But sat in the lobby of one of London’s plushest hotels, the fine china and business suits that surround us do nothing to ease Smart’s discomfort. Indeed, it is the luxury and fast pace of urban life that is fuelling his sense of awkwardness.
Contrast that image with the rural pictures shown here. Smart, who swapped his Big Four partnership for life on a wild boar farm, appears entirely at ease in his rugged setting. Indeed, a different magazine might suggest that these days he is as happy as a pig in…
But first we need to rewind briefly. Two years ago this month, Andersen was going through its death throes. If Enron had brought the firm to its knees, WorldCom killed it. And by June 2002, it was fighting a frenetic but doomed battle for survival.
Even though these events played out in the US, their consequences crossed the Atlantic. Deloitte acquired most of the UK firm, with Ernst & Young picking up some of the scraps. Most staff and partners found a home. But others took the opportunity to review their positions and test whether the grass was, like the saying goes, greener elsewhere.
Smart – at this stage only two or three years away from his ambition to leave the City at 45 – was among the Andersen partners to question his future direction. And there were simple financial reasons for doing so. Smart had been a PricewaterhouseCoopers partner before he joined Andersen, and Spicer still was.
As Andersen partners worldwide looked like they might face Enron and Worldcom-related claims, potential liabilities played heavily on their minds. If he had joined Deloitte like many of his colleagues, the couple would have been open to potential claims relating to three of the Big Four.
But that wasn’t the only reason for reviewing his options. ‘The thought of actually going back to another firm that wasn’t Andersen was just too awful to contemplate,’ he says. ‘Also, I felt far too old and fat and tired to have do another three to five years, so it was a good opportunity to go and do something different.’
And how. ‘We had had a place in Scotland for donkey’s years,’ says Smart. ‘I suppose it was a weekend place and the intention was always to move up there. So when Andersen decided to shut up shop in the UK, it provided an opportunity.’
The couple had long thought about setting up their own business. ‘We were thinking – not every day, but from time to time – about what to do when I gave up this heavy life in the City,’ says Smart.
They considered salmon – ‘I wasn’t supportive of the salmon market,’ says Spicer. ‘And it turned out that I was right.’ And they had a good think about cheese, though milk production seemed too complicated.
Instead their thoughts turned to forestry, and as a result, Smart spent a year at forestry college. That led them to wild boars. ‘It’s not a huge leap from trees to pigs, because they work well together,’ says Smart. ‘Pigs have always been used in the management of forests and there’s no money in forestry.’
The college course taught him how to plant trees, cut them down, drive a tractor, put up fences and operate a chainsaw. ‘And how to spend days in the cold water in the middle of winters digging ditches,’ adds Spicer.
It was all a long way from running the tax side of large accounts for banks, something he did at PwC and Andersen.
Even so, theydecided not to give up everything in London. Spicer remained a partner at PwC, and now manages by regularly working from home. ‘I think families are like partnerships,’ she says. ‘It’s all about being a part of a team. I had a role at PwC that seemed to be working well and providing challenging opportunities. I stayed doing what I was doing because it was more flexible. And it was possible to do that while located in Scotland.’
Having decided on pigs (as wild boar are known for farming purposes) as a business venture, their intention was to start small, throw in the odd animal here and there, and not get their wellies too muddy. It was, in a nutshell, going to be weekend farming with someone else looking after the growing brood.
‘Unfortunately the person responsible for the management of the animals proved to be somewhere between unreliable and totally criminal,’ says Smart. ‘So we actually had to take possession of the animals, put them onto our land at fairly short notice and look after them. This chap subsequently went into bankruptcy.’
This short notice problem resulted in them having to travel 50 miles to feed some of their animals. But they were philosophical about the situation, and set about building up a land portfolio. ‘I think every challenge is an opportunity,’ says Smart.
Acquiring a herd of involves learning about all sorts of regulations. And quickly. ‘That was fairly stressful, as the situation came about in the winter, and we could not get fencing contractors. To get licensed by the council, you have to have high fences,’ Spicer explains.
‘Then the guy went into bankruptcy and we had the opportunity to buy more than half of his herd of wild boar. We thought carefully and eventually stepped up to the plate and bought the animals.’
Since then, they have bought more land and are now able to keep the animals all in one place – a far cry from their early days. But managing what are, after all, dangerous wild animals (they can grow to be 250 kilos, and don’t even think about getting in the way of those tusks) is never easy.
‘They can run faster than most human beings, they weigh about double the average man, and they can quite happily run through normal fences,’ says Smart. ‘It can be quite entertaining.’
And worthwhile. ‘We have had some great moments,’ says Spicer. Their children benefited, moving from a private, single-sex school in London to the local village primary. ‘Here they have a lot more freedom than they would have done in London where you couldn’t let them out of the house without an adult,’ he says. ‘Here they can run riot, really.’
Smart and Spicer are confident that the wild boar meat industry will grow and they are fortunate in having an abattoir 10 miles north of their farm that handles the produce. ‘It is a very good meat for you, as it has less cholesterol than chicken breast. The taste is a cross between beef and pork, probably like beef and venison,’ says Spicer.
You can’t quite buy their wild boar sausages yet, although hopefully that should soon change. ‘At the moment the processing is in the Midlands and then the product is sold to cruise liners and things like that,’ Smart says. ‘We are hoping to persuade someone locally to cut a few animals up, and sell them locally because of the local interest we have had. But otherwise it will end up in supermarkets, in due course, under someone else’s brand.’
The level of care the animals require is astonishing. Spicer has taken bedding to litters, and even on occasion brought them breakfast in bed. ‘That really boosts the survival rate of the industry, which is amazing,’ she says. ‘Not many people get in the pens with them, because when they have young, they will defend them. They will chase people off and will charge them.
‘With ours, we work with them, so they don’t regard us as a threat. They regard humans turning up with enormous bales of straw as being positive, and you know they will take it rather than chase us off. That has been a learning experience for the team.’
Many even have names. Marigold is the leader and, Spicer adds conspiratorially, one is called Ernie.
But Smart has clear ambitions for the business. ‘We are essentially in a start-up phase at the moment. That will go on until probably the middle of next year when hopefully we will have the land finished, and the farm properly built, as opposed to half built. We’ll have, in relative terms, a large herd that will provide a living income.’
It’s not profitable – yet – as the start-up costs are so large. ‘There is a huge cash hole in the ground that you need to keep stuffing money into,’ says Smart. ‘The product cycle is around 14 months, you are always investing in your stock, whilst building up.’
Spicer adds: ‘In profit and loss terms, it actually shows good profits. But look at the cashflow, and it didn’t take us long to work out why there were no large wild boar farmers in the UK, and why the guy we bought our pigs from was so keen to sell.
‘It’s all about working capital. The long cycle and investment infrastructure mean that you need to have deep pockets to go into it and make a success of it.’ They expect to turn profitable next spring.
Spicer has no plans to end her current role as a weekend farmer and is happy combining it with her day job in PwC’s valuation practice. With her biochemistry degree and a scientific background, she is effectively chief medical officer to the herd.
‘The balance is trotting on quite happily, although travelling is a big strain physically. I run a team around the UK, so I have people in Edinburgh, Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham and Milton Keynes. That’s a fairly big commitment. And it is actually quite tiring to do the two side by side.
‘The farming side is better now we have a bigger team. We now get some days off at the weekend. This means we can think about doing these things as a family again.’
The fact that Spicer’s team is located all over the country means she is more able to work from home. ‘I might as well be anywhere, and we have set up a good electronic infrastructure. We can now do things with my computer like video conferencing.’
On a farm it presents problems, however. ‘We have some rabbits, and the last time one of them escaped into my office, it chewed through all three telephone lines,’ she admits. ‘I couldn’t work out what was wrong until I got behind the bookcase and realised the rabbit had completely cut off the regional valuation practice of PwC.’
Smart, who jokes that he only comes down to London twice a year, no longer sits around worrying about fence posts when he is away from the farm. ‘I have still got one or two sort of City-type connections that I come down for lunches, dinners and formal occasions. Is twice a year too many times’ It is tempting to say ‘yes’ – but that would probably be unfair. It is nice to have a break from the farming occasionally – but I wouldn’t like to come down too often.’
Smart says that their secret has been finding the right people to delegate to – much as it would have been in his old role. ‘Delegation skills are not an issue, it is actually finding the right team on the ground,’ he says. ‘You need people who are prepared to take responsibility and do whatever needs doing if I am not contactable – whatever the weather.’
There are differences, though. ‘The chap in charge is actually a 17-year-old. He’s great.’
They were pleasantly surprised by their progress in their first 18 months. ‘The industry is a real niche sector,’ says Spicer. ‘So we have become one of the largest players in this rather small industry in a short space of time – much to our amazement and our amusement.’
THE ONES LEFT HOLDING THE PIG SWILL
For Ernie Smart, former tax partner and now one of the UK’s largest wild boar farmers, routine is all. His days are dictated by light, a factor that can seriously curtail the working day. In winter in the north of Scotland, he and his three full-time staff are only able to work outside from eight in the morning until four at night.
A typical day starts with Smart and his team going round to feed and count the animals. ‘That may sound a easy task for a fully-trained beancounter, but when animals are being born every day, it is really quite difficult,’ he says. However the regulations require it.
The size of their herd varies, though when we spoke it was somewhere between 500 and 600 animals. They are kept in by layers of fencing and electric wire and, given the area?s somewhat inclement weather, that the team has to check the voltage on the electric wire is OK.
They then check the water, moving it to the pigs if necessary. ‘Then we basically spend the rest of the day trying to get new pens ready for the animals,’ says Smart.
‘You put them on land for say three or four months, then you need to move them off onto fresh land and let the land that you have taken them off recover for six to nine months. So we are constantly trying to get new pens ready, which takes a lot of time and effort in terms of making sure the fencing is perfect.’
Even what sound like simple tasks are time-consuming. ‘Moving large quantities of water around takes time and organising feed takes time,’ he says. ‘We currently get through between seven and eight tonnes of feed a week, so just moving that around takes time.’
But it is not an entirely pastoral existence. His partner Lucinda Spicer says: ‘The thing that Ernie has found the most stressful is the fact that after running a team of professionals where you have got highly educated people you can generally say “do it” and they will go off and do it. They can operate on their own initiative like that. Actually the real world is not like that, and it is enormously stressful for someone looking after fencing contractors and finding that they will not turn up for four months. Offering them more money makes absolutely no difference.
‘As professionals we are used to working away through the night to get things done. But here those rules just don’t apply.’
Smart acknowledges as much. ‘It is a business like any other,’ he says, a sense of deja vu clearly identifiable on his face.
‘I have got the accounts to do, tax returns, PAYE, organising the purchase of feed stuff, negotiating the purchase of bits of kit. So it goes on.’
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