Business

The millionaire boss who admits he had a lot of luck

David Harrison Image copyright True Potential

David Harrison puts his money where his mouth is.

The boss and co-founder of UK financial services business True Potential is showing me the firm's savings app on his iPhone.

But the screen freezes, revealing his account details. Mr Harrison has serious money invested.

"Well," he says, "if a car dealer is trying to sell you a Ford as the best on the market, you wouldn't expect him to be driving around in a Merc.

"It's about believing in what you're doing… If anything goes wrong - trust me - I know first."

Mr Harrison would prefer the exact figure was not disclosed. But it represents only part of his assets, which include a huge house next to Hadrian's Wall on the border between England and Scotland, and a luxury hotel.

Not bad for someone who was adopted soon after his birth in Cardiff, grew up in a Country Durham mining village, and whose first pay packet was £6 working as an apprentice for the steelmaker Consett Iron Company.

Image copyright True Potential
Image caption The company's app allows people to easily save money

Set up a decade ago, Newcastle-based savings and investment firm True Potential now enjoys annual revenues of more than £70m a year, and is the second successful financial services venture that Mr Harrison has founded.

He ran his previous business, Positive Solutions, for six years from 1997 to 2003, before selling it to insurance giant Aegon for £130m.

So, now aged 66, what does Mr Harrison think is the secret of his success? "Work hard, lots of luck. There was no big plan. I just stumbled on, trying to make some money."

There aren't many businessmen who can claim that a broken leg was their big career break, but Mr Harrison is one of them.

Aged 33 at the time, after a number of years working on building sites, he was running his own bricklaying business and hating it.

"Everyone was earning more money than me," he says looking back.

Then during a casual football game he badly fractured his leg. Unable to climb up and down ladders at building sites, a career re-think was needed.


David Harrison

Family life: Married, with two daughters and two sons

What cars do you drive? Audi RS6 and Bentley Supersport

Favourite book? The Rational Optimist, by Matt Ridley

Best piece of business advice? Sell for a living

Your most irritating habit? Always making fun. Sometimes it isn't funny

Dislikes? Hipsters in skinny jeans

How do you keep fit? Run to the pub

Favourite drink? Mexican beer

First ambition? Be a professional footballer

Motto: Duck first, then run


"Everything is pure chance - either good luck, or bad luck," Mr Harrison says.

Good fortune found him in his local library in the north east of England, with his leg in cast, reading its only book on sales and marketing.

I'd make a good salesman, he told himself. And thanks to a friend who worked for the company, he got a job as a pensions seller at a company called Hambro Life.

Hardworking, but also easy going and affable, Mr Harrison rose to become a director.

But he attributes his success at Hambro Life (which went on to become Allied Dunbar), to yet more luck.

In the 1990s the UK pensions market expanded fast, and he says he rode the crest of the wave.

"It isn't false modesty," he insists. "I do work hard at what I do. But no matter how hard you work, you need a growing and thriving market."

However, he and Hambro eventually parted ways after what Mr Harrison admits was "a bit of tension".

This tension was caused by a light bulb moment he had while doing a master of Business Administration degree through the Open University in the early 1990s.

His university studies were increasingly done on a computer, and he wondered why writing investments couldn't be done the same way.

Image copyright True Potential
Image caption True Potential continues to grow strongly as a business

At the time selling financial products involved truck-loads of paperwork and thousands of back-office staff.

He wanted Hambro salesmen issued with laptops. Customers could be shown spreadsheets in the comfort of their homes. Sales could be signed off in days, not weeks.

It sounds quaint now. Back then "it was a revolutionary idea," Mr Harrison says. "It was also unpopular because it would have meant about 1,500 jobs going.

"I thought I was right, they thought I was wrong - so I left."

It was the catalyst for setting up Positive Solutions in 1997, which utilised computers from the start.

Image copyright True Potential
Image caption True Potential won a European Business Award this year

Mr Harrison says that he and a college re-mortgaged their homes to fund the firm, and "we would have been well and truly wiped out if it had failed".

Thankfully, it was a success, and within four years Positive Solutions was the biggest privately-owned UK independent financial advisor, turning over more than £10m a year.

Mr Harrison then sold up in 2003, before finally severing all links in 2006.

With a fortune in the bank, why didn't he just go and lay on a beach?


More The Boss features, which every week profile a different business leader from around the world:

The man who built a $1bn firm in his basement

How one man built a global hospitality empire

The 'diva of divorce' for the world's super rich

The snacks boss with an appetite for success


It's a question his wife sometimes asks, he admits. "But I actually enjoy the work. I enjoy the craic, and I enjoy working with people."

So, in 2007 he and his investment partners launched True Potential - a year before the global financial crisis.

The timing wasn't great, but Mr Harrison says that merely meant that the expansion of the business was not as quick as it otherwise would have been.

"It slowed us down; probably cost us two or three years in terms of sales growth," he says.

But setbacks make you a better businessman, he believes. It's about "staying strong... Back yourself. You just have to get on with it".

Image copyright True Potential
Image caption Mr Harrison says he has been lucky throughout his career

A decade later, and True Potential is now enjoying annual sales growth of more than 27%.

"David Harrison is a genuine innovator," says Ian McKenna, an expert on technology in the financial advice marketplace.

"He's a hard-driving businessman who is making a real difference," adds Mr McKenna, who works for consultancy Finance & Technology Research Centre.

Mr Harrison likes to shrug it off as luck, but perhaps the most successful entrepreneurs make their own luck. David Harrison puts his money where his mouth is.