Sam Smith on avoiding burnout

Sam Smith

The founder and CEO of City broker finnCap discusses the importance of shareholder employees and overcoming a lifelong fear of public speaking

As a teenager I doubled the earnings of my grandfather’s sandwich round. He had a bakery firm and over a fortnight one summer, I delivered sandwiches to offices in an industrial complex. It was the start of me thinking maybe I can do something better.

I love maths and numbers. My first job was as an accountant for KPMG and I loved doing the tax side. In the way I run my business today, I see things in numbers. If I don’t see numbers, I find it hard to see where things are going.

You get more breadth of experience working at smaller firms. When I left KPMG and joined JM Finn as a stockbroker, everybody thought I was barmy. Over the next years, I was involved in everything from making tea to raising £70m for a company and discussing option schemes… I was probably out of my depth but
you learn quickly.

I faced some sexism in my early City days. While representing JM Finn, I dealt with many senior people, who, because I was female, would talk to you like a piece of nothing. I don’t know if younger girls at City firms still experience this problem – I hope not.

One of my biggest challenges was leading the buyout of JM Finn in 2007. Two years later we raised £500k from staff to fund the deal but we needed £2.5m to get the remaining 50 per cent. It took three years of negotiation – a long old process.

When employees own shares, it directly improves team culture. Before the buyout, some of the team didn’t get on. We had a cheque-signing ceremony where many of them wrote cheques for £50,000 to invest – a big commitment [today finnCap’s 75 staff own 95 per cent of the business].

The next day, when they walked into the office, the atmosphere was 100 per cent different. People who were actively trying to backstab colleagues were now trying to help them get a deal. The difference was staggering.

We like new recruits to be shareholders and put money into the business. Even if it’s a few thousand pounds or £20-30 into a share scheme every month, I think it says a lot about commitment.

I’ve battled with shyness ever since school. I never put my hand up in class, and I’ve always hated giving speeches or doing TV or radio interviews.

When I did my first big speech, I was sick twice before going on. I was, thinking, ‘I can’t do this, I can’t stand on a stage in front of 200 people.’ I did it and nobody would have thought I was nervous. The sense of accomplishment was so massive, the next time I did it, I was better.

It’s important that people confront their fears. My mantra is people should push themselves to do something [scary] every year. I did my first TV interview in July – I’ll continue doing more media work, bigger programmes, live TV, all the scary things until I’m comfortable with it.

The key to public speaking is training. My coach told me that people who give amazing speeches are all trained to the maximum. Every part of their speech has been practised from the mannerisms to the little joke to the hand gestures – not much is ad-libbed. Once you realise nobody is naturally good at public speaking and it’s something you can fake, it gives you confidence.

Sometimes I don’t know when to stop working until I hit a brick wall. As I get older, that brick wall hits a bit more regularly.

To prevent burnout, think like an athlete. I heard some great advice at a leadership conference: athletes can win a race at full pelt but need to have a complete rest before starting again. [Sometimes] I just go, ‘I’m not having any more meetings – I just need space to think.’ So I do a spa for a day. That’s enough to recharge me and get me through to my next break.

It’s the CEO’s job to be positive when times are tough. [Despite] everything that might be going on underneath, you have to be like a swan, acting calm and collected as if it’s all fine, even though it’s not.

Mentors are a great source of motivation. My mentor is Vin Murria, founder of Advanced Computer Software. Whenever I meet her, whether it’s for two minutes or an hour, I feel like I can come up with 5,000 more ideas.

Diet Coke is my weakness. I frequently work long hours or throughout the night and need that caffeine fix.

I want to change something for the better and feel like I’ve made a difference. My priorities are young people, particularly women, making sure they see role models and can get to a senior level. Making women realise at a young age that entrepreneurship as a career is important and it’s something I feel passionate about.

Sam Smith CV

Born Selsey, West Sussex, 1974

Position CEO, finnCap

Education Bristol University, economics

Previous roles Accountant, KPMG, 1995; stockbroker and director, JM Finn, 1998; CEO, finnCap, 2007

Did you know? More than £220m has been raised by finnCap for its clients over the last year. The broker tops the rankings of AIM advisers and advises more than 100 of the UK’s fastest-growing companies. Its turnover is £16.1m.

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To find out more about the broking firm, visit

About author

Christian Koch

Christian Koch

Alongside his work for Director, Christian has written features for the Evening Standard, The Guardian, Sunday Times Style, The Independent, Q, Cosmopolitan, Stylist, ShortList and Glamour in an eclectic career which has seen him interview everybody from Mariah Carey to Michael Douglas through to Richard Branson with newspaper assignments including reporting on the Japanese tsunami and living with an Italian cult.

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