The Interview: Louise Bracken-Smith

Written by: Eila Madden Posted: 17/01/2019

LouiseBracken-Smith1In a consolidating market, Jersey-based fiduciary business Fairway Group has remained what it describes as ‘consciously independent’. Co-founder and CEO Louise Bracken-Smith tells Businesslife why the company isn’t up for sale and how she plans to take it forward

What’s your background and how did you get there?

I trained with Coopers & Lybrand and, after a lot of soul searching, left and went travelling for a couple of years. I’d wanted to join a smaller accountancy firm so, when I came back, I joined HLB Jackson Fox, which at that time had eight or nine people in the business. They’d just sold their trust company to AIB Bank and we formed Fairway Trust in 2000 to cater for the clients AIB didn’t want. Fairway Group was formed later.

Quite quickly, I fell in love with the private client trust world, having joined the business as an accountant and pursued an accountancy career. I decided to do my STEP qualifications so I could learn about the trust industry. 

I actually had a world record in doing the STEP exams – they’re supposed to take three years and I did them in eight months at that time. But, obviously, some amazing lawyer came along quite quickly and decided to gazump me by a day and since that someone’s done it in three months. So I no longer hold the world record, but I did at one point – so very proud!

In a nutshell, what does Fairway Group do?

We do trusts, funds and pensions. We’re a fiduciary services business, so the trust is basically private and corporate clients. We look after high-net-worth individuals and corporate clients with global assets that use Jersey as a tax-neutral jurisdiction which is well regulated, has a great time zone, great legal infrastructure and real depth in expertise. 

The pensions side is obviously encouraging people to save for the future – we offer trustees the vehicles to do that, but what’s interesting is that the independent financial advisers are the sales force for those products. And then on the funds side we offer private funds for a real estate and private equity client base.  

So, it’s fiduciary service, but we’re all about trying to add value. When a client comes here, they get a director-led service, but with a whole team beneath them. So when the client phones up to ask a question, we’ve got somebody who can answer them.

Does that service feed into your ‘consciously independent’ brand?

That’s us making a statement that we are consciously remaining not for sale. When I started, there were 190 regulated businesses and I think there are probably about 15 independent businesses left now, so the market has really diminished. 

There are lots of reasons for that, including compliance, which is really driven by the regulatory regime because it’s a very well-regulated market and the barrier to entry now is just higher and higher. 

It makes sense for businesses to merge, to work together and to have a collaborative approach. We would always look at a joint venture or a merging opportunity – we have had talks with others before that haven’t come to fruition – but being part of a bigger group is just not on the agenda for us. 

Do you think independence gives you a competitive advantage?

We just all believe passionately that it’s how to service the clients in the best way. The clients we attract are ones that want to be in more of an entrepreneurial environment. They want to be dealing with decision-makers; they want to know that when they ask for something, it’s going to get turned around quickly and we’re not going to have to trot off to head office in Canada or wherever for a decision, which might take weeks. It enables us to be more nimble and that just suits the clients we look after.  

Had you always intended to run your own company?

I’ve come from an entrepreneurial background. My dad always worked for himself – he was a dentist and my sister followed suit. In our house, the attitude was that you need to work for yourself. 

Being with a large firm like PwC [formerly Coopers & Lybrand], I knew that it would be 15 years before I’d be looking at any kind of promotion. I thought that if I joined somewhere smaller, I’d have an opportunity to get a partnership earlier – and that’s what happened. 

I and our Chairman, Alistair Rothwell, with whom I co-founded the business, became Partners of the accountancy practice in 2005 and we were shareholders of the whole business quite quickly after that. I never envisaged running my own company – there was no roadmap to where I’ve ended up – but I love it and enjoy every day and I want everybody in the business to feel the same.

LouiseBracken-Smith3What do you enjoy most about the job?

I enjoy the diversity of the role. I enjoy the people side the most – I enjoy meeting clients – but I also enjoy the strategic side of planning. We brought in a coach about three-and-a-half years ago, and what’s been really exciting about the journey with him is that we’ve spent a lot of time working on our vision, values and metrics that really matter. We’ve been trying to embed a leader culture where people aren’t reverting back to the owners to make a decision, but asking themselves: what would a leader decide? 

I also enjoy the fact that we’re a small business, so we can make decisions and see the results of those decisions quite quickly.  

I think what’s hard is really trying to be the inspiration and make everybody feel as if they are on the journey together. Today is a good example of us trying to do that. 

My brother has been doing quite a bit of work with us. He’s a motivational leadership speaker, having had a professional rugby career. My ambition is that everyone will walk away today and take something from it. 

Our ethos is: let’s just be the best we can be. You can have different businesses in different phases – one riding the crest of a wave, another having challenging times – but having a team mentality is the important thing. So, for me, that’s the exciting part of the business. It’s trying to get everybody inspired and motivated and driving towards the same vision.  

You have quite a big focus on employee wellbeing too.

Wellbeing is really important to us. We do wellbeing surveys once a year and we have a Colleagues’ Council.

I think we’ve got to be adjusting the business for what the people in the business want. So, we’ve now got a running club twice a week, we hold yoga classes, we offer gym benefits and yearly health checks, we’re looking at health screening, we offer stand-up desks – we just want people to be as active as they can. 

The results show that people who have an active private life can perform better in their work life and vice versa. We’re not interested in people being here at 10 o’clock at night. We’ve got to get the job done, that’s for sure, but we do want people to go home at night and have a life – it’s just as important.  

The emotional wellbeing side is really important as well. Jersey Recovery College is going to come in and help train the business in dealing with mental health issues and how to spot the signs that could suggest that people are having mental health difficulties.  

We want to be partner of choice for trusts, funds and pensions, but we also want to be employer of choice, which is why we’re investing in our employees.

You’ve grown from 10 to around 100 employees in the past 19 years. Tell us about that journey.

We were bound by a seven-year non-compete clause until 2007, but after that, we started proactively marketing the business and it grew organically with Alistair and myself. There were other shareholders, but Alistair and myself have been together all that time.  

We then diversified and started a pension business, which went hand-in-hand with the accountancy practice. We started out doing pension solutions for local clients and then we realised our strategy for growth would be to bring in other like-minded people to head up that area.

Quite quickly, we brought in Peter Culnane, who was a guru of the pensions industry in Jersey, to lead the pensions side. And then we decided to grow the fund side, which is now headed by Alison Creed.

We’ve ended up with three different businesses all operating under our Fairway Group umbrella, but they’re all in different stages of their evolution. The trust side’s probably the most mature, followed by the pensions side, followed by the fund side. 

We’re up to 100 people now and it’s all been organic growth – 30% year on year – very much with a strategy of bringing in the right people. I used to be the company secretary; I used to be the compliance officer; even a year and a half ago I was doing the marketing. Now we’ve got a full team to do all of these things. It’s quite nice, now, to actually be doing what I’m meant to be doing rather than things I know nothing about!

You recently opened an office in Bahrain. What’s behind this move?

We look after Emirates Bank. They have a trust company in Jersey and we took them over in 2012 and we’ve had a very fruitful relationship with them. We’ve been in the [Middle East] region for the past five or six years servicing their clients and, during that time, we’ve built up our own client base in that region. 

We’re currently rolling out a savings plan for the pensions side in the UAE, where we’ve partnered with FlexGlobal. It’s a Jersey product; we do the Jersey end of the product, they do the selling in Dubai. We’re really excited about how that’s going to progress.  

So we’re in the region and we’ve got teams in the region virtually three weeks out of four most months. Our Business Development Executive, Graeme Fairlie, is an Arabic speaker and he comes from Bahrain. We were increasingly wanting to visit Saudi and Kuwait, and a good, central place to do that from was Bahrain, so Graeme was spending more and more time there. We thought that, well, if we are actually going to dip our toe in the water in that area, then a great place to start would be Bahrain. 
At the moment, we’ve got a branch there and Graeme is there as often as he can be throughout the month. We’ll look to put somebody on the ground there full time, hopefully in the first half of this year. We’ll be increasing the marketing footprint and using Jersey as our head office. In time, the grand plan is to be fully regulated and have a full team on the ground out there.

Do you see the group expanding into any other regions?

We’re looking at Mauritius for outsourced accounting. We’re in negotiations there and are just exploring that market. Bahrain and Mauritius are our main focus at the moment, but it would be great to be in other places as well. Who knows whether it’ll be Luxembourg or the British Virgin Islands. When we have our strategy meetings, we’re literally looking through the countries going: ‘Right, let’s look at that one next’. All the offshore jurisdictions are on the list and it’s just a case of getting to them.

Was global expansion always on the cards?

Because Jersey has been in a period of consolidation for quite some time, we’ve really benefited from the clients that have not wanted to be private-equity supported. We’ve been really busy with that. 

But because we’ve now built up our leadership team in Jersey, we can start focusing on other jurisdictions. The ultimate goal is not to be so reliant on one jurisdiction.

What do you see as the wider challenges and opportunities for the sector?

As the emerging markets develop and mature, there are tons of opportunities there; they’re just difficult to get into. It’s all about contacts and relationships. The challenge that’s facing everybody is the regulatory regime. The amount of acronyms over the past two or three years – FATCA, CRS, national risk assessment, now substance – the industry’s had to do an endless amount of work.  

How is Fairway Group dealing with the compliance challenge?

It’s resources really; it’s having the right people to continually adapt the policies and procedures, write them for the business, work with the business to make sure that they are workable and constantly update all of that to cater for the changing laws, codes and regulatory regime. 

There’s constantly something. It’s just part of life.  Everything we do is compliance first and let’s do the business later. That’s the way it works, which is fine – we’re all used to that culture. But the challenge is keeping up.

On the plus side, Jersey has put itself out there as the leading, most-regulated jurisdiction there is, which I think 10 years ago people thought was a crazy thing to do, but it’s really paid dividends. 

The clients now are much bigger and more sophisticated. Every time I speak to the lawyers in London, I ask them: ‘What’s your jurisdiction of choice?’. They all say Jersey. Whether they’re just saying it because they’re talking to me or not, I don’t know, but it’s more likely to be because of the strong regulation. 

It’s also the legal expertise that’s in Jersey – which is pretty phenomenal for the size of the island. And the level of expertise in the finance industry is pretty special compared with other jurisdictions that just don’t have the depth that we’ve got.  

LouiseBracken-Smith2As a female CEO in a male-dominated sector, what do you think about Jersey’s record on diversity within business?

It’s not doing well at all. The trust industry is female dominated, but not at the leadership level necessarily. At Fairway Group, we’re 66% female across the organisation and 40% female at leadership level, which we’re really proud of.

But if you listen to someone like Charlotte Valeur, Head of the Institute of Directors, who’s introduced a fantastic initiative to get more women onto boards, her statistics for Jersey are frightening. To have proper female representation on company boards, we’d need about 300 or 400 females at a senior board level and we’ve probably got 20, if that. 

If business is going to keep coming to Jersey, we have to, as an island, deal with this. When you look at the States members, three in the ministerial cabinet are female. Unless there’s a drive at that level to change the dynamic, Jersey’s future for women is not looking good.

So you think the lack of gender diversity can have a business impact?

Yes, I think business will go elsewhere – you’ve got Scandinavian companies that won’t invest if the board is not 50/50. That’s the way the world’s going, so we need to educate the people coming through that board level is what they should be reaching for. It should be in people’s development programmes. But the statistics on the island show that’s just not the case. 

We’ve got to look at issues like maternity policy and give men equal time off to women – that’s not even on the agenda for discussion at the moment.  

If you look around the world, I think we’ve got eight female leaders dominating the world and yet at a microscopic level, like here, it’s just not the same.  

You train as a triathlete. How do you juggle that with a very busy work and home life?

It’s quite a family friendly sport. My husband would totally disagree with that, but I try to do my training when the children are asleep or in the middle or end of the day. So I was up at 5.30 this morning on the turbo to get my hour in. I try to swim after work or early morning or do a long run or bike ride when the roast’s on – I try to fit it in when it suits the family, so I still make the rugby matches and football matches for the children, and obviously still come in and do a day in the office.  

I think it’s an amazing sport. It’s been an incredible journey for me to join triathlon. Even though it’s an individual sport, it’s really all about the team. You can be with the top girl on the island who’s dominated the sport for a long time and she’s training with the complete beginners. 

That says something special about the sport. It’s a really inclusive, really wonderful sport. I don’t really see that in other sports that I’ve been part of, which are all about beating somebody else. 

Looking ahead for the year, what do you see as the main focus for the sector and for the Fairway Group?

For the sector, it’s keeping ahead of regulation and just embracing and looking after clients. And for us, in particular, it’s a bit of lifting our heads and looking at where we can move towards. All the metrics for the business are in place and we’re on track to meet our 2020 targets. So I think it’s exciting times.


Name: Louise Bracken-Smith
Age: 45
Position: Co-founder and CEO, Fairway Group
Member of: Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales; Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners 
Married to: Pete
Children: Max, Freddie, Harvey and Georgie
Hobbies: Triathlon – Louise will be representing Ireland at the 2019 Triathlon World Championships this August
Did you know: Louise is sister to former England rugby international Kyran Bracken


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