The CFO Series: Adam Luk (Level39 and The Canary Wharf Group) on Personal Financial Management

Next up on the CFO series we have the wonderful Adam Luk, head of finance of The Canary Wharf Group and Level39. Level39 is an accelerator based in Canary Wharf whose mission is to help start up companies scale their growth through connecting them with the appropriate resources to meet their growth needs. I met Adam at their offices in Canary Wharf.  

Tell me about Level39?

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Level39 is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Canary Wharf Group; we launched in March 2013 to diversify The Canary Wharf Group's portfolio. Canary Wharf has always been known as a bankers environment and we wanted to progress it to a new age. The Canary Wharf Group wanted to create a cool and quirky environment where start up companies could physically rub shoulders with the companies in Canary Wharf. At Level39 we overlook a lot of the prestigious banks including JP Morgan, Barclays, HSBC; it gives you the psychological edge. We are here to find the young tech companies and leaders from all over the world. 

We have been going for 5 years now; Fintech was the first of the tech industries in our portfolio. 

We host over 200 companies, with over 50 nationalities over 3 floors in 1 Canada Square (Level39).

We are looking for inclusiveness and collaboration. We are not trivialising entrepreneurship; you won't see beer taps here. We want ambitious companies. 

 

How did you get to head of finance at The Canary Wharf Group and Level39?

I started my career of with Disney looking at toys and distribution in the merchandising team. It was far from where I am today. I loved the product, analysis, and meeting people from different cultures but, having an economics degree, I knew that I wanted to be in "numbers". I needed to get a chartered and I found a place to do that at one of the largest private security firms in the world. I chose the CIMA (Chartered institute of Management Accountants) as it's a body that recognises the business partnering aspect of business life and is forward looking in its syllabus. 

I stayed on the graduate scheme for 4 years at the private security company. After that I wanted to do more, and there wasn't a role for me to do more. I decided to join a start up. If you have drive, ambition and determination, you should go for it at a start up. It's not as wild as setting up your own company, but it's close.

I joined Ticketscript, a Dutch start up, on day one. Sixteen of us joined that week and we had a small office in Charing Cross in a Regis building. I was there for four years and set up business processes, practices and went through three investment rounds. 

We had an exit strategy in mind and sold to Eventbrite, although I left just before the exit.

The opportunity of Level39 appeared on my radar, and I have been there for the last 4 years.  During that time the technology sector has blown up, and everyone seems to be doing an incubator or accelerator now.

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What does Fintech mean for you?

People who talk about Fintech now talk about it as something amazing for the future but it's actually for the now. Fintech involves challenging the norms and is the collaboration of finance and technology. Technology is the enabler which allows finance to be cheaper, faster, quicker and more efficient. I've come across Digital Shadows, eToro, Revolut, Monzo and they have made it through the rigours of start up life, and are on their way. eToro just raised $100 M and Revolut $250M. 

Fintech enables those around the world, particularly the unbanked. It was the ignition point for other industries to sit up and take note. 

In my day to day life, I use Revolut and Monzo. I like trying tech and I have to understand it. You have to love your products. The most interesting thing is not for me to use it, but for my parents and friends to use it; it enhances society and inclusion financially. Fintech is an evolution not a revolution. A lot of people say Fintech will solve many problems, but I believe it's more about efficiencies and doing things better.

 

Talk to me about your personal finances?

This is an interesting question; as an accountant, you don't choose to be one but you have a knack for looking after money. A sixth sense. I've always had a sense of value for money as I used to get £1 pocket money a week, so I had to economise. What I have learnt is that cash isn't useful, it's what you do with the cash that's useful. I invested in a property. I think that assets that provide a return are useful to me. 

Another interest of mine is understanding the ethics of money, how money can be used to influence, and how finance relates to sustainability. 

I handle my personal finances like a business. At TicketScript I learnt a lot about managing working capital and managing staff; you have a responsibility for the company and employees and I have employed that in my personal finances. I used to worry where every penny was but now I have relaxed on that. 

 

What are your financial goals?

My financial goals are to be mortgage free, of which I have four years to go. I have also paid off my student loan which gets me closer to being self sufficient. I don't like borrowing. When you are self sufficient you can give back a lot more. 

 

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What are your outgoings?

Coffee and startups go hand in hand together so I drink a lot of coffee, and thus spend a lot of money on buying coffee. We live in the age of consumerism and as much as it's a blessing to be able to buy something at the touch of a button it's also a pitfall for many. Sometimes I end up going on splurges. I didn't plan on buying a new TV, but the world cup is on and I'm told by adverts that I need a new TV. Also the Netflix subscription...I didn't plan that either.

 

What other types of technology do you like?

The main one at the moment I like relates to sustainability. I recently bought a Zoe by Renault which is an electric car . It's not a hybrid, but I bought it more as an educational piece for myself to understand if green is cost effective. I'm uncertain whether my car is more economical but what's the metric for it? The experience, comfort, monetary value or time value? I cannot purely base it on the financials as my wife prefers to drive it and I feel morally better in an electric car. 

I am really interested in other countries green policies. My wife is Danish and the Europeans are very far ahead of us with sustainability. When we had the tax levy on plastic bags in the UK, it was a big deal but the Danish have been doing it for years. Canary Wharf is supportive of sustainability; we introduced the first vending recycling machine where you put a bottle in the machine and get money back. Finance, technology and sustainability fit together and the more sustainable we become, the less wastage we have, and the less money we spend. We need to invest in the future and this is the age of planning. 

 

You talk a lot about sustainability and fintechs in social inclusion. Where has this come from for you?

At level39 we have over 1,200 very switch on entrepreneurs. They are solving some of the most fundamental problems in our world today. The more people I talk to, the more I learn about those problems. Some of the problems you relate you, and you don't realise how strongly you relate to them. My inspiration has come from the members here; I feel blessed and privileged. 

For me, on social inclusion, I refer to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. I've knocked off the first three now, but when you are financially sufficient you have a bigger voice and more opportunity to give back. I feel passionate about financial inclusion and sustainability; they hit home for me. 

 

In terms of education; what do you listen to, read or follow?

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At the moment I'm practicing minimalism but it's not going well. There's a trend called Project 333, where for 3 months you can select 33 items to use in that period. It makes you focus on the things you value the most.  The average person has 500 pieces, but you only need 33 according to the minimalist. Right now I feel like I've given up everything but the biggest thing I have given up is my mobile phone. I found myself waking up and aimlessly scrolling through news feeds. I wanted to see if I could do without it. The other choices such as what belt or tie to wear are interesting daily choices, but are not necessary. By adopting minimalism, it has freed up my time. 

I also do a lot of reading. The three books I'm reading at the moment are:

(Wee Scot here...as an aside I talk about Mark Manson's book on the blog here, and Dan Ariely's book, Small Change, here).

I read The Chimp Paradox recently; it discusses how the brain works in terms of rationality and irrationality and which side of the brain makes the decision. The irrational side of the brain is controlled by your beliefs, experiences, morals and values whereas the rational side of the brain defaults to fight or flight under high pressure. Fundamentally, the Chimp Paradox states that you need to understand what your triggers are as they control your thoughts which in turn control your actions.

Other books that I have finished and loved are Sapiens, Prisons of Geography and Creative Inc. I have a collective mind; I'm like a sponge and I like to absorb new things. 

 

Any tips you would give readers or listeners?

The greatest lesson for me is that there is no perfect roadmap or right answer for anything; you have a gut feeling for what's right or wrong, and for me personally, it's been about learning to accept that. 

Everyone is a student of knowledge, growth and learning. 


If you are looking for further reading from the CFO Series, check out the blogs here. The most recent include: