In 1991, at the age of 22, I left Bristol University armed with a Joint Honours degree in Economics and Accounting. I held aspirations to become an equity market trader in the City of London with a “merchant bank” (at the time this was the quaint term that was applied to what would eventually become the global Investment Banks). The deregulation of the financial markets, subsequently coined as the “Big Bang” had happened five years earlier, quickly followed by the largest slump in financial markets in history. The economy was slowly emerging from a deep recession (sound familiar?) and jobs were hard to come by. I held a job offer from Price Waterhouse, having had two months experience there the year before, as part of a summer internship. With my parents counsel ringing in my ears (you never meet an accountant who is out of work), I decided to qualify as a Chartered Accountant and review my job prospects in three years’ time.
After a highly enjoyable three years at Price Waterhouse, six months of which was spent in their Restructuring department and Corporate Finance division, I had qualified as a Chartered Accountant. I decided to try and land that elusive job in the City. The economy was starting to pick up strongly and I had identified the derivative market as the most exciting and attractive area for a numerically minded aspiring trader.
I managed to gain interviews at a number of banks. Most interviewers seemed to concentrate on the same line of questioning; you are a Chartered Accountant, why do you want to be a derivatives trader? I tried to explain that I had qualified as an accountant, but at the age of 24, I wanted to pursue a career in banking. My preference was the formidable and highly respected merchant bank, S G Warburg. But would they see beyond the Chartered Accountant label, which whilst highly respected, seemed to suggest, that derivatives trading was not my destiny! Fortunately for me, after ten rounds of interviews, the then 35 year old American head of trading identified with my love of poker and was prepared to take a view.
In 1994 I commenced a career in equity derivative trading that would last for the next fifteen years, spending two years on the LIFFE open outcry trading floor, becoming a Managing Director in the European Equity department at UBS, followed by Global Head of Equity Trading and Head of Emerging Market Equities at HSBC Bank plc. There are too many stories to recount and whilst I will say that Leonardo DiCaprio’s film, the Wolf of Wall Street is not indicative of my time spent on the City of London trading floors, in hindsight there was a spirit and attitude during that time, which made one feel that anything was possible as long as you were prepared to work hard.
In 2008, the failure of Lehman Brothers brought home the enormity of the excesses that had built up inside the global financial system and presaged the deepest recession that any of us will most likely ever experience. By 2009, it was clear to me that the world had changed forever and at 39 years old, I had already been thinking about leaving the world of Investment Banking to pursue a different chapter in my life. There were many factors that had brought me to this conclusion, the cumulative attrition of early starts at 5am, the continual pressure, the decreasing motivation, the increasing compliance, the importance of a work/life balance, the impact on remuneration of the global recession and the desire to shake things up and try something new.
I was fortunate enough that I had developed a number of interests outside of Investment Banking over the years and had time to assess the way forward for a new chapter in my business life. So, in 2009, I left the iconic skyscrapers of Canary Wharf for the last time and said goodbye to what had been an extraordinary chapter in my working life and one that reflected in part the economic times that we have lived in. In my view the City remains a remarkable, meritocratic place with a huge economic benefit for the Country as a whole. Of course, one can question the culture, the pay, the excesses and some of the business practices. But on balance it is essential for the economy and I look back on my experience with a real sense of privilege, passion and pride.
Over the next two years I immersed myself in the “real world” and began to pursue interests in residential real estate in London, stock market trading in a personal capacity and Company investment.
One of the Companies I had invested in was experiencing solvency issues and ended up going into a pre-pack administration. I had no understanding of what this process entailed and as I started to educate myself, I became increasingly interested in the nature of insolvency and the processes that existed to deal with it. I met with a number of Insolvency Practitioners, who provided me with valuable insight. I began to research whether this was an area of business that I might be able to build a future, long lasting career in.
My initial impression was that this was a small and extremely specialised area of finance with highly qualified professionals. And then of course there was the JIE! Was it really feasible for a 42 year old man with a wife and three children to go back to working and studying at the same time? Sitting PE1s and PE2s (as they were referred to in 1991!) with a fresh mind and no other responsibilities was one thing, would my brain be able to function in a classroom twenty years later? I decided to enrol on a one day general Insolvency course at BPP to fully understand what would be required to become an Insolvency Practitioner. The Head of Insolvency at BPP, Guinevere Ellis was highly motivating and confirmed that whilst challenging, passing the JIE was do-able with the right approach and work ethic.
I took counsel from a number of wise and experienced practitioners, one of whom was Paul Appleton, the Managing Partner of David Rubin & Partners (“DRP”). Paul agreed that coming into the profession at the age of 42 with the responsibility of a family was both unusual and challenging. However, he felt that the commercial experience I had gained over the previous twenty years would be a valuable and differentiating asset, particularly since I had experienced an insolvency process, first hand, as an investor. My concern was whether the life experience would be mitigated by the speed and dexterity of my brain power, which I felt had diminished over the years! After a number of developing conversations, I persuaded David Rubin & Partners to offer me a position in their highly respected practice. I had gone from Canary Wharf to Holborn, via a pre pack administration and was starting at the ground floor with the challenge of one of the hardest and most admired professional qualifications ahead. A number of people did question my sanity at this time!
In November 2011 I started at DRP, beginning like any other new entry into the business (albeit with a fuller waistline and more battle scars). I immersed myself in each one of the processes, Members Voluntary Liquidations, Creditors Voluntary Liquidations, Compulsory Liquidations, Administrations, Company Voluntary Arrangements, Receiverships, Bankruptcies, Individual Voluntary Arrangements, Independent Business Reviews and Advisory mandates. I read every file I could get my hands on, read Insolvency legislation at bedtime (not advisable unless you are looking for a cure for insomnia) and spoke with my colleagues to try and download years and years of experience in as short a period of time as possible. I began by setting up files, conducting ethical checks, advertising our appointments, analysing balance sheets, reading debentures, attending client meetings, learning about the nature of debt security, writing to creditors, convening meetings and ensuring all statutory requirements were met. At the same time, I was enrolled on the Certificate of Proficiency (“CPI”) course at BPP. My first day in the classroom was more than educational, firstly I was surrounded by students fresh out of university and when I had last attended a classroom, laptops, i-pads, smartphones and MP3s didn’t really exist!
There followed an intense period of six months, during which I developed my understanding of all the different insolvency processes, graduated on to the realisation of assets, investigation of Company affairs and attended many more diverse client meetings, during which I began to witness first hand, the advice and solutions given by Paul Appleton and his Partners.
In June 2012 I sat the CPI exam. I had found the course to be the perfect introduction to Insolvency and a firm platform to launch into JIE. My three children, however, were somewhat bemused by their father pinning mind maps and mnemonics to the wall of his study!
I was fortunate enough to be exposed to every different insolvency process at DRP, this breadth of experience would prove to be a significant factor in my development. In August 2012, I decided to accelerate my studying and enrolled for the JIE Liquidations paper to be sat in November 2012. Once again the encouragement of Paul Appleton and BPP, in particular the wise counsel of Neil Taylor, gave me the confidence to challenge myself. I had three months to prepare for the ultimate challenge in professional exams, the reality and legend of the JIE had become embedded in my psyche through a process of hearsay and osmosis!
The day of the CPI exam result loomed. I had been used to receiving professional results late on a Friday night at Victoria Station in London. The Times newspaper would reveal all to the assembled masses of anxious chartered accountancy students. That was the 1990s. All had changed. It was a brave new technological world. I was now informed that an SMS and e-mail would instantaneously communicate my fate. Colleagues heightened my anxiety by letting me know the implications of failure for my nascent career in Insolvency. Paul Appleton helpfully reminded me that in his 30 years of insolvency none of his charges had ever failed this foundation exam. The text came and went in a blur. I had passed. I had also managed to come top in England and Wales and was to receive the first prize at the President of the IPA lunch. It would be the first time in history that the recipient of this prize would be older than the President himself. I lived to fight another day.
The work and studying continued. The only benefit of sitting JIE was that at least my fellow students were now marginally older and understood the concept of marriage and children. I felt old but not ancient! My work experience was aiding my studying and vice versa. I could relate the lessons learnt in the classroom to everyday experience in the office. The practical and theoretical understanding combined to have a multiplicative impact in my development.
October 2012 came around all too quickly. I was five weeks away from the exam. Then out of the blue came another unexpected test. My car had been broken into and my sports bag stolen. The only problem was that the sports bag contained my priceless Liquidation notes. I would have preferred the thief to have taken the car as long as he had left the notes behind! A tough challenge had just become immeasurably harder. If only I had had all my notes scanned into an i-pad like some of my younger colleagues!
On November 5 2012 I sat JIE Liquidations. Without wishing to sound dramatic, nothing can prepare you for JIE. It is an experience which can only be understood by going through it. That does not mean it is not passable, it just requires a dedication, approach and focus which must be tailored to this particular set of professional exams to maximise one’s chances of success. A four month wait was my reward for stepping out of the exam hall. There was the added bonus of getting on the Eurostar to Eurodisney with my ten year old daughter following the exam. There is nothing like an inverted 360 degree loop on the Temple of Doom ride with children’s shrieks ringing in your ears, to make you forget the 210 minutes in the exam hall.
Over the next four months I could feel my knowledge and experience growing in the job. After 15 months I had developed a fundamental understanding of what it meant to be an Insolvency Practitioner, the nature of insolvency, the need to consider all parties involved, to balance certain interests, the need to protect creditors, the role the legal profession played and the resources and remedies available to investigate the affairs of a Company. Fundamentally the wide range of situations that I was presented with and the need for commercial and pragmatic decision making heightened my awareness that the profession was exactly what I had hoped it would be. Most importantly, I was highly stimulated and enjoying my new career.
Another text and e-mail communicated success in the Liquidations paper and I enrolled in the Personal Insolvency and Administrations, Company Voluntary Arrangements and Receiverships course at BPP. One down two to go.
Once again my work experience went hand in hand with my technical development. I worked on a highly public Administration, managed a trading bankruptcy involving over two hundred properties, conducted a number of independent business reviews, drafted CVA’s, IVA’s and encountered many different business situations, requiring bespoke, commercial solutions.
In November 2013, on the two year anniversary of my start date at DRP, I faced the JIE challenge once again. The exams came and went, although the experience will remain with me forever. At the ripe old age of 44 was this the last exam I would ever have to sit? Could I take another year of mind maps and dreaming mnemonics? As I left the exam hall, the benefit of age and opportunity provided some solace; I headed to Las Vegas that evening to compete in an international poker tournament. The mental re-enactment of Question four on what an IP would do if all resolutions were rejected at the initial creditors meeting, pursuant to Paragraph 51, Schedule B1 of the Insolvency Act 1986 was replaced by weighing up whether the young Chinese man sitting across the felt had flopped top pair and had my Ace King beat!
In March 2014 my JIE odyssey came to a successful conclusion. I am now in the process of applying for my Insolvency License and embarking on the next challenge of being an Insolvency Partner. One mountain has been climbed, a new one awaits.
As I reflect on this exceptional two year journey, whilst the JIE experience has been an integral and essential part of my progression, it is the opportunity to practice as an Insolvency Practitioner that is the real prize. At the age of 44, one of the best lessons in life that I have learned is that being challenged, mentally stimulated and enjoying what you do at work is a luxury that many people either do not have or simply do not realise what a privilege it is to have. Naturally, there are many stresses and strains involved in any job and this profession is not immune to that. However, as I embark on this new journey, the transition I have made from a previous career into this one fills me with a sense of pride, renewed determination and excitement. The insolvency profession is small in number but large in the varied opportunities it provides its membership.
On 1 April 2014 Paul Cooper was made a Partner at David Rubin & Partners