Towry Law chief executive Andrew Fisher has earned a reputation as an outspoken critic of some aspects of the industry. But his opinions can be set against a wide ranging and successful career in financial services.
At the age of 36, he was the youngest chief executive of private investment bank Coutts in its 300-year history and he has served as chief executive for many other companies.
Twenty-five years ago, graduating from Birmingham university with a degree in economics, he turned down a job working at a scrap-metal dealers in Wolverhampton to join dairy giant Unilever. As a brand manager for Flora, he was tasked with marketing margarine to the masses. “Butter was our enemy,” he quips.
By the age of 24, he was the youngest senior manager in the company. Fisher attributes the secret of his success to a deceptively older appearance. “People think I look older than I am. I looked about 44 then.”
The son of an airport manager with Pan-Am who travelled the world setting up airports in far-flung destinations such as Guadalupe and Nigeria, Fisher benefited from an international upbringing.
He recalls: “When you have to go to a well to get water at the age of nine because the electricity is off for three weeks, you realise that hardship is not a pleasant thing. If you have the choice between having luxury and not having luxury, you choose it. But you can’t always just turn it on.
“Living abroad helped me understand how business works too. The best way of managing people is to understand where they are coming from. To do that, you have to understand their culture.”
Prior to working at Towry Law, Fisher says he is most proud of his work at Coutts. There, he says, he turned round the bank’s management culture. Three hundred of the firm’s front-office staff were told to re-apply for their positions and each of them was interviewed by Fisher. It was a seismic change, he says, helping the company go from £20m in the red to £220m in the black in his last year.
He says: “Coutts had never made much money nor, for at least 100 years, had it looked after its clients in the way it did when it started. We wanted to find out if the staff wanted to work in an environment focused on the client.”
Fisher brought the same kind of reforming zeal to JS&P in 2004 in the post of chief executive and chairman. Having previously worked at Standard Chartered Bank, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Card Protection Plan, JS&P is the smallest business he has been part of. But it wasn’t long before he looked to expand and, with privateequity backing, Towry Law became his first major acquisition. The firm, two-thirds bigger than JS&P, was not exactly targeted by design, however.
Fisher says: “I would love to say we did a strategic review and identified Towry Law as our core target. In fact, three days before Towry Law was going to close the books on offers, an investment bank rang me and said: ’I don’t suppose you are interested?’ I said yes and we had three days to put in our bid.”
After a successful bid, Fisher says he tried to mould the “old-style, somewhat monolithic” Towry Law into the ethos of JS&P under the former’s brand. These qualities are honesty and integrity, excellence, focus and team spirit.
Independent financial advisers, although they try, find it hard to hit the first of these values, says Fisher. As one of the loudest, recent advocates of scrapping commission-based remuneration, he says he had been frustrated for at least two years with Aifa’s position, before quitting the association last month.
He says: “Aifa is at odds with the way the industry needs to go. The industry cannot hold itself to give honest independent financial advice unless it is fee-based, professionally qualified and capital based.”
It pains Fisher to explain that the split was not a publicity stunt but the result of genuine philosophical differences between him and Aifa. He says it is perfectly laudable that the trade body wants to protect the interests of its members but cannot agree with its position on the FSA’s retail distribution review.
He is complimentary about Aifa’s attempts to lobby in favour of improving education. But says it is not working fast enough and is critical of the lack of investment in training among advisers generally. He says: “Advisers liken them-selves to doctors but they are actually closer to receptionists.”
Fisher also points out that his disagreement with Aifa is not an attack on the director general.
He says: “Chris Cummings does a great job and I like him personally. He genuinely recognises that the industry needs to change and in the ways we are describing. But his timescale is different to mine. He is in a difficult position.”
The commission model, he believes, has a wholly negative effect on the integrity of the profession. He says advisers rank at the bottom of the ladder on most surveys of integrity, even below estate agents.
He says commission is anathema to the idea of being independent. He says: “If a doctor was remunerated on the basis of how many drugs he prescribed or the number of operations he makes rather than the advice he gives, then he would be biased.
“Coutts did charge commission, but we stopped it when I got there. But the issue is much more poignant for IFAs who hold themselves up to be independent. A private bank is a private bank.”
Fisher is not pleased with everything the retail distribution review offers, however. “I am deeply concerned about the customer agreed remuneration as an alternative. It sounds like commission through the backdoor,” he says.
The plans to split advice along primary and professional lines could cause problems for bigger firms. He says: “One company can’t do both. You would bring confusion to clients and the brand.”
The opportunities to acquire other IFAs because of the retail distribution review are huge, however. Already Towry Law has bought Baker Tilly Financial Services, MLP and some smaller adviser businesses. He says: “We want to be the biggest wealth adviser in the UK. We want to be a FTSE 100 company in five years, with funds under management of £10bn.”
Born: Aldershot, 1961
Education: BSocSci economics, University of Birmingham
Career: 2006-present: chief executive, Towry Law; 2005-06: chairman and CEO, JS&P; 2004-05: chief executive, Cox Insurance Holdings; 2002-04: chief executive, Card Protection Plan; 2002: senior adviser, Carlyle Group; 1999-02: chairman, Natwest Stockbrokers, Natwest private bank and RBS private bank; 1997-02: group chief executive, Coutts private bank; 1993-97: managing director, Rangely; 1990-93: commercial director, Standard Chartered Bank; 1987-89: partner, Coopers & Lybrand/PWC; 1986-87: management consultant, Deloitte; 1982-86: marketing manager, Unilever.
Likes: Sushi, opera, climbing, caving and heli-skiing
Dislikes: Hypocrisy, politics in business, traffic wardens and Ken Livingstone
Drives: Porsche 911 Turbo
Favourite book: Candide by Voltaire
Favourite film: Blade Runner by Ridley Scott
Favourite album: Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd
Career ambition: Heading up the most successful wealth management firm in the UK
Life ambition: Remembered as putting something back into society
If I wasn’t doing this I would be… An outdoor instructor, climbing and caving