Bruce Wilson, founding managing director at Helm Godfrey, talks to Christopher Salih about his route into finance and how his belief that money leads to personal freedom drives him when helping clients make decisions about their money
How did you get involved in the Nucleus wrap?
We had been talking to Paul Bradshaw, who is now chairman at Nucleus, for some time about various possibilities, all of which were part of his plan to develop an adviser proposition. Initially Paul, myself and a couple of other advisers were planning on buying into an Aim company and when, for various reasons, that never happened, wrap was next on the agenda and we've never looked back. The whole wrap platform was a drawn-out process and nothing more than an idea for some time - especially when you consider our first conversation with Paul came prior to his appointment as chief executive at Abbey. It was always a concept in those early days but funding and other things had to be provided and it's been a very long journey.
Were there any stumbling blocks you had to overcome?
Once Paul joined Abbey, we handed over the process to Dave Ferguson and Philip Martin. We talked to other parties about using them but felt strongly that the best solution was the one Dave and Philip were putting together and we hung our hat with them. Even so, at the time it was all conceptual as money was a big issue - there was always a backer in the pipeline but it did take time.
When the idea first came up did you expect wrap to be as popular as it is now?
We always felt it was the way forward but that's a no-brainer. We were asked by Amex to be one of their advisers in the early days but I told them I wasn't interested in something where they had all the money and we didn't. It was clear from the outset that a wrap platform could be a solution to many of the problems an adviser faces.
If we could be an owner of that platform, our position and capabilities would be doubly advantageous. That's because, as an owner, you have the benefit of being in a stronger position in terms of controlling your own destiny and, if the business is run well, you'll make money as a shareholder. You are also in the driving seat with regard to its future development, allowing you to steer how it works and what ultimately needs to be done. If this is the success I believe it could be, it will prove both a shrewd and innovative investment.
As an adviser, what do you see as the main differences between this platform and its competitors?
The principle of ownership is a key factor. Another overriding factor is that as long as it's adviser-owned it will be adviser-focused and therefore client-centric, which is a fundamental focus - as is distribution. As it is designed with advisers and their clients in mind, the methodology should be that it delivers what an adviser deems a client would like. That is the main supposition and, if it delivers, it will be a winner.
Will adopting this platform involve an integration process?
There will clearly be a lot of work in terms of moving assets across. As we're not discretionary, we always have to do these things with the authority of our clients, which means they have to be sure any process we look at incorporating is beneficial to them. The beauty of transferring from one platform to another is that it is easier once you've embraced wrap for the first time. We've been putting our clients on consolidated, wrap or administrative platforms for some time, using the likes of Transact, Selestia, Abbey or Cofunds, as it enables us to manage a client's money more effectively, which means cheaper for them and better for us.
What is your background?
I qualified as a chartered accountant with Peat Marwick Mitchell (now KPMG) initially working in London before transferring to the Sydney office. I then took time off to go travelling.
My next proper job was as a salad boy at the Hilton hotel in Miami Beach and I also worked on a construction site in California, building ranch houses for wealthy people. I came back and worked at an accountancy firm for a year, before becoming administration and finance director at a charity called the Community Health Foundation, which specialised in alternative medicine.
After going on an Oxfam bike ride to India, I took a job at FPS Management, working in insurance. When my girlfriend, who also worked there, became ill and asked me to help her with her clients, I found I made more money in three weeks than I did in a year on insurances. I went on to join Grimston Scott and then Chantrey Vellacott Financial Management as managing director before coming to Helm Godfrey.
So despite travelling the world it seems you always came back to finance. Was it always your intention to work in this market?
I was unsure. It always seemed to be a toss-up between law and accountancy and I chose the latter because I was chomping at the bit to go travelling and I thought I could be an accountant anywhere in the world. It is probably the best qualification or job for anyone who hasn't a clue what they want to do.
The trouble was I hated accountancy and I was appallingly bad at it and it was then I got involved with the alternative medicine charity. I actually got into financial services completely be accident. I was planning to do yoga teaching, acupuncture and meditation on my return from the India bike ride but, as I said, I ended up working with my girlfriend at FPS. When she became ill, it turned out I actually liked financial planning and the processes involved in both setting and reaching goals. I'm a big believer in personal freedom and money provides that freedom. For me that meant travel and independence, for others it may be status or future care.
What attracted you to Helm Godfrey?
Bob Bullivant, the previous managing director, now chief executive at the PFS, left the group and, as you'd expect, the company needed a replacement. Anthony Winner, who is now the company's development director, knew me and asked me to take the job on - after all the other people he asked had refused. I wasn't first choice - more like fourth choice - but ironically enough we bought the first choice's company last year.
What attracted me was the desire to run an entire business. I ran a subsidiary at Grimston Scott but not the holding company and then at Chantrey Vellacott I headed up the financial services side, which was not a good place to be as it's on the periphery there. You always want to be core to what a business does as being on the periphery subjects you to the vagaries of the market - they can do anything they like to you as you're not utterly essential.
All Helm does is adviser work, so there was an opportunity to set up the new business and develop the existing version. The biggest reason against joining was that the business was located at Swiss Cottage and I lived in south London, which was awkward seeing as I pride myself on cycling into work everyday. I asked myself whether it was worth 12 miles a day to and from work and fortunately I decided it was. It was a great decision in hindsight.
How is Helm Godfrey structured?
We actually bought a new business last month, meaning we are now up to some 37 advisers in total. All advisers are self-employed and a large number own the company. This business is owned by its staff, it has no external shareholders and no-one owns more than 15% so it truly is owned by the people who work here.
We have two main offices, in London and Tamworth, and we also have advisers operating in different areas of London, as well as Sussex and Chester. We are an expanding group. There were 10 of us when the group started in this guise and we had a turnover of £1m - now it is more than £6m and we've made more than £700,000 in profit in the first half of 2006 alone.
Importantly for us, our growth has been gradual, rather than a steep rise to success, and we have huge stability with only a handful of advisers leaving. That's actually the first pillar of our business - stability through low turnover - which I'm proud to say we've achieved. The second is a focus on having more than just 'amply' qualified staff.
We now have two Chartered Financial Planners and a third on his way, as well as reams of AFPCs. Our chairman is Daniel Bloch, who's an expert on tax, and our deputy, Roger Sanders, received the OBE for financial services. Also, in what is a male-oriented industry, we've a large proportion of female advisers - about a third in total.
Do you have target clients and are you fee or commission-based?
We have three main divisions, although that is not set in stone by any means. Advisers are typically either generalists or specialists in corporate benefits or wealth management. People do float between wealth and general financial planning, but we are looking to deliver more specialisations.
As I said, everyone is self-employed, so they will report back in through our compliance regime. We do try to be flexible and we trust our advisers implicitly - the majority do own the company after all - and they trust us. I've always said that for Helm Godfrey to succeed, the advisers have to succeed. If the advisers succeed and the business doesn't, there is something seriously wrong - such as the advisers making money but giving bad advice, which would lead to us incurring liabilities. Fortunately that hasn't happened.
We have a flat management structure as we want the advisers to focus on advising, whether their charges are fee or commission-centric. However, this new wrap platform means a move to funds under management and taking ongoing income that way. My whole strategy is that people focus on fewer clients, and I stand by the adage that 20% of clients deliver 80% of returns. The message is to focus on that top 20% of clients, allowing you to pass on any new clients to up-and-coming advisers.
Is there a general meeting?
We try to have one a week in the London offices, particularly in the summer, and people can come to that, although it's not mandatory. We also have quarterly training sessions and two company meetings. A lot of this sort of administration is done through the internet.
What are the main issues you see affecting the adviser market?
Risk management is a big area, with mis-selling and bad relationships with clients still a major hurdle to overcome. The model relationship should not be focused on selling a product but on the actual advice. The growth of technology is also as much a problem as it is a cure, as it can be a strain on advisers' relationship skills with a client. There's a real danger here of advice being delivered through a computer screen and, while some clients may want that, others certainly do not.
What tip would you offer advisers joining the industry?
If you throw mud against a wall, some of it will stick. So try to keep an emphasis on people's financial futures and be good socially. If I were starting now, I would look for an established group that matched both my own ambitions and the ethos of financial planning.
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