Baby on the way? Why not leave your job and set up a business?!
Where did the idea of Assista come from? How did you come up with the name? Why would anybody be this interested in NHS finance? These are just some of the questions I get asked on a daily basis...
I'm James Wilson, Managing Director of Assista Consulting.
It all started back in 2003 as I toiled away in Birkenhead working for a shipping company. It wouldn't be too far from the truth to say that I hated it. Irritating colleagues, terrible (frankly dangerous) working conditions and a nagging feeling that I might have taken a wrong turning moving back to my home city after years away.
Having started up a dotcom and worked in a London record company - yes, with famous people, more on that later - for much of the late 90s/early 00s I was still yet to qualify as an accountant too. Believe me, I was not a happy camper. Having had a fairly glamorous life in London I found myself back in Liverpool looking for a new challenge.
So I got my head down and decided I was going to pass my remaining exams, much to the annoyance of my immediate boss who wasn't qualified himself. And things were going well until the night of the annual shipbrokers dinner over in Liverpool. It was a black tie event on a Friday evening full of important people from that particular industry and the owner of our shipping company threw a lot of money at it every year.
Even though I'm a shy, retiring (!) type of person for some reason I found myself in the unpaid position of social secretary. I used to buy the customers booze at Christmas, sort out arrangement, get cigars, hire dinner suits etc etc. And on this particular night I was in the bar of the Crowne Plaza entertaining customers until well after my usual bedtime.
Normally this would be okay, but I had college the next day and, you guessed it, I didn't go in : (
Not the end of the world you might think, but let me introduce some more information... My wife, who for years had shown no interest in children whatsoever, had recently announced that she was pregnant. This was happy news, but I immediately knew that I would have only one chance to take my finals. Having seen it happen to a few friends already I was completely aware that once we had a baby in our lives there would be no time for anything else. Sorry CIMA, but small people really do trump you.
So I was now one day down with the exams three weeks ahead. It doesn't sound much, but as anyone who's taken (and passed) accountancy finals knows it was absolutely crucial. I was like a thorough bred racing horse being trained for the Grand National, everything had been planned out to the minutest detail and I was ONE DAY DOWN!!!
Having spent the previous Friday night entertaining their customers I decided it may be reasonable to ask for a day off out of MY annual leave in order that I could catch up with my revision plan. But no dice. My immediate boss, the unqualified one, wouldn't let me have the time off, the miserable so-and-so.
We spent a day, our desks opposite each other, discussing it, but he wouldn't budge until eventually I snapped."
Can I have a word?" I asked, walking off into the boardroom.
"What is it?"
"No you're not."
"Yes, I am."
And that was it. I packed my bag and walked off. That particular day I didn't have my car with me and I had to walk about half a mile to the dock gates knowing that my departure would be going round the office like wildfire and that they would all, no doubt, be watching me out of the window.
It's fair to say that, so far anyway, it was the longest walk of my life. No job, baby on the way. Oh yeah, and wife self-employed, did I mention that? So no maternity pay either. Half of me wanted to walk back and say sorry, half of me was, frankly, over the moon and a little tiny bit of me felt very, very foolish. It was a very strange feeling, but then at that very moment I thought sod it, I'll start my own business.
Anyway, I passed my exams, I set up Assista planning to do bookkeeping and payroll, and my wife started to get very fat around the middle but, as often happens when you throw yourself in the path of opportunity, the universe started to conspire with me. I got a call, out of the blue, from a bloke I'd been at school with asking me if I'd do a short contract on some project work at a hospital.
"Which hospital?" I asked.
"Liverpool Women's," he replied.
The very place where Mrs. W was about to give birth! It was a complete no-brainer. I ended up spending a very happy six months there under the wing of Dave Renouf, the Deputy Director of Finance, learning about every aspect of NHS finance and I'm not ashamed to say that I loved it. Still do. The opportunity to get up every day and help squeeze more care out of the budget and make everything more efficient really, really appeals to me in a way that counting Shania Twain's royalties never did. And yes, I really have done both...
While I was at Liverpool Women's I realised there were loads and loads of ideas I could bring from industry into the NHS and that is, in a nutshell, how Assista started.
We had a lot of help and support on the way though and I think it's worth giving a shout-out to some very influential customers and business partners, so thank you:
Rachel Hurst, formerly of Liverpool Heart & Chest FT, now at Merseycare, for believing in us and giving us the first leg up.
Lisa Quinn, Northumberland, Tyne & Wear FT, for taking a chance on our fledgling LTFM service.
Mark Greatrex, The Walton Centre FT, for letting us loose on his reference costs two years running.
Gary Andrews, Liverpool Community Trust, for getting us involved in a number of really exciting projects.
Nichola Saul, NRG, for sourcing work for us for years now.
And Will Griffiths, Axon Resourcing, for his constant support.
It's a shame, but I'm not going to name our individual team members here, mainly because when I have in the past people have tried to poach them. Suffice to say though we have literally decades of NHS finance experience between us.
P.S. Some rock'n roll stories. I used to calculate Shania Twain's royalties - you wouldn't believe how much money she used to earn from just adverts! We had all sorts in our recording studio, Annie Lennox, Kylie, Ronan Keating etc, but I think my favourite story was having to serve Robbie Williams and his producer their lunch on their own special plates when they were mixing 'Swing When You're Winning'. I can still remember standing in the canteen shovelling food from one plate to another while the chef moaned about the food going cold. Bonkers!
P.P.S. Where did the name, Assista, come from? Truth be told I'm not sure to be honest, but it is a lot better than my first attempt which was 'Enablis'! If anyone wants that one they can have it with my blessing.
© 2021 Assista Consulting UK Ltd