interviews · Money · Sunday Times

Fame & Fortune: The taxman always ruins the ending

FELIX FRANCIS, the author, despises inheritance tax and instead plans to give his money to his children while he is still alive.

Born in 1953, the son of the novelist and champion jockey Dick Francis grew up in Blewbury, Oxfordshire, avidly reading his father’s books. In 1974 Felix graduated from the University of London with a physics and electronics degree, and embarked on a career teaching physics after a stint as Raymond Blanc’s boss in a restaurant near Witney in Oxfordshire.

He quit his teaching job in 2005 to manage his father’s affairs. When his mother Mary, who co-authored Dick Francis’s novels, died in 2000, he took over from her as a writer, with the books published as “A Dick Francis novel”.

His thrillers are a continuation of his father’s work, and are largely set in the world of horse racing. His first solo book, Gamble, was published in 2011. His fourth, Damage, was released in September.

Francis lives in Hornton, Oxfordshire, with his wife Debbie and their three Irish setters. He has two grown-up sons, Matthew, 35, and William, 28, from a previous marriage.

How much money do you have in your wallet?
About £200. I took out £250 yesterday and spent some on taxis in London.

What credit cards do you use?
I use a Coutts Silk card and Coutts Visa Debit. I rarely use my American Express and NatWest Gold cards.

Are you a saver or a spender?
I’m definitely a spender but I wouldn’t say I’m profligate. The things I buy are an investment, like the building extension for my house.

What did you earn last year?
Not as much as I have done in the past because books in general aren’t selling. The average pay for an author is £12,500 per year though I earn a lot more than that — a six-figure sum.

What was your first job?
I was a dish washer at the Rose Revived Inn at Newbridge, near Witney, when I was 14. I was acting manager by the time I was 21 and consequently became the boss of Raymond Blanc [now head of a Michelin-starred restaurant]. He was a waiter at the time. After university, I went straight into teaching at Hampton School in Middlesex.

What’s been your most lucrative work?
Writing books. The first one I wrote with my father, Under Orders, was probably the most rewarding.

Have you ever really been hard up?
I don’t think so. The nearest was when I was first teaching in 1975. I bought a house in Twickenham, southwest London, with my first wife for £12,500 and more than 100% of my salary went on the mortgage.

We lived on her earnings and calculated everything down to the last 10p. I wouldn’t want to go back to those days.

Giving up teaching to work with my father was pretty much the easiest decision I’ve had to make. He paid two and a half times my salary and it wasn’t as demanding a job as being a teacher.

Do you own a property?
I live in a 400-year-old manor house in Oxfordshire with seven bedrooms, which I bought for just under £2m. I also have a two-bedroom flat in Belgravia, central London, and a four-bed family holiday home in Noss Mayo, southwest Devon. We bought that for £840,000 in 2012 as a bolt-hole to write in. I love writing with a view of the tidal estuary.

Are you better off than your parents?
I’m not far off. In the early 1990s my parents were very well off, though they were always giving it away — some to charity but mainly to family and friends. In the end, most of it went into 24-hour care [for Dick Francis, who died in 2010].

I’m actually still paying pensions for people who worked for my father 40 years ago. Loyalty to people who had done things for him in the past is absolute and I won’t stop doing it as long as I can afford it.

Do you invest in shares?
Yes, I have a portfolio of Isas and a pension scheme.

What’s best for retirement — property or pension?
The trouble with buying a property is that you can’t sell a window when you want some holiday money. Having said that, I can see a time when properties will become my pension.

When did you first feel wealthy?
Does anyone really feel wealthy? I remember when I stopped putting £5 worth of petrol in my petrol tank and was able to fill it up. That was when teacher salaries went up — around 1976.

What’s been your best investment?
The London flat. I bought it in 1999 for £395,000 and it’s probably worth £1.25m now. I also bought the car park space beneath it, which is wonderful. I pay £10 a year ground rent to the Grosvenor estate.

And the worst?
I operated a property business with my parents and ended up suing my partner in a courtroom in Houston, Texas. That is the quickest way to spend money.

Do you manage your own financial affairs?
I do with the help of wealth manager James Scott-Hopkins. His father, Clive, was my parents’ financial adviser. Loyalty is paramount.

How do you split the household bills?
We pay them by direct debit, so they manage themselves. All I do is make sure there’s enough money in the household account.

What’s the most extravagant thing you have ever bought?
Two years ago I bought back the car my father owned when I was a child — a 1948 Mark IV Jaguar. He sold it in 1960 and years later it was found in a barn and restored. I bought it back two years ago for more than £60,000.

It was definitely an indulgence but I couldn’t stand the thought of it going off to somebody else.

What’s your money weakness?
First-class travel.

What aspect of the tax system would you change?
Inheritance tax. The government advises you to pay into a tax-free Isa every year, but as soon as you’re dead it’s taxed at 40%. I think it’s wicked, because if you look after your money and make provision for your old age, you shouldn’t have it taken away.

It took 3½ years to sort out my father’s estate after he died and the only people who seemed to make any money out of it were the lawyers and accountants. I hope the issue is a way off for me, but I’ll start thinking about giving things away early to my children.

Part of the inheritance is to pay the school fees for your grandchildren, which is what I would like to be able to do — depending on how many they have, of course. I currently have two grandchildren.

What’s your financial priority?
To be able to go on living the life I’ve become accustomed to —so I’ll probably have to keep writing books. Also, I want to help my children buy a property, and not to count every penny. That is the freedom giver.

How much do you give to charity?
I like that I am able to sponsor people £100 for whatever they are doing for charity. Debbie does a lot of charity work in our village and chairs various carol concerts and fundraising events for Cancer Research UK.

What would you do if you won the lottery?
I have bought Euromillions tickets in the past. If I won, I would buy a private jet — the greatest extravagance that man has ever created.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learnt about money?
To paraphrase Forrest Gump, money is like a box of chocolates. When it’s full you eat them quickly, and when it’s nearly empty you eat them very slowly. Enjoy, but don’t forget that you have a liability to pay tax.

Link to article in the Sunday Times

PDF – Felix Francis Fame

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