Listen and learn

  • Interviewee : Michael Young
  • Author : Jennifer Palmer-Violet
  • Date : December 2012
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jennifer Palmer-Violet is Features Editor for the STEP Journal

Rewind to summer 2009. Deputy Chairman Michael Young is in an airport lounge with a fellow senior TEP, who suggests he should stand for Chairman. It was a position that he had never considered until that moment. Suddenly realising how much he would relish the role, Young started to see himself as a serious contender. It was an idea he could not refuse.

‘If there is a cause you passionately believe in and you are asked to do something for it, you should have an astoundingly good reason not to do it,’ he says. ‘It’s part of the culture of giving. There is too much emphasis, in many walks of life, on taking. STEP presented the opportunity to make a contribution and, believing as passionately as I do in STEP, I wasn’t about to say no.’

Young was elected and has never looked back – until now. His three-year tenure has ended and Hélène Anne Lewis has the STEP baton. Reflecting on the role that he will ‘miss enormously’, Young counts many highlights, and remembers feeling an obvious trepidation when he succeeded Rosemary Marr in December 2009.

The reality for any incoming Chair is not entirely knowing what is involved until the job starts. However, Young admits he wasn’t particularly fazed when he took over. He knew he could rely on the support of the then Management and Finance Committee. And he felt safe with Chief Executive David Harvey’s ‘encyclopaedic knowledge of STEP’ on hand. The initial challenge was getting on top of all Society activities and issues. ‘I come from the hands-on school,’ he says. ‘I don’t necessarily want to be involved with everything but I want to know everything.’

Photo: Martyn Hicks

Big issues

Young was all too aware of the major issues STEP was facing back then. The world was in the darkest days of the financial crisis, which had direct implications for members. Would their businesses survive? Would their clients survive? Despite the uncertainty, STEP not only stayed afloat but saw growth over the next three years. ‘I don’t claim that as my legacy because it is the legacy of an enormous amount of effort from everyone involved in the running of STEP,’ says Young. ‘I feel an enormous pride but it’s not a personal pride.’

The Society and industry are still getting to grips with the fallout and long-term damage on Greece and Spain, for example. ‘What are we going to be looking at in 18 months?’ he asks. ‘I don’t have the faintest idea. But you can be quite certain the financial and political climate will have changed. Again, what bearing will that have on tax and fiscal security generally?’

One knock-on effect has been making headlines this year. As governments struggle to make up deficits, tax is under the microscope, with ‘avoidance’ taking on ‘evasion’ in the public arena. ‘Clearly there are people who regard it as advantageous to muddy the waters between those two,’ he says. ‘And inevitably the press has picked up on this, very often in a remarkably ill-informed way. There is now an enormous head of steam, not just in the UK but in many international organisations, that something needs to be done.’

“Even in disagreement, STEP is still very much a case of working together for a common purpose”

The problem of defining ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ tax avoidance, and what governments should be doing, continues. ‘One role I think STEP can play and indeed has already started to play is trying to inject a degree of level-headedness – to try to start a debate – so we can endeavour to reach a common view on what is “acceptable” and what we think should be legislated against,’ he says. ‘Ultimately, it is the rule of law that must prevail, not popular opinion. And how you find a common ground applicable throughout the STEP world, I’m not sure, and it may be impossible. We may have to deal with this issue on a jurisdictional basis, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.’

Public policy is a domain that Young gravitated towards as Chairman – ‘I elbowed my way in as I felt it was one area the Chairman should be a part of and it’s something I enjoy.’ And he has spoken out about tax abuse and the problems for both families and practitioners in funding care-home fees. He would like to stay actively involved even though he has stepped down from the chairmanship.

‘One thing I don’t want is to find that this marks a watershed of my involvement with STEP,’ he says. ‘I’ve never viewed my chairmanship as being some sort of pinnacle, after which I will simply retire gracefully to the back benches.’

Hélène Anne Lewis succeeds Michael Young

BVI practitioner Hélène Anne Lewis TEP said she was ‘honoured’ to have been elected by her peers as STEP Chair. ‘As STEP extends its reach to embrace membership from new and emerging markets, I look forward to promoting the Society throughout the trust and estates world,’ she says. ‘I am particularly excited to be serving as Chair just as STEP is developing innovative educational programmes.’

Michael Young offered his very best wishes, saying: ‘I would like to take this opportunity to extend my congratulations to Hélène on her election as Chair of STEP. I know that Hélène will bring energy and good judgment to the role, and I wish her every success. But most of all I hope she will find her new role both fulfilling and enjoyable. It is a unique opportunity to serve our Society and one that I am sure she will regard as a highlight of her career.’

Next issue: Hélène talks about what she will bring to STEP’s Board of Directors

Contingency plan

It should be easy for Young to segue into post-Chair life. He strategically chose not to start anything he couldn’t finish. ‘I declared at the outset that I didn’t particularly want to adopt a pet theme or project because I had a lingering concern,’ he says. ‘Chairmen, like all volunteers in STEP, are a bit transient: we come, we serve, then we move onto our next role in STEP.’

While his predecessors could afford to launch and complete initiatives when the Society was smaller, STEP’s great expansion in membership and activities means it is no longer realistic. ‘Continuity, not of personnel but of policy and approach, is becoming very important, so it is for an incoming Chair to take what he or she inherits. It’s a stewardship role: you’re here to see it safely through to the next chairmanship, allowing it to develop naturally according to the demands of its membership, rather than reflecting any particular individual Chairman’s aspirations.’

‘Always be open to other people’s views’ is Young’s recommendation to his successor. He hesitates about trying to sway the new Chair’s approach, but says that his principal advice is simple: listen. And, above all, enjoy.

Being open has helped Young’s own professional development. Originally qualifying in accountancy, he joined Bath-based solicitors Thrings in 1981 as a UK domestic practitioner. ‘My eyes have been opened to an extremely interesting world out there,’ he says. ‘That has had a bearing on my approach to practice and the fact that I now do international work and I enjoy it enormously.’ As Chairman, Young was given the opportunity to meet a vast range of practitioners. ‘I revelled in the discovery of what we have in common as well as what distinguishes us,’ he says. ‘The people experience has been the most enjoyable aspect for me.’

Balancing act

Young says being part of a close-knit team with a shared goal is what he’ll miss the most about the past three years. ‘That’s one of the wonderful things about STEP,’ he says. ‘It’s very collegiate. It’s been an absolute pleasure to be Chairman and to know you’ve got that much support behind you. You can have differences but you don’t have to fall out with people. Even in disagreement it’s still very much a case of working together for a common purpose.’

At every corner he has found support and guidance – from fellow Board members, Council members and every level in STEP. Young values highly David Harvey’s unique position of having served as Chief Executive through numerous chairmanships, and equally sees STEP President Geoffrey Shindler OBE as a great mentor.

‘He probably won’t thank me for saying this,’ he smiles, ‘but there were occasions during my term when it sometimes helped to think Geoffrey was looking over my shoulder!

‘And last, but by no means least,’ he continues, ‘I must express my heartfelt thanks to the staff at Artillery House for all their support and hard work. They are truly amazing.’

While he will miss his role as Chairman, one thing Young has regained is time. He cites the support of his ‘astonishingly good team at Thrings’ and his BlackBerry as blessings during his tenure, and admits juggling competing demands was always a huge challenge. His wife claims the biggest adverse consequence of his chairmanship is the state of their garden. So will he be turning his attention to that now? ‘I’m told so!’ he says.


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