The former UK Navy Commando Pilot, Clearance Diver and Special Forces Officer Howard Leedham MBE, takes us through his journey
There’s something stimulating about interviewing a man from the finance world, exploring his past ventures and what brought him to this side of the world. Especially if that past involves tales of war and leading a force of soldiers to raid Taliban camps and hunt down victims in Pakistan. Howard Leedham isn’t exactly your run-of-the-mill finance expert. He didn’t graduate from an Ivy League, or even in economics or finance as a matter of fact. However, his journey has led him to become the Chairman of Dubai-based hedge fund firm Dalma Capital and most recently, a partner at Consilium. Upon meeting Howard, I could sense a sort of mystery, one where you get the vibe that much has happened in this gentleman’s life. He’s calm, almost as though everything in the past is a distant memory, with the excitement of his latest venture, Consilium, taking over. Thankfully, this makes our interview a breezy chat that goes on longer than I anticipated.
Howard began his career at the age of 18 as a diver, due to not being able to afford training. “I joined the Navy, became a clearance driver and was in bomb disposal and the clearance diving team for four years. I soon realised that divers don’t have much work and decided to become a pilot. I passed all the tests and went into flight training to pursue my career as a commando pilot. That was my first real brush with the men from the Special Forces,” he tells us. Soon after, Howard found himself joining the Special Forces, serving three tours thereafter.
His love for flying never weaned throughout and Howard found himself between flying and at the Gulf War with the US Marines. As with most army men, there comes a time when you feel you need to spend more time with the family and so Howard left the Navy to settle in the US, where he got the opportunity to get into business aviation in Maryland. “They had all the right certification but not the size of business I needed. I decided to advertise management of business jets in the business journal and lo and behold, it took off.” Opportunities came along, and one such offer altered the course of Howard’s life. “The CEO of a hedge funds company offered me a job to run his firm and told me he could teach me everything I needed to know about convertible bonds in six months.”
Howard Leedham is the go-getter, take-up-a-challege type of individual. That said, life had other plans for him and he had to refuse the offer, as this came immediately after 9/11. The reason why was as terrifying as exciting, with Howard being commissioned by the US Government for a year-long mission in Pakistan. Kindly enough, the gentleman with the offer said, “serve us the courtesy of living through the next year, we’ll serve you the courtesy of offering you the job when you’re back.”
“To me there are two types of adventures. One, which took gave him a story to write home about. And years later, for the public too. After much persuasion from comrades, he released his first non-fiction book, Ask Forgiveness, Not Permission, revealing gritty details of his tenure in Pakistan.
“To me there are two types of adventures. One, which people are aware of and the other that happens when you reach your destination. You know it’s an adventure when you’re on ground but it’s an adventure you may not want to experience ever again”
Fast forward a year and Howard Leedham saw himself joining the gentleman who offered him the position. “I used to pass through the UAE when going to Pakistan and always thought ‘Wow, this place is like a gold rush.’ When I got back, I joined the company and pressed them into setting up here,” he tell us. After two-and-a-half years Howard left the company, and assisted with the launch of several other hedge fund firms before joining Dalma Capital. “What I learned about the financial industry is that you need two sorts of people, in my opinion. Those who focus specifically on what they need to do, like Portfolio Managers, and those who I term as generalists, who run the company – they know the strategies, the know-how, but they don’t make the investments.”
While he still has a foot at Dalma Capital, his heart and soul are wholly at Consilium. “I like to build things and make a difference. Trying to make a difference is very difficult with hedge funds where around – a random throwaway figure – but probably 90 per cent of the assets are managed by 10 per cent of the company, and yes,there’s something for you there but trying to make a difference isn’t easy. That’s one of my frustrations of the finance sector,” says Howard.
Judging by his past, Howard Leedham relishes the thrill of being on his feet at all times, especially for work. Two to three years ago, he was invited to a lunch in London by a man who served with him in the Special Forces, now his business partner, Simon Fordham OBE. “Him and another gentleman said they were going to roll security companies into one, offering risk management and crisis response. They had a great solution to create a global footprint and to deal with only the things we specialised in. I thought this was a great idea and out of that Consilium was born.”
“For me, I feel like I’m building something here and making a difference. We do crisis response wherein we deal with kidnap and ransom negotiation. We are retained by numerous insurance companies, so if there is a kidnap the company calls us and we react immediately. Two to three months ago we had a case where three people were kidnapped. It was a three-week process and we got them out. It’s an amazing feeling when as a company, you go through this and get the job done,” says Howard Leedham. The company specialises in various other services, including specialist consulting and advisory. If either government cooperates or individuals think they are going to have a problem, or do, then their team is called in. “One of our team members always know the answers, we’re a great brunch. One of the members was a Former Colonel in the UK, while the other is a forensic accountant, we are all part of the brotherhood. We also have a cyber security team and it has really started to take off as people are becoming more and more aware,” he says.
Besides concentrating on the global footprint, they are also focusing on specialised services that will roll out in Q4. At the moment, Consilium is based in London, Lagos, Abu Dhabi and Manila, with an affiliate in New York. “We’re setting up West Africa, and that’s more boots-on-the-ground operations. In Abu Dhabi, we were the first security company to set up at the Global Market, while in Dubai, we have a corporate membership with Capital Club.” The company also looks after HNWI families when they travel abroad.
Through the eyes of a layman, Howard Leedham is a brawny army man. But as we chat about life, visits to unfortunate countries and his humanitarian efforts, we discover he is soulful too. “I tried to launch a charity that would airlift aid to countries that require it and almost got there, everything was good. But, 9/11 happened,” he tells us. “My view is this is going on all around the world and we live in a privileged environment. If something happens to us, we know someone will come and risk their lives to save us. What I’ve seen is that in unfortunate places, if a person gets ill or the building collapses, they know that nobody is going to come and they have minimum hope of survival. So, the concept of trying to put something together was that at the back of mind they know someone will get there,” he tells us.
While it is on the back burner, Howard has much to be excited about. As we delve into his book, we learn that the movie pilot was created with the film going into production at just about any time. I began to imagine the blockbuster, the feeling of having once interviewed the protagonist, but began to wonder, who would play the lead? “Anyone but Tom Cruise,” he laughs and reveals, as we go on into a discussion about our background and life in the UAE.