I have never been a good judge of trade association chiefs, which is why I feel perfectly able to comment on the appropriateness or otherwise of appointing Stephen Gay, former Aviva director of distribution, into the hot seat at Aifa.
Gay’s elevation to the director-general’s job has led to some hostility by IFAs. I have read more than 150 comments all over the internet and they seem to be running at about 2:1 against him. Many think Gay will not be able to overcome his “provider background” and wonder how he will be able to “cross the fence” to represent the IFA community.
First, I need to confess to my own inability to identify the moment when the right person for the job turns into the wrong person, and vice versa.
For example, many years ago, I had a genuine soft spot for Garry Heath, the often bellicose but surprisingly effective boss at the National Federation of Independent Financial Advisers.
Garry knew when to negotiate, when to back off, when to use the law and when to thump the table. He also led from the front, stumping round the country to persuade his members to join the PIA when initial soundings suggested IFAs wanted to have nothing to do with the soon to be formed regulator.
His mistake, although he would never agree, was that he did not have a good sense of history. By that, I mean that he could not tell that New Labour’s election victory in May 1997 reflected a mood of change that applied equally to the financial services industry.
His fight-to-the-death approach over the personal pension review risked alienating the Nfifa from those in corridors of power, hence his departure and the trade body’s relaunch into Aifa.
I too underestimated this desire for a new approach to representing IFAs, describing Paul Smee, the new arrival at Aifa in September 1999, as a man who wore “grey slip-on shoes”. It was a throwaway insult that Paul accepted with good grace and humour, again showing I had failed to understand that Aifa needed to go to work in a far quieter and more consensual way, using negotiation rather than bombast, if it was to defend IFAs successfully in the new depolarised era.
With hindsight, Paul did so well, cobbling together the menu system together with IFA Promotion and agreeing its introduction with David Severn, then at the FSA. Which brings me to Severn, probably the best director-general that Aifa never had the opportunity to appreciate in full.
Back then, the role of the internet as a vehicle for people to voice their opinions was nowhere near as well-developed as it is today but you can bet your bottom dollar that if it had been, Severn would have received a welcome as ecstatic as Stephen Gay has.
If you think Gay’s role at Aviva makes him unsuitable for Aifa , how about Severn? Before his appointment, he was head of retail investment projects at the FSA. Yet it was Severn who, sitting in his chair at the FSA, gave IFAs the breathing space they needed when depolarisation came in.
Which brings me back to Stephen Gay – how democratic was his appointment? He was apparently chosen by an appointments committee made up of Aifa chairman John Gummer,plus representatives from the boards of Aifa, AMI and the AFB. Intriguingly, on one blog last week, Aifa council member Harry Katz admitted he knew nothing about the decision until after it was announced. He said things had to be confidential so as not to damage applicants’ prospects with their employers.
Given that many IFAs are suspicious of someone who has worked on the product provider side throughout his career, is it a wise move to choose him? While the absence of strong “lay” IFA presence on his selection panel wasn’t helpful, in much the same way as Aifa was brave enough to appoint Severn six years ago, I cannot imagine that the appointments committee would have chosen someone with Stephen Gay’s background unless they felt he was head and shoulders above the other candidates.
Why would they have chosen him? I do not claim any secret sources on the appointments panel but my guess is they looked at the challenges many IFAs face on the RDR and went for someone who could articulate a powerful argument as to how Aifa could best prepare them to make that transition successfully.
Aviva has played an important role in terms of its IFA Academy, which suggests that Gay sees this as a key way forward. It does not strike me as inconceivable that he could look for support among IFA life offices and others for funding to launch something similar under Aifa’s aegis.
If so, Gay is, perhaps, the right candidate at the right time for Aifa and, for once, I may have called the moment correctly.
Nic Cicutti can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org