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Andrew Thirkill could be the most important business leader you have never heard of. His past and present enterprises have touched many and varied aspects of our national life, and today his flagship business addresses what is perhaps the central challenge of our era: an ageing population

Amid all this, as President of the Leeds Rhinos club he finds time for his great sporting passion of rugby league as well as pursuing philanthropic activities in his native Yorkshire.

But to begin at the beginning, here is someone who could provide Exhibit A in the raging debate about the desirability or otherwise of ever-increasing numbers of young people attending university. Born in Meanwood, a working class district of Leeds, he left high school without any qualifications, although he subsequently passed four O-levels at college.

Andrew Thirkill
Andrew Thirkill Age Partnership

For those convinced that educational credentials represent the only sure path to success, what followed immediately would have confirmed their prejudices. In the long, hot summer of 1976, he became an apprentice bricklayer, and a lifetime working in whatever is the opposite of the "knowledge economy" surely beckoned

Not for the first time, however, Thirkill's business journey took a very different direction. He recalls: "Not fancying the winter weather, I took a job at Kay's catalogue as a filing clerk, where I stayed for nearly two years." Without his knowledge, his mother applied on his behalf for a job as a sales rep at the renowned Yorkshire Post newspaper.

"I, or should I say she, was successful and I got the job in August 1978," Thirkill recalls. "I sold classified ads on both the Yorkshire Post and Yorkshire Evening Post." He loved the work and was singled out by the management as one of the paper's most successful reps. The future looked set, in a senior commercial position on one of the country's leading regional titles. But again, a sharp change of course was on the cards.

In April 1981, he left the paper. "The simple reason was that I wanted to launch my own business," he recalls. Andrew Thirkill Publicity was born, but, he remembers, this was not an easy birth. He raised some of the launch capital himself, on two credit cards, and initially operated out of his sister's back bedroom.

While the outlook may have looked unpromising, Thirkill persevered, and before long was signing up top-notch clients such as estate agents Cluttons and Strutt & Parker, furniture group DFS and motor company DC Cook. By 1984 the firm was in profit, and the back bedroom had been swapped for offices in Leeds city centre.

Andrew Thirkill
Andrew Thirkill Age Partnership

Two clouds darkened this otherwise bright-blue vista. One was the annoying habit of clients walking away once Thirkill and his people had burnished their public image. "When you make a client successful, you tend to get sacked," he says.

Far more serious was the aftermath of what initially looked the crowning success of Andrew Thirkill Publicity. By selling it in 1988 to Moss Trust, a public company, for £2.7 million in cash and shares, Thirkill had achieved his ambition of being a millionaire by 30, but it was not to last.

Moss Trust had serious financial problems and the stock was soon worthless. Thirkill salvaged what is now ATP Advertising and Marketing and took it private once more. The story, however, has a happy ending – today the firm has billings of more than £5 million.

Yet again, Thirkill was not content to rest on his laurels, and a string of successful businesses was launched. These included Talking Ads in 1989, a provider of premium-rate telephone information services; a Leeds listing guide launched in 1993, with a readership of 160,000, later acquired by his former employer the Yorkshire Post; a directorship and a shareholding in laser eye surgery specialist Ultralase in 2003, and Freedom Back Clinics, a network of chiropractor and osteopath clinics jointly launched with fellow entrepreneur David Hood in 2009.

Was Thirkill finally finding a berth in healthcare-related businesses? Perhaps unsurprisingly, by the time Freedom Back was launched, Thirkill's journey had taken him into a new industry once again.

Victor Kiam was, famously, the businessman who liked Remington's shavers so much that he bought the company. Andrew Thirkill was so dissatisfied with the way his mother was treated when trying to release equity in her home that he launched Age Partnership, now the industry leader that has helped revolutionise the sector.

He recalls: "The process was very difficult and the interest rates were high. Regulation was coming for the market, and Age Partnership benefited from this.

"Today, we are the largest equity release business in the country."

To ensure that he was a key player on both sides of the transaction, Thirkill and his colleagues established Pure Retirement, a mortgage provider which accounts for 30 per cent of Age Partnership's business.

Andrew Thirkill
Andrew Thirkill Age Partnership

Today, Thirkill has a net worth of about £175 million and has featured on The Sunday Times Rich List. But while he has an impressive collection of business assets, is there any more to it than the actions of a sort of commercial magpie? He believes there is.

"I have become involved in businesses that I enjoy, that I can help to grow and where I like the people. That's one theme linking my commercial interests.

"Another is marketing, and the importance of it to my businesses. I have always been in or about the B2C space, so marketing is vital."

Now another change of course looms, but not into a different commercial sector. Thirkill says: "I believe it is important to have a destination in business as in life, as if you don't, you'll never get there. I have in my mind a destination for Age Partnership, as we have introduced several new equity release products to the market, as well as our Premier client service and switching service, which was introduced early in 2021".