JOANNE SMITH was studying for an MBA and working full-time — and now she was falling asleep. During a tutorial she had been asked to close her eyes and meditate on her goals in life. “When I woke up people were turning to each other to discuss their plans,” said Smith, then a consultant at KPMG in Leeds. “I was a driven person on a great career path but I had no aims, which worried me.”
She gave herself six weeks at the end of the course to choose a goal. One day before the deadline, she decided to start a business. “Three weeks later I had left KPMG, secured three clients and moved to London,” she said.
That business is the Consulting Consortium, which helps banks, insurers and other big companies to comply with City rules. In the 15 years since its creation, it has advised more than 250 clients, including PwC, Google, Axa and Bupa. Sales reached £8m in the year to December 2013. The latest results are expected to show a rise to £12m, with profits of £2.5m.
The Consulting Consortium has its headquarters in the City and an operations centre in Leeds. Its job is to ensure that clients follow the myriad regulations governing their sectors — those set by the Financial Conduct Authority to prevent mis-selling of mortgages, pensions and investments, for example. “We’re unpicking the sins of our banking past,” said Smith, the chief executive.
She has also set up a sister business, RecordSure. Its technology records and analyses all interactions between an organisation’s front-of-house staff and customers. “We saw a gap in the market for improving the way face-to-face advice is given,” she said.
Work on the start-up caused a £2m dip in sales for the Consulting Consortium in 2013, which pushed the company into a loss. Smith was not fazed, though. “We spent a lot of time building RecordSure, knowing we had to move backwards to move forwards,” she said. “We’ve regained that loss and business is up 30% this year.”
Smith chose the Consulting Consortium as a name to help it compete with long-established rivals from the start. “I wanted to sound much bigger than one person to bring in people with complementary skills,” she said. “The difference a great employee can make is phenomenal. When you are a small company the challenge is to attract talent from big organisations that would see the move as a risk.”
Today the business has 110 staff and 2,500 associates. Smith, 46, believes it is Britain’s biggest provider of regulatory services outside the big four of KPMG, Deloitte, EY and PwC.
She was born and grew up in St Helens, Merseyside. Her father ran a garage where her mother also worked. “When my father was 30 he was paralysed with Guillain-Barré syndrome [an autoimmune condition] and had to learn to walk again,” said Smith. “One of my earliest memories is seeing the sheer determination etched on his face while trying to walk with parallel bars. That’s what drives me today — to succeed, move forward, and take action to get a reaction.”
Smith left Cowley High School at 16 having secured a sixth-form place at Winstanley College in Wigan. Her plan was to go on to train as a PE teacher, but she had a swift rethink. “All my friends had gone back to our old school and I was bored.” A month before she was due to start college, in 1984, Smith decided to get a job.
“I began as a banking clerk at Lloyds, making tea and processing cheques,” she said. “I loved the buzz of being in an office and getting paid for doing something I enjoyed.” Then she took a clerical job at Royal Insurance, determined to make her mark. “I religiously said hello to whoever would look at me and, boy, did I get some strange looks at first. When you are 16 and have no confidence, you have to put yourself in situations.”
It worked. By the time she was 21, Smith was managing a team of 45. “I’d had five years of earnings and bought two houses,” she said. “My friends were leaving university with debt and struggling to find work.”
In 1996, after 10 years at Royal Insurance and a brief spell at HBOS, Smith was headhunted by the Personal Investment Authority, one of the forerunners of the Financial Conduct Authority. She was a regulator for two years before joining KPMG.
It was through the big four firm that she completed an MBA in international business at Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées in Paris and Bristol University in 2000 — the catalyst for setting up the Consulting Consortium.
In March last year a minority stake was sold for £10m to the Business Growth Fund, which is backed by Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds, RBS and Standard Chartered. “We wanted a partner to help us grow both businesses,” said Smith, who remains the majority shareholder, with 90%. “The Business Growth Fund has great links with big banks and it fulfilled our strategic objective as well as financial.”
Smith, who lives in Chelsea, was a finalist in the 2014 NatWest Everywoman awards. She offers this advice to entrepreneurs: “Get work experience before you start a business of your own. Sometimes starting at the lowest level can give you the drive and ambition you need.”