Opening another office is a big decision for advice firms.
If you’re considering branching your business out into a new location, what better way to prepare than learning from those who have done it before?
Three advisers share their experiences.
Like a start-up
Scotland-based Carbon Financial Partners expanded into London at the end of last year, opening its fifth office in Holborn to sit alongside those in Perth, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen. The London office is run former Carbon graduate trainee Darren Lees.
Carbon saw London as a natural place to expand because its existing clients have an office or professional connections there. Lees was regarded as the right person to lead the expansion down south because he’d previously worked at Carbon before moving to London as a wealth manager with the private bank Coutts. So, what are the challenges in setting up another office so far away from the rest of the group?
“Making sure that we keep connected,” says Lees. “Having 400-500 miles between us, we need to make sure we talk on the phone and that we use the back office to pass on messages. I can plug into the Edinburgh office from down here,” he says.
Lees attends at least one or two training days a month in Edinburgh, while Wilson makes regular visits to London. Given that Carbon has four other offices, they have been able to call on existing clients and connections for help in setting up the London office. However, this does not mean it’s been a breeze – unlike in Scotland, Carbon is not well known in London.
“The London office is like a start-up as we’re not buying client banks. It’s an organic growth business, in the way we’ve done it in Scotland,” says Lees. “It took a while to get established and not to be disheartened by it not happening immediately. The initial ‘hard yards’ are tough but you reap the rewards so they’re worth it.”
Problem of communication
It’s been nearly four years since Suffolk-based advice firm Matthew Douglas Financial Planning opened a second office in Reigate, Surrey. “We started getting a lot of clients working in Central London who got to retirement then moved away, and we picked up a lot of clients south of the river, so we wanted a presence in those areas,” says Matthew Pescott Frost, director at Matthew Douglas.
In a happy coincidence, Russell Brett, Pescott Frost’s friend from university, needed to be in that location and it dovetailed with the plans for expansion.
“Russ spent time starting from scratch developing his own professional connections with legal connection and accountants,” says Pescott Frost. “But the problem with law firms is when you grow a connection they don’t tend to like it if you get another.”
Matthew Douglas uses email, Skype and the telephone to ensure the Reigate office doesn’t feel detached. However, for Pescott Frost it’s never as good as meeting face-to-face, because the tone of emails can be misinterpreted, leading to people being ‘narky with each other’.
“It works better now, three years or so on, as you learn along the way. We’ve got Russ largely running the office on his own; he comes here once a month for two days and I go there for a day or so once a month,” says Pescott Frost.
So what advice would he give other advisers who are thinking of opening a second office? “Go for it, but think carefully about what you’re doing; the location, who is going to run the office and the level of trust that’s needed,” he says.
“Communication is a difficult thing, so you need to make sure you can work with Skype, but it’s no substitute for seeing people.”
Yorkshire firm Progeny Wealth opened a new office in North London last year as a result of acquiring Stanmore-based Quadrant Group. Progeny has a Central London office but wanted to expand its presence in the South-East. It believes that the best talent lies within owner-managed businesses, so the only way it can access that talent is to buy that business – or ‘acqui-hire’.
Progeny Wealth director Andrew Pereira, Quadrant’s former managing director, says: “We looked at the best parts of the businesses, at what each business did very well, and integrated on that basis. It’s always difficult because of distance, but we’re engaging with a lot of processes that are tech-based – we use video conferencing to share data internally, and even our back office is cloud-based.”
Pereira says Progeny Wealth didn’t want Stanmore to be a satellite office that sat out on a limb. He suggests other advice firms who are thinking of expanding through acquisition work hard to create a team environment, with opportunities for employees from different offices to interact.
Progeny organises events such as training days and Christmas parties so everyone within the organisation comes together as one team. Pereira adds that employees are rotated between its Leeds, Salisbury and London offices so they get to know each other.
“From my perspective, it’s all about the people; the distance is irrelevant,” he says. “Teams matter and we work hard on that.”