Thankfully for the business, this seems an unlikely event as Bell has ambitions to grow and broaden the remit of the Sipp provider which he set up 14 years ago.
After getting a first-class honours degree in maths at Nottingham University, Bell joined Royal Insurance as an actuarial student. But after three years he became disillusioned with the insurance sector and the products that he was pricing.
“It sort of clicked one day that no one in their right mind would buy these products but that they would be sold. There were savings products when in the first four years, there were no savings, it all went in charges. I just thought, I’m part of something that I’m not really a fan of.”
A keen footballer, he heard about a coaching scheme in the US through a friend and gave up his job at Royal Insurance to coach football and tennis over there. He ended up doing this every summer for three years and working the other seven months of the year at DJT Group, a small consultancy firm which was involved in the SSAS and Sipp market. He says this was the first time he felt a sense of engagement and connection with clients.
“That is probably what attracted me to SSAS and Sipps. I could see I would be using my actuarial skills but I was also meeting some really interesting people.”
In 1995, after three years part-time and two years full-time at the consultancy, Bell and colleague Nicholas Littlefair decided to set up their own business.
They saw a gap in the market for pure Sipp and SSAS administration firms and focused on delivering reliable services as a trustee, administrator and actuary on the schemes and so AJ Bell was born.
They made two promises at the start – both of which they have kept – that they would never give financial advice to their clients or manage client money.
Bell says: “We almost defined ourselves by what we were not rather than what we were. By saying from the start that we would not do financial advice or manage money, it meant that there was an affinity with financial advisers. They would be very happy to sell our services knowing well we would not be trying to cross-sell against them. So we were very supportive of the IFA sector.”
In their first year, turnover was £180,000 and both turnover and profit has grown every year since launch. Bell says the business has never borrowed from the bank and has always reinvested the profits.
There was no proprietary software for running Sipps in those days so as both Bell and Littlefair had a programming background, they developed their own admin software and ended up selling it to other firms in that space.
Bell says a pivotal moment for the business was in 2000 when it launched the UK’s first online Sipp – Sippdeal – the forerunner to SippCentre.
“There were a lot of IFAs using Sippdeal for themselves saying look it’s great but we need something a bit different for our clients. So we spent from 2000 until 2002 developing SippCentre and that product has gone on to form the mainstay of our business and is our main product.”
In 2007, AJ Bell bought institutional stockbroker Lawshare, now called AJ Bell Securities, because Bell wanted the business to have its own stock-broking platform. He says: “We have spent some significant money on that over the last year or so and we will be launching a retail share-dealing and custody service in the course of the next few months.”
AJ Bell now has 300 staff, with offices in Manchester and Tunbridge Wells. The firm has had a few offers over the years but Bell decided he did not want to sell it. However, he did take on two institutional investors – Invesco Perpetual and Midas Capital, which are invested via their funds rather than the companies themselves.
Invesco Perpetual income fund manager Neil Woodford and Midas Capital chief executive Simon Edwards bought shares off shareholders. Midas owns 15 per cent and IP owns 23 per cent. Bell holds 38 per cent and the rest is owned by staff, including co-founder Littlefair, who is now a non-executive director.
Bell insists that Midas’s recent funding issues will not affect the business. “It is clearly the funds that actually own us, not the plc, and we speak to Simon on a regular basis and it is really nothing that should be influencing what we do. For their funds, I genuinely think that we are a very good investment for them.”
In the future, AJ Bell will widen its product range beyond Sipps and will launch its platform in the next few months. Bell says the firm will still be a Sipp provider first and foremost.
“It will just mean that we do other products as well. Our institutional stockbroking side will be developed to offer slightly wider institutional support for IFAs. Effectively, IFAs who have got their own discretionary management service will be able to outsource the back office to us.”
In addition, AJ Bell will offer an Isa product and a personal dealing account which will be launched in the next 18 months. But he insists that they will not go head to head with Isa providers.
He says there is little growth in the boutique Sipp and SSAS market and says the firm is not aggressively marketing that side of the business or seeking to grow the book. “To be honest, that business model is not really scaleable because the whole point of a boutique is that it is small and bespoke and you can’t have big boutiques. They just don’t work. We are keen to keep it exclusive.”
AJ Bell is pushing hard to get the stringent and crippling alternatively-secured pension tax reversed and regarding the recent tax changes in the Budget, Bell is doubtful that the scrapping of higher-rate tax relief on pensions is a move that will be reversed although he is more hopeful that the 50 per cent top rate of tax may come back down under a Tory Government.
The firm will be announcing its interim profits this week and Bell says they are “healthily up” this year and that its share of new business is going up. “We are taking on an ever-increasing share of the market in new business terms. I do not think too many other Sipp providers are seeing the same.”
Born: April 6 1966, Rainford, St Helens
Education: A-levels at Rainford High school. First-class degree in mathematics at Nottingham university, qualified as an actuary in 1993
Career: 1995-present: AJ Bell chief executive; 1990-1995: DJT Group consultant actuary; 1987-90: actuarial student at Royal Insurance
Likes: Football (playing and supporting Everton), rugby league (St Helens), family holidays, skiing, chess and reading
Dislikes: Gardening & DIY
Drives: DB9 Aston Martin
Book: The Lion’s Game – Nelson Demille
Film: There’s Something About Mary
Album: The very best of Cat Stevens
Career ambition: To enjoy work
Life ambition: To learn a new skill every year
If I wasn’t doing this I would be…running a pub, recounting tales of my career at Everton