Lead Interview: Kevin Ward

Director, Conatus Financing Solutions
Our lead interview in the GUIDE issue of Suffolk Director business magazine is Kevin Ward, Director of Conatus Financing Solutions

Published in Suffolk Director Magazine Autumn 2021
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Advise, Lead and Support

“I have learnt a lot from others about business, but the most important guidance came from my dad, a sales manager, who taught me that if you look after customers properly, treat them right and help them to find a solution to their problem, they will keep coming back.”

Interview: Sue Wilcock
Pictures: Warren Page

Kevin Ward talks to Suffolk Director

One of the things that Kevin Ward, Director at Conatus Financing Solutions, has always possessed since he was a young lad is a strong work ethic.

“I was born in Woodbridge in 1975 and my dad, George, was sales manager at the car dealership, Fairhead & Sawyer. For those that are familiar with the motor trade, they will understand that this involves spending long hours, often six days a week at work. So, this meant that growing up, I spent a lot of my time with my mum, Maureen.  

“In 1982, we moved to Easton, and I attended school there, before moving onto Thomas Mills High School in Framlingham. I don’t look back at my schooldays fondly. I was bullied, and my school reports were littered with ‘could have done better’ comments.

Mum and Dad played bowls, which is a family game as my grandmother, Ursula Ward, was ‘All England’ Single Bowls Champion in 1966. They were very sociable and often out with friends.  Sometimes I would join them, but I learnt to enjoy my own company and during my teens earnt money doing part time jobs.

“I was good with numbers and enjoyed Maths. Mum thought I would do well in accountancy, so I did some work experience at Patterson & Thompson, an Ipswich accountancy firm. I loved it and they said they would like to give me a job when I left school at 16.”

Unfortunately for Kevin however, the rules then changed, and you had to be 18 to start training as an accountant.

“So, with eleven GCSEs, but only 5 at O level standard, I decided to carry on into sixth form and take A levels.  I started working weekends and evenings in hospitality. First at the Melton Grange, then at the Admiral’s Head in Bealings, before joining Ufford Park.”

Just before Kevin was due to take his A levels, his mum and dad split up.

“I wasn’t in a very good place. I stayed with Dad, but I was often alone as he was either working or playing bowls. I tried doing my schoolwork whilst working 40 hours a week at Ufford Park. Consequently, I failed my A levels.”

Kevin decided to retake them at Suffolk College but continued to work at Ufford Park where he had been promoted to head waiter and then restaurant manager.

“I was quite shy and working in the hotel industry meant I had to talk to people. I still wanted to be an accountant, but by the time I retook my A levels, the rules had changed again, and they now wanted trainees entering the industry to have a degree.

“Also, every time I looked at leaving Ufford Park, I got promoted, so there was always an excuse not to go, it was just easier to stay.”

Kevin worked at Ufford Park full-time until July 1996.

“I was duty manager doing 90 hours a week, earning £7,000 a year. I was only 20 years’ old, shattered and unwell due to exhaustion. So, things had to change.

Following in Dad’s footsteps

“I spoke to Dad’s boss, James Davey. He was a director of Edmondson, which owned Fairhead & Sawyer. Whilst guiding me through the job application process, he asked if I would be interested in a job at Fairhead & Sawyer doing sales and administration.

“With Dad’s approval, I started there in August. I was earning more money, had a Rover 100 as a company car and Dad was my boss. It was brilliant. I had to be better than the rest, but we rarely fell out and he was a good teacher.”

“I learnt a lot from Dad about selling and customer service and I learnt a lot from James about business. We had a lot of repeat business, sold a lot of cars and also had a great time doing it.”

Then late in 1997, Edmondson bought Henlys in Ipswich and George and Kevin transferred to work from the dealership on Felixstowe Road.

“It was OK, but not the same as when we were in Melton. So, when Edmondson asked me to move to their Ford dealership in Bury St Edmunds, I took the job. The idea was that the company were going to put me on a Ford degree course, but it never happened. I was only there five months before Edmondson asked me back to Rover in Ipswich but based at their new showroom on Ransomes Europark as their business sales manager.  

“This position had a better salary, which was great as I was saving to buy a house.  It was weekdays only and I was working with Dad again.”

Then in 1999, Kevin was asked by a friend who worked there as a financial adviser, to go along to Lloyds Bank for a financial review.

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“Unbeknown to me, I was being set up for an interview with his boss, and I came away with a job offer as a financial adviser. I was flattered and couldn’t believe my luck. Receiving a job offer from a bank was a huge boost to my self-esteem. Everyone thought it was amazing and obviously, it was much easier to get a mortgage. It provided better working hours, and  I was still doing what I loved which was selling, dealing with people, and finding solutions to their problems.”

Kevin spent the next couple of years with Lloyds where he was given training and qualified as a financial adviser.

“This period taught me how to study and pass exams and I learnt a terrific amount, but I didn’t like being tied to one product supplier.

“You’ve guided people to what they need around pensions, investments and life insurance, but I knew the product I was signing them up for, potentially, could be cheaper or more appropriate with another provider.

“I felt tied and compromised, so I applied for jobs with IFA firms and was offered an employee benefits manager position with Swallow Financial Planning in Ipswich.

“This role involved looking after companies and their employees and unusually for the time, the job was fee, rather than commission based. So, this helped me to act impartially to shape and guide people, and not be steered by what I would earn out of the product I sold.

“I got a great deal of satisfaction from being trusted by my boss Andrew Swallow, to develop an approach that was genuine and honest, and where I felt I was doing the right thing. Also, most importantly, I had the time to explain things in a way that people fully understood, giving them genuine supportive guidance so they didn’t go into things blind.”

Things were going really well, when in 2002, Kevin was approached to go back into the motor trade with a job role he couldn’t refuse.

“I was contacted by Sterling Motor Group and offered the sales manager’s position at the Nissan and Renault showrooms on Norwich Road in Ipswich. I felt it was such a good opportunity as I was tasked with turning the dealerships around and increasing sales.

“My first action was changing all the existing salesforce and employing a whole news sales team with no car sales experience. I taught them how to sell in my dad’s way, finding out what the customer needed, as well as what they wanted, before treating them right and giving them a good deal.

“It took a year to achieve results. Our customer service scores went through the roof. Mystery shops were receiving 100% scoring and our sales volume had increased, together with our profit per unit figures.”

However, Sterling then decided to sell the dealerships to Glyn Hopkins. All the staff retained their jobs, except for Kevin and his boss.

“We were victims of our own success; if we hadn’t turned the dealerships around, they wouldn’t have been able to sell them. As a result, I was moved to the Daewoo / Kia dealership on Station Road in Ipswich. It wasn’t what I wanted, so I started to look for a job that would suit my long-term career goals.

“I had just married Beth and she had a good job as a Radiographer at Colchester Hospital. Our home was in Kesgrave, and we were wanting to start a family, so I wanted better hours and prospects.”

Then a friend told Kevin about a vacancy for a relationship manager at Barclays Bank.

Building his self esteem

“It was a long application process, so I gave up my job to focus on getting it. There were lots of interviews and assessments, but I was offered the job as a Fastrack position, which involved two years of training in more junior roles. However, I quickly realised that the only relationship manager position that would open up locally would be on someone’s retirement in nine months’ time. So, I fast tracked the Fastrack to accomplish my grades and was appointed to the role covering Bury St Edmunds, Mildenhall and Thetford late in 2004.

“I loved the job, helping to support and guide customers. Yet, imposter syndrome kicked in, based on my underlying self-esteem issues. Most of my colleagues had passed banking exams which were equivalent to a degree, and I had my A level Maths at Grade D!”

In 2005, Kevin was at an Institute of Directors conference where former chairman of Ipswich Town FC, David Sheepshanks CBE, was talking about how mentoring had helped him in his career.

“I bit the bullet and approached him to ask whether he would mentor me and he said yes. For a year we met monthly and with his guidance I gained a lot of confidence. He was great at supporting me, but he was brilliant at pushing me out of my comfort zone, challenging me and asking me why I felt like an imposter.”

The mentoring must have had some effect as in Kevin’s first year, he received their Rookie Relationship Manager of the Year award.

“That really boosted  my self-esteem, and it also gave me the confidence to start mentoring people myself; the first of which was a graduate in Barclays. I followed what I had learnt from David, James, Andrew and my dad, but I also started reading books such as ‘Think and Grow Rich’ by Napolean Hill, and the ‘One-Minute Manager’ books, adopting techniques picked up from them.”

“Overall, the one thing I have realised is that when mentoring, my greatest satisfaction comes from someone challenging me and giving me that constructive critique, rather than flattering me with compliments and praise.”

Throughout this time, Beth was extremely supportive. Kevin worked long hours and they now had a baby daughter, Hannah, who was born in 2006.

“We had moved to a bigger house in Kesgrave and for Beth, who was on maternity leave, it was quite lonely, as we didn’t have much of a social network and our family weren’t close by.

“I set the target of three years before making my next career move, and I was doing well. Not having a degree qualification still bothered me, but with my boss, Jason Flakingham’s guidance, I assessed where I was compared to both my colleagues in the team and externally. A penny dropped when I finally realised, that when it came to experience, I was in fact five years ahead of others who had degrees.”

Then towards the end of the noughties, Kevin’s thoughts turned to starting his own business.

“In 2009, our son Ollie arrived. Barclays was a very safe environment to work in overall, albeit with its challenges, which were certainly not unique. Yet, banking had changed a huge amount post the crisis in 2008, and I increasingly felt I could do more to help business owners, working on their side of the desk supporting them with their banking relationships and funding requirements.”

Starting a business

“After a lot of consideration I decided, with Beth’s support, to set up on my own business in 2011, effectively working as an independent bank manager.  Initially, the business was called Kevin Ward Ltd – not the most original title I know! I had one client who wanted me to help them for 1-2 days a week, which gave me some security, so I pushed forward and started to spread the word. 

Lead Interview: Kevin Ward 5

“To start with, the majority of my work was firmly focused on helping businesses source the best funding for their needs.  I used a model where I charged for my time and I spent that time producing a comprehensive report, analysing the business, identifying risks, and providing solutions that enabled lenders to make an informed decision on what to do next. I hadn’t anticipated clients saying they didn’t know how, or didn’t have time, to fix the issues, so could I help sort them out? 

“I started to do exactly that, sometimes by myself, sometimes by introducing people I knew would be best placed to resolve the issue, but always taking ownership of fulfilling the brief from the client. It was enjoyable and increasingly led to me providing more support and guidance to business owners facing challenges, not always related to borrowing.

“Then I got involved with a business that became my first turnaround client.  The work was on exactly the same principle as previous work, identifying problems and implementing solutions, but it was dramatically more involved and time pressured.  I was there every day for several weeks and had to get very hands-on.  It was satisfying work, although fairly stressful. 

“In reaching a positive outcome, the result was that a number of people were very grateful. Together with the business owner, this included staff, the bank and suppliers and customers. It was a win-win scenario for all parties, and it led to an increase in referrals for similar work.”

With the increase in referrals for the turnaround work, Kevin had to take on additional support and ultimately found he needed to have financial information he could rely on. So, Kevin Ward Ltd was rebranded to Conatus and a bookkeeping arm was formed, to initially aid one client and help ensure accurate information was made available when working with turnaround or growing clients. 

It wasn’t totally plain sailing though, and from day one, Kevin received a lot of scepticism from many about the chances of success. No one was doing what he was doing, the closest were traditional finance brokers.  The other obvious challenge was that although he had helped others run a business, he hadn’t done it himself.

“There are so many unforeseen challenges and things you need to do when running a company.  Not least you need to ensure you’re earning more than you’re paying out, whilst ticking every compliance and governance box that’s required.  My sector is heavily regulated and for the lending I source, I have to be authorised by the Financial Conduct Authority with potentially onerous requirements. 

“It was also tough to get a work life balance. Having worked 90-hour weeks at Barclays, it was a key reason why I wanted to be my own boss, but it’s very easy to get carried away running your own business, thereby neglecting your family, health and welfare.

“Nevertheless, as time went on and the number of turnaround clients grew, I found myself taking on roles as an Executive or Non-Executive Director, because clients would ask me to stay involved in their businesses. This tied in with the mentoring I had previously done and was focused on helping guide clients through the areas of business they didn’t understand and weren’t comfortable with. 

“They knew their own business well, but the governance, compliance and support services areas were not things they wanted to be involved in; they just wanted to be making, or simply selling, their widgets or services.” 

“I discovered I had a love and a passion for giving help, support and guidance to businesses. I still thoroughly enjoy non-executive and board advisory work and firmly believe that challenge can be as positive as support, if delivered in a constructive way.” 

Whilst doing his day job, Kevin started serving as a governor at his local primary school and found it very similar in terms of the requirements, albeit a very different environment. 

“I did it for ten years and despite enjoying the journey, I was on the lookout for a new challenge when I was approached by Community Action Suffolk (CAS) and asked to apply as their new Chair of Trustees. 

“I had been undertaking some pro-bono work through Suffolk Pro-Help, a part of CAS and some of that work had utilised the same skills required for a role on the board of Trustees.  The position appealed to me as it played to my strengths. Also, the charity ticked a lot of boxes for me too with their involvement in supporting so many other organisations doing great work in and around the county.”

Maintaining a work life balance

“The biggest challenges I have are around maintaining the throughput of new business and knowing when to say no. My desire to help can sometimes lead me to undertake work I should really walk away from. The turnaround work can be rewarding, but also very stressful. I often have sleepless nights when the business owners no longer are.  We also have the same challenges as other small businesses, and whether I’m dealing with a £40M turnover business or a £1M turnover business, the issues are often the same. 

“So, I’m stricter these days. I rarely do any work at the weekends, and I try not to work in the evenings. Instead, I have developed interests which tie into my desire to achieve and live a positive lifestyle.  I was overweight and Beth was concerned about my health.  So, after a drunken dare at the Ensors Beer Challenge back in 2012, I decided a good way to lose weight and get fitter was to do a triathlon. 

“It was extremely tough. However, it was a goal for me to aim for and once I achieved it, I decided to push on and do more.  Every year I now have a bigger and tougher challenge and that first sprint triathlon has led to me doing two-day adventure races involving mountain biking, trail running and kayaking, through to half Iron distance triathlons, trail marathons and an Ultra Marathon. 

“I lost nearly six stone along the way, and I now exercise daily, running a stupid number of miles every week. I like it so much that I’ve become a qualified Level 2 CIRF coach; training runners at the Kesgrave Kruisers club and Big Sky Running, where along with others, we enjoy doing guided trail sessions around the county.

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I also try to swim, paddleboard and sail every week, as well as doing Pilates and cycling when possible.  Part of my motivation was to spend more time with the family, and I love that I’m achieving goals whilst doing that. Beth and Ollie both run, and Hannah enjoys paddle boarding and heading out on trips where it is just the two of us.

“I like to think I’m setting a good example to the children and it’s a massive stress buster for all of us.  There is occasionally overlap with work, but only in that I’ve had some meetings with contacts where we’ve gone for a run, cycle or paddle board instead of going out for lunch or a drink – which seems a brilliant way to do business to me.  Foolishly I do still have a season ticket to watch Ipswich play, I do love where I live and part of that is supporting Town and I’ve brainwashed Ollie to do the same.

“I’m hoping the best is yet to come with my career and I have plans for further businesses in the future which I hope will lead to a lasting legacy for my family and involve more of our passions in life.”

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