There are few managing directors younger than Adam Norris of Pensions Direct, the pension arm of Hargreaves Lansdown. At 33, he has achieved a higher level in the industry than most do in their entire career.
Since joining HL in 1999, Norris and his team have built up one of the most experienced and successful pension IFAs in the business. He says it is the biggest seller of annuities and stakeholder pensions and is in the top four for group private pensions.
From early on at HL, Norris took a contrary line to traditional advisers in his belief that investing in a Sipp is cheaper than an insurance company contract. The move paid off. His success so far has led HL's progenitors, Peter Hargreaves and Stephen Lansdown, to hand over control of the firm's advisory service.
Norris quips that early retirement would be readily available to him yet it is a very unattractive option. “I do not believe in going to the office for the sake of it. I enjoy every day of my working life. I am lucky enough that my work is also my hobby. The day I stop enjoying it is the day I will retire.”
He also takes his hobbies very seriously and, before entering financial services, spent a year in Europe pursuing a career as a tour cyclist. He trained in Belgium with the hope of becoming a serious competitor in the Tour de France. While not making it as a professional, he did come back to the UK with a new outlook and a wife.
Norris's interests in the last few years have turned to business management. He is never very far from the latest book on management techniques and is a keen innovator in the workplace. He says the challenges of running an IFA today are the greatest he has faced. “It is hard work and intellectually challenging. Being part of the industry at this time of immense change is exhilarating. The potential for enormous success is there.”
He believes true leadership is somewhat lacking in an industry where success is often measured by who has the loudest voice. “A lot of the industry is run by people with enormous egos, whether they are in big bureaucratic companies or small regional players with a high profile. Big egos are not conducive to good team development.”
Team building is of great importance to Norris, who still recruits for the firm at all levels. He believes the right team is the most important asset in any company.
He has just moved his advisory staff from self-employment to employee status with the intention of producing a higher quality, more consistent experience for the customer. “This is a hand-picked, hand-trained team which I think is the best in the industry. We are all hardworking and committed to the goal of making HL the best IFA I the country.”
Yet Norris maintains he still only works regular hours and prefers not to work later than 5.30pm if he can help it. He refuses to take work home. “It is a matter of working smarter rather than harder, which is something we need a lot more of in the financial services world.”
In Norris's eyes, pension providers need to be taken to task. As a high-volume seller of stakeholder, he is appalled by complaints from providers over the recently increased 1 per cent price cap. “We are running some funds at 0.4 per cent. How can providers in good conscience say they cannot operate under a 1 per cent cap?” Slack thinking seems to be a sore point with Norris. He is a firm supporter of further consolidation in the industry, not only for greater economies of scale but also to vastly reduce what he sees as an inordinate amount of waste produced by the industry. “A town of considerable size would probably have around 40 or 50 IFAs. That is 40 fax machines, separate offices, mailboxes — the days of the IFA operating out of an office above the chip shop are numbered.”
But Norris is far from setting HL on a pedestal. He sees its weaknesses as well as its strengths. “If consumers want an Isa, without a doubt we are the best place to go. So, too, with Sipps and stakeholder. But there are definitely areas where we can do better. We would like to try our hand at mortgages and for medical and critical illness there are other specialists that can do better.”
Similarly, while firmly believing that HL is the best player for anyone with an income from £20,000 to £2m, Norris readily admits that, for very high-net-worth clients, HL would rather call in outside specialists than lose the client completely.
“We can service 95 per cent of the population but there are very few players out there that can handle the true top end. Some other IFAs would just take a pop at very high-net-worth clients but what is the point of that if it is not one of your competencies? Then again, most IFAs will take a pop at anything.”
Comments like these demonstrate Norris's forthright pragmatism, that seems to stem from his structured, mathematical training as an engineer and his hard-work ethic, which he says is a result of growing up with dyslexia and needing to work things through.
“I have become very good at learning and observing the world through truly different eyes to everyone else. If you cannot spell, who cares? Working out solutions to difficult problems and understanding the world we live in is vastly more important.”
This is a tenet he aims to pass on to his children through real-life experience. He has bought a small farm in the West Country where he has sheep and other animals. “Real-life experience is most important for a good grounding in anything. I am always conscious that financial services is a world unto its own and, the more of the outside world you see, the saner and more balanced you are.”
Born: Yeovil, 1971
Education: BEng, University of Leicester
Career: 1993-95 financial adviser, Acuma; 1995-98 IFA for small brokerages in Bath and Bristol; 1998-present managing director, Pensions Direct, the pension arm of Hargreaves Lansdown Career ambition: To be the biggest shareholder in Europe's biggest IFA Life ambition: To enjoy every day
Hero: Doesn't have one
Likes: Jam sandwiches
Drives: Porsche 911 convertible