Bruce Wilson, founding managing director at Helm Godfrey, talks to Christopher Salih
How did you get involved in the Nucleus wrap?
We'd been talking to Paul Bradshaw, who's 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 provided and it's been a very long journey.
Where there any stumbling blocks you had to overcome?
Once Paul joined Abbey, we handed over the process to Dave Ferguson and Philip Martin. We also talked to other parties about using them but we felt strongly that the best solution was the one David 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 this 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 a 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 you own destiny and, if the business is run well, you'll make money as a shareholder. You're also in the driving seat as 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 I 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's 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 has to be beneficial to them. The beauty of transferring from one platform to another is that it's 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 clients money more effectively, which means cheaper for them and better for us.
What's your background?
I qualified as a chartered accountant with what was then Peat Marwick Mitchell and is now KPMG, initially working in London before transferring to the Sydney office. I then took time off 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, got 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's probably the best qualification or job for anyone who hasn't a clue what they want to do. However, 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 got 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 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 wasn't a good place to be as it's on the periphery. You always want to be core to what a business does as being on the periphery subjects you to the vagaries of the market, meaning they can do anything they like to you as you're not utterly essential. But 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 week, meaning we're 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're an expanding group. There were 10 of us when the group started in this guise and we had a turnover of £1m - now it's 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's not set in stone by any means. Advisers are typically either generalists or specialists in corporate benefits or wealth management. People do float quite often 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, which I back up 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.
Box: Bruce Wilson
Box: Helm Godfrey
Based in the City of London, Helm Godfrey has made major strides in the adviser market since the turn of the century. In the six years since it first consolidated a number of specialist firms into the larger group, Helm Godfrey has grown quickly but steadily and is now five times the size it was back in 2000. It is now one of the fastest growing companies in the top 100 IFAs. The group prides itself on two measures in demonstrating the quality of the company - the very high level of qualifications held by its consultants and staff and the low level of adviser turnover, with only a handful leaving the company. Helm Godfrey maintains a key reason for its success is that it is wholly owned by working advisers, with no individual holding a large controlling share in the business. Advisers and staff are encouraged to acquire shares when these become available. The group takes a holistic approach to financial planning, using creative and innovative solutions to help achieve clients' goals and manage their financial affairs. It works with both individuals and businesses in business financial planning, employee benefits, corporate financial planning, shareholder and partnership protection, succession planning and key person protection.
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