Winning three trophies at this year’s Unbiased media awards is serious business for Jonothan McColgan. In fact, his livelihood depends on it. As the owner of small advice firm Combined Financial Strategies, McColgan cannot compete with the marketing budgets of bigger firms. He has had to find other ways to attract clients, so winning industry awards has become a core part of his strategy.
At this year’s Unbiased ceremony, he picked up Retirement Adviser of the Year, Estate Planning Adviser of the Year and the judge’s award for Outstanding Contribution.
He says: “Nothing works in isolation. People need to know you’ve won an award and how it benefits them. As an adviser, you might think PR and marketing can be wishy-washy because you can’t always quantify the benefits, but PR is driving my business.”
McColgan is less optimistic about the future of independent advice. “We have something quite rare that clients and the regulator should cherish far more, and that is independent fin-ancial advisers. Most countries only have tied product salesmen.”
He notes that over-regulation and an aging adviser community keen to sell up have led to growing numbers of restricted firms as these are easier to manage. Restricted firms also achieve economies of scale and have better control of corporate risk, he says.
“The regulator is happy with having a few big advice firms, rather than a lot of small ones, and it’s killing the independent market. You still have an industry where small advice firms don’t have a voice and nobody is standing up for us.”
He is particularly concerned about the recommendations in the Financial Advice Market Review around automated advice.
“I worry about this regulatory drive towards robo-advice. When will they realise that a risk profiler, cashflow model and funnelling to an investment isn’t advice? It’s just research tools being used by clients and most will have no understanding of the limitations or risks of the technical output. It’s like giving me a Formula One car and expecting me to drive like Lewis Hamilton. If robo-advice doesn’t work out for clients, who will be responsible?”
He believes only the banks and product providers that have cost the industry most will benefit from the FAMR.
“The regulator is happy with having a few big advice firms, rather than a lot of small ones, and it is killing the independent market”
To understand McColgan’s perspective on the advice industry, you need to delve into his past. He started out as an equity research analyst at BWD Rensburg Investment Management as a stepping stone to stockbroking. But after two years he made the transition to becoming an IFA because he felt stockbroking was a “dying art”.
“Stockbroking went through a huge shift away from the brokers dealing with clients and running their money to running DFM portfolios as we know it today. The firms wanted to control clients so that when brokers moved on they did not take the clients with them. It was the idea of mixing the technical and the client relationships that always appealed to me. I didn’t really want to do one without the other.”
After three years learning his craft as an investment adviser at Chase de Vere, he had a short spell at The Citimark Partnership, a small Bristol-based advice firm. However, McColgan says the timing was wrong for both him and for the firm.
“I was its first foray into recruiting a younger registered individual and I found the leap from the larger, more structured firm quite difficult.”
McColgan’s next move, to Bath-based Regent IFA Services, which subsequently became Chambers IFA, put him on course to set up his own business. He had just had his best ever year in terms of generating revenue when a knee operation gave him time to ponder the future.
“I could see the RDR on the horizon and a drive to a higher level of professionalism where client service would become all-important, rather than selling products. Unfortunately, my employers did not really agree with this vision.”
McColgan decided to go it alone when he felt the significantly higher targets set for him at his annual review were not realistic. “It was a bit earlier in my career than I wanted but I’d learned the longer you are in the industry, the more you accrue clients. Every time I changed companies I was haemorrhaging clients, so I needed to set up on my own.”
McColgan admits he underestimated how time-consuming running a business would be. “It has taken eight years and I’m about where I thought I’d be after five years. But we’ve had the RDR and the credit crunch, and I’ve got married and had two children.”
Two years ago there was a joint venture with an accountancy firm that failed to provide the stream of new clients he needed. “The turnover it generated seemed to be at the expense of my own business.” After 18 months he called time on it.
Then, out of the blue, he received a call from someone who apparently wanted advice on inheritance tax and legacy planning. It turned out to be a mystery shopper and McColgan got full marks: the highest ever awarded.
Capitalising on this, he enlisted the help of his former Chase de Vere colleague Anna Bowes, now founding director of Savings Champions, to generate press coverage. But this was at a national level rather than the local coverage he needed to generate new business. That is when McColgan came to the conclusion that fuelled his drive to win awards. “The business is me – I’m the figurehead. So I need to be focused on showing people I’m one of the best in the country,” he says.
What’s the best bit of advice you’ve received in your career?
It doesn’t matter how good you are technically if you can’t get an idea over to your customer.
What keeps you awake at night?
My sons. One is four months old, the other is three years old.
What has had the most significant impact on financial advice in the last year?
It’s still the pension freedoms.
If I was in charge of the FCA for a day I would…
Create a division that focuses only on advisers and understanding what they do post-RDR. It seems regulation is still based on the old world but products are no longer the be-all and end-all.
Any advice for new advisers?
Get chartered but always look at ways to improve your sales skills. Knowledge and ethics make you a good adviser but communicating these ideas to clients make you great.
2008-present: Director and chartered financial planner, Combined Financial Strategies
2004-2008: Senior financial planner, Regent IFA Services
2003-2004: Independent financial planner, The Citimark Partnership
2000-2003: Independent financial adviser, Chase de Vere
1998-2000: Equity research analyst, BWD Rensburg Investment Management