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MM Profile: Graham Coxell

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The new CEO of investment management and stockbroking firm Rowan Dartington is looking to bring the discretionary management business Signature closer to the Rowan brand and he has already set about improving the perception of the overall company.

Not many investment company chief executives can say they have been thrown out of the airforce but that happened to Rowan Dartington CEO Graham Coxell when he was 20.

“I was lucky enough to get a scholarship in the RAF to be a pilot. I got my pilot’s licence two weeks after my driving licence,” he says. “But I did not really fit. When you go into the military, it is all about being an officer first and a pilot second, so I got thrown out.”

But the entrepreneurial Coxell had a Plan B to fall back on. “I set up a freelance estate agency. I was a local guy with a driving licence and the property market was booming, so it looked like a good part-time job. When I left the air force, I went back to estate agency and got a job with Black Horse Agencies, which was owned by Lloyds. But I decided there was not much of a career in estate agency, so I went to work for Black Horse Financial Services as a mortgage broker.”

Shortly afterwards, one of Coxell’s Black Horse colleagues joined Bristol & West Building Society and asked Coxell to go with him and he jumped at the chance.
“Bristol & West wanted to change the way they laid out their branches and embrace technology more in order to become a retail financial centre. We used a software company called Marlborough Sterling to implement some of these changes and, in 1994, they approached me to join their business.”

It proved to be a good move. Coxell went from being employee number 18 when he joined in 1994 to chief executive of a business with 2,300 employees by the time he left in 2003, having managed a stockmarket flotation in 2001 which had the company valued at £250m.

“It was a phenomenal growth curve and really taught me about the difference people can make to a business.” Following the sale of the business, Coxell found himself back on the job market when an opportunity cropped up at Capita.

“What I loved about Capita was they had positioned themselves quite uniquely in financial services in that they had a registration capability, a fund administration capability and a life and pension capability. I thought if we could link all these together through a platform and deliver that to IFAs’ desktop, then we would have a world-beating solution.”

By the time Coxell left Capita, it was administering 22 billion contracts to 20 per cent of the life and pensions market.

He says: “Software is an enabler but it is people who actually drive change. Although Capita was very much an outsourcing business it was still about operations and processes and getting the most out of people, so Rowan Dartington was a good continuation of that.”

When Coxell and his consortium of private investors bought Rowan Dartington from Astaire Group in March, one of their aims was to improve the company’s reputation.

“In the 12 months before we announced the deal, there was not one positive article about Rowan Dartington. Since March, there have been 122, but changing perception is a journey. There was a lot of negative stuff written in the trade press but it is also where a lot of the positive stuff has been written, which will help. The local press also see us as a success story.”

Changing perceptions within the business has also helped. Fifteen per cent of the company was put up for staff to buy in March. “It was oversubscribed, which was really lovely. The energy in the business was really good. It had just made a mistake, ironically, around IT systems. But its market positioning was great and it had great underlying values.”

This is what attracted Ashcourt Rowan executives Guy Stephens and Tim Cockerill to join the company in July. “After a week, they told me it felt like they had been there forever, which was lovely.”

One of the key business areas Coxell took on in the buyout was Rowan Dartington’s IFA investment arm, Signature. It was launched in December 2009 and Coxell believes it is gaining momentum. “Positioning Signature as the investment business for IFAs is the single biggest area of growth for our business. I absolutely believe IFAs should not be managing their own money, unless it is a straightforward, low-risk purchase.

“Historically IFAs have outsourced. They sell you a pension from Prudential and it goes into the Prudential managed fund - that is outsourcing the investment. We are doing just that but the cost is lower and it is more transparent. We are already RDR-ready.”

Coxell welcomes the RDR, and not just because Signature will benefit from IFAs outsourcing their investment business.

“I am really excited about the RDR. People criticise the FSA for not being clear about implementation, but the actual principle of upping the industry in terms of quality gets a big thumbs up.”

However, Coxell admits that he is in two minds about qualifications. “I do have sympathy that says these people have good relationships with their clients and taking an exam is not necessarily the right thing, but the only way to make sure everyone has reached the bar is exams.”

Coxell has strong views on independence. He says: “Advisers have to look at things from a holistic perspective and offer pensions, estate planning, the whole lot.

Outsourcing investment does not hinder independence. Stockbrokers do research to support their recommendations, are not influenced by commission and offer a far more diversified fund range than an IFA would be authorised to, which is why I am going to be pushing Signature over the next few years.”

Bringing Rowan Dartington and Signature closer together is the first step and Coxell says: “We need to make sure people can align it more with the Rowan brand.

We are going to be extending what we do as a business. I think it is important we brand each service differently and ringfence them but they will all bear the Rowan Dartington signature. It is what I call an elastic brand strategy.”

He is aware that challenges lie ahead. “The key issue for me is that the FTSE seems to be driven more and more by emotion and less and less by the underlying fundamentals. The fear factor is off t+he scale and we need to remember that the FTSE is about company value.”

But Coxell is not going to let that stand in the way of Rowan Dartington’s growth. “We are looking to get more great people on board to expand our IFA proposition, and grow our presence in Bristol and London. We are also looking at potentially opening new centres to support our service. We are in a good place.

Born: Herefordshire
Lives: Surrey and Bristol
Education: Local comprehensive school, Nailsea, Bristol
Career: 2011-present: chairman and chief executive, Rowan Dartington Ltd; 2009-11: chairman of a portfolio of companies including, Forward, Chargepoint Services and JCA Occupational Psychologists; 2005-09: managing director, Capita’s wealth and distribution outsourcing division; 2003-05: chief executive, Prophitshare; 1994-2003: chief executive, Marlborough Stirling; 1990-93: mortgage broker, Black Horse Financial Services
Likes: Sailing, family time and reading
Dislikes: Middle-laners, people who drop litter
Drives: Mercedes & Land Rover
Book: A couple on the go but normally James Patterson or David Baldacci.
Film: Gladiator
Album: X & Y by Coldplay
Career ambition: Make a difference by positively affecting people I work with.
Life ambition: Create a legacy company which is built and successful based upon my core values of being trustworthy, open, honest, caring and fun
If I wasn’t doing this I would be… Selling boats

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