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Innovation is the Centre of Nucleus’ Success

Nucleus is an alternative business finance provider, set up by Chirag Shah with a clear vision to disrupt the status quo of SME lending with a finance business that served a long-underserved part of the market. Chirag explains a bit more about his company, as he has been selected in the CEO of the Year Awards as the UK CEO of the Year in Corporate Finance.

Working with a wealth of clients of all shapes and sizes, Nucleus aims to provide funding options to customers which are practical and sustainable. These tailored solutions are structured from a carefully considered combination of the various products on offer, and are act as an alternative to a traditional bank loan.

Chirag starts off by telling us how it feels to have been selected in the CEO of the Year Awards as the UK CEO of the Year in Corporate Finance, commenting on the excitement he feels at being selected, considering all the hard work he has put in.

“One of the greatest challenges of being an entrepreneurial CEO is the constant balance you must strike. Between big picture thinking and realistic execution, adaptability and sticking to your guns, and pragmatism versus the courage to roll the dice and risk it all at the right moment. It’s wonderful to be recognised as the head of the business that I feel so passionately about.”

As a CEO, Chirag boasts a lot of experience, but he too had to start somewhere and develop his experience and skillset. He touches base on his education, his first role and discusses how his career has progressed and led to him becoming CEO of Nucleus.

“Early in my career, I spent some time at Merrill Lynch, but after three months, it became frustratingly clear that it would be incredibly difficult to drive any real change in this enormous organisation. I jumped at the chance to help open a branch of financial services firm Wachovia in London.

“That experience gave me the confidence to set up my first business, a deliberately short-term venture designed to fulfil a window of opportunity that I saw during the turmoil of the financial crisis to be the person buying not selling. I learned a lot about how to set up a business, and the value of your most important asset – human capital. Also, I still draw a great deal on these learnings and experiences in my current role.

“Relatively young, I was just 26 when I founded Nucleus. In 2009, alternative lending was still a very new sector, following the crisis when banks were afraid to lend. By this stage, I had already had the opportunity to collect a lot of experience on both sides of the Atlantic. I could see the differences between the two markets – both in the traditional landscape for financial players, and the business mind-set. For me, the UK presented the greatest opportunity to disrupt and have an impact, in a market which was dominated by the big banks.”

Contributing to the success of the company is its ability to stand out amongst others in the industry, attracting the best business and long-term clients, with Chirag explaining how it is able to do so.

“Essentially, our sector specialist knowledge is one of our key competitive differentiators. These experts combine years of experience in their industry with an in-depth understanding of commercial finance. This is particularly valuable in markets such as education and construction which are not well served by banks, who do not have the deep understanding of the nuances that come with financing these sectors, and so see them as too risky.”

Regarding his leadership style, Chirag tells us about the techniques he employs to ensure that staff are all working in the same direction, and how he sets out a clear vision in which everyone tries to hit their targets and achieve their goals. An aspect of his leadership is that he creates a thriving work environment, in which employees have the freedom to work and come up with creative ideas, something he is keen to point out. “

My job is to ensure that the business has a clear direction and strategy, and that we are continually innovating to meet the needs of our clients. As an entrepreneur, you start with an idea, and a small team around you to help convert this vision into a reality. As the business grows, it is critical that you continue to share and reiterate this vision with the wider team – and welcome input.

“Importantly, I strongly believe in an ‘open door policy’. I sit on the main office floor, so I am constantly surrounded by the buzz of the sales team, and hearing the conversations taking place with customers and prospects. Everyone’s days are busy, but my team really does come first, and I care deeply about engaging with them on a personal level.

“Encouraging feedback can be one of the hardest things to get right as a leader, but kick-starting an open and honest dialogue with staff makes for a happier and more productive team. This can be hard to do on an ad hoc basis, so I have recently formalised this at Nucleus with monthly Town Hall meetings with open Q&A sessions. Whether it is a request, an idea, a question that needs answering or a suggestion for how something could be improved, I encourage everyone to hold me and the senior team accountable.”

Believing that there is always a way. Chirag outlines what attributes he believes have led to him being nominated as our UK CEO of the Year, citing education, optimism and paying great attention to detail.

“Anyone in my team will tell you that my favourite phrase is ‘it is possible’. This is not just an empty phrase of optimism, it is a commitment to looking at every situation from all angles. Anything that challenges the status quo is difficult, and new ideas will always battle inertia. You have to work through it and educate your audience. No is always maybe. This curiosity and willingness to challenge is central to my DNA, and a mind-set that I feel strongly about instilling in those around me. I always tell people to not just think about the cost of doing something, but the cost of not doing something.”

Within the company, it is important to ensure that everyone is working towards achieving the same mission, as well as motivating employees to be creative, innovative and provide the best service externally, something Chirag is able to do to an impressive standard.

“As part of my role as CEO, I have worked hard to instil a culture of entrepreneurialism that encourages new thinking in finding solutions to challenges. Approaching situations from a position of opportunity, rather than a problem, is a simple flip in thinking, but often prompts bolder decisions, which have led to some of our greatest product developments. Go to the edge of the cliff without fear and see what happens.”

Regarding the management of staff, again Chirag alludes to the freedom of creativity that he affords his employees. He comments on the fact that he does not micro manage staff, but sets them goals in which they can find their own way to match and reach.

“It is so important to give your team the freedom to explore their full potential and not micro manage them. Your people make your business, but they can only do this if you provide clear goals and objectives, and the information that they need to be creative in finding solutions. This will not work if you only celebrate the successes. Entrepreneurship is about valuing the activities which may not have led to the desired outcome, but which have delivered valuable lessons along the way.” 

Leading from the front, Chirag acts as he would want his staff to follow. It is his drive and determination which many staff would look up to, and importantly he is always desperate to improve in every aspect of his work, something he is keen to mention.

“In general, it is the drive behind my determination to make quick and confident decisions, and my readiness to change direction if something is not on track to deliver the outcome I would anticipated. I am results driven, and when I do not see this, I am constantly pushing myself and my team to ask why. What could we be doing better? It is only by asking the difficult questions that we will stay ahead of the competition.”

Having demonstrated what attributes he possesses which he believes have made him a successful CEO of Nucleus, Chirag shares some advice which he would give to someone looking to make a success similar to his own, and he is quick to praise his team as being a major factor in his achievements.

“Honestly, the clear answer for me is to surround yourself with a brilliant team. I learnt early in my career that people are the most valuable asset of any business. This means I’ve had to become more patient over the last six years – it’s not unusual for me to spend years waiting for the right person to join the team, rather than hiring someone that doesn’t have another option. Once you have these people, everything hinges on nurturing and scaling the culture to ensure that you are bringing the team along on with your vision.

“Remember, you can only rise up within a business if your position is filled beneath you. Empower your team to want your role, and to be striving to fill your shoes. When someone is fulfilling your role, it’s time to move up.”

Regarding the future of Nucleus, Chirag is excited about the times ahead, as the team look to capitalise on their future growth plans. With a strong and dedicated team behind him, Chirag believes the innovative and creative firm will catapult itself to the top of the industry,

“Moving forward, I am enormously excited about the future and could not be prouder of the team and what we achieved in 2017. It was a year of fantastic growth, and we finished the year having lent over £700m to UK SMEs to date, and we more than doubled the size of our team. We are now at more than 100 staff internationally.

“It was also a fantastic year for innovation, and we launched our Education Finance product which is expertly designed to fund apprenticeships, smooth cash flow and ease the burden of staged funding. We upgraded our technology platform, allowing us to fund deals faster, and enhanced our asset based lending, increasing its maximum offering to £50m in July, whilst simultaneously lowering pricing for loan products, cash flow and property finance.

“Ultimately, all of this provides a strong platform for further success in 2018. We are all very much looking forward to the year ahead, continuing to provide funding solutions in line with small business’s needs.”

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