Dealer from the golden days Richard Thomson meets the bus conductor's son who survived Big Bang and built a securities company : profile brian winterflood

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"WE ONLY go on holiday to war zones," says Brian Winterflood. He is a man who likes to take risks. He is, after all, one of the City's best known dealers - one of the few now left among the cohorts of sharp young men populating the City's trading floors who began his career as a jobber on the floor of the Stock Exchange many years before 1986's revolutionary Big Bang.

Indulging his favourite pastime of travelling, he is taking his family to spend Christmas and New Year in Sri Lanka, not far from the Tamil insurgency in the north of the island. But this trip may turn out to be tame compared with his favourite holiday destination of North Korea, where he went twice before the death of Kim Il Sung, the dictator who died earlier this year. It was, to say the least, hardly a popular place to go.

"The first time we went we constituted about 95 per cent of the total tourist intake for that year," he remarks with a twinkle. Among the more obvious manifestations of the cult of the leader was a large display of the presents Kim had received from foreign notables, including one from Arthur Scargill and several from leftward-leaning local British councils.

On another occasion, Winterflood took his wife, Doreen, and three children on a tour through eastern Europe, several years before the Berlin Wall came down, to see what was there. Not very surprisingly, he returned with his faith in the market system notone bit shaken.

For Winterflood, 57, is a consummate market animal, one of the characters of the pre-Big Bang City who has nevertheless thrived in the new world of dealing screens and computer trading. Last week he completed the sale of his firm, Winterflood Securities,to Close Brothers, the small City merchant bank. Wins, as the firm likes to call itself, is one of the few to concentrate exclusively on smaller company stocks - a niche market that has proved its worth since Winterflood reported profits of £13m for last year. Close Brothers bought an extra 15 per cent of the firm, taking its holding to 98 per cent. Brian Winterflood himself received Close Brothers shares in return but sold them out soon after because the price looked good, he says. Once a jobber, always a jobber.

Which might stand as one of the company's mottoes, since it is also one of the few single-capacity firms left in the City. It does nothing but buy and sell shares. It is not interested in broking or any of the other little operations that dealing houses tend to get involved in these days. Winterflood is adamant that dealing, and only dealing, is his business.

The company, like the man, is compact, efficient and friendly. With only 55 people it takes up little more than a single modestly sized dealing room in a building off Cannon Street, on the south side of the City. Winterflood himself, when he is not on the trading floor, occupies a small office with one computer screen and a large notice bearing what might be another company motto: "We do not have theories, ideals or concepts. We are pragmatists."

He has a ready smile, and radiates restless energy and good humour - a man at ease with himself and the world. "If I came to the end of my life," he says at one point, "and they asked me how I would like to live if I could have a second chance, I would ask to do it exactly the same over again, please."

Winterflood was born in London's East Ham, the son of a bus conductor. When the Second World War came, his father was too old to enlist so he opened a couple of restaurants. "The thought that I might have been a chef fills me with horror," says Winterflood. But the chance never arose because the business eventually failed.

In any case, Winterflood's Latin teacher at school happened to know one of the partners of Greener Dreyfus, a City broking firm, and the young Winterflood thought he might as well give it a go. He joined, as bus conductors' sons did in those days, as a messenger.

In the class-ridden City of the Forties and Fifties, his progress was always going to be difficult. "I realised I couldn't get anywhere, having been born on the wrong side of the tracks, as it were." So he moved to a jobbing firm, Bisgood Bishop.

This was a shock, because from the gentlemanly world of broking he found himself suddenly working 12-hour days on the old dealing floor of the Stock Exchange. After two weeks he resigned to return to his former employer. But before his notice period was up he realised the error of his ways and begged Bisgood to take him back. They did. "They needn't have done it. It was a very lucky break."

Although it was still a class-conscious world, the nature of the business meant that the partners worked on the trading floor alongside everyone else, so there was a degree of equality and everyone felt part of the team. It took 10 years for Winterflood to qualify as a fully fledged jobber.

"Nowadays young dealers are unafraid of anything and the sums of money are so much bigger," he argues. "But in those days it was a big deal and it took much longer to qualify. We were repressed, I suppose."

Winterflood still remembers the trading floor of the Exchange, before the advent of dealing screens, as a golden age. "It was a sort of stage," he recalls. "There was great camaraderie among the jobbers and you got to know everyone. Everyone. I was luckyto live through it."

Trading seemed to be in his blood, and in 1967 he became a partner in Bisgood. Not that everything was a rose garden, however. In the stock market crash of 1974, the jobbing partners, like many others in the City, lost out heavily. There was a period when Winterflood was not sure he could afford the season ticket into work. At that time he also owned a "junk shop" called Floods, applying to antiques the principle of buying low and selling high in order to supplement his income. And he was not the only one. He was poking around the stalls of Petticoat Lane market one morning before dawn when, as the sun came up, he recognised one of the directors of Robert Fleming also supplementing his income, selling carpet squares.

But Bisgood prospered and Winterflood not only became chief executive but the acknowledged king of the small-companies market in which he specialised. When Big Bang came, the firm was snapped up by the investment banking and broking conglomerate being assembled by NatWest. It was a move that nearly wrecked the firm. The day after joining County NatWest, half the board of Bisgood walked out, taking their golden hallos with them. Although he had his own reservations about joining County, Winterflo od was infuriated by his colleagues' behaviour. "I haven't talked to any of them since then. They jeopardised nearly 100 jobs by what they did," he says.

Winterflood's turn came more dramatically a year later. Frustrated by the caution of clearing bank culture and its lack of understanding of risk-taking in the markets, he finally resigned. Six months later more than 30 Bisgood employees followed him. They re-formed as Winterflood Securities. "The firm stayed intact," says Winterflood, showing considerable satisfaction.

The new firm, founded in 1988, was bankrolled by Union Discount, the discount house run by an old friend of Winterflood's, Graeme Gilchrist. By April 1989, the company made its first profit, on the strength of which it threw the first of its now legendary Christmas parties, always thereafter held in April.

In 1993, however, Union was badly in need of capital and Winterflood and his cohorts moved on again. They were bought by Close Brothers, the merchant bank - another longstanding business acquaintanceship which had originally put Wins together with Union.After half an hour's conversation with Winterflood you begin to see the City not as a vast financial centre but as a village in which everyone knows and helps everyone else.

The firm is now 50-strong and making profits of £13m from its niche market of small companies. Several members have worked together for 20 or 30 years now, yet Winterflood still insists on a down-to-earth professionalism. "If the phone rings twice it means we're a Mickey Mouse outfit," states yet another notice in the dealing-room. "People start at the bottom here, making the tea and working in the back office to learn the business," says Winterflood. "Most of them stay for a long time."

Winterflood effectively stepped back from full-time trading when the Stock Exchange floor closed down, but he is far from being stuck in the old days. He sees the equity markets developing in two different directions, with trading in the top 500 companies becoming driven by institutional orders. This will be the cash market underpinning the futures market, and will be fully international. Smaller companies will form a domestic UK market and will continue to trade, as now, on a price basis.

Next year, he believes, will see great changes. Although the proposed merger between Warburg and Morgan Stanley has fallen through, the theory that big is beautiful in financial markets is not likely to go away. Where does that leave Winterflood Securities?

Perhaps, its managing director reluctantly concedes, some link-up with a large firm might eventually be necessary. But not, you get the impression, unless something has gone horribly wrong first.

He indicates a Christmas card on top of a pile on his desk. It says: "May small be strong as well as beautiful." It is signed by the executive director of Nomura in London. "I've never met the man," says Winterflood with a huge grin. "Why has he sent this? Is it the prelude to a bid?"