Future Life Wealth Management founder Jill Thomas tells Jill Theobald her emotional and engaging back story, revealing how she tackled personal challenges and escaped Thailand during the tsunami in 2004 to empower herself.
In her own personal and powerful words, Jill shares how she used those traumatic experiences to become a successful business owner (following a recession) – and why she is encouraging wannabe entrepreneurs to follow her lead, and their enterprising dreams, despite the economic challenges of COVID
“I was just different and different was absolutely fine, but I had to find my way… You still want to get to the same place as everybody else, but you might need to take a different route – that’s okay as long as you get there.”
The above is one of just many standout quotes and words of wisdom from Jill Thomas, founder and MD of Future Life Wealth Management, during our engaging, at times emotional, and ultimately empowering interview for unLTD.
Because Jill is keen to share the lessons she has learned along the way from being a student with poor health to the hellish journey of getting herself and her mum back to the UK after being in Thailand during the 2004 tsunami – and the long-last effects on her physical and mental health.
But she also reveals how those challenges helped inspire a new perception and outlook on her personal and professional life which led to her setting up her own business following the banking crisis in 2008 – after ‘choosing not to participate in the recession’.
And she has a strong message for aspiring entrepreneurs to follow her lead – by using the current economic situation and challenges of COVID-19 in a positive and proactive way to embrace their business dreams, ‘plan, plan, plan’ and prepare to make them a reality.
So let’s go back to the beginning of Jill’s journey.
“At school I had glandular fever and I lost education for a year. Then aged 21 – which was late – I found I was dyslexic. I knew I was bright, but everybody said I was thick because I couldn’t spell and had lost out on some education. You start to think ‘what’s wrong with me?’ But it made me realise there was nothing wrong – I was just different and different was absolutely fine, but I had to find my way within a framework that worked for me.
“That might not necessarily be a way that worked for everybody, but it did for me and that was a very cathartic thing to realise in my early 20s. You still want to get the same place as everybody else, but you might need to take a different route – that’s okay as long as you get there.
“That meant from an early age I worked out stuff would be put in front of you that might not be particularly nice but you managed it, handled it and did it in your own way. I found a spine because of that. In life there are always obstacles, but I think a lot of the passion I have and that ‘never say die’ attitude comes from being 14 or 15 sat at home not very well.”
That attitude was tested to the maximum in 2004 – but ultimately renewed and reinforced. Here Jill shares her traumatic experiences of being in Thailand during the tsunami – a time that she ultimately describes as the ‘main crux’ of what forged her success as a business owner later on.
“I remember travelling to Manchester Airport on 24 December 2004 and my mum and I flying to Dubai and I bought a watch. We got to Krabi Airport and were waiting for our luggage and I was looking at the walls and all these pictures of magnificent beach scenes with azure water and beach front hotels and I said to my mum: ‘I’ve made a dreadful mistake. I’ve booked us in a hotel halfway up a hill for the view.’
“I didn’t know then that decision, and within 36 hours of me saying that to my mum, actually saved our lives. The other hotel I had been viewing in the holiday brochure was decimated, blown away by the tidal wave.
“The specifics of what happened I still struggle with to this day. I remember going down to the police station to report I was safe and outside there was foolscap after foolscap of the names of missing people and the bizarre thing – I actually looked to see if my name was there.
“But that was literally the moment where a lot my passion comes from. There was no power, electricity was limited, Norwegian and Scandinavian jets were being flown in to take their people home. Sky News was my link to the world. We didn’t have it on all the time with the electricity going on and off but that Sky News tickertape to this day still gets me – when you have a disaster flashing up along the bottom of the screen.
“I would power my phone when I could and contacted the British Embassy in Bangkok and it would ring out for 55 minutes before being cut off, nobody would talk to me. I tried any time I could, night or day, and it was that realisation – you’re actually on your own thousands of miles away.
“We’d recently lost my dad and it was the first time my mum and I had been away after losing him and she turned to me and said: ‘Are we going to be okay?’ I said, ‘absolutely fine’ – and then thought ‘how the hell do we get ourselves out of this?’ I felt abandoned – whether we were or not, that was the perception. I went out onto the balcony because I couldn’t face telling her a lie and thought ‘I’ve got to plan to get out of this’.
“I sat there for an hour and a half thinking ‘don’t rely on other people, get yourself out of the situation’ – it was that process. I was fighting off the demons of what was going on while still being mentally and physically in a pea soup but realising there is only one way out of this – by taking control.
“I phoned Thai Airways to ask about flights from Krabi back to Bangkok – because I realised if I could get to Bangkok I could get to Dubai and then somehow back to the UK. They told me they had only two seats in business class the next day and we would have to get ourselves there, they didn’t know how much it would cost but the tickets would be there. I walked up to the counter, credit card in hand the next day and they were £3.47 each. That was the best £3.47 I have ever spent.
“Sixteen years on, I remember getting those tickets and walking through the carousels and seeing those beach pictures still on those walls – and then walking across the tarmac to get the flight and seeing the coffins of people who weren’t as lucky as me. I remember the reassurance of the banks of telephones and the Consulate presence in the airport, but also a field hospital near the escalators – the smell of gangrene was unbearable. I will never forget it.
“People often say to me ‘how can you be so positive?’. That’s why – the reality of it is I could have been in one of those coffins.
“We got back and my watch and ring I bought in Dubai are never taken off now. My mum calls it a survival ring. It’s astonishing, that time on the balcony and the fight I found from somewhere – and I ain’t got a clue where – but it’s never left me.”
That’s not to say once safely home there weren’t some tough times – Jill admits it was ‘a slow process’ including a less than understanding practice nurse at her doctor’s surgery after she shared how physically and mentally unwell she felt.
“After her reaction, I phoned 111 who put me in touch with (bereavement charity) Cruse. I left a message figuring they wouldn’t support me, like everyone else. But a woman rang back who spoke the most intelligently that anyone had ever done to me and I wish I knew who she was because she put me on a track mentally. She said: ‘you’ve survived this and you’re either going to wallow in that environment behind you or get on with life, dust yourself off and sort yourself out’. I’d love to know who she was and thank her for what she did – giving me a kick up the backside in a way that was so discreetly done.
“Slowly from there I physically started to get better, mentally took a little longer maybe 18 months. But I started to realise the things I didn’t like in life. I didn’t like some of the people I worked with, didn’t like my boyfriend – he went very quickly! Slowly but surely you challenge things – even your mortgage deal, is it good enough? If not challenge it. It was a process like an onion – you take off a layer and another appears. Every facet of life was challenged, without realising it at that time, in order for you to get better and progress.”
And Jill had a key question for herself, too.
“Early 2009, immediately after the banking crisis I kept thinking ‘just how good IS Jill Thomas?’ She’s dyslexic, she lost education, she isn’t the brightest with exams behind her but education doesn’t breed intelligence. I wondered if I could start a business and succeed. It was just a little concept in those quiet moments when you sit and think.
“But you can sit for the rest of your life and think ‘what if’ or you could get off your arse and go and do something about it – and after the banking crisis I did do something about it! Which in the financial services role may not have the brightest thing to do! But someone said: ‘Jill we’re heading towards a recession, you shouldn’t start a business’ and I said: ‘I have decided not to participate’.
“In many ways that was the bravado that I had – if I had got through an incredibly lifechanging event, learned from it and progressed then something like the banking crisis wasn’t going to take me down. Naïve, maybe. But that’s entrepreneurship – you handle the bad things and find a way forward with solutions.
“I left a very secure, comfortable job to start up my business. The company grew slowly, surely and organically, I’ve never bought business, but very early on I knew we needed to create a brand and spent time on PR, media training and comms which meant we were out there doing things that were competing really favourably with people who had been doing it for 30 years and I found myself in the studio, on Newsnight and BBC Breakfast offering expert commentary.
“I invested £30,000 of own money in my business – the best investment I made; I was prepared to back myself. It was an investment in me and now I have a business that’s worth between £3.5 and £4million in a 10-year period.
“This scenario takes me to the balcony and thinking ‘what the hell do I do?’ It was plot, plot, plot and plan, plan, plan – if I can get to Bangkok I can get to Dubai and I can get to the UK. In many ways building a business and a lifestyle are the same process – it’s compartmentalising those situations then joining them together. It’s your onion, peeling those layers.”
That’s not to say that starting a business was easy.
“I didn’t pay myself for 18 months – I was freewheeling down the hill to save petrol and worked out when the highest discounts were in supermarkets, stocked up and froze food to eat for the week. Did I need to do that? Probably not. Did I feel better for doing it? Absolutely.
“I was planning and preparing all the time three months in advance – forecasting workload and then staffing levels so they could be trained and working by the time I needed them. The staff I wanted would often appear when I didn’t have the cashflow – so I didn’t pay myself and they got paid.
You take the hit, they don’t. When you are a business owner the buck stops with you.”
Today Jill, who just last month was shortlisted in the Entrepreneur of the Year category in the East Midlands Chamber Business Awards, believes she is one of fewer than three per cent of women running their own financial planning business in the UK.
“It was another milestone. Do I see myself as a woman in business? No, I see myself as a professional. Put yourself forward as a professional and you will be accepted as one. I’ve always portrayed that.”
And she’s determined to encourage the next generation – and welcome established professionals, too.
“I’ve taken on apprentices and paid for their training because to bring in the next generation the likes of me need to be out there saying ‘I will support you and bring you along’. Equally I have no problem hiring established financial planners and training them – people who are better than me sometimes – on the basis that makes the business better. If they don’t want to be an entrepreneur and have the risk premium that I did, why shouldn’t I give them the opportunity and take them on the journey?
“We work with a variety of different people and organisations but am proud to say we will tackle the hard stuff. If you play in a little pond with everyone else not much changes. Go into the deeper waters where it’s a bit choppy, it can be more difficult to secure business and also clients are likely to be more demanding, but that’s where the richer pickings are.
“I learned to go out into the deeper water very early on – interesting I am using that terminology with what I’ve been through. But just today three new enquiries have come in. They will be massive jobs, but I am prepared to invest the time for the longer-term rewards.
“All of this takes me back sadly to what happened, but I invariably look back now and view it as the best and worst day of my life, and I see an incredible journey. If I hadn’t had that experience, I wouldn’t be sat here today with my own business.
“And I’d still be wondering how good Jill Thomas is!”
Spend locally, help the recovery
“I love the independent shops in Sheffield, pootling down Sharrow Vale Road towards Hunters Bar – where you get real personal service, are remembered and can have a nice chat. If I am in the city centre, I may go to Norfolk Row to one of my absolute favourite cafes, Marmadukes.
“But during lockdown, like most people, I had to switch a lot of my shopping habits online. I joined the ‘click culture’ to get my provisions and went without trips out for coffee and cake. Going online was easy – just clicking on a website and getting what you need from some big faceless retailer, who probably pays little, if any taxes, and employs people on minimum wage to scurry about a massive warehouse. But that is what we were forced to do, when our non-essential shops closed and ‘popping down the shops’ felt like going out on army manoeuvres.
“Now we are getting back to some sort of normality, we need to return to the good habits of going to local shops. They need us and we need them.
“Spending locally doesn’t just help that particular shop, it also helps the local economy. The theory is for every pound spent locally in a small business 63p stays local, for a bigger company that figure is only 40p.
“Also, local traders will often trade with other local organisations, so you are supporting a local business network, all of whom pay rates, taxes and employ local people. You might think that supporting businesses which only employ a handful of people won’t make any difference to unemployment. But they are part of the 80 per cent of businesses employing fewer than 20 people, and when added together they become the biggest employer in the country.
“All of this is true for those of us in business, too. We need to support each other. We need to use other local firms to get our stationery supplies, carry out our maintenance work, sort out our accounts, develop our website or supply a new printer.
“Whether it’s coffee, cabbages or marketing collateral, let’s all buy from each other and help Sheffield City Region recover and rebuild.”
And a timely reminder for established business owners during COVID
“Businesses are currently facing a two-fold scenario – furlough finishing in October but also the repayment of loans as well as tax money that has only been deferred, this has not gone away.
“Businesses need to ensure monies are available for those repayments. We are in a new world where we need to recognise the cost of COVID is significant and there will be a day of reckoning to pay back as a nation.
“This will be higher taxes in some shape or form, so businesses need to have a robust plan to accommodate which looks at all the risk and where the threats are coming from. This includes furlough finishing, repayments of CBILS (Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme) and understanding tax and VAT are there to be paid come January 31st when HMRC will be actively seeking money for (Chancellor) Rishi Sunak’s begging bowl and making allowances for that now.”
Wannabe entrepreneur? Wondering how good YOU could be? Here’s Jill’s advice…
“There’s never a good or bad time to start a business. There is a time that’s YOUR time to plan for the outcome you want. But times like this with COVID, you can negotiate better deals than when times are good. If I had my time again with the knowledge I have now would I start a business? Yes. I wouldn’t be frightened to, provided you’ve got the confidence to invest in yourself and the right planning in place.
“Lockdown has meant a lot of people are reconsidering their future and reassessing work and life. The reality is the rich pickings will be very rich when we get through this – weaker positions and companies will have failed or gone backwards which leaves opportunities to go and fill.
“There’s also a rich seam of talent out there now on the market. When I started a business, I’d find applicants, understandably, wanted experience and a track record from an employer. But we’re in a period where there is talent out there that normally wouldn’t be so anyone starting up has a leg-up when it comes to recruiting. These opportunities don’t come along often in a lifetime so grab them with both hands.
“Plan, plan, plan – get your cashflow in place, your website, PR and comms and understand what your offering is. COVID means there is no better time than now to consider your future. If that means taking a step back from the lifestyle you’ve enjoyed for the last few years to elevate yourself significantly beyond where you were before in the future, go for it – if you have the stomach for it, if not work for someone else.”