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Cummings and goings

Whenever a new person walks into a high-profile job, it is always intriguing to see how he or she differs from their predecessor, not just in terms of approach but priorities.

Based on that, it is then possible to hazard a guess at how successful they might be in terms of what they are trying to achieve. For example, Paul Smee was radically different from Garry Heath, from whom he took over in 1999.

Garry was a big act to follow, in more ways than one – they had to smash up the IFA Association and create a new Aifa in order to expunge his memory.

Paul had to work hard to persuade IFAs that he had the same profound interest in their welfare as his predecessor. Arguably, it is the perception among many advisers that Aifa remains under the thumb of providers, networks and big nationals that has led to a less active participation by many members in its internal affairs.

Yet Paul’s softly-softly approach, radically at odds with Garry’s more pugnacious style, also scored some notable successes.

Most significantly, it was under Paul’s stewardship of Aifa that the FSA accepted the concept of a menu sys- tem for remunerating IFAs after polarisation while still allowing them to retain their independent status.

David Severn’s tenure at Aifa earlier this year covered too short a period to show up any significant differences from Paul although, initially at least, it became obvious that he was determined to show he could stand up and speak forcefully on behalf of IFAs. This was probably necessary, given his previous regulatory background. But if he had remained in office, deep down, it was unlikely that he would have continued in the same vein.

So what of Chris Cummings, the man I recently described as “this month’s Aifa director-general”? Well, his first 100 days are up and it is already possible to see blue water opening up between himself and his two preceding incumbents.

One major difference is that Chris really wants to gee up the membership. It is not just the issue of greater consultation, although he wants that too, it is the question of galvanising members in a way that has not been seen since Garry was head honcho many years back.

One senses, for example, a degree of disappointment at Austin Friars about the relative lack of a big response by members, only partially rectified days before deadline, to Aifa’s attempted consultation over broadening the trade body’s membership beyond “pure” IFAs.

Listening to Chris, you get the impression he believes that membership participation in the trade body has atrophied to a considerable extent in the past five years. Intellectually, he believes strongly that involvement and input from members is the very lifeblood of a more effective and powerful trade association.

Promoting greater commitment and sense of communal pride brings its own problems. Chris is adamant that he does not want to be tarred with Garry’s brush, perhaps sensing that the IFAA’s collision with consumer interests in the late 1990s, particularly over pension misselling, lost it a large amount of support outside the more Neanderthal elements in the association.

Unfortunately, the whispers – and the comparisons with an earlier era – are already starting. Chris may say, as he does, that it is important for Aifa to remain within the tent rather than outside it but he still risks being marginalised and forced against the canvas rather than propping up the tent pole at the centre.

A symbol of this confu- sion is evident in the contradictory attempt to have a more collaborative relationship with consumer groups while at the same time promoting Aifa’s Stakes in the Ground initiative.

Stakes in the Ground is not, as even Chris admits, a symbol of Aifa’s determination to define the best possible level of service its members might aspire to provide to their clients. Rather, it is a defensive measure to ensure IFAs are not caught out by a future misselling scandal through what I have heard described as “regulation by hindsight”.

That strikes me as a terribly watery soup with which to appeal to consumers. What it demonstrates is the extent to which, in their simplistic quest for an unlikely Holy Grail, IFAs are seeking to inoculate themselves against both regulators and their clients’ future actions.

If that is how my adviser sees me behaving in 10 or 15 years, how much confidence does he or she have in our long-term relationship? How much confidence should I have in my IFA?

At a time when the CII is driving towards greater industry professionalism, I fear the path Aifa is heading down may be a blind alley. If it continues to travel in that direction, Aifa will eventually be seen as the organisation for semi-belligerant thickos, one notch above the IFA Defence Union but several notches below the CII/Personal Finance Society.

It may perform interest- ing, even valuable, short-term work in the next few years but, in the long term, Aifa will be the org- anisational equivalent of dead men walking.

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