Simon Stilwell: from Army captain to D&I champion

Bonhill Group CEO made the transition from the Army to a successful career in finance, before becoming a D&I champion.

In the first of three interviews, Bonhill Group‘s D&I champion discusses how military skills can be an advantage in business.

Planning, risk assessment, and identifying a winnable situation are essential in the Army. They can also easily be applied to the City, as Simon Stilwell discovered.

“Running or working sales was no different from running an ops room in the Army,” he says. “The two involve bringing in all sorts of different information, distilling it and then briefing people.”

Simon was with the Gloucestershire Regiment and enjoyed a varied career that took him from Infantry Captain to Liaison Officer with the United Nations, with deployments around the world, including Botswana, Kuwait, Bosnia, Germany and Northern Ireland.

“It was a great job because you were young, free and single; you had the opportunity to travel, and you got thrown into mad situations,” he recalls.

“I went from the streets of Northern Ireland in the early/mid-90s to Bosnia in a matter of days. And it couldn’t have been more different. One was very much about keeping the peace during the troubles. The other was working with the United Nations trying to bring peace and harmony in a completely different country with three rival factions who had been at war for years.

“Because you’re wearing a uniform, everyone looks to you as being the person who’s got all the solutions. And, aged 23/24, that’s an incredible responsibility.”

But, when his next tour of duty meant sitting behind a desk in Cyprus for two years, Simon decided to leave. While considering his next move, he spent time with contemporaries from his university days who were in sales in the city and did some work experience with them.

Persistence pays off

Despite a lack of financial qualifications and a clutch of rejection letters – which he still has – Simon’s persistence paid off, and he secured a sales position with a broking firm.

One thing the Army taught him, which he took with him to the City, was a marked difference between the skills required for junior and senior leaders. Junior leadership is all about “we’re all in this together and direct action”, whereas senior leaders need to take a more holistic view of the bigger picture.

“Because I threw myself into situations, I went from being a salesman to a director in about four years,” he reveals. “I brought different things to what was very much an old-school partnership broking business.”

That included communications in the days before mobile phones and email and widespread use of IT. Simon also changed the fee structures to make pricing more commercial.

His experience in the Army meant he was well-equipped to handle stressful situations. As he says: “However bad a situation, every new day is another day to make it better.”

Branching out

After ten years with City firms, Simon decided to branch out. Together with a colleague from a former employer, he formed investment bank Liberum in 2007 with a view to “doing something differently in financial services”. Something that excelled at what it did but was culturally strong, could attract people for the long-term and give equity to people so they could feel part of it.

He wanted to create an environment where it wasn’t about who you could knife to climb to the top, but about what good work you could do.

“I always thought if you could harness all the negative thoughts within the former organisation and turn them into positive ones – let’s work for the client and the good of the business rather than trying to undermine people – you might get a better result.

“And I think we did an excellent job. We started in 2007, the worst time to set up a broking business, and grew over eight years to be the number two small-cap broker. Most importantly, it was the least political organisation I’ve worked in till then. It tried new things, we set up a foundation, and there was a lot of good internal communication, promotion and development.”

Then, following a difference of opinion over the future strategy, Simon amicably stepped down. His planned return to the City, however, had to be put on hold when he broke his leg in a riding accident and was confined to a wheelchair for a month.

Reality check

Healing time also meant thinking time and a reality check on what he wanted to do next. Simon started looking at businesses outside financial services and was struck by, ‘the bright, young, enthusiastic, energetic, unbiased people with vision and drive’ he saw. 

Which was such a massive, refreshing change from banking where everyone was a 50-year-old white guy who says, ‘I’ve done this for 30 years, and I now have to work three times harder than I did ten years ago to get paid half as much’. Eventually, that mantra about how difficult life is becomes the country’s mantra.

“So, seeing all these energetic people and businesses, and having invested in a couple of them, was a complete revelation. These were companies that weren’t fighting against industry headwinds. They were embracing technology and saying what can we do to make this better, how do we win, how do we change?”

Simon is still involved with one of these businesses, which runs six nurseries and is planning to open a school. The experience has been a real eye-opener in terms of people’s ambition and motivation: “In the Army, the motivator is that you signed up to certain standards and responsibilities. In banking, it’s how you get paid, whereas business such as the nurseries do it because they find it rewarding and satisfying and are genuinely changing the direction of many lives.”

Career change

Having learnt about different sectors, and what inspires him the most, Simon grasped the opportunity to become CEO of Bonhill Group.

The business fitted the most with what he wanted to achieve next, and he was excited by the company’s diversity and inclusion activities, such as the Women in IT and Women in Finance awards.

Since taking the reins, Simon identified that, with investment, support and enthusiasm, these celebrations of female achievements could grow from a single site operation to recognise women around the world.

And, so far, progress has been impressive. Women in IT is now in London, New York, San Francisco, Dublin, Singapore, Berlin and Bucharest. Bonhill has also expanded from awards to creating broader D&I initiatives, including summits and the successful best practice sharing platform DiversityQ.

There are plans to develop Bonhill’s diversity and inclusion propositions further. Simon says: “The reality is we’ve had to spend quite a bit of time on the financial services business through acquisitions – which have their own complementary women adviser summits and D&I activities.

“Now that’s done, we can spend more time working to help remove inequalities and celebrate ‘difference’ in the workplace.”
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