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10 September 2001
If I ever needed a factor and invoice discounting lawyer, I would choose Abraham Ezekiel. Not because of his reputation, but because he has such a calm demeanour that I am sure everything would come right in the end.
While his name might connote Old Testament plagues and damnations of the highest order, in actual fact Ezekiel infuses a wonderful tranquility into proceedings, a little Zen-like bubble of calm.
It has to be said, before the marketing department at Ezekiel's new firm Penningtons start ringing me, that there is very little chance that I will ever enter the world of factoring and invoice discounting. Basically, it is a fancy term for Tom lending John a fiver on the promise that John will have money on Friday when Brian pays him back his tenner. Sort of. It is the sort of practice that does very well during a recession, when companies start doing the metaphorical scrabble down the back of the sofa for spare change in an attempt to survive.
Ezekiel has been at Penningtons for less than a fortnight when we meet and is in the middle of being trained by the IT department, and so treats our chat as light relief. His former firm, Wilde & Partners, an acknowledged leader in the factoring market, announced its dissolution around two months ago. Five partners moved to Hammond Suddards Edge, with whom Ezekiel himself was in discussions before opting for Penningtons instead.
The last few months have been a blur for Ezekiel. First, the Wildes partnership broke up pretty quickly and then Penningtons first contacted him less than a month before he joined the firm. So what was behind the Wildes split?
"The reality was that Wildes was an extremely well-run business by Edward Wilde, who was an extremely well-respected and able businessman," explains Ezekiel. "When you have someone at the helm for a long period of time, it doesn't create the situation in which other partners can make decisions. So when that particular actor disappears off the scene, you're left with individuals who may not be able to follow."
So when Wilde went off to look after his farm, there was no successor ready to step into his shoes, resulting in a loss of direction at the firm. There were, as Ezekiel says, many very able lieutenants, but there was no general.
Psychologically for Ezekiel, the firm's closure seems to have made its mark, as in his next move he has put great store in the fact that Penningtons has been around for over 200 years, and so one can safely assume that it is not going anywhere.
"At Penningtons you have discussions because partners take part in the decision-making and they're real partners," says Ezekiel, before adding that the process of Wildes' disappearance was quite unsettling. It went very suddenly from being a strong practice to absolutely nothing. "I consider that tragic, absolutely tragic," he adds sadly.
He had been at Wildes for around five and a half years before its dissolution, after joining from Clifford Chance. It was, in fact, his experience of working for a big firm that led him to choose Penningtons over Hammonds.
"Very simply, I came from the corner shop; Wildes was a corner shop [which was] open all hours, like the one in the television [sitcom]," he says. "It was a very high-quality service to small and medium-sized businesses. If you're going to look at [factoring and discount invoicing] as a market sector, then it's small beer, but a corner shop can survive very well on small beer because of the personal contact."
He goes on to say that while he does not regard Penningtons as a corner shop, it nevertheless has a similar mentality to that at Wildes. Ezekiel shies away from the usual bombastic optimism of new recruits, saying of his move that there is a risk in everything in life, but that he has to follow his own gut feeling, which told him that Penningtons was the firm for him.
It is, he argues, a firm that has achieved the right balance between a personal service and having the capability to deal with whatever the client throws at it.
Whether his clients will follow remains to be seen; Ezekiel, who does not seem particularly worried, says it is their decision. "My clients have received it well. I come back to the point that I think clients who love you will always love you. For the clients that were with you for other reasons, it's a chance to reassess."
The move to Penningtons also has the advantage that the firm concentrates on small to medium-sized businesses, which is precisely the area that would most often use the factor and invoice discounting option.
"That's the target audience that's going to be ripe for insolvency work," Ezekiel points out, adding that while he believes the big boys of the City are already doing some work in his market, the realities of his work means that the smaller firms will always have the advantage because they already have the potential clients on their books.
When a move to Hammonds was on the cards, many in the marketplace saw Ezekiel as the trump card in the pack, the one who had the strongest relationships with clients. Ezekiel puts this perception down to the fact that Wildes did a lot of marketing work and he was often the face behind the sales pitch.
With a slowdown looming, there will not be too much scratching around in the dust for clients, a fact that Ezekiel acknowledges will make the move easier.
"There's work out there," he says. "There are players who may be able to provide the work, and it's favourable to be in a market that's becoming a bit more busy."
Ironically, given the history of his former firm, Ezekiel's ambition when he was younger was to become a farmer. As a partial sop to that dream, he still grows his own vegetables, but when the crunch came on making a career decision, Ezekiel made the sensible choice. However, given the current state of the farming industry, his two small children are probably better off with a lawyer as a father. But he does seem to possess the sort of patience required by those who watch things grow.
So does the thought of keeping a smallholding still appeal? Ezekiel sits and ponders for a bit, before it suddenly occurs to him that talking about leaving a firm when he has only just joined it is probably not wise, and so answers in the negative.