WHY WE DO WHAT WE DO
I established Good & Prosper four years ago with a very vague idea of creating a knowledge business and without really having much of an idea what the company might do. I had been inspired/goaded/prodded by a few successful examples of seasoned experts who had managed to curate their knowledge and experience into a commercial model, building an audience, customers and creating a thriving business. I found this intriguing and inspirational but wasn’t exactly sure what my focus might be and who might be interested in it. I did, however, intuit that, given my proclivities, this might just be an ideal construct for me. After years of dithering, I now have enough evidence from conversations with and presentations to business owners and entrepreneurs to believe that one of the great teaching opportunities is in finance and financial literacy and that is now the proper focus for Good & Prosper.
Perhaps for those of my readers who do not know me personally, some background might be helpful:
I am an Englishman, born in 1963. My great love has always been writing and literature and poetry. I studied languages and literature at school and later at university, where I majored in medieval german literature, the root of our modern understanding of writing and narrative. I should, I suppose have gone into advertising or publishing and I thought briefly about it when, in 1986, the time came for me to choose a career, but I had married young, needed to get a “proper job” and found myself – at the age of 24 – with two options: One a junior management job in a battery factory in the north of England or two, a trainee position with a US bank at their newly opened Munich office. Obv, as my daughters might say.
I had to commit for two years indenture or repay the bank the $40K which they were going to invest in my education as a rookie financial advisor, but took the job “ as just as fair” and because my family were of the firm opinion that there was indeed no profession to which I was less suited than that of finance. To my mutton-headed personality structure that was all the encouragement I needed and off I went to immerse myself in the world of interest rates, butterfly spreads and PE ratios. I entered the financial profession in late 1987, about two months before the Great Crash of October 19th, after which all the large banks and brokerages instigated an 18-month hiring freeze. So, had I not nipped in during the heady halcyon days of that summer, given my staggering lack of qualification for the industry, I doubt if I should ever have entered it afterwards. But, alia iacta sunt, and there I was on my way to my Series 3, 5 & 7 qualifications and all the commission I could generate without dying of shame.
I found I really didn’t like the US brokerage-investment banking culture even then when it was still comparatively harmless compared to its modern manifestation, but I loved the knowledge I was gleaning and the insights into how the world was connected from understanding how money and capital worked their way through the system. It was like learning a new language and I discovered that numbers, the language of finance and business, had their own grammar and syntax and spelling and order, which needed respecting but, once mastered, uncovered, as language is wont to do, a treasure trove of stories and narratives. So I was hooked. I was also hooked on economics or more specifically the classics from political economy and read them voraciously. My father, with whom I had then and subsequently, although happily no longer today, a fraught relationship, found a subject of common interest and bequeathed me his library of economic texts which encompassed works from Adam Smith, Bentham, Locke, Schumpeter, Von Mises and Keynes and I dutifully devoured them, of which more later.
At the same time, I found economics or the power of capital and its tidal ebb and flow through society jumping out at me from literature on every page. Victorian novelists used the enormous social upheaval taking place in a hitherto largely agricultural feudal Britain not merely as backgrounds to, but the very reasons for their narratives. The industrial revolution and Britain’s trading empire created unheard-of wealth for largely (but not exclusively) non-aristocratic parvenus and presented ideal conditions for the novelists to create narratives to explain the dislocation and the tension. The tidal wave of money upset social orders created new problems, upended ancient manners and customs: ripe food for the Dickens’, Trollopes, Hardys, James, Rossettis and Tennysons of that century. Mirroring that across the Atlantic, the inexorable rise of the industrial USA fuelled by Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Carnegies, Goulds, Morgans and Bessemers created a different but no less powerful energy which fed into the poetry, philosophy and narrative of the transcendentalists of the mid 18th Century, led by Emerson, Hawthorne, Whitman, Thoreau, Alcott, Dickinson et al. All of these literary processors were attempting to explain, make sense of and create a context for the vast change in the human condition brought about by the awesome power unleashed by the enlightenment some 200 years earlier, at whose heart were the mighty twin stroke engines of science and finance.
That, at least, is how I saw it: follow the money! Understand capital, follow it where it leads you through the arteries and blood vessels of society and you will begin to understand how the heart and lungs and kidneys and limbs of our body politic are connected, fed and supplied with the blood they need to function. This, then, was my discovery: an understanding that business and in particular the language of commerce and finance was a gateway to understanding the larger story of our human condition. Not the only one, by any means and probably not even the most important, but a significant gateway nonetheless and one which I revelled in passing through and discovering. It was as if I had been gifted a secret filter through which to see the world and uncover new truths for myself.
In addition, the old classical works of political economy, the previously alluded to books by Adam Smith, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, von Mises, Rothbard and Schumpeter, even Keynes, were more works of philosophy than economics. Indeed it took until the late 1970s for the dismal science to become completely overrun with faux-physicists armed with their weaponised calculus and econometric models, whose main distinction was the absence of any ability to write well or communicate clearly. Imagine my surprise when, on quizzing my peers who had either studied or were in the process of studying Economics in the UK or Germany, not one of them had ever been confronted with what was often disparagingly referred to as “primary text”. So my journey has been almost entirely autodidactic and unspoilt by not having had to engage with turgid tertiary texts or worse. I have learned by following a random trail of literary breadcrumbs through the forest of political economy (my preferred term for the subject as it keeps the political and social nature of the enquiry front and centre) taking it wherever it happens to lead me. I read widely and deeply. Some of those books have been instrumental in framing my whole thinking process, most particularly Benjamin Graham’s two primary texts “The Intelligent Investor”, which I reread every year and his larger tome published in 1935 In the process of three decades I have morphed into an Austrian School aficionado and a value investor of the Graham & Dodd persuasion, not just because their thinking and logic is so refreshingly robust but because man! could they write.
Early on I also discovered an ability to read accounts and to let them tell their stories to me. I found all the drama, narrative construct, tragedy, excitement, hubris and catharsis, even love and certainly passion contained in the superficially dry and unyielding confines of annual reports. In much the same way as one chapter tells you little about the story of a novel, so one balance sheet tells only an excerpt of a longer narrative, but when read as an arch of time, the drama and storyline reveal themselves, even though the verbal language itself might be starched to the point of anaesthesia. The numerical language tells its own story and that is the one I learned to read and appreciate.
Lawrence Cunningham, who has recently published an exquisite book “Dear Shareholder – The Best Executive Letters from Great CEOs” writes in his introduction:
“It was 1987 when I began studying shareholder letters. The more I read, the more I realised that the best ones tell a story about a company, and if you read those over time, that story unfolds much like a good book. Reading a company’s letters, I got to know its corporate culture, as well as the personality of its leaders….In 2016 The New Yorker declared the field a “literary genre”, stressing styles of prose and strategies of repetition evoking Gertrude Stein.”
And so it was that I found myself migrating towards the community of entrepreneurs, SMB owners and leaders, family business executives whose understanding of the language of business and finance was much like my Spanish. I get the gist of what is being said, miss all the subtleties and start stumbling when I have to express anything more complicated than ordering a paella and a bottle of water. To them I wanted to act as a translator and interpreter and, if possible, encourage them to learn and become comfortable with the language themselves. If I, a poet manqué, can learn and appreciate this stuff, then, I reasoned, it should be a doddle for them. And that is pretty much what I have been doing, surreptitiously until last year.
There have been times, in the not too distant past, at which I have felt that I may have wasted my career, that I had made wrong choices as a young man and had never really found the energy or opportunity to exit from money world. It was not as if I had not had my fundamental unsuitability for the business clearly demonstrated to me on several occasions and had my proverbials handed to me on a silver plate more than once. Even trying to articulate a deeper purpose proved to be an exercise that never really yielded a result that I could claim as being enough to power me through the humiliation of failure. Many times I questioned my inability to leave my original career path and wondered whether it was due to a lack of imagination or simply cowardice that kept me from walking off the tarmac and heading cross-country in search of a different, happier path more suited to my talents. More productively, I would also ask what kept me on the path rather than interrogating myself on all the reasons for not leaving it. The answer lay – and lies – in the subject of mastery. I have never lost my fascination for the subject and feel that there is still so much more to know and comprehend. One of my father’s earliest admonitions to me went something along the lines “It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you master it” an idea has always stayed with and guided me. I think that beyond a certain technical mastery and a mastery of context, which I believe I have achieved, certainly enough to be able to move on, business and finance require a mastery of self and that is a work in progress. Instinctively I suppose or through the guiding hand of my creator, in whom I happen to believe strongly, I was drawn to a subject matter that at its core would require me to master myself, before revealing its purpose to me. That, I think, more than anything else, has kept me firmly on this path. I can figure out what I want to do when I grow up later.
Last year, I was persuaded by a dear friend and travelling companion in the world of business to put down my ideas around finance and financial literacy so that it could be taught more systematically. I did this, loved every second of it and gave two 8 week courses to a small virtual group of entrepreneurial guinea-pigs, first in German and then to a US/UK english-speaking audience brought to me by another friend and associate. I am currently trying to understand how I might distill my learnings from those pilot courses into a more professional learning experience, but from that process and from the very encouraging feedback I received on a recent visit to the US where I had been invited to speak on the subject of financial literacy and appreciating the language of business, I am resolved to give it my best shot and see if there is indeed a wider audience for my perspective and for the context and learning experience I – assisted enormously by my plotters and their feedback – am able to provide. That is what Good & Prosper is designed to deliver.
This, then, after three decades of learning myself feels like a purpose. To use my own long and painful financial education to assist others who may, like me, have wandered into business with only a rudimentary understanding of the nature of finance and who would love nothing more than to become more confident, more masterful and more deliberate in their comprehension of the language of business, better to lead themselves and the enterprise they have spent so much time and effort creating and into which they have poured so much of their identity and their aspirations of success.