Kenneth Gray has three months left before he clears his desk and leaves Norton Rose after 15 years to step into the great unknown.
The Norton Rose aviation finance partner is leaving the law to do something completely different, namely setting up a charity in conjunction with the Terence Higgins Trust to help HIV-positive people get back into work or education.
By now, some of you will be wearing that pitying smile of the insecure and picturing someone wearing sandals and woolly jumpers driven by either a mid-life crisis or the voice of God.
Gray is 39, and to some extent is going through a mid-life crisis in as much as he is questioning what he is doing with his life, but the questions do not appear to have been asked by the Almighty. And as for woolly jumpers, he is wearing a dark grey suit that was presumably bought to grow into.
Gray does not speak with a religious fervour about his forthcoming project, although he admits that some of the letters he has received since an article in The Independent on his move have been “a bit holy”. And Gray is a world away from being pious and sanctimonious – he is slightly blunt, sarcastic and very funny.
In fact, the way he got involved in HIV charity work is about as far away from conventional do-gooding as you could get. In 1990, he was sent out to Paris by Norton Rose to set up an office. While out there, he got involved with local HIV charities by joining a friend who distributed free condoms in nightclubs.
“It was a good way of getting into clubs free,” he smiles. “We also used to go to the Bois de Bologne [a notorious red light district] to hand them out to prostitutes.”
But gradually the ligging turned into genuine interest and he started working an increasing amount with the Terence Higgins Trust and learnt about the condition.
Reading between the lines, it seems that Gray is on the move because he is attracted by the new. Setting up the Norton Rose Paris office, which now leads the market in asset finance work, was, he says, a big and enjoyable achievement, but the city’s charms faded after a while and in August 1999, Gray returned to London. The change failed to make him any happier at work and he began to think seriously about leaving to set up his own charity.
And the substantial amount of money he earns is not enticing him to stay, either. “I do not enjoy the money,” he states, before pausing and backtracking slightly. “Of course it’s nice to have money because you can do things that you couldn’t do otherwise, but I do not consider the money that I earn as a primary aim in life.”
This is fairly ironic given that Gray freely admits that when he joined Norton Rose in the late 1980s it was for the pay packet. “I used to be a defence barrister. People were hiring lawyers into the City on fairly flimsy CVs like mine and they were paying large salaries.”
But Gray soon found a niche in aviation finance, a specialism which he says does not require much law and therefore little time in the law library – which was why he liked it. He never harboured any ambition to become Mr Big in aviation, has never been much of a forward planner and does not like management because he cannot stand going through figures. Hardly the résumé to put on a covering letter.
So on his return to London Gray was bored. But through his work with the Terence Higgins Trust, he spotted a gap that was not being catered for. “There has been a big change in the HIV situation due to improved treatment to the extent where some people are not going to die and can start leading a relatively normal life,” explains Gray. “I saw this opening for a charity focused at helping people get back into the normal mainstream of life. Charities had previously been more concerned with people who were dying.”
While he has not yet had time to draw up a business plan to match his reputation, he may expand the project to include both France and Benelux as well as Eastern Europe.
“The eastern bloc has got the fastest rising HIV problem at the moment particularly where drugs are just not available. Immigrants [from those countries] have qualifications that are suddenly lacking here, as people in Britain are either not qualified or are graduates. We have this enormous resource of people who are able to fill vacancies.”
One aspect Gray is looking forward to in his new life is meeting “normal people”. Coming back to London has merely served to bring home to Gray just how cloistered a City lawyer’s life is. In Paris, there is no equivalent to the Square Mile so City workers walk home alongside butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, but on coming back to London Gray felt that he needed to break out again into the “normal” world. “I think socially [City] people get very inept,” he says. “People forget about issues and life if they work here for too long. If you go to a party and meet an old friend it can be very difficult to talk about anything other than what you do.”
For many in the “normal world”, the idea of your last paycheque for the foreseeable future hitting the bank account in three months time would be terrifying. But on £500,000 a year, there are many opportunities to save, with this rainy day money and the £60,000 annual income from renting out his Paris flat, Gray does not expect to starve. He admits that his family, who mostly live in Spain, while surprised at his decision, were also shocked to find out how much he earns. “They knew that I was a lawyer and earning lots of money, but they didn’t realise how much.”
Generally colleagues’ reaction to Gray’s decision has been good. His managing partner Roger Birkby sent a “very nice” email around the firm which was, says Gray, a long way from the usual blunt “X is leaving” message.
The news leaked before Gray could tell his clients of his plans, but he says that their acceptance and approval has been heartwarming. “A lot of the European agencies have been almost proud of me and they beam at me when I walk in,” explains Gray.
He has also been heartened by people from the past coming out of the woodwork, including a secretary who worked with him in the 1980s and has now offered to work two days a week for the new charity. The only person who remains unaware of Gray’s plans is, he confesses, his bank manager.
On a more serious note, he has triggered a lot of discussion from people who recognise that they need to do something else with their lives. Contemplating the recent tragic death on New Year’s Eve of Alain Sanchez, one of his successors as head of the Paris office, who was the same age, Gray says that many around him are thinking quite hard about the lifestyle they lead.
Gray says that some of his friends have been worried that he is not leaving “for the right reasons”. Gray explains hesitantly: “There is a concern that people are having some sort of a breakdown.”
Looking long-term, Gray is scared that the charity will not work out but his dearest wish for the future is that it will not be needed in five years time. “It would be nice to think that there will be an HIV vaccine in five to 10 years time and then we can turn our attentions to other conditions like multiple sclerosis or psychiatric disorders.”
Aviation finance partner