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Profile: Outgoing Sifa chair on leaving behind an advice industry that finally qualifies as a profession

Ian MuirheadContemplating his imminent retirement on 31 March, Sifa chairman Ian Muirhead is in a jovial mood. “My ‘best before’ date is now behind me and I have reached my ‘sell-by’ date,” he jokes.

“I’ve been relaxing my grip on Sifa for some time, which makes it easier now to withdraw. Friends who have retired tell me they wonder how they ever found the time to go to work.”

Muirhead is calling time on a 52-year career that spans legal and financial services. As founder of Sifa – Solicitors for Independent Financial Advice – he has spent the past 26 years helping solicitors and advisers work together while offering them compliance and business support.

He sees the key benefits for advisers in forming such connections as the kudos of being seen to work with the established professions and also being able to access their high-quality client banks.

On the other side of the coin, changes to standards and qualifications in advice introduced by the RDR, as well as the removal of commission, have made advisers more attractive partners to solicitors and accountants.

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“In the early days of Sifa, IFAs were held in very low esteem by solicitors and accountants. But now that standards and qualifications have improved so greatly, solicitors and accountants are much more appreciative of what IFAs can bring to the table,” he says.

Another factor in the legal profession now being more receptive to relationships with advisers is the impact of the Legal Services Act 2007.

“The Legal Services Act is having a considerable impact because it has removed solicitors’ monopoly of legal services and made them more aware of the benefits of being able to diversify their business proposition by offering clients a more holistic service via their adviser connections,” says Muirhead.

“The Solicitors Regulation Authority is now itself banging the drum for holistic services.”

Muirhead observes that the legal profession and financial services are going in different directions when it comes to regulation.

“The enormous volume of FCA regulation is causing some good advisers to think twice about their futures, and it contrasts markedly with the solicitor profession, where regulation is being cut to the bone,” he says.

That said, he sees the bitter pill of increased regulation working to bring about greater professionalism in the financial services industry.

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Muirhead thinks the FCA’s predecessor, the FSA, did a great job in eradicating the influence of commission via the RDR, although he says it is regrettable it failed to properly define and support independence.

But this came as no surprise to him. He once asked an FSA chief executive how it had come to one of its stranger decisions and was told it had to take account of so many opinions and inputs that it “often produced a camel”. Another FSA director told him “there is no problem which a well-intentioned regulator cannot make worse”.

All in all, Muirhead sees the financial advice industry he is leaving behind as one which now qualifies to be regarded as a profession – although he says more needs to be done to identify in advance and throw out the rotten apples.

“All professions have individuals who let the side down and bring their profession into disrepute but, unfortunately, bad advisers get more publicity. Perhaps because financial detriment is more newsworthy,” he says.

Muirhead, a non-practising solicitor, started his legal career after his father suggested he did a law degree.

“I got distinctions in company and commercial law in the solicitors’ finals and my first job after qualifying in 1966 was as an assistant solicitor in the company and commercial department of Norton Rose,” he says.

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After three years, Muirhead was offered a job at Bass Charrington Vintners, the wine and spirit division of Bass Brewery. The firm was a client of Norton Rose and Muirhead became a director, with responsibility for legal and HR services.

He had been there for eight years when Bass asked him to relocate to Birmingham as commercial director of Bass Mitchells & Butlers. However, he declined the offer as he had just moved house. Instead, he joined Visionhire, the TV rental group, but was made redundant when the firm was taken over by Granada in the mid-1980s.

“I then decided – to my wife’s consternation – that I did not want to be employed again. Pensions had been a thread through my career so I set up on my own as a pensions consultant and subsequently joined what is now TWM solicitors, in Surrey, to set up a financial services department, and became a partner in the firm,” he says.

However, Money Marketing’s sister publication, The Lawyer, soon had a hand in pulling the trigger for Sifa’s launch.

“Around 1990 I received a phone call from a reporter there. She wrote a piece which started my phone ringing with enquiries from other law firms wanting to get into financial services. So I left the TWM Partnership and, in 1992, started Sifa to help my growing number of client firms with compliance and marketing,” he says.

In the first 10 years of Sifa, its members were all solicitor firms with in-house financial advisers and they were regulated for financial services by the Law Society.

“By the time the FSA took over regulation we had 235 solicitor firms as members of Sifa, but the solicitors started throwing in the towel when they experienced heavy-duty regulation, courtesy of the FSA, and the bottom fell out of the stockmarket as a result of the tech bust,” says Muirhead.

Sifa then started taking on accountancy firm IFAs and subsequently advice firms wanting help with their professional connections. In 2011, Sifa was acquired by the SimplyBiz Group, enabling it to grow and be more commercial.

“Now, the bulk of our membership is in this last category,” he says.

Muirhead is now relishing the chance not to put his feet up in retirement.

“I enjoy making things – building walls and fences; a gazebo and a garage; digging a swimming pool by hand – so I expect to spend more time around the house and garden. I intend to learn Spanish, too, as we have an apartment in Mallorca, and to do some genealogy research,” he says.

Five questions

What is the best bit of advice you’ve received in your career?

To switch my pension to the Old Mutual Wealth platform.

What keeps you awake at night?

Stiff shoulders from my physical exertions about the house and garden.

What has had the most significant impact on financial advice in the last year?

Pension freedoms.

If I was in charge of the FCA for a day I would…?

Do more thorough due diligence on new senior appointees.

Any advice for new advisers?

Go for it! And for law graduates, most of whom can’t get a placement in the legal profession, consider a career as a financial adviser.

CV

1992-present: Managing director then chairman, Sifa

1988-1992: Financial services director, TWM Solicitors

1986-1988: Managing director, Citi Centre Financial Services

1978-1986: Commercial services director, Visionhire

1970-1978: Director, Bass Charrington Vintners

1966-1969: Assistant solicitor, Norton Rose

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