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The Big Interview: 'Dad passed away before I got my MBE, he would've been past himself with excitement'

The Big Interview: Judith Totten


Judith Totten in her office at work

Judith Totten in her office at work

Freddie Parkinson

Judith Totten in her office at work

Judith Totten in her office at work

Freddie Parkinson

Judith with sales director Alan Wardlow (left) and Colin Dundas, finance director

Judith with sales director Alan Wardlow (left) and Colin Dundas, finance director

Judith Totten with daughter Rachel

Judith Totten with daughter Rachel

Judith Totten with granddaughter Emily

Judith Totten with granddaughter Emily

Judith Totten in her office at work

The impact of the 2008 banking crisis on business in Northern Ireland was acute and no sector was immune. The majority of companies battened down the hatches in a bid to make it through the recession, but Judith Totten took a very different course of action.

After a long and successful career at Northern Bank and latterly Danske Bank, she stepped away from job security to set up Upstream, which was established as Keys Commercial Finance eight years ago.

The firm provides finance, trade and credit management services and supports funding of over £100m to Northern Ireland businesses. "I do think people wondered whether I was having a nervous breakdown and people did ask me why did I do it," says 53-year-old Judith.

So, what was it that prompted her to make such a bold move?

"I can't tell you that I woke up in the middle of the night and there was some kind of lightbulb moment," she says.

"I suppose I just felt there was a different way of doing things.

"I had a very happy career at Danske Bank but then in 2007/08, I turned 40 and I took a long hard look at myself and I realised that if I didn't do something different then, I would never do it.

"I knew I could stay in the bank and have a lovely career. I had a lot of great friendships, but there were a lot of changes with the banking crisis.

"At the same time, I had got to the point in my career where I was quite senior and if I was going for promotion, it was going to be away from the customers to a senior managerial level and it probably wasn't for me.

"I did speak briefly to my husband about what I was thinking.

"We do have a policy where we don't talk about work at home because if you have a bad day at work it means you bring it home, but of course I discussed it with him.

"Essentially I needed to raise £500,000 to get the business going and it took me a long time to get the finance together.

"I didn't have a few million down the back of the sofa so I had to raise the capital myself and I re-mortgaged the house. My husband David was very supportive.

"He is a finance director at Queen's University and he told me that if it all goes horribly wrong, we could afford for me not to work.

"He also said that if push comes to shove we would sell the house. However, I would never put us or the family, or myself, in a position where I couldn't get myself out of debt."

It was a remarkable leap of faith for someone who never had any aspirations to start her own business. In September, the company announced it had also secured funding from a US debt and equity fund.

As a schoolgirl growing up in Holywood, Co Down, Judith had hopes of becoming a primary school teacher and then a barrister.

She says: "I went to Sullivan Upper School in Holywood, I had one sister and had a very normal, standard upbringing, it was all very straightforward. I had nephews and nieces and I thought I would quite like to teach and then I took a notion for law.

"I think both teaching and law are quite similar because in both jobs you are standing up in front of people imparting knowledge or information.

"Actually, I don't think I would have made the grades for law."

As it turned out, Judith followed her heart into a career in the world of business and she believes her parents played a significant role in that decision.

She says: "I never wanted to work somewhere where I would be solitary, although I don't think I would have made the grade for law. My dad worked in business, although he wasn't self-employed and my mum was a part-time book keeper and I think that is what encouraged me to go into business.

"I was always quite independent, I passed my driving test and I wanted to buy my own car and when I was in sixth year at school. I decided I wasn't going to waste three years at university and Ieft school before I sat my A-levels.

"My parents were very supportive, my dad was the father of two daughters and when I look back now he used to tell us to do whatever we wanted to do.

"He would say that whatever we ended up doing, we would be doing it for a long time so we should be happy.

"That stuck with me, if you're not happy it's an awfully long time to be miserable.

"If we had wanted to go to university or travelling, or do whatever, I know hand on heart he would have supported us."

While Judith did not follow the traditional path of A-levels and a degree, she amassed many decades of experience and knowledge that have proven to be invaluable.

"I was excited about leaving school, I have certainly never regretted it," she said.

"This is something I am quite passionate about because I do feel that we sometimes have this idea that children have to do A-levels and get a degree.

"I went and worked for my brother-in-law in his insurance and mortgage business and I learnt an awful lot about running a business, about efficiencies and how to treat customers."

From there, Judith was headhunted to another estate agency and then to Alliance and Leicester, before starting to work at Northern Bank when her son was three months old.

She says Upstream has earned the loyalty of its customers.

"I think that says a lot because we are more expensive than a bank because we have to borrow money to lend money and actually people remember who helped them when they were in the dark days and they stay with those people in the light days," Judith explains.

"We are able to work differently from the banks, ours is a very personal service. As well as looking at the financial history we are also able to look to the future and ask a business what they will do differently.

"It's the personal touch that makes the difference, we can look people in the eye and if you can't get past the person standing in front of you, you don't do the deal."

But there have been tough times too.

"One of the most important things I have learnt over the years is that it doesn't cost anything to be kind," she says.

"Of course, there are bad people out there, I don't believe in unicorns and we have had bad debts.

"One in particular caused an awful lot of sleepless nights - it was a nightmare and there was a bit of fraud involved.

"We lost a lot of money and had to write it off.

"Fortunately we had been making good profits and were able to support ourselves through that, but we came through it and you always have to look forward and learn from things that hurt."

There is no doubt that Upstream Working Capital Ltd has been a success - and Judith was awarded an MBE for services to the Northern Ireland economy.

Describing it as a career highlight, Judith said it was also a bittersweet achievement, coming after the death of her beloved father.

"My one sadness in all that is that my dad passed away before I got my MBE," she said.

"He would have been past himself with excitement."

Despite all of her achievements over the years - as well as founding Upstream, Judith is also on the board of Invest NI and the council of The Princes Trust - Judith was stunned to receive an MBE.

In particular, she was even happier that it was in recognition of her role as managing director at Upstream.

"I just assumed that it was because of Invest NI so it made me even prouder as Upstream is a small business, but we do make a difference to our clients," she says.

"I couldn't believe that I had been awarded an MBE. I was actually off sick with a tummy bug when I found out and I was in bed feeling sorry for myself.

"I came downstairs for a glass of water and saw a letter from the Cabinet Office.

"I opened it, but didn't really look at it and I went back to bed but was woken later by my daughter screaming and roaring that I was getting an MBE.

"I thought she was being ridiculous and I still didn't believe it until it was officially announced and a journalist rang me. I am so proud of it though, I am just a small cog in a machine and the MBE was for the whole team."

Of course, while she has experienced great highs, setting up a business at the height of a recession has not been without its challenges. "Starting a business in the finance sector in 2008 at the height of the banking crisis, I really didn't have a lot going for me.

"However, I had some really good people help me, advising me and supporting me.

"They are actually still with me today and they took a gamble on my ability.

"I wrote a business plan and a couple of people joined me at this point but it took 14 months to get the bank to lend the money for the business, but the journey strengthened my resolve.

"The fact that I had investment behind me as well helped and I was also getting customers from the banks phoning me asking what they were going to do.

"My first 10 customers are still customers today."

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