When Gareth Marr reflects on his career in financial services you cannot help feeling he was ahead of his time, with his early insistence on putting clients at the heart of the advice process and keeping providers as far away from the process as possible.
Last week, the former Origen chief executive received the Outstanding Contribution to the Industry award at the Money Marketing awards, having retired from financial services at the end of last year.
His most recent role was co-founder and managing director of The Red House, which he set up in 2006, and he says the profession he has left behind is a better place than the one he first encountered
in the 1970s.
Evoking images of shifty salesmen in flared trousers and kipper ties from 1970s cop show The Sweeney, Marr says: “To my mind, financial services was an industry that was dodgy and dysfunctional.
“It was about the life companies, pension companies and sales companies making as much money as they could – and forgetting the customer,” he says.
Marr joined Phoenix Assurance as a clerk in 1971 because he wanted to live and work in London.
After a rapid rise through the ranks, he joined NPI as a corporate pension consultant in 1978. Five years at Pointon York followed and then, in 1984, Marr founded his first advice firm, Marr & Bradley.
After seeing the benefits of charging a fee at Pointon York,
Marr wanted to run his own firm
on that basis.
“You are proving to clients that what you do is valuable, rather than pretending that you are doing the work for free and taking commission. Commission was not even disclosed to clients then,” he says.
Marr developed a deep mistrust of firms that were not acting in the best interests of customers and recalls his delight at first being able to use pensions without going through the insurance companies.
He jokes that one piece of wisdom he picked up in the early stage of his career was that 75 per cent of the time the life companies were wrong – the rest of the time they were lying.
“I’m not saying all life companies are wrong or liars. The point is, as an adviser, your friend is the client, not the product provider. It was appalling what went on at the time.
“But we have seen some remarkable changes since then and the industry is a much better place now. We do have problems with the way the regulator works, but we have got the regulator we deserve because of what we did in the past,” he says.
Marr felt strongly about what was wrong with financial services and began to air his views. This led to his involvement in industry regulation when he was appointed to the City regulator the Fimbra Council in 1992. He became deputy chairman of City regulator Fimbra and chairman of the Association of Pensioneer Trustees.
“I think it is possible to do so much good in the industry. You can care for clients and make money,” he says. “I would go to speak at events and conferences and find myself up against direct salesmen from Allied Dunbar and tear into them.
“As chairman of the Association of Pensioneer Trustees I was representing the fee side of things; then they would make out that I was doing wrong as an IFA.”
There is an argument that while direct sales forces may not have sold people the best pension or protection plan, at least those people were making some provision for their future. But Marr does not buy that and also takes issue with the idea of the sales environment as a training ground for IFAs.
“That grounding in sales was part of the reason we got into the mess we did in terms of misselling,” he says. “It depends on what you are selling and who you are selling it to. But you can’t tell me it was always for the benefit of the clients.”
Marr says the RDR should have happened a decade earlier. “There were a lot of people who needed to leave the industry,” he says.
In 1993, Marr faced one of his biggest challenges – the loss of his wife Chris. “I was running quite a big business then, with 70-odd people in five different offices around the country. I had a 13-year old daughter at home. I nearly fell apart, but I got through it. Life is about experiencing the good and the bad – and that makes a good adviser.”
What is the best bit of advice you received in your career?
If you are lucky enough to be in the club you’ve got to pay your dues.
What keeps you awake at night?
The occasional jazz tune sometimes keeps playing.
What is the most significant impact on financial advice in the past year?
The pension changes in last weeks budget.
If I was put in charge of the FCA for a day I would…
Institute personal liability for provider management then prosecute them for manufacturing and miss selling toxic products.
What advice would you give new advisers joining the profession?
Realise that advice is your product so learn how to deliver that to clients. Products from providers are just a workers’ tools. Join a firm that lets you learn that alongside qualifications.
In 1999, Marr became chief executive of Advisory and Brokerage, which was bought by Aegon in 2002. This paved the way for the foundation of national IFA firm Origen in 2004, a company made up of the five IFAs wholly owned by Aegon.
The story of how Origen formed is well known – the idea for consolidation came not from Aegon, but from the IFA firms. It was around this time that Marr was diagnosed with throat cancer.
“I have had cancer for over 10 years. I have had 12 operations, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. In September I had a laryngectomy,” he says. But Marr points out that he has also experienced amazing times in recent years – adopting his son with wife Jane and starting up The Red House with long-term colleague Ruth Sturkey.
Being an adoptive dad has given Marr a new lease of life and he has become passionate about his work with the Berkshire Adoption Panel.
“I love what I am doing with the adoption work.
“I nearly died last year and I feel reborn in a way,” he says.
After a lifetime looking after other people’s finances, Marr says he is now feeling the benefits of having a good financial adviser.
“My son has an app on his iPad where you can look at what the FTSE is doing. He said ‘Dad, the FTSE’s gone down, aren’t you worried?’ And I said no, it doesn’t bother me.
“I have Rachel at The Red House looking after me. The joy of being a client with a good financial adviser is that you don’t have to worry about it. I’ve got all my stuff in place; they have to remind me about things like doing my Isas now.”
It is this ability to provide a valuable service to clients that Marr says will ensure there is always a place for face-to-face advice, even if online advice is delivered to the lower end of the market.
“I don’t think advice at the top end will ever be delivered online – the adviser is the most important person in the chain.”
2007 – 2013: Managing director and co-founder, The Red House
2005 – 2012: Deputy chairman, Financial Skills Partnership
2004 – 2006: Chief executive, Origen
2002: A&B acquired by Aegon
1999 – 2002: Managing director, Advisory and Brokerage, following merger with MMB SSAS practise
1992 – 1996: Deputy chairman, FIMBRA
1989 – 1999: Chief executive,Moores Marr Bradley after merger with accountants Moores Rowland
1985 – 1986: Chairman, Association of Pensioneer Trustees
1984 – 1989: Founder and managing director, Marr & Bradley
1979 – 1984 Pensions director, Pointon York
1971-1979: Phoenix Assurance