Me And My Partner: Michael Symons - Mark Jackson

Solicitor Michael Symons used to play squash with Mark Jackson, a general practitioner. In 1992 they set up Helphire, which arranges car repairs, vehicle replacement and insurance payouts for innocent drivers after accidents. These days their business is worth pounds 200m
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The Independent Online
MICHAEL SYMONS: Mark and I used to play squash at the same club. He is tall and has a long reach and got in the way a lot, and both of us were competitive. He was one of the most self-confident people I've ever met: people would perceive him as arrogant. We used to joke that his brain was the size of the planet - he went to Oxford and has several degrees. Mark's a brilliant doctor if you could arrange to be ill and make an appointment four weeks ahead. He is a businessman and ran his practice like a business.

We're both entrepreneurial. I had run a legal practice, then moved into property development. I have never worked for anyone since qualifying and put up a brass plaque with my name on it. I made a lot of money out of law and lost it in property. I knew I was unemployable.

Mark had a conversation with a friend about setting up a credit hire company. Then he mentioned it to my sister at a dinner party and she said, "Speak to Michael". To me, Helphire was bread and butter: I was willing to have a serious crack at anything with potential, and prepared to work extremely hard. This looked like an idea with some merit, but I didn't visualise building an empire. I wanted to be in control, so I provided my services as a consultant through a limited company. I was going to be undervalued in a start-up and I insisted on having the intellectual property rights to what we were doing. It wasn't contentious, I think Mark understood.

I did the market research and a business plan and Mark put the money together. I rang a number of car body shops which had accident victims going in there for estimates. I was amazed how many there were. Initially that's all we looked at. We weren't sure it was going to work. Everybody has prejudices, and I didn't want to get into a car-hire business. My concern was that I'd be on the end of a phone all day.

I employed people I knew. With the recession, there were a lot of good ones around; sparky, positive and energetic. Commercially, it was difficult because insurance companies were trying to strangle us at birth, not settling claims and making spurious legal arguments so we'd have to go to court. We were looking from one week to the next, but we were well-capitalised and didn't have any bank-borrowing.

That was an example of Mark's self-confidence - he went up to people and said: "I've got a nice idea, give me pounds 10,000 and don't ask any questions, just let us get on with it." You wouldn't think that approach would work but sufficient people had faith in him and responded. He's reliable, and he'll always find a way of doing things.

Our business grew exponentially. We could see there was a market and you dream of having a big business but I don't think you expect it. It took off in 1995. Up till then, I had divided my attention by running a network marketing company as well. You can't focus on more than one thing at a time. Helphire was a secure business, but with networking you never knew how long it was going to last. I also felt my skills were going to be better rewarded there - I'm innovative, challenging the status quo, and felt I was a good lawyer.

Mark and I weren't really working together at the start. It was my baby. I couldn't see myself working with somebody else because I was a control freak. That all changed when we floated the company in 1997 and had to have a proper board. Mark's also a bit of a control freak, and we have learned over the years to work as a team.

Confident people don't like to have their decisions changed; we'll talk things through. It's a case of two and two equalling five. He said that I was an intellectually stimulating person because I think things through carefully. We've never had a situation where I've had to pull rank on Mark, though I would if I had to.

We have always felt the company is charmed. Things just fall into place, like it's meant to be. It's really strange, as if somebody's looking on us favourably. The horizon always seems to be 21 miles away, and as you get closer you can see further. We both feel that as soon as it stops being fun, we'll stop doing it.

MARK JACKSON: Michael is skillful at squash: he'd been taught to play properly and he was stylish, fit and determined. It was always down to 8-8 in the last game of five. We played together for five or six years and if you took 100 games, it would have been 50 each.

Most people don't realise that being a GP is a part-time job - 20 hours a week of patient contact - and I was looking for something else to annoy people with. I had a conversation about credit hire with my friend Alec Newsham, and we wrote a business plan on the back of an envelope.

I told my wife I needed somebody with time and legal experience. Michael's sister is one of her best friends, and she suggested I talk to him. Alec went off and set up his own business in Leeds. My practice partner had a husband who's a dentist, with a lot of rich clients. Michael and I told him about Helphire to see if he was interested in investing, and he was. I suppose people were confident because the other business ventures I had done were successful.

Michael and I are very different: he has a legal background, and I am a scientist. Michael will be strongly influenced by his feelings, tempered by his legal training - always making sure that you check everything, then double check, and get it in writing. I am a much more analytical individual and will usually respond to the question by asking for lots of information.

What we have in common and what's made the whole thing work very well is that we do seem to inspire confidence. We seem to be able to motivate people. It's a mix of infectious enthusiasm and charisma. In the early days we recruited a few people we knew. But what's important is that we make friends of the people we are working with.

I understood why Michael wanted control of the company at the beginning. I had a professional income, but he was taking a big step by doing it as a career and he wanted some security, which gave him the confidence to dedicate himself to the company. As he started to concentrate on Helphire in 1995, life started getting harder for me: I was trying to juggle two full-time jobs. I would never like to do it again, but I'd like to write a book about it.

I've always set myself demanding targets and in the long term, that's hugely helpful. One thing that makes people collapse is a lack of confidence that they can do something. You know it's not going to be nice, but I think deep down you know if you want to, you can do it. Medical training helped me to cope: in one six-month house job I had an average 122-hour week, and I worked every single one of those hours.

After the flotation, things got better and better. Leaving my medical practice was a natural evolution. I was part of the public face of the company and I couldn't not be there. The day-to-day running of the company infrastructure is my job.

What often causes problems for growing companies is the mechanics of growth. We have achieved it by building it into the fabric of the culture. Nobody has ever had the experience of Helphire not growing, or expects anything to stay the same. We're totally relaxed with saying, "I don't know", and one thing we tell people about is our degree of "confidence with uncertainty", if that makes sense.

Michael and I never argued. We actively disagree about lots of things and we have long debates to work them out - we're still intensely competitive - but if you win, you win; if you lose, you just get on with it. I have always been a "glass half-full" man, pathologically optimistic. We both believe things just seem to happen for us, but the other side of that is the need to be flexible. If something happens, you have to work with it.

Interviews by

Rachelle Thackray