Furloughing staff 'the hardest thing I've ever done': Veteran adviser discusses his four-decade career

Lockdown impacts

clock • 9 min read

Claire Tyrrell speaks to Kevin Walsh, an adviser of 43 years, who describes having to furlough some of his staff during the coronavirus pandemic as the most difficult thing he has ever done in his career...

Kevin Walsh, who owns Lake District IFA and estate agency Home & Finance (H&F), employs 31 people in finance, real estate, law, accountancy and hospitality across the firm's three offices. The firm also manages more than £75m of pensions and investments for 158 client families.  

As the pandemic hit, Walsh made the decision to put 10 café and four real estate staff on furlough until the UK more completely emerges from lockdown.  

"The hardest thing I've done in the past 30 years is furloughing those staff - I have not done anything as hard as that," he says.

"I've never sacked anybody in all my career. And yet I found myself furloughing people and wanting them to know that they weren't on the shelf, that we're not forgetting them."

Walsh launched H&F in 1988, after 11 years with Prudential, with its office cafes a large part of his business model.

"All our offices are laid out as a cafe environment. With the [Ulverston] office I work in we have mezzanine levels where the customer comes into a floor area, a café area with about 40 seats, then an upper mezzanine is reception, then offices for further private chats," he explains.

"We gather the customers together in a social environment. That works quite well and we're missing that at the moment."

While Walsh, his three advisers and two mortgage consultants have adapted to working remotely with clients during lockdown, he says nothing can replace the value of physical meetings in casual settings.

"We make an environment for people. It's quite as close to say a home business environment as you get and the cafes help us with that. But all of that's gone for us - our business is going to be a bit soulless to go to go back to start with because we are a community," he muses.

Walsh, right, with H&F co-founder Nigel Modsley in 1989, not long after they started the firm.

Lockdown exit plan

Walsh is currently equipping H&F's offices in Ulverston, Barrow & Millom, with everything they will need to resume after lockdown.

Though the firm re-opened in late April, that was only with skeleton staff.

"We're busy putting our offices back with screens and shields to try and make it a safe environment for the customers to come into. Some of our staff are going to stay at home and some are going to be in the office and we're not going to encourage our customers to come out of the house," he explains.

He adds that widespread implementation of electronic signatures among providers would make it a lot easier for advisers during the pandemic.

He recalls recent conversations with investment manager Standard Life, who is accepting scanned signatures but not electronic ones, and was critical of this approach.

This follows the Law Commission's recognition of e-signatures as legal under certain circumstances and the Financial Conduct Authority's (FCA) recent guidance on the issue. 

"The law Commission has announced an E signature is as legal as a wet signature. And the FCA came out and said, 'we agree with this', and the only way it's not as legal is if you need a document witnessed and they said such as a will," Walsh explains. 

Walsh says a manager at Standard Life told him: "I've been down this road before and we won't do it".

"What they're asking us to do then, if I've got a vulnerable customer I can't see them face-to-face, I've got a post document out to them. People are now being asked to leave post for 24 hours, it's got to sit on a desk for them.

"The postman is delivering it through the door, they've got to go outside back to post it, that vulnerable customer, or get a friend to do it. I'm losing a week to 10 days on their investment decisions. 

"They're accepting me sending a scan of the signature. What is legal about that compared with a screen?" He adds.

"Why put a barrier in the customers way? The regulators now announced that e-signatures are legal. And yet, the companies have not got there yet. You cannot expect everything over overnight. But coming back to what I'm saying, this issue that we've had with this pandemic is going to change the way we work."

A Standard Life spokesperson said: "Our current process, while not a full e-signature service enables documents to be submitted digitally through a secure and trusted system. Previously we requested a wet client signature in order to complete some key parts of our new business and servicing processing on Wrap,  Elevate and Fundzone.   

"We will always seek ways to improve the service and experience for our advisers and their clients,  and clearly the current environment has shed a greater spotlight on how we receive documents and associated client confirmations,  but we also need to ensure we don't expose advisers and their clients to undue risk."

Read more on page 2

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