The concept of starting work at 5.30am is generally unthinkable to the modern office worker. So ingrained in the daily rush hour battle are many that they could not conceive of beginning the day in the pre-dawn hours.
But that’s the kind of commitment Claire Bennison, Brooks Macdonald’s regional head and boss of the Manchester office, has shown for the bulk of her career.
This meant a period spent training for a marathon saw her running from a smart suburban borough to the City through London’s Elephant & Castle – an area that could kindly be described as ‘gritty’ – at 3.30am.
The reason, for Bennison, is pure practicality. ‘I like starting the day at that point, I get so much done,’ she explains. ‘As the markets start at eight, you should be up-to-date with what’s happened overnight, what you need to do, all the orders you need to put in. And that’s before the markets open in my opinion, because eight o’clock it starts and that’s when you need to be out there talking to clients.’
Being ahead of the game every morning has clearly paid off, as Bennison has risen from her first job as a secretary at Japanese multi-national Nikko Securities in London to being charged with growing Brooks Macdonald’s Manchester office from start-up four years ago to a 14-strong team today.
Leaving school and taking a job at Nikko, Bennison become ensconced in the world of investment under the tutelage of Stuart Thomson, now chief economist at Ignis and a man she describes as ‘outstanding’.
‘Stuart – and I think he’d hate me for saying this – is one of the most outstanding economists this country, well, Scotland has produced,’ she says. ‘He’s got such an outstanding insight on different issues and the way he writes and presents means it’s understandable for everyone.’
Thomson’s influence, alongside that of a female line manager, made Bennison realise she too could carve out a role in the world of investment – worlds away from the ambition her younger self held of becoming a police officer.
‘At the time of leaving school I had great ambitions to go into the police force,’ she said. ‘However, turning up at Nikko changed all that. I decided then that experience is everything. You can learn theory at the same time as getting experience.
‘My line manager for the futures team was a lady called Anna Plumber and I think if I had not worked for her I might have gone to university.
‘She was a manager in a very male dominated world who got to being the line manager of a futures desk in a Japanese bank at a very young age. And she did it in all the right ways – she was always honest, she always showed integrity and she never did something at the expense of someone else. And I think learning from her at that early age really stood me in good stead.’
Part of this learning was technical analysis, something Bennison took to with gusto: ‘From that point on, I became passionate about technical analysis and I am still.’
The discipline reinforced her working relationship with Thomson, as the pair found their differing perspectives complementary.
‘Stuart will always favour his economics and I will always favour my technical side but we certainly don’t ignore the other side,’ she says. ‘I believe you have to take both to get closer to the most probable answer. And that’s all we’re trying to do; there’s no black and white.’
Alongside the building of a firm friendship with Thomson, Bennison also values her early career for the variety of experience it afforded her – something she built on later when she embarked on an MBA.
‘I think what helped me was that I worked my way up from the bottom. As a secretary you’re not pointed very much in one particular direction, you get to learn the breadth of different elements.
‘So in that way I got years and years of experience and then I added it on to the theory but in the way that I wanted to go. I wasn’t just focused on investments, I was interested in the business – how HR worked and things like that– so I got a much broader feel of that.’
Bennison worked at several broking houses, and later made the move to the buy side, starting work as head of currencies at Barclays. She found herself working under another inspirational manager, the then-CIO Bruce Russell.
‘I got to the point where I’d had enough and I wanted to go on to the buy side and get the ability to use my skill sets more in-depth – to analyse and learn more about what I was doing. And that transition happened when I joined Barclays. It wasn’t hard because I was ready for it but it was definitely different. You’re not in a room where people are shouting left, right and centre all the time, it was much quieter, it’s more contemplative.
‘I was still doing the core thing I had always been doing, and loved doing, and I just had more people to discuss it with.’
The mentoring she received during those early years has had a clear impact on Bennison, and she speaks of her workplace influences – Thomson, Plumber and Russell – with a genuine admiration sometimes lacking in people of her standing.
Working under another manager with whom she had great respect taught Bennison a lesson often forgotten in the corporate world. ‘I know this sounds corny but you see it when you work in big banks: so many people get treated in an appalling fashion and I hope I never do that.’
After seven years at Barclays, and a five-year part-time MBA in full throttle, Bennison decided the time was right for a hiatus.
‘The department I worked in just grew and grew and sometimes when the department grows you can lose that small, personal team feel, which is what I love,’ she says.
‘At that point I had worked non-stop for over 18 years so it was the right time all round to take a break.’
On a brief sabbatical, Bennison learned to scuba dive in Mozambique and met the founders of an African charity – Nema – of which she is now a trustee.
She has long been involved in charity work, running the marathon in her 20s and swimming the English channel in her 30s. Last year she solidified her reputation for physical mastery by completing the ‘Super Six’ – an 80-hour battery of fearsome endurance including swimming three lakes and hiking three mountains.
Returning to the UK, Brooks Macdonald offered Bennison the chance to set up its first Manchester office, and despite spending her working life in London and having no links to the north, she upped sticks and made the move.
‘It was myself and Katie [Amos, then executive support], and three months later Richard Gadd [investment manager] joined us. There was no furniture, nothing in the room,’ she remembers.
Assets, too, had to be built ‘near enough’ from scratch. ‘There was some business here but most of it we built.’
The move allowed her the surest chance yet to repay some of the mentoring she had received, and her executive support Katie Amos later applied to become an investment trainee, and is now working alongside Bennison as an investment manager.
The challenge, Bennison found, was having the right workforce, and the only slight setback was a difficulty in getting an appropriate business development manager.
‘We now have a guy in that position but we had two people previously, and we were probably slower than we should have been because we didn’t have the right person in the role,’ she says.
Part of that ‘right person’ skill set involves northern links.
‘That was one of the clear things [we] agreed on when we opened the office: the people we would hire would come from the North,’ Bennison says. ‘I would be the only southern person. A key decision of ours is we would only hire people from the area.’
While she jokes she has ‘been categorically told I’ll never get my northern passport because I wasn’t born and bred up here’, she has assumed a palpable sense of pride in the area.
‘We can do as good a job as any other part of the region, as any other part of the country including London.
‘Just because you’re not in London doesn’t mean you’re not as good and I think when you move up here you really see that.’