To hear Richard Wilson tell it, his career has been a series of happy accidents.
“I’ve never had a long-term plan is the honest truth,” says the Scot, who runs retail stockbroker Interactive Investor.
Working life started in 1988 at Lloyds after bumbling through a 15-minute interview with the wrong person. A year later, he was off to London to work in the back office of Societe Generale doing a job he wasn’t entirely clear on.
Then, whoops, Wilson kept getting promoted, until he ended up an exec on Wall Street for the French bank. Finally, a move back to the UK beckoned — for reasons of his kids schooling, not personal ambition — and by 2015 Wilson found himself one the board of Interactive Investor, a middling UK stockbroker going nowhere fast like the legion of other platforms it competed with. Two years later, Wilson was convinced to take the reins to try and improve its fortunes.
Boy did he. A series of takeover deals helped catapult ii, as it likes to be known, to the position of second biggest retail investment platform in the UK. Today it has over 400,000 customers with £55 billion invested over its platform.
Perhaps his greatest stroke of luck was to be in this position when the lockdown-driven retail trading boom came along. Surging business helped convince asset manager Abrdn to swoop in and buy ii for £1.5 billion last year. The business was worth an estimated £30 million when Wilson took over.
“Could I have foreseen that we would consolidate the entire market? No. That’d be crazy,” he demures from ii’s “media suite” in unflashy offices opposite Liverpool Street Station. “You say ‘what a brilliant plan’ but we just happened to land those agreements at those times.”
Was he born under a four-leaf clover? Does he have horseshoes nailed to his brogues and a rabbit’s foot in every pocket? Or is Wilson simply being far too modest.
Deals are much talked about in the investment industry but little practised — everyone fears getting it wrong and getting fired. Wilson’s success lies in his courage to try and his ability to succeed. Most mergers and acquisitions end in failure.
A tech background — he was CTO of SocGen’s investment bank — helped with the thorny problem of integration but so too did Wilson’s willingness to take tough decisions.
“You gotta be pretty clinical,” he says. “You stand in front of all the teams and you’ve just got to be honest.
“In the case of The Share Centre, we told them in advance ‘we’re closing this’ and so you stand in front of the staff and you’ve got that message. That’s not the easiest message, but job one is to be clear. Speak for yourself, speak your mind, get to an answer and then pull the trigger.”
That seems ruthless but belies a clear care Wilson has for the people he works with.
“My personal sense of deep satisfaction is when a team member achieves something they didn’t think they could. That’s what makes me happy.”
Everyone I’ve met at ii seems very happy with their lot. Wilson’s view is that it is simply better to tell someone bad news directly. “Straight talking” is one of his key values.
It cuts both ways.
“I did the usual stuff about vision statements and then shared it with the team, and they tore it up,” Wilson smiles. “They said to be honest, that’s not who you are. What’s lovely is to have a team that feels comfortable enough just to be straightforward.”
Protecting the culture formed “a large part of the discussions” with Abrdn over a deal, says Wilson. Interactive was originally plotting a float and attracted well-publicised interest from other suitors including Barclays. Abrdn bosses Stephen Bird and Douglas Flint “were very credible in believing that the way we were approaching the business was right,” which helped them win the day.
You could argue the decision to sell is another blessed one: the deal was sealed at what now looks like the top of the market, before the cost of living crisis came along and whalloped incomes.
Wilson thinks the long-term prospects for ii are still solid. Pension freedoms and less generous workplace retirement plans are forcing more and more of us to start playing the stock market. Ii offers a range of plans to fit various flavours of investor and, unusually, sells its services as a subscription. That too seems to be in keeping with how more and more of us live our lives these days.
The sale, expected to go through in a matter of weeks, will net Wilson a reported £60 million. An avid swimmer and soon-to-be grandfather, the 55-year-old could well retire to his house in Oxfordshire and while away his days quietly with his wife. That’s not in his nature.
“Success lasts a millisecond and then it’s on to the next thing,” he says, calling this trait “the devil on my shoulder.”
“It doesn’t make you happy, you don’t have very many good days,” he confesses.
A passion project trying to develop sustainable housing in the slums of Mumbai will soak up a fair amount of Wilson’s windfall, but he remains committed to ii post-sale — for now at least.
“I’m here to stay, we’ve got a huge opportunity,” he says. “The long-run, who knows.”