Controversial historian David Irving is the latest celebrity to feel the full force of Louise Brittain’s professionalism. Last week, he attempted to appeal his bankruptcy order only to have it rejected and see his belongings repossessed and his luxurious Mayfair flat put up for sale.
As one of UK’s best known and most respected bankruptcy specialists, Brittain has acted as trustee in bankruptcy to Jonathan Aitken and Neil Hamilton.
But she certainly does not fit into the stereotypical image of the aggressive debt collector or enforcer. Brittain is a street-wise, friendly woman who admits to being a ‘gossip queen’ and looks like she couldn’t hurt a fly.
People are often taken aback by the fact that Brittain is a woman. ‘Plus the fact that I’m little. People don’t expect me to deal with the bigger insolvencies so they get totally taken by surprise with it sometimes. Until I open my mouth of course,’ she says.
And her background is as unusual as her specialty. While many rebel against their parents’ pleas to pursue ‘proper jobs’ like accountancy, repressing dreams of becoming musicians before settling down, Brittain took the opposite route. While both her parents were musicians, she was busy with her sums.
Brittain began her insolvency career at Deloitte Haskins and Sells in Gloucestershire, after which she joined Price Waterhouse as an insolvency administrator. In 1996 she joined Baker Tilly, where she was made a partner in 2001.
But becoming one of the country’s top bankruptcy specialists has taken hard work and determination. ‘There’s a long period of training,’ she says, ‘you get five years before you can even start taking exams.’
Of the six exams candidates sit to become insolvency professionals, Brittain describes the three that are specifically for the insolvency licence as a ‘nightmare’, that only 100 people pass each year.
Although she can and does undertake corporate recovery work, to specialise in bankruptcy she had to get the right cases and, importantly, exposure by working in the right department. Bankruptcy is, she says, more an experience-based area. ‘It is baptism by fire much of the time,’ she adds.
She says she learned a lot from her colleagues by discussing cases and asking questions. ‘If something is a bit funny you go in and you talk it over with your colleagues. It’s very much a teamwork exercise.’
First big break
Her first big break came after 13 years of specialising, when Baker Tilly secured the Jonathan Aitken bankruptcy. The team was so successful, it recovered four times more money for the creditors than they were originally offered and the other cases followed on from that.
Although Brittain enjoys her job, she says there are still areas she finds challenging and even difficult, having to work as a detective and following paper trails as she tries to get to the truth and recover money.
And personal insolvency is far from a nine to five job. ‘You have to keep it in your mind all the time so you never sleep. I find it very hard to switch off at night,’ she adds, saying she is constantly trying to discover why people did certain things and trying to explain things that don’t quite add up.
Her motivation and what she enjoys the most about her job is finding the story behind the whole bankruptcy and finding out how much money she can get back. ‘What normally happens is that you have an asset that they claim is owned by somebody else and what we then have to do is go behind the story and find the evidence to prove their story is wrong.’
‘You do need to go on holiday regularly,’ she laughs, but adds: ‘I hate going on holiday. Three days are about as long as I can stand and then I have to get back in the office.’
And she admits her job takes up a lot of her time. ‘It happens all the time … four o’clock on a Friday you get appointed for a job where you need to get something out urgently. So you work Friday night and Saturday trying to get away. Christmas Eve is the other time you always get a big job.’
In a bankruptcy appointment there are things that just cannot be left until later. Brittain often has to pick up the phone and rush to the bankrupt’s house to ‘nail everything to the floor’ before it disappears or stand in the doorway to stop assets from walking off.
Brittain finds the high-profile cases the most difficult but most interesting to deal with, as celebrities often expect special treatment. ‘They think their position has influence with us. They think one rule applies to general bankrupts and one rule applies to them. It’s rubbish. They’re just treated like anybody else.’
One of the most common reasons that celebrities go bankrupt is because they think it will never happen to them, says Brittain. ‘A lot of people bury their head in the sand and think it won’t happen to them. On the high-profile jobs, that’s definitely what happens. They all stem from legal actions that people think they couldn’t lose – then, they did lose.’
According to Brittain, it takes a special sort of person to specialise in bankruptcy; being an insolvency practitioner does not go hand in hand with being a bankruptcy specialist.
‘You must be streetwise and have common sense. You have to be able to accept the hard parts of life or certainly deal with them. You’ve got to be very objective, and you have to know how to deal with difficult people.’
She also stresses the importance of having social skills and being self-confident. ‘We are generally very opinionated, self-confident people.
We are dealing with other peoples’ crises all the time: we go into a mess and people are looking at us to be leaders and help them out of it, to sort it out and to give them some direction. So you have to be very focused and able to cope well under pressure. You have to take calculated risks and not bottle out at the last minute.’
Being a woman
Brittain says the fact that she is a woman tends to facilitate her job rather than hinder it. ‘You tend to diffuse the situations much better. You get in the door with people who wouldn’t normally let you in. You can really use it to your advantage, it’s dreadful. You also get the wife on side much quicker.’
Only very occasionally do older company directors refuse to deal with her, she claims, but adds no more so than in any other profession.
Another important element is to have a sense of humour. ‘You see all sorts of things come out of the woodwork things that people never disclose to their family. I’ve had a bankrupt with two wives, neither one of them knew about the other one. It never ceases to amaze me! If we didn’t laugh about it I suppose we’d all go bananas in our office. Many a morning I wished there was a big gin bottle in the office.’
And she says trustees get blamed for everything, from the fact they don’t have a coat (and therefore, quite handily, can’t come to the office) to the fact they’re having a bad Christmas. ‘It’s all your fault,’ she laughs, ‘nothing to do with the fact that they haven’t paid their bills.’
The job also requires a thick skin as complaints flood in, with angry letters from well-known people.
And the job can be dangerous. Baker Tilly goes to great lengths to secure its offices and has even employed a former police detective to escort the bankruptcy team if there’s possible trouble ahead. ‘We even had people down at reception with firearms once,’ said Brittain.
There are several types of bankrupts, according to Brittain. There are those who think they know the insolvency law better than the trustee and those who have just let their debts run away with them.
‘But then you have the complete – for lack of a better word – lunatics. They go to court over everything.
‘And you get the real crooks, who are clever. They’re the people I like dealing with the best. They try to transfer assets, hide assets, tell you one story, and think they’re really good liars. They are generally clever; quite charismatic. But getting behind them is really great. It is detective work. You learn to work out when people are lying to you.’
Bankruptcy is also a very hands-on job requiring energy, according to Brittain. She has had to lift boxes, stand in doorways and even move yachts in the call of duty. But, she says, thanks to that she has acquired many new skills, including driving a JCB.
Although her job can be a ‘double-edged sword’ Brittain is passionate about her work, saying: ‘The rewards are enormous when you make the connection, even though so much groundwork has to be done first. But I love it, it’s a great profession. I think it’s sometimes more interesting than corporate work because you get right into the nitty-gritty of people’s lives and their motives for doing things.’