The managing director of Helm Godfrey oversaw the company’s first step into the corporate advice market and is well placed for opportunities coming up from auto-enrolment Interview by Rachael Adams
Helm Godfrey managing director Graham Cross entered financial services to earn money on a gap year but enjoyed it so much that a year turned into a 27-year stint at the company.
“I started as a trainee at IFA Universities Assurance Services. Like many people, I liked the money but I also enjoyed it. I never looked back.”
At Universities, Cross came through the ranks to become the company’s managing director when he was just 25. “As people disappeared, the business needed people to step in and I am always up for a challenge.”
Cross sold Universities’ client base to Helm Godfrey in 2001 and went on to set up Question Master Software with David Wicks of Finance Industry Software.
“David and I recognised back in the early 1990s, when the regulator first brought in testing of financial advisers, that there was a need for existing IFAs to have a fast-track way of passing exams.”
Cross continued to work on financial compliance software during a spell in Slovenia and he was there when the recession hit. “2008 was the height of the crisis - the perfect time to come back to financial services.”
He saw that Helm was advertising for an operations manager and got in touch with then managing director Bruce Wilson. Cross got the job and in 2010 he went on to become managing director after Wilson stood down.
Again, he took on the role of managing director for the challenge. “Universal was smaller than Helm but it gave me a wide breadth of knowledge in running a business. My IT skills were also very useful because Helm wanted someone to move the business on from a software perspective.”
Helm is in the process of moving all its IT to a cloud-based system and installing voice over internet phones. “We are expanding in a number of technological areas. We create newsletters for clients using Flash documents and PDFs, as opposed to the traditional email format, and speak to them by webcam.”
However, Cross sees back-office systems as the future. “Rather than a wrap being the main source of client data, back-office systems come first. You cannot just add a new product on to a database because there will be legacy issues unless you are starting a business from scratch. There needs to be more focus on this.”
That is not to say Cross does not see the wrap area as important. “We have been using the Nucleus wrap for some time. I think wraps will be an essential part of business in the future. If you are doing annual reviews, assessing risk or rebalancing, the wrap is a perfect tool.”
Cross wants to further extend Helm’s engagement with wraps in the near future. “The corporate wrap space is something we are looking at closely. We are reviewing the market but are not yet in a position to make a decision on the direction we are going to go in.”
Helm made its first foray into the corporate sector through the recent acquisition of employee benefits business Truestone Asset Management.
“There are going to be a lot of opportunities with auto-enrolment and Nest. Many firms do not understand the implications of Nest and the extent of the administrative business they are going to have to do but, with the Truestone acquisition, we hope to get ahead on that. Truestone has an outstanding EB team with good flexible benefits and excellent people, so we knew it was the right move.”
There are no plans to acquire any more EB businesses for the moment, says Cross. “We need to make this work before we start adding to it. One of the dangers of any business is trying to grow too quickly.”
However, he would like to see the 30 advisers within the new EB team increase to 40 by 2013 and would also like to buy more IFA businesses.
“We spent a lot of 2010 looking at options and got very close with one company but could not agree a price.”
He believes that uncertainty over renewable income caused by the impending retail distribution review is making it difficult to value IFAs.
“Following the RDR, I understand it is likely that if you transfer a client from one firm to another there will be greater obligations of ongoing servicing, which will have to be taken into account when you value a business.”
Difficulties in valuing potential acquisitions aside, Cross thinks the RDR is a positive thing. “It changes the emphasis to client servicing. No longer are we looking at the days where you used to sell something to a client and disappear into the sunset.”
Helm has been prepared for the RDR for some time. Over 50 per cent of its income is generated from renewable sources and its advisers are well ahead with qualifications.
“They recognise the need to change their method of transacting and although there is gap-filling to be done, we expect to be fully independent come 2013.
“The RDR is a big challenge and there is still some uncertainty, especially over simplified advice, but there are also wider issues in terms of the unpredictable economic situation. I would like Helm to remain profitable, which we have been consistently, unlike many other IFA firms, but the ultimate aim is that our staff are happy - happy staff means happy clients.”
Born: Romford, Essex, 1955
Lives: Ipswich, with wife and stepdaughter
Education: Royal Liberty Grammar School in Gidea Park, Essex
Career: 2010-present: managing director, Helm Godfrey; 2008-10: operations manager, Helm Godfrey; 1992-2008: director, Question Master Software; 1974-2001: trainee to managing director, Universities Assurance Services
Likes: Classical music, good food and anything that exceeds expectations
Dislikes: Classical crossover artistes, lack of common sense and overpriced, mediocre restaurant wine
Drives: Jaguar XK
Book: The Magus by John Fowles
Film: I do not watch films. The last time I went to the cinema in the UK was 1982
Album: There is too much great music to have a favourite
Career ambition: I have enough to do with the EB integration and ensuring the smooth transition to the RDR to keep me busy for a while. My ambition is always to be challenged
Life ambition: To see as many great orchestras in their own concert halls as I can
If I wasn’t doing this I would be…A lawyer