Sometimes it seems the world wants to have a pop at advisers. Whether the knocks are coming from the regulator finding they are falling short in some way or news articles about “rip-off” fees and bad apples jailed for fraud, that negativity can eclipse everything that is good about the profession and inform public opinion.
Perceptive Planning operations director Phil Billingham wants to see a more positive focus, so that public opinion takes account of the recent strides toward professionalism. Billingham knows the industry inside out, not only as a financial planner but as a trainer and a consultant helping advisers cope with regulatory change.
He realises the industry is not perfect and that improvements need to be continuous. But it has come a long way since the RDR, with advisers who are highly trusted – albeit not by sections of the media and the regulator.
He says: “It’s easy to focus on the negative but that underestimates just how far we’ve come. I would like UK advisers and planners to be more proud and positive about what’s been achieved and to get more credit from the industry more broadly, the media and the regulator.
“Many have an axe to grind by telling people their business model is broken, and to change it. But we need to be confident in what we’re doing. I would say pretty we are good.”
Billingham points to the FCA’s recent suitability review, which found less than 7 per cent of advice was unsuitable, a figure he believes would have been higher 15 years ago.
“I would like UK advisers and planners to be more proud and positive about what’s been achieved and to get more credit from the industry more broadly, the media and the regulator.”
Pride of place
The irony, Billingham says, is that while the UK advice industry analyses itself, finding flaws to correct via yet another consultation paper, the rest of the world looks on at us enviously.
He is well placed to comment: over the years he has built up links with advisers in other countries through consultancy work and public speaking engagements.
“Very few jurisdictions can teach us about how to care for clients or run successful businesses. I speak to advisers in different countries and they look at us as if we’re from Mars. They look at me with big saucer eyes as they are still in the product business. If you’re from the UK, you’re from the future.”
Billingham enjoys sharing the UK experience with advisers overseas to show where regulatory and industry change might lead.
“We have learnt how to deal with it and we have made mistakes. I tell them they might want to do certain things differently, or that other certain things might make their life easier.”
The UK is seen as the “bleeding edge of regulatory change” because it is ahead of other countries, having gone through the RDR. Advisers in those countries marvel at the changes, such as the move from commission to fees.
“They say ‘a car salesman doesn’t tell customers what they earn’. But if I walk into a car showroom, I want the best car I can afford. If I walk into a financial planner’s office, I want advice – which might be to work longer or save more – not a product. And it’s the advice that the adviser gets paid for.”
Planning first, product second
That said, Billingham acknowledges some advisers in the UK still “see the world through a product prism.
“You can see it on their websites. A lot of them are tabbed according to products, such as pensions, Isas and so on. Let’s think about the world in terms of retirement, education, what’s happening in a client’s life, not the products we might use to solve their problems.”
As a former director of the Institute of Financial Planning, Billingham genuinely cares about the advice industry. Does he think the IFP’s merger with the Chartered Institute of Securities & Investments can be a success from a financial planner’s point of view?
“I’m a bit disappointed. The message about financial planning and the importance of it has got lost in the wider body.
“But elephants can’t tap dance. Bigger bodies are less nimble. Large bodies with multiple interests find it difficult to give a clear message and a clear vision. Is it having an impact on the wider profession? I don’t know.”
Billingham’s journey to becoming a financial adviser began in 1982, when he joined Pioneer Mutual’s direct sales team.
From there, he moved into training direct sales staff and, having spent a year travelling the US when his former wife was awarded the Harkness Fellowship, he eventually got into consultancy work helping advisers cope with business and regulatory change.
“I love working with firms; looking at what they want to achieve and thinking of ways to achieve it. What I’ve become good at is helping them take it on board and anticipate regulatory change rather than treat it as a chore or drain.”
From 2012 to 2015 he was running Phil Billingham Partnership, specialising in training and compliance support, while also working at Perceptive Planning, the family business.
But in 2015 he decided to focus on Perceptive and cut back on his consultancy work, as the constant travelling and being away from home was taking its toll.
As a result of Billingham’s international links, Perceptive gets referrals when advisers in other countries come across clients who are moving to or from the UK.
“The only adviser they know in the UK is us.
“We call them our ‘world citizen’ clients. We’re getting more of these clients so we are starting to market and develop that. One page on our website covers it but we’re going to develop it in a more structured way.”
Indeed, Billingham has bold plans for Perceptive’s future. “We want Perceptive to be one of the best financial planning firms around. We want to be world class, not in scale, but in terms of quality and ethical standards. We want to be the best we can be.”
What is the best bit of advice in your career?
Always act as if you’re doing the next role up.
What keeps you awake at night?
Not much. You can waste so much time on worrying.
What has had the most significant impact on financial advice in the last year?
Pension transfers and all the noise around that, which is a legitimate concern.
If I was in charge of the FCA for a day I would…
Probably change hearts and minds for a day to get the FCA to see we’re the good guys, and that they need to concentrate their work on the designers and purveyors of toxic products that exploit consumers.
Any advice for new advisers?
Giving advice is the most fun you can have with your clothes on – clients are fascinating. Have fun and don’t read all the negativity.
2012-present: Operations director, Perceptive Planning
2012-2015: Director, Phil Billingham Partnership
2009-2012: Head of consultancy, Threesixty services
1999-2009: Owner, Phil Billingham Associates (subsequently Perceptive Support)
1993-1999: Various roles including sales management at Laurentian Life and IFA/ consultancy work at First Financial
1992-1993: Training manager, Canterbury Life
1987-1991: Training officer, Reliance Mutual
1982-1987: Direct sales/sales manager, Pioneer Mutual