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October 5, 2009

Career Girl, Interrupted

By Spear's

Xenia Howard-Johnston on the unexpected pleasures of going back to work after almost 20 years of parenting and other distractions

BACK IN 2003, when my marriage came to an end, I found myself at a crossroads. I was asked back then if I could buy bread for my children and myself, and I replied, ‘Yes, but nothing else,’ so my motivation has been to succeed and to find peace of mind, backed up by my profound belief in the silver lining within the proverbial dark cloud. After 19½ years of married life, ten of which saw me as châtelaine of historic Hampton Court in Herefordshire, I was ready for a fresh career challenge. I contacted my last employer, good friend and mentor, asking if he could consider giving me a job.

Job? I had been multitasking for nearly twenty years, and he had gone into ‘banking’. A steep learning curve ensued: Excel spreadsheets? I thought that meant a horse rug. I shed my previous life of dogs, horses, charity work and the like, and became marketing manager for ebanking platforms, overseeing their EMEAA marketing events and projects, including assisting with the creation of an international marketing team. I juggled with travelling to and from London and working abroad with my son on his gap year and my daughter at boarding school.

It had been a winding journey to this point, beginning at Queen’s Gate School, where Eliza Manningham-Buller, prior to becoming head of MI5, taught me English. An international childhood was spent partly in the US, my mother being American and a top photographic agent, and sailing with my father, who was for many years based in the Mediterranean.

My first ever job? Last in and first out of Aylesford Estate Agents, followed by a couple of glorious years working with David Sheepshanks as fish brokers for Del Monte Fisheries. 1978 saw the end of life at Interocean Seafoods, and the beginning of an amazing five-year adventure as executive assistant to one of the world’s leading independent oil traders: flying around the world, creating a collection of antiques, overseeing protocol, setting up offices, looking after eminent oil-industry entities and, prior to departing for a married life in the country, finding a ship.

Then came marriage and my time at Hampton Court, home to 365 windows and the oldest bath in England, where I won national acclaim for the conservation of the interior of the house and in particular the walled gardens. By the time my marriage ended, I had two fabulous children (now 24 and 22) — as well as the drive to succeed both as provider and carer. I rented the first of two rent-a-wreck homes in Herefordshire/Shropshire. Ah, the benefits of mates’ rates! And I made that phone call to my mentor.

Fast forward to 2006, when I accepted an offer to become director of private clients at Alexander Associates Group, a founding partner of St James’s Place Fund Managers, my second entrance into the world of wealth management! Here I got involved with the property company within the group, and thus began my next learning curve.

IN MAY 2007 I was approached to work freelance, sourcing properties for some of the top international private clients of a leading private bank. During this time, I became the first female member of the Pall Mall Property Club, consisting of professionals in all walks of the property world, a wonderful feeding ground. I began to realise that my ‘intellectual property’ was becoming enormously valuable, my database of worldwide contacts.

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I was also unintentionally cementing my ‘core’ business, that of combining private client and property search, and, with that awful word, ‘facilitating’ potential deals on the periphery: the ‘Door Opener’. This included a stint as ‘consultant’ to the law firm Eversheds, whose nickname for my era there was ‘Xeniamania’.

Earlier this year, in a moment of one door closing and another opening at the same time, I was honoured and taken aback to be asked by Charles Cameron & Associates, a firm of mortgage brokers and financial advisers, whose core of introducers includes banks, trusts, law firms, private banks and their bankers, to form a joint venture. This was to set up and run Charles Cameron Property Search, combining my forte for sourcing property and working in the private-client arena.

Having started up this company in May 2009, we now have a number of clients from international banks seeking our assistance with their clients’ residential and commercial acquisitions. My life is now spent, at a pitched run, between my private office in Mayfair and my Charles Cameron office in the City.

Future plans include leveraging my aforementioned considerable network as director on behalf of a global reputation-management boutique, set to start trading in 2010 and to be based in Mayfair, headed up by seasoned veterans Brian Basham and Ross Gow.

My mantra? Positivity, clarity and certainty.

My USP? Carpe diem and a determination to achieve the best result, with some style (I hope!).

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