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An enduring spirit

Written by Hannah Prevett on Thursday, 03 January 2013. Posted in Finance

In 2010, Anthony Thomson opened Metro Bank, the first new high-street bank in more than 150 years. It’s now worth a cool £1bn – but the serial entrepreneur isn’t ready to rest on his laurels just yet

An enduring spirit

Anthony Thomson has good reason to be happy with his lot. Having founded three businesses – one of which is Metro Bank, the first new high street bank in a century – Thomson would be forgiven for wanting to spend less time working and a little longer in his prized wine cellar. Yet he is doing no such thing. 

The co-founder of Metro Bank has recently stepped down as chairman in order to start a new business, but he’s tight-lipped about his latest venture (he assures me he’ll be able to tell Elite more in February). “People used to work five days a week until they were 65 and then they would stop and do nothing – I think those days are behind us,” says Thomson. “I think the period between working flat-out and not working at all will be longer and more nuanced.”

It would be understandable if Thomson wanted to take a break for a couple of months. Apart from six months off after selling his previous business (and that was supposed to be 12, but he says he got bored), the affable northerner has grafted non-stop since leaving school at 17 – before completing his A-levels. “I wasn’t very good at school,” he admits. “I didn’t really get it.”

His first job was selling advertising for the Newcastle Evening Chronicle. “I had lunch recently with Richard Desmond and we were reminiscing because that’s how he started out too, selling advertising. He says the only difference is he hasn’t stopped.”

When he was 29, Thomson traded the north-east for the Big Smoke to work for Sun Life Financial of Canada. He clawed his way up through the ranks, until, by the time he left, he was sales and marketing director. That was 25 years ago – and was the last time he was employed by an organisation that he didn’t set up himself.

In 1987, Thomson started his first business: City Financial Marketing.“It was an advertising and marketing agency that specialised in financial services,” says Thomson. “And what made it unique was that, in addition to all of the normal advertising, creative and communications skills, we also had a very big compliance and actuary department.” 

Thomson learned some vital lessons in the early days of his first venture. “You very quickly learn the value of money when you start a business,” he says. “The first lesson every entrepreneur learns is that it’s not profitability, or a lack of profitability that kills you, it’s lack of cashflow.” In the next decade, he grew the organisation to 100 people before selling it to advertising agency behemoth Publicis in 1998.

After the previously mentioned attempt at some time off, he founded the Financial Services Forum, which is a membership organisation for senior executives in financial services. Today, the FSF has 400 members, and is still chaired by Thomson – he ran it until he began work on the project that became Metro Bank.

“I had an idea for a new bank,” recalls Thomson. “I’d seen this great model in America at Commerzbank, so I approached a guy called Paul Heston, who was the retail managing director at Lloyds at the time. And, in July 2007, Vernon Hill, who is the founder of Commerzbank and was forced to stand down, told me he was interested in getting involved. So he and I became the two founders of Metro Bank.”

Metro Bank opened its doors in July 2010. To this day, all the vital signs are positive – in November this year, the bank secured a further £126m in funding (taking the total raised to more than £250m) and there are plans to open a total of 200 branches by 2020. 

So why did Thomson decide to stand down now, while things were in full flow? “It was never my intention to chair a public company,” says Thomson. “I said to the board in June that I wanted to step down no later than March of next year, and then I announced in September that I actually wanted to step down at the end of 2012. And that’s what I’m doing, because I want to create a new business.”

Much is often made of entrepreneurs’ qualms about handing over the reigns – not a concern shared by Thomson. “There is a great team of people running it; they absolutely get the model and they get the culture,” says Thomson. “There are people in that bank today who are more passionate about it than I was as the founder.”

This isn’t to say that Thomson doesn’t think of the project with immense fondness. “I’m very proud of the bank,” says Thomson. “It’s the first bank that genuinely puts its customer first. Metro Bank for me is about creating something very, very powerful, and it will outlive me.”

Thomson got his real sense of mortality recently. But it wasn’t having stared death in the face during a horrific skiing accident, or while riding his superbike. No, it was when he was participating in one of his favourite hobbies: wine collecting. “I bought a case of wine a year ago, and when I got it home and read the review it said: ‘This is a fantastic wine; don’t drink it for 25 years’. I’ll be in my 80s by then; I’m more likely to be drooling than drinking.” 

This also prompted Thomson to consider his legacy. For him, this goes beyond another car, or another house. “My perspective on money changed over time. Originally, money was really important to me, or at least I thought it was. The reality is, it isn’t. I’d like to think I have a very pleasant lifestyle, and it’s important to me that my family are looked after. But once you’ve made your first million, or the first five million – the amount varies from person to person – the money ceases to be relevant. Other things become more important.”

Something that Thomson places great emphasis on is maintaining an equilibrium between work and home. “Work/life balance is incredibly important to me,” he says. “I go through phases of being balanced and phases of being imbalanced. I often work more than I like to, but that’s what happens when you’re setting up businesses. In a year or two, I’ll get back to a better work/life balance, I hope.”

In the meantime, he has his favourite hobby to fall back on, when time allows. “I do enjoy my wine,” he says. “Life is just too short to drink shit wine.” 

About the Author

Hannah Prevett

Hannah Prevett

Prevett likes to think she's something of an expert when it comes to small business. Having cut her teeth writing about tech, she latterly moved on to such illustrious titles as Growing Business, Management Today and the Sunday Times to indulge her enthusiasm for entrepreneurship: from P&Ls to private equity and all that's in between, you can't keep this girl away from the heady world of start-ups. 

Back in the day when she had spare time, she would spend it networking, horse riding, drafting and re-drafting ideas for novels, and playing auntie to her niece and three god-children. Those were the days...

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