Tim Levene (Class of 1991)
After leaving City of London School in 1991, Tim Levene studied Russian at Manchester University and began his career at the management consultancy Bain & Company. His first entrepreneurial venture was as one of the founders of Crussh which now has over 30 stores across London. He went on to become a founding employee of the web giant, Betfair, in the early 2000s and in 2010, founded Augmentum Capital which has recently become Europe’s first publicly listed Fintech venture capital fund. Tim is now Deputy Chairman of the Board of Governors at City of London School and also sits on the City of London’s Court of Common Council.
How did you come to be a pupil at City of London School?
My father [Lord Levene, formerly Chair of Lloyd’s of London] came here so I guess it was in my DNA that I would too assuming I could get past the entrance exam. Coming to the School, I felt a part of The City. Travelling on the tube for an hour to get here and mixing with the six million workers made us more worldly. The City had a very particular atmosphere even in the 80s: plenty of bowler hats and umbrellas. The commute to School here was a very different experience to children who just had a leafy five-minute walk to their neighbourhood school.
My reports used to say ‘Has lots of potential…which has not quite been fulfilled. Overall I was doing fine but I was more interested in playing football. But a turning-point for me was having Peter Allwright teach me Russian. He’s still at the School and I think he has the remarkable record that no pupil has ever got less than an ‘A’ in their A-level Russian. But he is an example of how big an impact an inspirational teacher can have on your future.
After Peter’s GCSE teaching, I was inspired to take Russian A-level and then go on to study Russian at Manchester University – and I ended up living in Moscow, working for Bain & Company, one of the ‘Big Three’ management consultancy companies. It was just after the fall of the Berlin Wall – a very interesting time to be in Russia. Bain also gave me the opportunity to live and work in Boston and Sydney.
Having worked in a big consultancy after University, you made a decision to leave to start your own business…
I remember telling my father I wanted to give up my safe job to set up my own juice bar… For me it was the desire to do something on my own, rather than a long-held ambition to open a juice bar or a healthy-eating café. But I think what I’ve always been able to do was identify when trends are coming. And I felt that in the late-’90s people were looking for more healthy eating options.
There was no-one to help you then. I actually went to the Citizens Advice Bureau and said I wanted to set up a business.
They said no-one my age had ever asked them about that before. I wanted to know if there were any grants or mentoring services. But I was talking to an elderly lady who didn’t really understand what I was talking about. Thankfully we have a totally different environment now where being an entrepreneur is aspirational and there are significant amounts of valuable advice and capital available across the UK.
Having lived in Australia and seen concepts along the lines of juicing. There wasn’t anything like it here. So after some extensive research, I decided to open a juice bar, but recognised that we needed to specialise in other products such as soups and wraps – This is now widespread across London, however in 1999 there were very few if any quality food takeaways stores that offered anything other than a sandwich.
Running a shop is a rude awakening when you’ve been inside a global strategy consultancy advising multi-billion-pound businesses and thinking you can do anything. Suddenly, you realise, ‘this is the real world.’ It was a great leveller for me.
I was there every morning at 4am, cutting mangos; sweeping the floors every night; 16-hour days. It was a great lesson in business. It taught me a huge amount about what it takes to be a real entrepreneur. Ultimately, that shop ended up being very successful, however it was becoming increasingly hard to acquire quality real estate due to the Coffee Revolution that was just beginning. Starbucks, Costa Coffee, Café Nero and many others were all frantically trying to open as many coffee shops as possible in London. I wanted to move fast and aggressively roll out a large number of stores, this was going to prove difficult with the flood of competition for premium sites I decided to join forces with the founder of Crussh who had opened his first store in The City, and we agreed to combine resources and he took on the reigns while I looked to capitalise on this new platform called “the internet”!
After that, you became one of the founding team at Flutter which became Betfair. How did that happen?
The internet was starting to take hold and a couple of colleagues I’d worked with at Bain called me and said they had a great idea. They were going to be the eBay of the betting industry. It was a business we called Flutter.com and it evolved into Betfair after the merger of the two businesses in late 2001.
Initially in the summer of 1999, we spent a week in Las Vegas, brainstorming the idea. It was at the time when the first real venture capital started coming into the UK. We were at the peak of a buoyant market and were able to raise significant capital to try and play out this ambitious vision.
I ran the commercial side and Iaunched the business in a large number of international markets. I was a 20-something kid. We were all widely inexperienced but we couldn’t be fired because there was no-one to replace us: the internet was new and no-one had built a business quite like this before in the UK. We were at a unique time in history.
It comes back to adaptability. I think CLS boys are pretty adaptable. I come back again to my time here: you must be streetwise: launching in numerous different markets, stepping out of your comfort zone. I think if I’d been in a cosseted environment, perhaps in a boarding school somewhere, I’d have found that a lot harder.
How would you describe your current role, as CEO of the UK’s first publicly-listed fintech venture capital company?
When my children or their friends ask me what I do, I explain to them my day job is like a real-life version of Dragon’s Den. Every year we look at hundreds of fintech businesses – whether on paper or in person – and try to choose the handful that we think might be successful for us to invest in.
We want to find ideas and entrepreneurs who are going to be ‘disrupters.’ The financial services industry has been guilty of offering their consumers poor service, poor digital solutions while rarely offering value for money. We aspire to find new ideas and companies that can improve the way things are done and ultimately the beneficiaries will be the consumers and small businesses that have been the victims of an industry that has put profits before world class products.
Dragon’s Den is not a realistic depiction of how to invest in an emerging idea but it’s great that it gets people of all ages thinking about business and the idea of being an entrepreneur. I have spoken at schools and universities where we get hundreds of people coming to a meeting in the evening. I ask who wants to work for JP Morgan or Goldman Sachs or one of the big law firms and very few now put their hands up. When I ask who wants to run their own company and become an entrepreneur, a sea of hands goes up.
To have that ambition and hunger is great. And what I think our School does incredibly well is to engender that drive and individuality which is critical if you want to be an entrepreneur.
Are you enjoying your time as a School Governor?
I’ve been a governor about 18 months and now I’m an elected councillor in the City of London, too.
I have a very strong affinity for the School and feel a personal responsibility as a governor that we look forward. What will the City boys of the next 20 years need to look like to succeed and stand out from the crowd?
As a father of three kids, I am overtly conscious of how the digital world is changing the future work force. What jobs are the next generation going to be doing in 10 or 20 years’ time? And how is the School preparing them for that? I want to be part of that journey in terms of setting the strategy for the school for the next 10-15.
Your father was Lord Mayor… What was it like being a part of the Lord Mayor’s Show?
It was a surreal experience at the time. I don’t think anything prepares you for your father being wheeled out in a gold carriage through the streets of London, in the streets where you walked as a boy, with half a million people cheering him, all live on TV.
The pageant organiser suggested that, after the procession, my older brother – also an old boy – and I abseil down the building in morning suit next to St Paul’s to help the launch of the Lord Mayors charity.
What have you learned from your experiences since leaving School?
My greatest learnings have been from my many mistakes. You just hope that your mistakes aren’t catastrophic, and you get the bulk of the important decisions right. Every key milestone in your life where things don’t go well, you need to be able to look back on them and see how you could have done things differently. And largely I’ve been able to look back and not make the same mistake twice. And that comes with experience.
For those aspiring entrepreneurs at CLS or at University, it’s important to be prepared to learn and not be afraid to make mistakes. Creating a successful business is not a smooth path, there will be plenty of downs as well as ups, and you need to be resilient, determined and have the courage of conviction. You should also try and find at least one other person to start a business alongside you as it is a lonely journey. I started Augmentum with an old school friend called Richard Matthews who happens to be an Old Citizen too. Look around you as your future business partner might well be someone sitting next to you in your maths class!