Wendy Hart, full image. Standing in Henley in December 2023


How to go from a history degree to the high table of corporate finance 

Published: 18 December 2023

Author: Richard Lofthouse


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Wendy Hart (St Anne’s, 1985) has won more awards than we could count in our discussion, including Thames Valley Corporate Finance Advisor of the Year on three occasions, the first woman to win it in 2018, and by all definitions she’s still, regrettably, in a predominantly man’s world.

Currently a Corporate Finance Partner at HMT LLP, based in Henley-on-Thames, she is fairly unusual for her sector in having started life with a history degree, and moreover remains engaged with history, particularly the Civil War period and Oliver Cromwell, who she insists has been both misunderstood and underrated.

More on that topic below and a historical novel she has already written (and sits in a drawer under her desk to be edited when the deals fall quiet for a bit), but you can see already how maintaining a broad coalition of interests might be wise in any career – even one as gruelling and ultra-focused, as corporate finance can be.

But what is it, corporate finance? It spans fund raising and deal making between companies and can get really complicated where there are two parties transacting with each other while a third party, maybe a bank or a private equity company, invests or lends money, or actually takes an equity stake in a business.

Hence the three divisions of HMT are really all aspects of the same activity of making a deal stick – Fundraising Advisory, M&A Advisory and Transaction Support.

At root, one company buys another, or an investor buys a stake, or an entrepreneur sells their life’s work, or some debt becomes unsustainable and has to be restructured.

Always – and the subject arises time and again in discussion – corporate finance is first and foremost about people before it is about spreadsheets, and this is where Wendy’s track record is simply outstanding.

Back at the very start, Wendy remembers attending a Grant Thornton recruitment event in 1988, and while she had creative inclinations she remembers liking the company – founded in 1904 with the main office then in Oxford and Northampton – and did not particularly want to head down the M40 to London.

‘I had a broader notion that I would get trained as an accountant and then be able to work for a publisher…’

What followed was really tough. ‘I found the three years of training hard, and I never especially took to the numbers side of it – I’m not a natural numbers person but I certainly understand enough to know how it works.’

Things looked up at the moment when she encountered strategy. She also embraced nascent strands of technology where funding needs and deal making were prolific, the pace faster.

Wendy founded Grant Thornton’s technology practice back in 1999, becoming the Managing Partner of the Oxford Office for a few years from 2010 and over time seeing through over 200 deals – a remarkable track record.

‘I remember, Oxford’s nascent technology team galvanised the other regional offices, Cambridge and Milton Keynes especially. They wanted to capture some of this action,’ she remembers.

Hindsight shows the degree to which Wendy, among others, was a pioneer in building the special venture environment that makes the Thames Valley/Oxford-Cambridge arc so vibrant to this day. Without corporate finance none of it would have happened.

Yet eventually the big accountancy firms all expanded and changed and she was the victim of her own success, required to take on national responsibilities but in a more and more specialised manner – and she left.

‘I really didn’t want to lose the variety of the mid-market, where the focus is on £5-50m transactions and deals can take place across many sectors.’

That was how she came to join HMT in 2021, thereby allowing her to maintain breadth, variety and the human element, and narrative – what’s the story, how do we tell it to whom, to get where we want to go?

Recent deals include a private equity company buying a slice of innovation consultancy Intralink, a management buy out of Smart Capital Technology for £17 million, the sale of two car crash repair businesses, Apollo and Balgores, to a national group (Steer Automotive), so that the founders could realise some pay-off for a life’s work.

‘My style is different from what can be typical in this sector. I am more collegiate in how I manage deals. I negotiate well but I am less threatening, I think. Sometimes I think I’m a stealth missile! I don’t look or sound very corporate, and they don’t always see me coming!’

Where does Oliver Cromwell fit into all this? The lockdown/COVID novel is already written at 200,000 words, and it covered the period 1653-1660.

‘He [Cromwell] was absolutely authentic. He always did what he thought was right. He held together some very disparate pieces of the state. He stood for religious tolerance, he has been broadly mischaracterised and without him I think there may have been anarchy in England in the 1650s.’

She adds that she isn’t a Republican. But she regards herself as authentic, the much over-used word here meaning straight talking, friendly, attentive and human.

‘I will never simply hang up after saying ‘no’ to a deal opportunity. I will always say, try this, consider that; speak to X, Y or Z. Often the matter will fall silent, sometimes for years. Then one day the phone calls again and a deal is back on the table.’

To critics who brand the corporate finance sector the engine of public ills – it’s important to be clear about what this usually means. Thames Water comes up because it’s now notorious for polluting waterways, being owned by foreign entities and having nearly £15 billion in debt, a strategic way to avoid corporation tax, besides other advantages to the shareholders.

‘To be clear that is not what I do!’ 'My deals are rarely massively leveraged. Most forms of private equity and corporate finance are about providing solutions that do drive growth, jobs, investment and the ‘real economy’.'

Wendy reflects on attending one of the UK’s last grammar schools, the Royal Latin School in Buckingham, with six centuries of history behind it.

Her father worked at the Open University, hence the move to near Milton Keynes when she was 12.

‘Absolutely no wealth or privilege in my family,’ she says, adding however that she may not have even considered Oxford had she not been at a grammar school, where it was suggested by her history teacher. She is married to a head teacher of a school and has two daughters aged 20 and 24.

‘My concern now is that the contract has been broken, between the generations and across society. When I was 20 there was still a firm notion that if you gritted it out and worked hard, the rewards would come, and for me they did. You believed you would be able to buy a house, have children and go on holiday.

‘That’s far less clear for young graduates now.’

Wendy Hart (St Anne’s, 1985) is a Corporate Finance Partner at HMT LLP,  based in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire.