Me And My Partner: Two forces to be reckoned with

Rupert Webb set up financial services company Freedom Finance in 2000 and later sold a stake in the business to US investors. Tony Machin was an adviser on the deal before he joined the company
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The Independent Online

Rupert Webb

Rupert Webb

I was in the merchant navy for three years. But I realised that, unless I worked my way up to chief engineer, when I came out I'd probably be fixing hospital boilers for the rest of my life.

So I left the merchant navy and I worked in a factory and as a nightclub DJ for nine months. Then my car blew up and I got onto the books of a recruitment agency, thinking that I could find a job which provided a company car. It turned out that the agency only dealt with finance companies. I ended up at a financial services company called London Scottish.

I left after a few years and joined Yorkshire Bank Finance. I worked my way up to assistant manager until my boss and I decided we would leave and set up in business together. At the last minute he changed his mind, but I left anyway.

I started working from the bedroom doing hire purchase of vehicles for contacts I'd made in previous jobs. After about nine months I started doing secured loans and the business grew quite quickly.

It wasn't until after the recession in the 1990s that I decided to build up the business more with a view to selling it in the future. I brought in a non-executive director and a finance director who did some restructuring and put new systems in place.

We decided to go ahead with the sale of part of the business and appointed Rothschild's to handle it, which is how I met Tony. He had been the youngest major in the British army when he was 30. He then joined Rothschild's in the corporate team and he headed up the project to sell my business. We ended up selling 55 per cent to some American investors. He did such a good job that I offered him a position.

We are different characters. He is extremely professional and well organised. He has great leadership skills and he comes from a corporate background. I knew those were the type of skills I needed.

Tony can hold everyone's attention in a room. He speaks very well. He is a very good negotiator. He provides a different type of leadership. He was very military when he started, but the edges have been rounded off now. He would probably say that I have more of a informal type of leadership, but the blend has been excellent.

He brought an element of military planning to the business. One of the sayings in the army is "no more than seven men". Tony organised the business around seven managers who each has seven people under them, and seven under them. The teams were organised in colours. There is definitely a military trait to the business, but the people that work here appreciate that they are managed very professionally.

We never row. We have never had raised voices since we met. And we have totally different styles. If you saw my office now, there is paper and things all over the floor, completely unkempt and untidy. If you go in to his office you won't see a piece of paper, it's absolutely spotless and everything is in its place. But being different helps in that we complement each other.

He has got superb interpersonal skills. He is very good at restructuring management teams and processes. He is doing that at the moment at one of our subsidiaries. But he's been round the whole business. He has been managing director of each of the subsidiaries. He's run them and moulded them so that he understands them.

I'm still here full-time, although I do take a lot of holidays, I have to admit. Five years ago when I went away my phone used to ring every 10 minutes. When I was away last week I went about four days without anybody contacting me. With Tony around the business runs very well without me.

Tony Machin

I met Rupert in 1999 when I was advising him on the part-sale of his business. I was considering new pastures at the time. I had spent a long time in the army. My skills are very operationally focused, in people management and project management, whereas to get anywhere at Rothschild's, although you don't have to be an accountant, clearly some financial understanding and training goes a long way.

So when Rupert made the suggestion that I come and join him, it wasn't something that I'd never considered before.

We both have a forces background. We have similar values and similar outlooks, but we are different characters. Rupert didn't stay long in the merchant navy. He's an entrepreneur. I suspect long term military discipline and procedure probably wouldn't have suited him.

When he suggested me joining the business it didn't take very long to make a decision. The company was full of energy. It was a fun place but also hard working and successful. It was much like Rupert - very driven, very entrepreneurial and lots of fun. From my military days, I remember having leadership lessons and it is quite common that an organisation takes on the characteristics of its leader. This is a classic example of that. Rupert has got fantastic energy, but he knows precisely what he wants and is very clear. He is one of the most natural leaders I've ever come across and I've worked for a fair few. He is very easy-going, but when he makes his point everybody just gets on and does it.

But because of his energy, he is very quick to make decisions. I didn't fully appreciate that when I joined. And one of the things that I've tried to do is to temper that sometimes. The knee-jerk decision isn't always the best one.

The man-management and the project management skills which I'd learnt in the army were something that I was able to bring to bear. It was fairly natural. I brought in some organisational structure to complement the energy and the entrepreneurial spirit that was already here.

It took a while. I have run every part of this business. I understand how it ticks at a very detailed level, as well as a more strategic one, just as well as Rupert does, if not more so in some areas.

Our roles are quite clear. People understand that Rupert is the group chief executive and know where his responsibility lies. I have a very clear role as group managing director. However, I deputise for Rupert in the chief executive role and there is some crossover. But wherever there is cross over we make sure we spell that out to whoever needs to know.

We don't always agree. I will give him my advice and my thoughts. He will listen to my opinion. But if we don't agree, then I fully expect that it will always be his decision. And I don't have any axe to grind about that. It is a role I've been used to in the army. You advise as much as you can. But at the end of the day it is the commanding officer's decision.

We don't spend that much time together on a daily basis. I spend a lot of time away from the office. But as an organisation I think we are very disciplined in our communication. Everybody knows what is going on and we should only need to talk to each other outside of a general update if there's a problem. Thankfully we don't face that many problems.