As someone training to be a cricket umpire, fair play matters to Fortitude Financial Planning director Chris Bowmer.
Doing the right thing for clients is something he has adhered to from the start of his career, even in a 1980s sales environment with nothing to gain by delving beyond a client’s surface requirements.
While he acknowledges the improvements increased regulation have brought about in terms of tackling “misguided behaviour” in the financial services sector, he believes today’s financial planners like himself need less regulation and more ethics.
“We appear to have regulation that is designed to make sure those at the lowest ability end have got rules and structure; that they are going to do the job properly. But the way we work at the top end as a planner, then salesman, we need less of that regulation.”
For Bowmer, regulation is what happens when nobody is looking. He says it does not matter to him; not out of disrespect to the FCA but because he would do his job in line with its expectations anyway.
For example, when a new product comes out, Fortitude spends time examining it and would only use it if they can demonstrate it is in the client’s best interests.
Bowmer says: “I’m not considering peer-to-peer lending until those businesses have been through a whole economic cycle, because until then you don’t understand the risks.”
On whether it is nature or nurture that underpins ethical conduct, Bowmer believes it needs to be learned, with advisers and their clients needing to know what good looks like.
CV: Chris Bowmer
2002-present: Director, Fortitude Financial Planning
2001-2002: IFA, Mazars Neville Russell Financial Services
1994-2001: IFA, Moorgate House
1992-1994: Tied adviser, Norwich Union Financial Services
1990-1992: Self-employed financial adviser
1987-1990: Financial adviser to regional manager, Hambro Countrywide Financial Services
1984-1997: Management trainee to branch manager, Leeds Permanent Building Society
Fortitude has always taken a keen interest in shaping the industry through involvement in the professional bodies. Bowmer – along with two Fortitude clients – was involved in the PFS Good Practice Guide, while fellow director Neil Bailey is a member of the PFS Financial Planning Practitioner Panel.
“Regulation can’t bring in ethics; that’s got to be for the professional bodies and they need to be cracking down on non-ethical behaviour,” he says.
“Some of the behaviour is fraudulent and that will be dealt with by the regulator, but the professional bodies also need to deal with it. Assuming they are cracking down on people doing the wrong things, it’s got to be obvious. It’s got to be public because the financial profession is not well thought of and people look to members of a professional body as being open and transparent.”
For Bowmer, it is financial planning, as opposed to traditional methods built around product sales, that leads the way in the gradual transition of advice from an industry to a profession.
Describing himself as a reluctant salesman, Bowmer concluded 17 years ago that what makes advisers professional is to stop being salespeople.
“The majority of people who had advice would have been sold a product. It was always about trying to fill a hole with a product. It’s not really advice, because all you are is a salesperson trying to solve an immediate problem.”
Bowmer accepts that sometimes financial planning involves filling a hole, but he says that is not always the client’s problem. What can appear superficially to be a need for something like a pension, so that contributions can reduce a client’s tax, can mask deeper requirements.
“That client who has a tax problem is no different to the bloke who is not enjoying his job. In fact, they could be the same person. Neil and I both have clients who want to give up work and don’t know how to do it. Financial planners look at what the real long-term needs are; the big picture stuff. We spend a lot of time establishing the client’s objectives as a priority.”
Bowmer joined financial services straight from university, becoming a management trainee at Leeds Permanent in 1984. He spent his early career arranging mortgages and, by 1990, he had become a self-employed adviser. As the early 90s recession took hold, mortgage business fell from around 20 mortgages a month to one.
He eventually joined Moorgate House, a company which put IFAs into accountancy firms to generate what business they could. He then moved to Mazars (then known as Mazars Neville Russell) where he met the other two Fortitude founding directors Mark White and Paul Herbert – who has since left the company. They established Fortitude in the wake of redundancies at Mazars and vowed to provide clients with advice and a professional service rather than selling products.
“After a couple of years, the market improved and we were keeping our heads above water well enough. We started off working from Paul’s house but moved into offices in 2004. They were too big for us but they were cheap and local,” says Bowmer.
When Bowmer and White started to attend local meetings of the Institute of Financial Planning, they met Fortitude director Neil Bailey.
Bailey was the chair of the local IFP and introduced Fortitude to financial planning and cashflow modelling. He was running his own firm, The Sensible Financial Planning Company, but needed an office. Bailey moved into Fortitude’s space and, although they all saw the potential for the businesses to merge, it took three years for everyone to feel confident they could make it work as a bigger firm.
They merged in 2008, around the time of the financial crisis. “That gave us the whole of 2008 to build the underlying structure of the business. The process, the values; thinking though the things that would make us a bigger and better business.”
Fast forward to 2018 and it is succession planning occupying the Fortitude directors’ plans for the future. Bowmer says one problem has been the challenge to find good financial planners and advisers locally in rural Northamptonshire who could take the business forward.
“We have a good idea of who is around. If they have technical skills and the right attitude, they are working for themselves already. If we build ourselves, graduates are 10 years away – they might have the right attitude but they’ve got to be taught to be planners,” he says. “In the future we could buy, sell or merge – we don’t know yet. But for now, we’re happy doing more of the same.”
What’s the best bit of advice you’ve received in your career?
Never be nasty about your competitors as it reflects badly on you.
What keeps you awake at night?
I’m very cautious about how I do things so as a result I sleep very well.
What has had the most significant impact on financial advice in the last year?
Probably the demand for advice around defined benefit transfers.
If I was in charge of the FCA for a day I would…?
Look at the fraud prevention on scams; it is such a big thing.
Any advice for new advisers?
Always focus on the client because the interests of the client is the only thing that matters.