Don't Push Too Many Trolleys

My very first job was at Sandhurst College, the British Army's officer training academy in Camberley, which was about 5 miles from where we lived. I was keen to get a job as soon as I finished my GCSEs in June 1991, but because my birthday was in July, I wasn't quite 16. So (in the days when you could get away with this) I lied and said I was 16 so that I could get a job in the Sandhurst kitchens as a pot washer.

My 20-minute cycle ride took me up a steep hill, and while I would normally have managed this with ease, I was anxious to take the hill as fast as I could. I was extremely nervous because we were not far from Broadmoor high-security psychiatric hospital and the infamous child rapist, James Saunders, had just escaped. (He was later called “the wolfman” because he lived in the wild for three weeks before being caught.) There was a very loud alarm that sounded whenever a prisoner had escaped from Broadmoor and I could hear it blaring while I was cycling up the hill, my heart pounding, imagining a deranged rapist might jump out of the bushes at any time and attack me. But I was so determined to get to my job on time, I forced myself to ignore my fears and keep peddling.

My most poignant memory of my dish-washing job – apart from learning the useful practice of soaking dirty baking trays before washing them up – is of meeting a real character called Micky, one of the more experienced kitchen hands. He was in his 60s and physically quite an imposing man: tall with a big potbelly. But he was a gentle soul who took me under his wing. He told me all about the “Sovereign's Parade” that was due to take place in a couple of weeks. This is the official Sandhurst “passing out” parade when the graduates of the academy march in front of the Sovereign or her representative. I was so naïve, for some reason I got it into my head (I'm not sure whether Micky told me this to wind me up or whether I assumed it) that everyone in the whole building – including me – was going to get given a gold sovereign coin! He went along with my mistake. When it eventually transpired that there were no coins being given out, Micky must have felt a little sorry for me, so he gave me his own gold-plated sovereign ring, which I treasured.

Top Trolley Boy

My next job was a Saturday job that I did throughout my time at sixth-form college. I was employed at our local ASDA supermarket as a “trolley boy.” Before the days where you had to use a coin to unlock a supermarket trolley (forcing you to have to return it to a trolley park in order to retrieve your coin), people would leave trolleys all over the car park. Teams of unskilled casual workers would be employed by supermarkets to go around collecting the trolleys and bringing them back to the front of the supermarket.

The guy who was training me was pushing 15–16 trolleys at a time. The more you pushed at any one time, the less walking you had to do going back and forth between the front of the supermarket and the car park. I asked him how many trolleys we were allowed to push at any one time and he told me we could push as many as we liked. Obviously there was some degree of practice needed to push a huge number of trolleys, but I just jumped in at the deep end and started adding more and more to my load. I think the competitive streak in me also came out and I thought I could be “top trolley boy.” I was up to about 14 trolleys, and feeling rather pleased with myself, when disaster struck. I was trying to manoeuvre my line of trolleys down a ramp in the car park (the trick was to go down at a slight angle, to reduce the incline, but I didn't know this). I soon lost control of my trolleys and the whole lot crashed into the side of a car. Unfortunately, the female owner of the car was watching as the accident happened and I got a severe talking to (more like: shouting at). I was absolutely mortified and went very red in the face. I told the woman to wait by the car and raced into the supermarket to find the manager. The whole incident caused quite a drama as everyone came out to see what was happening. I couldn't believe I had caused such a commotion on my first day on the job; I wanted to run home and never return.

The whole trolley team was taken into the manager's office. I was severely reprimanded. It was done in a kind way but it was still awful. We were all told off for pushing too many trolleys and informed that, from that point forward, the maximum number of trolleys we could push at the same time would be eight – and even then we had to tie them together with a strap.

This all happened way before the strict health and safety laws that we have now; back then we had very few rules around relatively low-risk, casual jobs. Sometimes I feel a tiny bit proud that I caused a change in the law at ASDA!

Of course, no one stuck to the eight-trolley rule. We all continued to pile them up, hoping not to get caught. Inevitably there were more accidents, but thankfully no more caused by me.

But had I learned my lesson? Obviously not… because it got served up to me again, a few years later, in an even more painful way.

Micky's Ring

Towards the end of 1999, I found myself trying to push far too many trolleys. I was 24 and working at Deutsche Bank, where I found myself project managing the big Y2K transition. I had bought a flat in Wimbledon (South West London) at a very good price from a friend of my sister. I was rapidly replacing the kitchen and bathroom, and giving it a lick of paint, so that I could get it back on the market and turn a profit. My parents' house had recently sold and they had moved to Penang, Malaysia. I still owned my very first investment property, a three-bedroom rental property that was tenanted. And I had also bought a place in Surrey Quays, an area in South East London that was undergoing rapid regeneration. I was having some work done on that, with a plan to move in and live in it before the end of the year.

I sold the Wimbledon flat, where I was temporarily living as I did it up, soon after it went on the market, and got a completion date for mid-December. However, as the date approached, I realized that the Surrey Quays flat wasn't going to be quite ready by then. I'd had a few issues with getting trustworthy and competent builders; it was the first time I wasn't doing all the work myself (because I'd been busy working on my Wimbledon flat). So I asked a few friends if I could crash with them after the sale completed on the Wimbledon flat, while I waited until I could move in to Surrey Quays.

Work at this time was crazy – no one can comprehend now just how paranoid everyone was in the run up to Y2K – and I was also booked on a flight to Malaysia on Christmas Eve so that I could go and surprise my parents and sister; I hadn't told anyone I was coming, so I was carrying the burden (albeit a nice one) of that myself. Thus I found myself, in the last couple of weeks before leaving, living out of a few bags that I kept in my car, as I stayed at the houses and flats of various London friends. My furniture and other large items were in storage but all my worldly goods were in my car hidden under my quilt.

One evening, after work, I was going to the Surrey Quays flat to check on the progress of the building work because the builder had said I could move in the next day. As I approached the flat I saw that my car, which I had left parked outside while I was at work, had been broken into. I could see that one of the windows had been smashed. And when I got there, I discovered that some valuable items had been stolen, including my briefcase – actually it was my dad's old briefcase, so it had sentimental value – containing my chequebook, my passport, and many other important documents, such as my parents' marriage certificate and my birth certificate.

The very worst aspect of this incident was that I had put some of my grandmother's possessions into the briefcase for safekeeping. They included a necklace that she had left to me when she had died, and a piece of jade that she'd given me many years before. These were my mementos of her: things that I had always treasured dearly.

Micky's gold sovereign ring was also in that briefcase.

One of the reasons Micky's ring was so special to me – apart from being an incredibly generous and special gift from someone who had only recently met me, and a lovely reminder of my very first job – was that it symbolized a value I have always held so dear, which is integrity. Micky was a bit of a strange character but he was a man of his word. If he said he was going to do something, he did it. He said I would get a gold sovereign, and he made sure I got one. He taught me that when you make a promise to someone, no matter who they are or how long you've known them, you keep your promise. I have always tried to live by this. I think most people who know me – on a personal and/or professional level – would testify to this.

The whole experience of getting my car broken into was obviously highly traumatic. When I discovered the break-in, I immediately called my friend who invited me over to his place and consoled me. To this day he has remained one of my best friends and we were each other's best man at our respective weddings. Going through a bad incident with someone can bond you for life. He was there for me in my darkest hour, and I will always be there for him through thick and thin. You don't forget kindness like that.

My most immediate problem, I realized – as I started to recover from the shock of what had happened – was that my passport had been in that briefcase and I was due to fly to Malaysia within days. I went to the passport office and I'm not sure how I managed it – given that my birth certificate and any other paperwork that could have confirmed my identity were in that same briefcase – but somehow I got a new passport issued that day and was on the plane as planned.

Once I got to Malaysia, I focused on the surprise. I hid outside my parents' house and called them: pretending to be in England, wishing them a happy Christmas, saying how sad I was not to be with them. Then, while I was still on the phone, I rang the doorbell; I was giggling by this stage. Everyone was overjoyed to see me. But when my mum hugged me I immediately burst into tears. All the stress from the break-in experience came pouring out of me. I was obviously most upset about the personal items that had gone. I am extremely sentimental and I was distraught that I'd lost those irreplaceable items.

My mum kept hugging me, really comforting me. I remember so clearly her saying that possessions didn't matter, they were just material things, all that mattered was that I was alive and wasn't hurt.

I was very lucky that those thieves didn't steal my identity. They could easily have done so with all those documents.

But they did make one mistake that caught them out.

A few months after I returned from Malaysia, I received a letter from my bank, Barclays, containing a bounced cheque. They said they weren't honouring it because it was obviously a fake signature. The cheque was made out to a “Travis Perkins.” I had never heard of this company before and I have to confess that, as soon as I discovered that it was a builders' merchants, my first thought was that my builder was behind the break-in.

There was a phone number on the back of the cheque and I called the police immediately, giving them the case number that I had been given when I had first reported the break in. The police contacted Travis Perkins and told them to go ahead and deliver the goods; then, police officers raided the house. Unfortunately for me (and the occupants I suppose), the police found a lot of drugs in that house. They seemed to drop all interest in my case once they realized that they'd got themselves a good drug bust, telling me that they hadn't found any of my possessions. But I can't imagine that they looked that hard once they realized they had walked into a drug den!

Obviously the police wouldn't tell me the identity of the person they had arrested and it was extremely frustrating that they were now focused on a drug dealer instead of what they considered to be a case of petty theft. I thought of confronting my builder myself – I had grown increasingly convinced that it was him, or maybe a mate of his – but I also feared he could get violent. So I decided to drop the whole thing; there comes a time with situations like this when you have to accept it's probably best to allow the dust to stay settled and walk away.

What a painful lesson I had been through. But from that point forward in my life, if ever I get close to juggling too much and getting myself into an unmanageable situation, I think of how much that whole episode hurt and I reassess my situation.

You really have to be honest with yourself about how much you can effectively manage. It's not just the time it takes to manage the various projects you have taken on, it's also about the associated stress, which definitely contributes to the risk of something going wrong. There was little I could do about the building work in Surrey Quays not being finished in time – although that taught me not to work to such tight margins in the future – but I probably could have done without putting myself under the pressure of the Malaysian trip at that time, especially with the surprise element, which meant I couldn't share all my problems with my family until I got there. Consider, too, that the huge pressure of the Y2K project meant that I couldn't leave London until around 24 December, and I had to fly back on 27 December. I was only really due to be in Malaysia for a day. Even though it did make my parents incredibly happy to see me, and me them, with hindsight I should have cancelled the trip. No one would have minded seeing me (perhaps for longer, and not on the verge of a nervous breakdown) a few months later. I was too young and inexperienced – and probably too stubborn – to stop and reassess the situation. I was determined to “do it all.” Was surprising my parents on that particular day worth the price of losing such important pieces of my history (namely my grandmother's jewellery and my sovereign ring)? No, of course not; and if I'd had more experience and foresight, I would have realized that I needed to make some sacrifices.

This whole experience taught me to seek better foresight instead of suffering and then having regrets after getting hindsight. You have to stay aware and take a pause to make some adjustments if you see yourself getting overwhelmed. You need to retain the ability to be rational and think things through clearly. I was aware of nothing during that time except my determination to do everything I'd set my heart on doing – no matter what it cost me.

The better your foresight, the less painful your hindsight!

A Lesson Learned

I am pleased to say, however, that I did learn from this painful experience, and the next time I was presented with a big situation where I could have pushed myself too hard and too far, I thought it through and made a different decision; one I was sure I could cope with.

Towards the end of 2007, the housing market was crashing and the global economy was in crisis. My mortgage company was still fairly new and I was only arranging “buy-to-let” mortgages at that point. Lots of people urged me to diversify. They told me I should increase my product range and offer residential mortgages, refinancing and bridging loans, and even life insurance. I thought about it but realized that I would be trying to juggle too much. In the end I decided to keep focusing on becoming the best in one area before I tried to branch out.

When you look at the most successful companies in the world, they all specialized before they diversified. Google focused entirely on being the best search engine before competing as a communications platform, offering email and Google+ profiles. Amazon sold books and became the top online bookseller – before it started to sell everything. Facebook was, for a long time, a basic platform designed to help people reconnect with old friends… only several years after it started did it become an essential business tool for commercial promotion and a busy advertising platform.

Look at Apple – you can still fit their total product offering onto one table. Steve Jobs knew better than most people that you must bide your time and make careful, calculated choices when you are building a business.

And you not only need to look at whether to diversify, you also need to look at when to diversify. Timing is critical.

I honestly believe I wouldn't have had half the success I've had if I hadn't held back on diversifying until after the economy picked up. I kept my focus, I took valuable lessons from my past bad experiences and I made choices that paid off in the long term. It was a never a case of not diversifying, it was just a question of when to diversify. You have to pace yourself and get the timing right or you can crash and burn.

So, to be completely honest… was it worth losing my precious sentimental possessions and suffering all that pain in order to be able to surprise my parents on that Christmas Day when I could have rescheduled it for a few months later? No. But was it worth the pain I experienced in order to be taught a lesson that has enabled me to build my whole business and not have some far worse experience teach me the same thing? I would have to say “yes”!

Everything in life is a risk-reward balance. You have to look at all the possible scenarios when you are contemplating taking a risk. Sometimes in life we come unstuck when we haven't correctly assessed the magnitude of the risks in relation to the rewards we believe we could receive. When we get the balance wrong, we suffer losses. I always try to impress upon my team the importance of foresight. When I see them trying to take on too much, I remind them how much we have to lose if we get it wrong – how easy it is to start dropping balls when you are trying to juggle too many. If I notice us starting to overload ourselves, I say: “Let's hit pause and go back to our priorities.” We all try to do too much these days. If anyone tries to push us to go too fast or far, saying “why don't we do this, or that”, I remind them of these stories about when I tried to juggle too many balls, and how painful it was learning those lessons.

Even now, I have areas of the financial services industry that I have not gone into yet. For example, people say we should get into “equity release” but I believe we are still not ready. I think there are more tweaks we can make to the way we sell our current products, and that we should keep working on those. I want to get us as efficient as possible before we diversify again. I only have a thriving business today because I have been very thoughtful about deciding when we should diversify; I'm not going to change the way I operate now and rush into anything. I know that, if we lose focus, we could make mistakes and threaten the ongoing success of the business. We will eventually get into equity release because obviously it's an area that holds enormous opportunities for us, but we will do it when I feel we are ready.

Know Your Limits

You need to know your own limits. Be honest with yourself; be realistic about what you have the ability to do and do it well. At the end of 1999, I was crashing. I thought I could push myself beyond my limits. My stress levels were through the roof.

I look back and see so many mistakes I made. I had always been meticulous in doing my due diligence before buying properties, but when I needed some building work done, I picked a guy from the Evening Standard. It was the first time I'd needed to use builders and I didn't get a recommendation from someone I trusted, I just picked someone cold. He did a little work and then left, so I was actually on my second builder, which was why I was running behind schedule on the Surrey Quays flat. I was also working very long hours in the city, worrying all the time about building my new career, desperate not to make any mistakes. I had just joined Deutsche Bank and it was a big promotion. I had a lot to prove. Plus, everyone was desperately scared about Y2K, so I was also absorbing a lot of collective stress at work. I had made a nice profit on the Wimbledon flat, but I was too stressed to analyse whether it was worth spending some of that money on different arrangements to alleviate that stress. I wasn't thinking straight and actually felt that my possessions were best “closest” to me by being in my car, instead of being in a friend's flat or locked up in storage.

I was exhausted. I'd been working long hours in my job and then not stopping during my weekends, which had been spent doing up the Wimbledon flat ready for a sale. I couldn't think straight. I was doing everything myself without delegating. Later in life, whenever I had to move home, I paid removals companies to do it – which is the sensible thing to do, but when you're that stressed you are incapable of making a rational decision. I could have paid for a hotel but, again, it didn't even occur to me. You don't think of these things when you are tired and stressed. And I was young and inexperienced.

But, again, the pain I suffered back then saved me later in life. If I'd tried to take on too much while the credit crunch was happening, I may well have brought my whole business down; I could easily have gone under. Instead of diversifying with different income streams, I focused on one and kept it strong. I didn't try to juggle too many balls or add too much weight to my load; the one I had was already heavy and hard enough to manoeuvre! Obviously we have diversified now – into residential mortgages, second charges, bridging loans, life insurance, etc. but I have learnt that it is better to do one thing very well than to spread yourself too thin and do many things – but only adequately. It's so easy to think, “The more I do the more I achieve…” But, believe me, I learnt the hard way that less is more. We now offer more or less the full range of products you would expect from a mortgage broker but only because I focused on one first. I found my niche and used that to grow my business. I believe that is the secret to being a successful entrepreneur: find your niche. It's easy to spread the net too wide, believing that it makes more sense economically, but that's not the best way to become successful.

The most successful entrepreneurs find a niche and master that first.

Manage Your Trolleys

The lesson here isn't that you must only push one trolley at a time (although that might be the right decision for you for a while); you can push as many as you feel able to, but stay mindful of how you are getting on. Monitor your behaviour; the minute you see yourself struggling in any way, release one of those trolleys, or change the order of them – perhaps putting the heaviest closer to the back rather than at the front.

Manage your trolleys well. You do this by staying aware of how you're feeling. When I think back to my feelings and behaviour when I was pushing all those trolleys, I was sweating more than usual because I was feeling nervous. This was a telltale sign of stress that I should have listened to; it would have told me that I was pushing too many trolleys. I have learnt, now, to be very aware of my feelings and adjust my workload if I start experiencing symptoms of stress.

Stress is the biggest killer in the modern world. Always be aware of your behaviour. Are you binge eating? Or not eating? Are you experiencing excessive road rage? Are you shouting at the kids? These are all signs that you are overwhelmed, that you are stressed and may be trying to juggle too much. There is no shame in saying: “I'm stressed; I need to step back before I crash and burn.” It could save your life. Whenever I think I'm overwhelmed, I stop and sit in silence. I take some very long, slow breaths and work on clearing my head and getting my focus back. I always come up with the right answers when I do this. I would say that one of the “secrets” of my success, if you want to put it like that, is that I've developed the skill of focusing my mind and knowing how to prioritize. But this took time to learn.

Know your limits, and when you feel overwhelmed take a break and reset.

Life will serve up the same lessons again and again until we learn them. The experience with the ASDA trolleys should have taught me not to juggle too much; I should have learnt my lesson then: that when we take on too much at once, we can easily crash. But I didn't. As a result, I had an even bigger crash. In 1999, I put too much pressure on myself, thinking I could manage all of those projects at the same time. I lost things that were irreplaceable. Fortunately, that was so painful I did learn my lesson. Thus, when people were pushing me to diversify and add many more products to my offering in 2007, just as I was still building my company, I stopped and said to myself: “No, I know what happens when I juggle too much; this time I will be more careful.” I focused on just one area of the mortgage market. This time I didn't crash any trolleys into any cars, and I didn't lose any valuables… I steadily built up my business and am very happy with where it is today. I did learn my lesson in the end. It's not simply a question of not pushing too many trolleys – it's also about ensuring you have the necessary experience before you push more. I learnt to put the safety rope around them until I got better at steering them. That's a great analogy for life!

I don't dwell on the losses I've had. I'm not resentful. I accept that they were the price I had to pay for gaining the valuable experiences that have helped me get to where I am today. They saved me from harder and more painful lessons that I could have had in the future. I'm a firm believer that everything in life happens for a reason.

Think over your experiences in life. When you think of the things that haven't gone your way – whether in business or your personal life – is there any recurring theme? Is there a pattern? If so, think very hard next time a situation arises where you might be being tested again… then try your best to avoid making the same mistakes, because they do tend to get more painful each time.

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