Equal Partners' Vivienne Starkey rejects Ron Sandler's call for financial advice to be split into generic, core and full categories, believing a more holistic approach best serves her clients
Although best known as a protection and investment adviser, partner at London-based practice Equal Partners, Vivienne Starkey, advocates a generalist approach to financial advice. In the face of industry reviewer Ron Sandler calling for advice to be split into separate generic, core and full categories, Starkey and partner Kay Lowe believe this holistic approach best serves their clients.
'If you focus your practice on a single area of the industry, such as investment, it may gain you respect in that area of the market, but how can you give clients full financial advice?' asks Starkey.
'As the majority of financial products are interlinked, most of our clients want advice across the entire range of products and we will work in tandem with pension specialists and stockbrokers if necessary to produce a comprehensive financial plan.'
Starkey adds that this approach is appropriate considering the diverse nature of the company's new business, most of which comes from referrals and press coverage. Equal Partners also works with a number of family lawyers, from which it derives a steady stream of divorce-related business, and is involved in the flexible benefits scheme of a large retail group.
Considering these potential client sources, Starkey says the majority of her business is based around protection and employee share option schemes, plus clients who have just gained a lump sum and wish to invest it.
Starkey has managed to maintain a healthy media presence for Equal Partners and says this can be rewarding when it generates new clients and fosters relationships with other professional bodies.
'If potential clients and partners see you talking sense in the media, it can obviously help improve your general profile,' she says. 'However, we are very much reactive as opposed to proactive when it comes to this aspect of things and don't feel it necessary to set aside a certain part of the working day on publicity matters.'
One area in which advisers have faced criticism in comparison to other professionals, such as solicitors and accountants, is maintaining and managing client relationships. Equal Partners operates an ongoing review service that allows clients to choose how much contact they need, according to Starkey.
'If someone has just got a large amount of money and is not used to managing their finances, they can need almost constant care,' she says. 'Other people may need a review once or twice a year, or even just a single session, and then nothing more. It always depends on the client and is very much up to them.'
Regarding the fees versus commission debate currently dividing the adviser market, as a businesswoman, Starkey says, the primary concern has to be not how but how much she is paid for advising clients.
'From a business perspective, it makes little sense to do work for which you don't get paid or to expect the small number of product-buying clients to subsidise the rest in terms of remuneration,' she says. 'But on the other hand, many clients simply cannot afford to pay large fees. The important thing for us is that the client sees exactly how much they will get for their money, however they pay it. It is unacceptable to charge a huge upfront fee or commission if there is little actual advisory work involved.'
With the FSA having assumed the full scope of its powers under N2, advisers now face even more of a compliance burden to keep the regulator happy. Starkey feels this is a necessary evil to protect her business, as she would rather get things right before selling products than have to unpick problems afterwards.
Training and competence is another major issue for the adviser community and Starkey is positive about recent changes to requirements under N2, namely the phasing out of continuous professional development (CPD).
'I never believed the 50 hours per year CPD minimum requirement was a particularly effective method of maintaining standards across the industry,' she says, 'as it eventually led to people attending seminars just to get the CPD certificate. Now we are responsible for our own development, we will have to address gaps in our knowledge, with satisfied clients being a strong incentive for this in our view.'
As most of Equal Partners' clients are either fairly experienced investors or protection focused, Starkey says, business has not been particularly affected by current economic and equity market volatility.
'Most of our investment clients are experienced enough to know markets can go down as well as up,' she says. 'That said, it is important clients know what they have and what it is doing for them at all times, especially when markets aren't doing so well.'
With only two members of staff ' they are currently looking to recruit a third adviser ' and around 600 clients on the books, Starkey says, the main priority is very much the clients, as opposed to larger practices where the business itself becomes the primary concern.
'As Equal Partners grows, running the company will become more of an issue, but hopefully not at the expense of seeing clients,' she says. 'Having thousands of clients is not necessarily a good thing. One adviser I know has just 200 but all are financially sound, which means he is not working for people who aren't paying him.'
Started in financial services as a member of Hill Samuel Direct Sales force in October 1990.
Six months later, in September 1991, moved to Fiona Price & Partners as a self-employed consultant in order to become an IFA.
Joined Haddock Porter Williams in October 1996. Started trading under the name of Equal Partners in September 1999 and became an appointed representative of HPW in June 2000
Equal Partners became directly regulated by the PIA in March 2001 and won Financial Advisers Protection Adviser of the Year. Starkey was also the first woman to win their overall IFA of the Year in 2000.
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