When Keith Richards joined the Personal Finance Society as chief executive in 2013, advisers were four months into the post-RDR environment and many experts had predicted mass contraction of the sector. Even the PFS expected its membership to drop in line with this rather gloomy outlook. However, PFS membership has significantly increased over the last four years from around 23,000 to 38,000.
It was obvious to Richards that the way forward was reforming and evolving the role of the professional body, ensuring it remained “modern, relative and inclusive”. Central to that is engaging more effectively with members of the FCA, consumer groups and the Government, he says.
“Over the past few years, we have been committed to the evolution of our own role and purpose to ensure we better support the needs of our members and the consumers they serve.
“Operating under a Royal Charter with Her Majesty the Queen as patron provides a constant reminder for me of why we should be engaged in the key policy and regulatory issues facing the clients of the personal finance profession.”
Richards is confident the PFS now has a higher profile with the Government, policymakers and consumer press, even though few personal finance journalists had heard of it a few years ago.
“We’ve made a link there and are now regularly called up by members of the press,” he says.
“Members of the FCA are also regularly in attendance at our CPD events, as are The Pensions Regulator, the FOS and the FSCS. Attendance at our CPD events has risen four-fold over the last four years. We’ve been a disparate and fragmented profession for too long; we need to demonstrate a more unified front.”
Richards feels privileged to be heading up the PFS at such a key stage of its evolution.
“The advice sector has emerged as a profession post-RDR. Every day there is growth in confidence, despite the challenges that businesses in any sector face, such as reform and economic pressures,” he says.
“Most advisers are relatively upbeat as there is demand for the services they provide and they see more opportunities for that growth to continue.”
He acknowledges the concerns around the unintended consequences of pension freedoms, in particular defined benefit transfers, but says Mifid II is less of an issue, being “more a small series of irritants”.
It is Brexit which has the potential to cause the biggest problems. Richards says UK clients working or living in Europe have been concerned about cross-border arrangements for their advisers.
“Advisers can operate freely in Europe at the moment but with Brexit, that’s likely to end. It means UK consumers will become stranded and can’t access the advice they want.
“So we have arranged an agreement with the European Financial Planning Association on the minimum recognised qualifications. This provides a gateway into Europe post-Brexit, to protect the interests of UK advisers and their clients who are living or working abroad.”
The PFS will also be providing country specific tax and regulatory information for advisers who want to operate in EU countries post-Brexit.
Richards sees growing confidence in the advice sector reflected in the way more advisers are putting succession plans in place rather than selling their businesses.
He believes this is healthy, not only for advisers who have embedded value in the firms they have built up, but also for the new advisers taking the reins and the industry in general.
“Experienced advisers can be the mentors to the advisers of the future. That is what the profession is trying to encourage. Our London Committee has launched Capital PFS, an initiative helping younger people team up with experienced advisers.
“We don’t want to lose the softer skills that are often needed for client engagement. It’s great to have the technical skills and qualifications but we need to make sure that we also transfer the experience and soft skills that many of the older advisers have to the younger ones,” he says.
While many in the industry believe 56 is still the average age for advisers, the PFS puts it is closer to the mid-40s.
“The average age of IFAs has always been an interesting debate. It has just been the dynamics of financial advice, as the sector has been made up mainly of smaller firms where it’s not easy to devote time to train new talent. But we are starting to see new talent as the sector has evolved,” says Richards.
Financial services was a second career for Richards, who had been working for the Royal Navy at the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall. A work colleague’s husband was in financial services and in 1982 Richards made the move into the insurance industry – seen as a respected and trusted sector that offered a job for life.
In the 1990s, Richards rose through the ranks in sales at Royal London, eventually becoming head of retail, before joining Tenet in 2004. He left his role as Tenet’s group distribution and development director in 2013 to become PFS chief executive.
So what are his other proud achievements, apart from better relationships with the Government, the regulator and other industry organisations?
“We have focused on presidential themes set by our member practitioners which have included pro-bono, good practice, engaging the public, new talent and financial planning,” says Richards.
“Each year, we focus on one key thing that can make a difference. As an example, we launched a pro-bono advice programme in association with Citizens Advice with a view to extending it to an additional pro-bono advice programme for injured ex-service personnel. We are also working with the MoD on how we can help ex-service personnel with second careers in advice.”
What’s the best bit of advice you’ve received in your career?
Focus on the things you can influence, rather than worrying about the things you can’t.
What keeps you awake at night?
Too much coffee as a result of back-to-back meetings.
What has had the most significant impact on financial advice in the last year?
Growing confidence within the profession and recognition by the FCA via thematic reviews, as well as Government inclusion in pension freedoms and FAMR.
If I was in charge of the FCA for a day I would…?
Ensure that every mouse mat, computer screen, meeting room and operational area reminded staff of the ultimate objective: to inspire public confidence to engage with the markets the FCA regulates.
Any advice for new advisers?
It’s a fantastic career opportunity which is reinforced by the evident consumer need and increasing demand.
2013-present: Chief executive, Personal Finance Society
2004-2013: Sales and marketing director, then group distribution and development director, Tenet
1995 -2004: Various roles from regional director to head of retail, Royal London
1982-1995: Various roles in the insurance and advice industry