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Line of vision

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Devesh Ambasna, principal of Devesh Ambasna Associates, believes his skills lie in motivation and curing clients’ ’vision leakage’, so they take a longer view of their finances Report by Cherry Reynard

Devesh Ambasna cycled 300 miles across Cuba for charity last year and this year he is planning to do the same in Costa Rica. As such, he is used to a challenge. The RDR is creating some rough administrative terrain but the principal of Devesh Ambasna Associates is taking it in his stride.

The business is already there in spirit. Ambasna has operated a referrals-only policy for nearly 20 years. He started in 1981 and spent the next 10 years doing some “heavy marketing” to build up the business. In 1991, he took the decision to stop and to put his efforts into customer relationship management. He says: “I wanted it to force us to create a strategy to obtain clients through referrals.”

The firm approached this in a systematic way. It built up “centres of influence” within its client base, with clients in certain industries such as senior partners in law firms. These were people with whom the firm had a good working relationship. Ambasna explained what they were doing and what they needed while the firm sold itself on integrity, privacy and a high level of service delivery.

This suited Ambasna’s temperament. He believes his skills lie in motivating clients rather than as a natural business leader. He was a lifestyle planner before it came into vogue.

He says: “We find that many clients have ’vision leakage’. They may know where they will be in a couple of years’ time but not much beyond that. Through a series of conversations, we help individuals get clarity about how they see themselves and what they want to do. Retiring is not necessarily leaving work as such but it is leaving the things you don’t enjoy to do the things you do enjoy. Once that vision is clear, they have a motivation to put money into a product.”

When the group gets a new client, Ambasna’s first goal is therefore to get some clarity on their current financial position. This may be what the client needs in terms of tax returns, existing plans held, policies or wills in place. He also wants to know the “money habits” of clients before he gets to the advice stage, which involved scrutinising things such as credit card statements. He says: “You should not be embarrassed in front of your GP or your financial adviser.”

The first meeting will involve some education for the client. Ambasna says: “We want individuals to take ownership of their financial future and work to keep it on track. A client needs to know what I am doing so there is accountability on both sides - I’m accountable for my advice, the client for carrying it out. Reviews are important as people lead busy lives.”

The group’s client base tends to be professionals or businesspeople. It has clients who are directors of FTSE companies, doctors, dentists, accountants and lawyers. It has been based in central London since its inception, which has brought a certain type of client.

The group has a network of specialists to ensure that clients get a full financial planning service. For example, Ambasna highlights a recent case of a client looking for tax planning advice in connection with a proposed move to New Zealand. He had the connections in place to refer him to an appropriate specialist. He believes it is important for clients to know that all their needs are met in one place.

Devesh joined Openwork when it launched in 2005. He liked the fact that it would deal with the product providers, negotiate terms and deal with the FSA. He says: “We don’t have the resources for fund and product research but Openwork supplies those to us through its partnership with OBSR, which sits on its investment committee. We want to focus on clients and this enables us to do that.”

At the moment, he selects from Openwork’s res-tricted platform. Where this does not fit for a particular client, he uses the whole-of-market side of the business - Openwork Market Solutions. He has found this to be a good arrangement and ideally would like to continue in a similar vein after RDR.

’We believe that restricted should deliver the needs of most clients’
Ambasna has not yet decided whether he will sit in the restricted or unrestricted side after RDR. He says: “My decision will be governed by the clients and whether they want the whole of market such as ETFs, shares, etc. For us, it will depend how clients view a restricted offering post-RDR - will they think that being restricted is a negative thing? We believe that restricted should - with the proper wrap platform - deliver the needs of the majority of clients. However, we will canvas it with clients, as we did with the adoption of Openwork. It will also rely on restricted not being too restrictive and being able to use the whole-of-market solution as and when it is needed.”

The practice already has a fee-based offering, so Ambasna will have no problem dealing with this aspect of the RDR. When the group joined Openwork in 2005, the senior managers received training on fees and have built on it since then. Ambasna says: “It took education on both sides. Up to that point, we had only earned on commission. New clients were not a problem, the problems came from retraining existing clients but most came with me.”

The group currently has 250 active clients and is fully involved in their financial planning. They know them, they know their families. In fact, Ambasna is now finding that clients’ children are coming to the firm for advice, having started their careers, got married or bought properties. It has another 250 passive clients whose needs are more ad-hoc. These tend to be charged on a per-hour basis agreed up-front. It also has a legacy of around 500 policyholders who will be in contact from time to time. Ambasna says that the firm will help out where they can, even if not all of these policyholders will be in a position to pay fees.

He prefers that actively managed clients pay a retainer but has some that are based on an hourly rate. At the moment, some of these are heavily subsidised by trail fees and renewal fees and he says there will be a secondary education process when the full cost is passed on to clients. However, under the current guidance, historic trail fees should continue to be paid.

Ambasna’s two major projects are the introduction of a wrap system and succession planning. The group has a point of sale system in place, which connects to its CRM and financial planning systems, but it has had some teething problems. Openwork is doing its due diligence on wrap providers and Ambasna is part of the committee making those decisions.

But the biggest hurdle is succession. He says: “In order to keep the practice going, I need to create a succession plan and this is my next project. I want to bring on two young apprentices and build them into the practice. I don’t think I will ever retire completely but I would like to leave behind some of the administration. We have someone here who is 82 and still the first person in the office.

“The two people we bring on have to be the right people - I have been trying for two years and I realise it could be a 10-year project. Whoever comes on board has to have the same philosophy and moulding people takes time.” But as his charity cycle rides have proved, Ambasna is not a man to be phased by challenges.

  • Key points
  • The group has operated a referrals-only policy for 20 years. It builds up “centres of influence” in different industries
  • Ambasna believes his skills lie in motivating clients. Early meetings will focus on helping a client create a vision of how he wants his future to look
  • The group has a network of specialists to ensure that all client needs are met in one place
  • Ambasna joined Openwork in 2005. He says he does not have the resources for fund and product research and this provides a good solution
  • Ambasna has not yet decided whether he will sit in the restricted or unrestric-ted area post-RDR and is consulting with his clients

Company data

Name: Devesh Ambasna Associates
Team: Paraplanner, client relationship manager and two administrators l Number of clients: 250 active, 250 occasional, 500 policyholders
Outsourced investment management: Yes, Openwork
Wrap provider: Under review
Back-office provider: Distribution technology
Fee-based? Since 2005
Qualifications: All RIs level four and above

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