You could describe Will Self as a local lad made good. After all, he joined Suffolk Life’s admin team on his return home from university and steadily rose through the ranks to become the Sipp specialist’s managing director. But this may give the impression that Self has stuck to a linear and fairly narrow path through familiar terrain. And that is not the case.
The man now steering Suffolk Life through its change of ownership from Legal & General to Sipp and SSAS provider Curtis Banks is well travelled, having lived and worked abroad. He has certainly not placed himself in a Suffolk Life bubble. As a trustee of East Anglia Children’s Hospices Self knows what it is like to run an organisation outside financial services. “For me, it’s important to feel you’re being challenged and to give something back,” he says.
Understanding how the charity deals with the issues it faces adds another dimension to his day job at Suffolk Life and a different perspective on financial services. “The financial services sector never sits still. We are agile and can respond to industry changes. It’s an exciting place to be.”
Prior to his arrival at Suffolk Life in 2003 Self spent some time in Canada, working at the Institute of Ocean Sciences on Vancouver Island for a few months as part of his degree course in oceanography.
“I was interested in sailing, geography and physics, and oceanography is a strange combination of all those things.
“I had a work-life balance in Canada that I have never had in the UK. Family time is seen as important but there is a strong commitment to working hard. It was an incredible experience but I was mindful that some things are short lived. If you try to make them long term they might not go the way you planned. My work permit was going to run out after six months anyway.”
As a child, Self wanted to be a vet after reading the famous James Herriot books, such as All Creatures Great and Small. “There was a bit of excitement and glamour about them but as I grew up I realised it wasn’t really like that. I didn’t have any strong vocation; I just knew what areas I was interested in at school and where my hobbies lay.”
So what made Self join Suffolk Life and stay put ever since? “I’ve always been interested in finance and how the system worked: the role and purpose of different businesses. Suffolk Life had a good reputation and had obvious appeal as it had a specific purpose and was specialised. It is also a great employer. It supported me with my training and development right up to my MBA. The culture of the business is so important. It is a great place to work and really cares for its staff.”
Having worked in a number of areas in the business, Self knows Suffolk Life in “intimate detail”. He says working his way up the company over the years has provided invaluable insight.
“I’ve seen Suffolk Life on its journey from an independent provider to L&G ownership. It is useful when you understand the internal mechanics and dynamics of a company – we can respond to changes imposed on us at relatively short notice.”
Self has also learned from external experiences including his MBA at Cranfield School of Management and a work placement in South Africa.
Now he is guiding Suffolk Life through its next stage of development with Curtis Banks and is relishing it.
“We believe that it is the right direction to take for the business but first and foremost for our customers I think it is really exciting for us now to define what it is we want Suffolk Life to be and how that can happen.”
Anyone who expects Curtis Banks’ acquisition of Suffolk Life to signal bold changes will be disappointed, with Self assuring it “will be business as usual”.
“There might be subtle changes to brochures where we remove the L&G references but we will have the same team in Ipswich. Suffolk Life’s brand is so well-established already that we won’t make significant changes, but brand is also the experience that our customers receive when they use us. The adviser experience is the area we want to improve the most. We’re clear on our role: we are providers not advisers. We want to be the biggest and the best by playing to our strengths.”
So what are Self’s views on the future of the Sipp market given the original proposals for the new capital adequacy requirements have been watered down? “I still believe the market will continue to consolidate to larger providers but capital adequacy is now just one of a number of contributory factors that also include sweeping regulatory and legislative change.
“We have already seen the number of Sipp providers reduce but not at as a dramatic pace as expected. There will still be a role for smaller bespoke providers assuming they can get a commercial model that works.”
In terms of the wider pensions landscape Self is concerned, as he thinks the constant tinkering is destabilising for the industry and more so for the customer.
“We have always faced regulatory change every April so the first quarter of every year we have make sure we are prepared for change. But delivering against the pace and volume of change in pensions limits the ability to deliver other change within the business.
“The pace of change isn’t sustainable or healthy in the longer term, as it undermines the confidence people need to commit to longer-term saving. The Lifetime Isa is a good example of this danger. It relies on savers’ confidence that feature. For example, accessing the fund at 60 – will not be changed after they’ve started saving.”
What’s the best bit of advice you’ve received in your career?
Don’t wait for opportunity to find you; create your own opportunity.
What keeps you awake at night?
My two daughters, and making sure that they have the best possible start in life.
What has had the most significant impact on financial advice in the last year?
The pension changes and subsequent regulation. The advice process is now more complex than ever, yet savers have never needed advisers more. Also the FSCS levy. Advisers and some Sipp operators face an unknown and rapidly increasing cost each year. It is a real challenge to running a business.
If I was in charge of the FCA for a day I would…
Recommend the Chancellor scrap the lifetime allowance immediately and draw up a blueprint for a long-term strategy for retirement savings that would run across different parliaments.
Any advice for new advisers?
Build long-term relationships with your customers. These have greater value and are more fulfilling than shorter-term transactions and fees.
2003-present: Managing director, product & operations director, director of operations, head of client services, corporate development manager and administrative roles, Suffolk Life
2012-present: Trustee, East Anglia Children’s Hospices