Andrew Thirkill has built a remarkable business empire, presiding over an eclectic collection of commercial assets. Currently, he is probably best-known as Founder and Chairman of Age Partnership, the country’s largest supplier of equity release products for over-55’s. But he has been involved in everything from telephone services to laser eye surgery and television listings. How did it all start, and where does he go next?
Q: Can you tell us something about your start in life and subsequent start in business?
A: I was born in a working-class part of Leeds, called Meanwood. My father sold construction equipment and always wore a collar and tie. It’s fair to say I wasn’t particularly academic, and, after leaving school, I became an apprentice bricklayer in the hot summer of 1976. Not fancying working in winter weather, I took a job at Kay’s catalogue as a filing clerk, where I stayed for nearly two years. Unknown to me, my mother applied on my behalf for a trainee sales rep position on the Yorkshire Post, a regional morning paper. I, or should I say she, was successful, and I got the job in August 1978, working on selling classified ads on both the Yorkshire Post and the Yorkshire Evening Post. With all due modesty, I was later told I was one of their most successful sales reps.
Q: It sounds as if you could have been set up for life with a senior position on one of the country’s biggest regional papers. So why, in April 1981, did you leave?
A: The simple answer is that I wanted to launch my own business, thus Andrew Thirkill Publicity was born. But it was not an easy birth. I had to raise some of the start-up capital on two credit cards, and initially operated from my sister’s back bedroom, plying for trade in a second-hand car. However, I persevered and hooked some really good clients, including the estate agents Cluttons and Strutt & Parker, followed by furniture group DFS and, in motors, DC Cook. We left the back bedroom behind in 1982 and moved to Leeds centre offices and in 1984 we were in profit. But from then on, it was far from plain sailing.
Q: In what way?
A: I sold the business to a public company called Moss Trust in 1988 for £2.7 million, paid partly in cash and partly in shares. Unfortunately, the company was in serious trouble and before too long the stock was worthless. So much for my millionaire status – at least for a while. I salvaged what is now ATP Advertising and Marketing and took it private once more. Today, it has billings of more than £5 million.
Q: A string of business successes followed, including premium phone services, a TV listings guide and the Ultralase laser eye surgery specialist. Then in 2004 you started Age Partnership, a retirement income and equity release broker. Tell us how you became involved in that.
A: My mother was then looking to release equity from her home, but the process was very difficult and the interest rates were high. Regulation was coming for the industry and Age Partnership benefited from this. Today, we are the largest equity release business in the country, and, I believe, set the industry standard. More recently, to ensure that not all our business was going to the likes of Aviva and Canada Life, we established Pure Retirement, a mortgage funder that now takes 30 per cent of Age Partnership’s business. A last word on Age Partnership – the CEO is Steve Auckland, who replaced me at the Yorkshire Post all those years ago. So in a sense the circle closes.
Q: Speaking of circles closing, you have been widely involved in a number of philanthropic ventures in your native Yorkshire, including Presidency of the Leeds Rhinos rugby league team and support for the Leeds Rhinos Foundation, which works with disabled, isolated and disadvantaged people. You are also involved with Jamaica’s rugby league team. How did that happen?
A: There is a big Jamaican community in Leeds, the energies of whose members are not always properly channelled. For that reason, we support rugby league among Jamaicans in Leeds and have sponsored the national rugby league team ahead of the 2021 World Cup. It’s great to be able to get involved in this way.
Q: Of your business interests past and present, are there any for which you have a special affection?
A: No. As with your children, they are all special and I don’t have favourites.
Q: You have, and have had, a disparate collection of businesses. Is there a common theme that links them?
A: Well, I have become involved in businesses that I enjoy, that I can help to grow and where I like the people. That’s one theme. Another is marketing, and the importance of it to my businesses. I have always been in or about the B2C space, so marketing is vital.
Q: With a net worth of about £175 million, you have made The Sunday Times Rich List. You must, in that hoary phrase, be asked the secret of your success. What is your answer?
A: There isn’t a secret recipe to making money, other than sticking with it, working with the right people and continuing to learn at all ages. Follow this advice and you too may be on the Rich List, although remember – once there, your head’s above the parapet and you can’t duck.
Q: What happens next?
A: I want to be able to spend time with family and loved ones. You need to have a destination in business as in life. If you don’t, you’ll never get there. With Age Partnership, our current focus is that we have introduced new products to the market as well as our premier client service and switching service that we introduced earlier this year.