David Lamb (Actuarial Science 1975) – making sure a business plan comes together

Currently Non-executive Chairman of New Ireland Insurance and Chairman of Polar Capital Holdings plc, David Lamb attended the recent Bayes Alumni Forum to share the fruits of his 45+ years of professional experience. He recounts the circumstances in which he launched his entrepreneurial career and the people and advice on which he drew, and offers tips to those considering a similar path.


What motivated you to attend and contribute to the Bayes Alumni Forum?

I’ve been very lucky that people have given me their time, guidance and advice in my career, at different stages. I’m very conscious of that and now I have time to reflect back and maybe offer useful advice of my own which I’ll share if it’s of interest and use. For nearly 10 years I was a governor at the University of West of England, and Chair of the Board for the last three years. This gave me a lot of opportunities to engage with the students . There were lots of conversations where you didn’t have to advise as such, just help them with what they were doing.


What is the theme of the breakout session you’re heading?

I’m going to focus on what I’ve learnt being part of a start-up team, starting from a business plan and taking it through to being quoted on the FTSE 100. I’ll be sharing what we learnt along the way, what I learnt on the way, about business, about me as much as anything else, and about the good and less good things that happened. You always remember the positives, but actually there’s a lot of things that you learn from and you wouldn’t want to do again.


What professional experiences will you draw upon in the session?

I think one of the crucial things that you learn is as follows – you’re asked to deliver a plan, but you have no information about how you’re going to execute it. But you know what the objective is.

The opportunity came up to launch a business in Sweden in conjunction with one of the big Swedish banks. I had no prior experience of doing business in the country but I knew the right questions to ask in order to get things off the ground. In short, I had the confidence to know what I wanted to achieve and in what areas I needed help and guidance. And then from that, you just build up. Once you understand the objective, you deal with the next hurdle which, in my case, was doing business in a language I didn’t speak!

You find answers by understanding what you’re trying to do. I suppose there’s a certain element of taking the plunge as well, because I guess some people might have been slightly warned off. They might have viewed, for example, the linguistic issue as an obstacle, but I found a solution to it by collaborating with a Swedish lady who acted as the intermediary for translating.

Is risk-taking fundamental to entrepreneurialism?

How you calculate risk is key. Don’t kid yourself on that one. But you’ve got to be prepared to take the chance, to take the opportunity. That’s the first thing. Otherwise, you wouldn’t leave a job and launch a start-up. I’ve said this to students before – you’ve got great training, you’re young, you’ve got energy. I was 35 at the time. I had a decent amount of experience behind me as well. So why not back yourself? Because you’ve got an awful lot of talent, and you’ll find ways to help yourself, and people will help you on the journey.


From when did you have the entrepreneurial bug?

What germinated the idea was the people I started to meet. I’ve been lucky to meet some really bright people. One in particular. He and I got on really well and he suggested I should think about it. I went along to talk to the team, and whose idea it was, and I liked them. Luckily, they liked me and I was offered the opportunity.

At the same time, another company were trying to start up in Bristol. I went down to talk to them, and I thought, well, I’ll go and see how things compare and contrast. I eventually deduced that an enormous organisational structure like that wouldn’t suit me.


What advice would you give those considering their own business venture?

 Being an entrepreneur can be lonely, so surround yourself with good people. You need to have the humility to understand you don’t have all the answers. And that’s absolutely fine. Then you’ve got to think carefully about where you can go and get advice and help. There’s a whole range of people who will absolutely respond positively to your requests for advice, information and help. I don’t mean on commercial terms but more that they’ll give you their time and input. If you want to work with them on commercial terms, then great but don’t start from there. That’s the thing about finding the right people. I learned a lot about recruiting people, about building a company. It’s all about getting the people rather than filling a role. There’s a big difference between those two things.

What benefits do you hope alumni will derive?

Confidence, I think. Not to be risk-takers without any consequences, but to back themselves, to go and explore ideas, to follow their passion, understand it may not be a lifelong career, but that it might take them to an interesting area that they can then benefit from. Above all, be confident that they’ve got the ability to go out and back themselves.

The other thing I think I’ll try and get across is for them to be choosy, to be picky about who they give their time to. They deserve to work with people who have the same values as them. I spent a lot of time recruiting over the years and that was the most important thing for me.