‘People say I’m a capitalist at heart – but that doesn’t mean you can’t vote Labour’

Interview: Quintessentially boss Aaron Simpson on being a fixer for the elite, and why its accounts are 16 months late

Aaron Simpson founded Quintessentially with Ben Elliot with the tagline ‘accessing the inaccessible’ Credit: SOLARPIX.COM/IGL

Want Elton John to sing at your wedding? Not a problem. Close Sydney Harbour Bridge for a proposal? Consider it done. Lunch on an iceberg? Right away, sir.

VIP concierge service Quintessentially promises its customers “access to the inaccessible” – for a fee of up to £25,000.

But after 20 years at the helm, Aaron Simpson claims he’s ready to move on from being a fixer for the ultra wealthy. 

“I stood back four years ago and took a brief period of time off,” he says. 

“I’ve always had this niggling idea that over my career, I could do something that was more interesting in terms of being purpose-driven.”

Speaking from Ibiza, the 50-year-old former film producer pitches his “social capitalism” app, Kindred, which encourages consumers to donate to charities and good causes. Customers shopping online are prompted, either through an app or a browser extension, to claim cashback, a slice of which is given to good causes, averaging £150 per year.

With a team of around 35, Kindred is a far cry from navigating an increasingly turbulent and controversial Quintessentially, which also operates a much larger global footprint.

While Essex-born Simpson remains executive chairman of Quintessentially, he says this involves “turning up to the board and signing the odd bits of paper”. One bit of paper proving tricky at the moment is the company’s accounts, which are 16 months late.

Despite boasting a client list reportedly including JK Rowling, Madonna and Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, Quintessentially was hit hard by the pandemic as restaurants closed, parties were cancelled and private jets grounded.

Yet even before then, its most recent financial accounts of 2019 – published in May – show losses of £4.4m on revenues of £50m. They also revealed losses in 2018 were restated to £5m, compared with the £3.1m previously reported.

The 16-month delay in reporting was blamed on a messy reorganisation, as Quintessentially cut its structure down from over 30 companies. It was forced to admit a £7m accounting error and paying an unlawful dividend of £1.4m to shareholders.

Simpson insists things have improved, and the company has now returned to profit: “I don’t want to jump the gun. They are going to file accounts.”

Founded in 2000 by Simpson, Paul Drummond and Ben Elliot – the nephew of the Duchess of Cornwall and Tory party co-chairman – Quintessentially aimed to cater for a growing class of the super rich, in charge of sorting everything from tickets to holidays and introductions.

Simpson, who was working for Elton John’s film company at the time, met Elliot through Tom Parker Bowles, son of Camilla.

“The growth in wealth was tangible,” Simpson says. “Our tagline was ‘accessing the inaccessible’.”

Membership started at around £500, typically to gain access to the latest night spot. That has since skyrocketed to £25,000 for a “Quintessence” package that includes a 24/7 personal assistant.

It has not all been smooth sailing. Two years ago, a legal battle with two of its former executives emerged amid a dispute about the value of their stakes, and was later settled. Insiders claimed the company suffered from a “Mad Men-esque” culture.

Simpson dismisses this, blaming “mudslinging” surrounding the litigation. “I don’t think there was a culture of Mad Men. I quite like that TV show, but I don’t think there was that culture – 75pc of our executive team was female at the time.”

As well as its accounting delays, Quintessentially closed its Moscow office earlier this year after Russia invaded Ukraine, shutting the door on years of courting Russian billionaires and their families. The company has insisted it abides by sanctions.

Simpson says shutting down in Moscow was “sad” as the business “had no sanctioned clients in Russia”.

Still, its extensive Russian connections prompted calls from Labour leader Keir Starmer for Elliot, nicknamed “Mr Access All Areas”, to resign from his chairmanship of the Conservative Party. In his role, Elliot has been responsible for “squeezing the pips” from donors. In the year leading up to its 2019 election win, the Conservatives raised £37.4m in large donations.

Ben Elliot's contacts book helped Quintessentially, but Simpson says politics and business don't mix Credit: JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images

Simpson seems to have some unease about the political tension surrounding Quintessentially. “In the latter years, Ben has gone into politics, which is obviously quite tricky from a business perspective,” he says.

“Ben and I are great mates, but we are on opposite sides of the political spectrum. I am a Labourite, people say that I am a capitalist at heart but I don’t think that means you can’t be Labour. Ben is the opposite, but maybe that is why we get on.”

That disconnect did not stop Quintessentially taking a £1.4m contract with Whitehall to help smooth introductions between mandarins, politicians and wealthy business people – understandably ramping up scrutiny of the VIP concierge when reported in 2020.

Elliot’s extensive contact book and royal connections have long helped oil introductions for clients. One testimonial on its website praises a “personal invitation to a fundraiser hosted by HRH Prince of Wales at Windsor Castle”.

Still, Simpson insists: “Politics and business don’t mix. Get involved in politics if you want, but after you have left business.”

Has this created any friction between Simpson and Elliot? “I’ve had very interesting chats with Ben. He knows my position on this.”

Now Quintessentially is up for sale under chief executive Darren Ellis, with a rumoured price tag of £140m. Simpsons demures to say talks are “progressing”.

A sale could mean winding down involvement with the company he co-founded even further, with Simpson saying he “might step down” as executive chair as part of any deal – although he would be open to remaining on the board.

“I did a dream job in my 20s and 30s. By the time I had done it for 18 years, any problem that came through the door I could solve as I had probably seen it,” Simpson explains.

“When you hit 50, you realise you have two lives,” he adds. “The first one’s over. And I suppose what I feel is that the experience I’ve had I will use to the best of my ability to spread this word about social capitalism.”

Social capitalism

Aaron Simpson at home in Ibiza with his dog Credit: IGL/SOLARPIX.COM

If his second act goes as planned, Kindred will hit 25m users by the end of this year and 100m in 2023. It has just raised £2m from angel investors at a £50m valuation.

“We will be donating tens of millions if not hundreds of millions per year,” says Simpson.

Kindred has already signed up a major smartphone handset maker and is in talks with a large energy company to provide cashback services to their customers, which will pass donations to good causes.

Kindred is set up as a social enterprise, meaning it is required to give 51pc of its profits to good causes. “If I had thought about this right at the start of Quintessentially, putting purpose right at the heart of it, I think there would have been a greater outcome,” says Simpson.

“It’s a fresh concept in young entrepreneurs’ minds,” he adds. “Social capitalism. Young founders should put purpose at the heart of what they do.

“You’ve got to have the capitalist heat pounding, because you’ve got to benefit the wider community, shareholders, stakeholders and employees.”

The plan is to keep Kindred nimble with headcount likely to remain below 40. “I don’t want to employ 2,000 people again. People are interesting but my goodness they make things complicated.”

“I’ve found this one much easier,” Simpson says of building Kindred. “I don’t think building a business where you could pick up the phone and ask for anything was an easy task.”