious with Ash. ‘Why didn’t you tell me what I was supposed to do?’ I hissed when we were next together.

‘I didn’t know,’ he said. ‘I’ve only ever seen the men at weddings!’

Thankfully we all laughed it off and Anita and the family forgave me. Which was good since Ash and I had married on 5 May 1984.

We had already bought a two-up, two-down house with an outside toilet in Norwich. An old lady had lived there and the stairs were boarded off. No one had been upstairs for over twenty years.

Dinosaur Park

It was from 133 Bull Close Road, Norwich, that I walked to and from work at Ernst & Whinney – which later merged with Arthur Young to become Ernst & Young, now EY – and where I trained to be a chartered accountant.

I hated it.

I had signed up to Ernst & Whinney to be with Ash. He already had a job in Norwich and I needed a job too.

As a historian, it wasn’t immediately obvious what I might do, but accountancy in Norwich offered a way forward – and £4,250 a year – which we needed to pay for the house, which had cost us £13,000.

Accountancy launched me into another unfamiliar world. To start with – the senior people swore a lot.

I remember (because we had literally no money, having bought the house) that we were cooking over a camping stove and I bought a pot from Oxfam that was in three parts. That meant you could cook your meat, vegetables and potatoes on one source of heat. When I brought it back from Oxfam I suffered a loud and lively diatribe from Nigel – one of the senior managers – for bringing Ernst & Whinney into disrepute. Apparently, if you worked there, you did NOT shop at Oxfam!

We couldn’t afford a dining-room table either, so we took a door off its hinges (it was bright blue on one side and bright pink the other) and ate on that, even if we had guests.

But the worst part of working at Ernst & Whinney, in those days, was the racism.

One of the senior managers at the firm refused to sign my wedding card ‘because you are marrying a Paki’. Talk about the University of Life.

Being bullied at school gave me an understanding of how best to react, and I guess that prepared me for the sort of bullying that I found myself dealing with later in life. If anything, my experiences at school also taught me never to accept the taunts and jibes. Fight back, every time, became my motto.

Chapter 2

PART OF THE UNION

1987–1994

‘Our boss is livid.’

‘Who’s your boss?’ I asked.

‘The Chancellor of the Exchequer,’ she said.

Making a Break

STUDYING FOR ACCOUNTANCY exams was horrible. It was a completely new world to me. I went through the first two years fine but failed the third year first time. It was the first thing I had ever failed in my life.

To my surprise the world didn’t turn upside down. My husband still loved me and the sky was still blue. I realised that exams were not the be-all and end-all of a successful life.

During my time at Ernst & Whinney we had been the auditors of Norwich Union (NU) and I had been on the audit team. Every so often we would gather at our Norwich offices and always, absolutely always, criticise the managers at NU for what they were doing and for what they had done.

I remember thinking, at those sessions, that I didn’t want to be someone criticising the clients. I wanted to be someone who made the decisions – even if I would be criticised later.

The people at NU seemed to like me, so I decided to try and move from Ernst & Whinney to Norwich Union. No one had ever done that before. But, in 1987, I was allowed to go to NU as the new accountant for their unit trust business. (Unit trusts are investments that allow customers to choose where their money goes in units of stock exchange securities.)

Norwich Union in 1987 was an institution, in more ways than one. It had a fascinating history – it was founded in 1797 by Thomas Bignold as a mutual company, one that would share profits with its customers. Its initial purpose was to protect customers from fire – it had its own fire engines that could only be used by Norwich Union customers, who lived in what was, essentially, a wooden city.

Bignold went on to provide policyholders with robbery protection, primarily for the perilous merchant journey between London and Norwich. Later, in 1808, he formed the Norwich Union Life Society, which became an even bigger business.

From those early entrepreneurial roots, it grew from strength to strength, and by the time I joined it employed 4,500 people in Norwich alone. If you joined NU from school, you were pretty much guaranteed a ‘job for life’, and I worked with people who were the third generation of their family to work in the business.

Clearly this had an impact on the culture of the organisation, and it was generally seen as a very safe and stable company, rather than one that was going to set the world on fire. It did, however, have some great and creative people, as I was soon to find out.

Initially, working at NU was an odd experience. We had worked very hard, in the early months of 1987, to launch a new range of unit trust funds. But, in October, Black Monday hit, and investing in any new type of security was definitely off everyone’s agenda.

At that point, employees were still clocking in and out of NU, contracted to do a 37.5-hour week. With the new business launch delayed, the small accountancy team that I led had finished its work by 11 a.m., and we were bored – big time.

One Christmas I went to see my boss to wish him well, and he said to me: ‘You’re not coming back here in the New Year.’ My immediate thought was that I was being sacked. But he continued, ‘You’ve complained so much about the sales and marketing team and what a bad job they’re doing – I’m sending you to sort it out!’

I’m Only an Accountant

I was both terrified and chuffed to bits. The job came with a company car as I had to be on the road a lot. That was definitely going to be an improvement on our tatty Vauxhall Astra estate. But I had no idea about sales or marketing.

So, as soon as I got back to work, in a different building, with different people in Norwich, I went to see the Sales Director – a guy soon due to retire – called David Everitt.

‘How on earth do I do a good job in sales and marketing?’ I asked. ‘I’m only an accountant.’

At that time, Norwich Union sold its business through independent financial advisors – IFAs – and they made the difference between feast and famine for the company.

‘It’s easy,’ said David. ‘Get out there and make people want to do it for you. Go and build relationships with these IFAs, so when they have a piece of business to sell that’s a unit trust, they’ll put it with you.’

So I spent a year ‘on the road’ in my new company estate car, driving the length and breadth of the British Isles, and meeting IFAs everywhere.

Much to my absolute astonishment, by the end of that year sales in the unit trust business had gone up 800 per cent. That was due to a lot of miles driven, but also because I was exposed to two new ways of thinking.

First, in Investment Marketing, I met a wonderful man, full of wit and energy, called Tony Wood. He was a brilliant communicator and helped me properly to understand the products I was selling. It sounds obvious, but with a really clear level of product understanding, it made my job both easier and safer – not selling the right product will always end in tears.

We spent a lot of time on the road together and had a lot of fun and a lot of meals – one evening, in a hotel in Sheffield, we were offered a brandy, in a beautiful bottle, called Louis XIII. We decided to have a glass each before realising that they cost £60 each. (It’s a lot more expensive now.) We put it on our expenses – and have both felt guilty ever since!

At around the same time I was also selected to go on a course, run by the Tom Peters Group, called ‘The Leadership Challenge’.

I can’t remember now where it was held, but I do remember driving a long way on my own and wondering what I was going to find when I got there.

I found a group of international students of about my own age – all feeling as nervous as me – and three instructors: Richard King, Madeleine McGrath and Mike Peckham.

The point of the course was to demonstrate that everyone has individual strengths and weaknesses but, if you know yourself and model the way, you can lead people to achieve the things that you think should be done. Richard and Madeleine led the classroom activity and Mike managed to coerce us into some outdoor activity that filled me with dread. I had never climbed or abseiled before, and I think if I’d known that was on the cards then I might not have turned up!

There was, however, a clear connection between the mental and physical tests as a ‘leadership challenge’ – it was a really clever way of getting people to think creatively about how behaviour shapes leadership performance.

At the end of the three days everyone had to give a speech on their vision for the future. It was recorded so that we could listen to it on the way home.

I had learned a lot about myself while I was away but when I played my ‘vision speech’ in the car on an audio cassette (remember those?!) on the way home, I could hear in myself something I had not realised before – that I genuinely had a passion for changing the world around me, and that I could communicate that surprisingly well.

With all of these new lessons and experiences going on, I was becoming pushier at work. I was good at networking and, if I had a spare half hour, I’d go and talk to people all over Norwich Union – just to find out who they were, what they were doing, and sometimes just to have a good old gossip. It soon meant that I knew lots of people and that I was well known around the place.

That was probably the reason that I was approached for a new job after that first year in Marketing.

NU had been looking for a ‘Business and Finance Manager’ for their Appointed Representative sales force, which had run into trouble. They needed someone to go and see sales agents who were no longer independent. These were ‘tied agents’ who could sell only NU products. NU needed to help these agents with their finances and also with compliance, as a new world of regulation was starting to unfold.

The biggest problem was that the agents relied entirely on NU for their cash flow. They had been asked to estimate their future sales so that NU could pay them ‘advanced commission’. In hindsight, of course, it’s obvious to see what troubles that would create. Almost every agent overestimated their sales and, as a result, almost every single one was in debt to NU.

My job was to work out which agents would deliver against their plans. And for those who wouldn’t – to get the money back.