In this exclusive interview, our CEO gives insight into his motivations and shares his inspirations, after recently being awarded the title 'CEO of the year'.
CEO of the Year – Chirag Shah, Nucleus Commercial Finance
Nucleus is an alternative business finance provider. I had a clear vision when I set the company up in 2009 – to disrupt the status quo of SME lending with a finance business that served a long underserved part of the market. We work with all sizes of business, in any industry, to provide funding options that are practical and sustainable. These tailored solutions are structured from a carefully considered combination of the various products we offer, rather than a standard business loan.
Our sector specialist knowledge is one of our key competitive differentiators. These experts combine years of experience in their industry with an in-depth understanding of commercial finance. This is particularly valuable in markets such as education and construction which are not well served by banks, who don’t have the deep understanding of the nuances that come with financing these sectors, and so see them as too risky.
Please describe your responsibilities as CEO. What is your leadership style?
My job is to ensure that the business has a clear direction and strategy, and that we are continually innovating to meet the needs of our clients. As an entrepreneur, you start with an idea, and a small team around you to help convert this vision into a reality. As the business grows, it’s critical that you continue to share and reiterate this vision with the wider team – and welcome input.
I strongly believe in an ‘open door policy’. I sit on the main office floor, so I’m constantly surrounded by the buzz of the sales team and hearing the conversations taking place with customers and prospects. Everyone’s days are busy, but my team really does come first, and I care deeply about engaging with them on a personal level.
Encouraging feedback can be one of the hardest things to get right as a leader, but kick-starting an open and honest dialogue with staff makes for a happier and more productive team. This can be hard to do on an ad hoc basis, so I have recently formalised this at Nucleus with monthly Town Hall meetings with open Q&A sessions. Whether it’s a request, an idea, a question that needs answering or a suggestion for how something could be improved, I encourage everyone to hold me and the senior team accountable.
What do you believe is the key to your success? Are there any key attributes that have helped shape your success?
Anyone in my team will tell you that my favourite phrase is “it is possible”. This isn’t just an empty phrase of optimism – it’s a commitment to looking at every situation from all angles. Anything that challenges the status quo is difficult, and new ideas will always battle inertia. You have to work through it and educate your audience. No is always maybe. This curiosity and willingness to challenge is central to my DNA, and a mind-set that I feel strongly about instilling in those around me. I always tell people to not just think about the cost of doing something, but the cost of not doing something.
Please walk me through your career milestones. Please touch base on your education, your first role and how your career has progressed to this level.
Early in my career, I spent some time at Merrill Lynch, but after three months, it became frustratingly clear that it would be incredibly difficult to drive any real change in this enormous organisation. I jumped at the chance to help open a branch of financial services firm Wachovia in London.
That experience gave me the confidence to set up my first business – a deliberately short term venture designed to fulfil a window of opportunity that I saw during the turmoil of the financial crisis to be the person buying not selling. I learned a lot about how to set up a business, and the value of your most important asset – human capital. I still draw a great deal on these learnings and experiences in my current role.
I was just 26 when I founded Nucleus. In 2009, alternative lending was still a very new sector, following the crisis when banks were afraid to lend. By this stage, I had already had the opportunity to collect a lot of experience on both sides of the Atlantic. I could see the differences between the two markets – both in the traditional landscape for financial players, and the business mind-set. For me, the UK presented the greatest opportunity to disrupt and have an impact, in a market which was dominated by the big banks.
What is the culture within the company and how do you ensure that this is understood by all of your staff?
I have worked hard to instil a culture of entrepreneurialism that encourages new thinking in finding solutions to challenges. Approaching situations from a position of opportunity rather than problem is a simple flip in thinking, but often prompts bolder decisions, which have led to some of our greatest product developments. Go to the edge of the cliff without fear and see what happens!
How do you manage staff? Do you have any key principles you adhere to?
It’s so important to give your team the freedom to explore their full potential. Don’t micro manage them. Your people make your business, but they can only do this if you provide clear goals and objectives, and the information that they need to be creative in finding solutions. This won’t work if you only celebrate the successes. Entrepreneurship is about valuing the activities which may not have led to the desired outcome, but which have delivered valuable lessons along the way.
How does it feel to have been selected in the CEO of the Year Awards as the UK CEO of the Year – Corporate Finance?
One of the greatest challenges of being an entrepreneurial CEO is the constant balance you must strike. Between big picture thinking and realistic execution, adaptability and sticking to your guns, and pragmatism versus the courage to roll the dice and risk it all at the right moment. It’s wonderful to be recognised as the head of the business that I feel so passionately about.
What are the key attributes you possess that makes you an award winning business leader?
I know I am naturally impatient, and I’ve been trying and failing over the years to rein this in! In general though, it’s the drive behind my determination to make quick and confident decisions, and my readiness to change direction if something isn’t on track to deliver the outcome I’d anticipated. I’m results driven, and when I don’t see this, I am constantly pushing myself and my team to ask why. What could we be doing better? It’s only by asking the difficult questions that we will stay ahead of the competition.
What advice would you give to someone looking to make a success similar to your own?
The clear answer for me is to surround yourself with a brilliant team. I learnt early in my career that people are the most valuable asset of any business. This means I’ve had to become more patient over the last six years – it’s not unusual for me to spend years pursuing the right person to join the team, rather than hiring someone that doesn’t have another option. Once you have these people, everything hinges on nurturing and scaling the culture to ensure that you’re bringing the team along on with your vision.
Remember, you can only rise up with business if your position is filled beneath you. Empower your team to want your role, and to be striving to fill your shoes. When someone is fulfilling your role, it’s time to move up.
Looking ahead, what do you believe the future holds for both yourself and your firm? Do you have any plans or projects you would be willing to share with us?
I am enormously excited about the future and couldn’t be prouder of the team and what we achieved in 2017. It was a year of fantastic growth – we finished the year having lent over £700m to UK SMEs to date, and we more than doubled the size of our team. We are now at more than 100 staff internationally.
It was also a fantastic year for innovation – we launched our Education Finance product which is expertly designed to fund apprenticeships, smooth cash flow and ease the burden of staged funding. We upgraded our technology platform, allowing us to enable fund deals faster, and enhanced our asset-based lending, increasing its maximum offering to £50m in July, whilst simultaneously lowering pricing for loan products, cash flow and property finance.
All this provides a strong platform for further success in 2018. We are all very much looking forward to the year ahead, continuing to provide funding solutions in line with small business’s needs.