Profile: Ditching old boys clubs for customer service, the Mike Oliver Associates way

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It was approaching 30 and realising his band, One Two XL, was unlikely to transform local popularity into commercial success that led Mike Oliver to a second career in financial services. The principal of Sussex-based firm Mike Oliver Associates had left university a year in to his music degree to focus on the band and was having to supplement his income by working on building sites. But he could not do that forever.

“I was buying a flat which came with a shop and the mortgage adviser thought I’d be good at the job. I was good at identifying the business opportunity and I got the whole mortgage thing. So I made the decision to move into financial services,” he says.

Oliver built up his financial services career in the North East, starting out with Allied Dunbar in 1990, as it was one of the few firms at the time to offer formal training. Moving into mortgage advice with firms such as Countrywide Assured, Oliver eventually became fed up with middle management.

He had moved to West Sussex in 1997 and wanted to advise not sell. Craving true independence, he set himself a goal that by the time he was 40 he would be running his own firm. He achieved this just nine days before turning 41.

This year, his firm reached its 15-year milestone. But it has not been without its challenges. Initially mortgage-led, it survived a tough period after the 2008 credit crunch when that side of business fell to a third of what it had been and redundancies were inevitable.

Oliver rose to the challenge by changing the business model into a broader advice proposition and was able to re-hire staff that had been made redundant in different roles.

In reorganising the business, Oliver found that building a team of specialist advisers in different advice areas is the way forward, after initially wanting to recruit and manage a team of self-employed IFAs with their own client banks. 

The firm is now a holistic IFA with a wealth department and Oliver is a later life advice specialist. Commercial mortgages and equity release are particular specialities that support the sustainability of the business.

Over the years I have come to believe that offering security to employees who specialise in their own department is the way of the future. The penny dropped that paying good employees that I’ve put through the recruitment process – who know how I like things done – works better than self-employed advisers who have their own client banks. I know that each client will go through the same process and that it doesn’t depend on who they are seeing,” says Oliver.

His plan for the firm is for each department to become self-sustaining through residual income, with the security of the departmental heads.

I want clients to be cheerfully
paying our fees because they know we are offering value
for money

“I want to build it so each department has several staff and residual income as the future of the industry is the ongoing money. It is also important for succession planning. I’ve no intention of going anywhere but Mike Oliver Associates will not survive if it’s just me,” he says.

“I want clients to be cheerfully paying our fees because they know we are offering value for money. With protection, for example, we don’t take massive indemnity commission; clients pay monthly and that works as we are not worrying about the money one case brings in.”

Oliver says launching a protection department, rather than only doing that type of business off the back of mortgages, has reaffirmed his belief that specialism works.

Rather than ‘target’ protection sales off the back of mortgages, we now provide a full protection review independently as part of the service. As a result, income from protection has increased by 500 per cent year on year.”

Earlier this year Mike Oliver Associates acquired mortgage broker Chase Mortgages when owners Chris Young and John Hutchins retired.

Chris and John were thinking of retiring since 2011 but didn’t have anyone to take over the business. We sat down with them and realised our attitudes to helping people were the same. Their clients were used to great communication, honesty and one-to one-service with a direct approach. We have picked up where they left off and the results so far speak for themselves. We’ve got some marvellous new clients on board and the client feedback is all positive,” says Oliver.

Another cause for optimism for Oliver is the way the advice industry has moved from the “old boys network” towards a “forward thinking customer service mentality”. He says that when he joined the financial services industry some firms adopted an “iron-fisted velvet glove” approach to clients. They would pay lip service to looking after clients but, behind the scenes, it was all about how much money they were getting.

That approach never sat easily with Oliver but he recalls how if you voiced any concerns back then they would be shot down. He is glad his views have since been vindicated by the regulator.

“It’s taken a long time to die out but we need to make sure the dinosaurs are extinct. We need to instil a belief more firmly into all advisers and staff that our business is about customers cheerfully paying our fees. A new client coming on board is not to be seen as us winning something, but rather that successful marketing of our service has led to an appropriate mutual fit of client to advice provider,” he says.

Oliver believes these ethics should be instilled in new recruits from day one and is a firm believer in apprenticeships with an on-the-job path to chartered status as the way to attract young people to the industry. He thinks there should be a route to competence over a realistic timescale, with achievable and desirable milestones along the way.

“We need to make it easier for people who want to come into the industry to start,” he says. “You can’t just come in after doing a degree and be a successful financial adviser.”

Five questions

What is the best bit of advice you’ve received in your career? 

Don’t be afraid to follow your calling and value the opinions of others that might help you plot the course to success.

What keeps you awake at night?

Planning in the luxury of dark and silence.

What has had the most significant impact on financial advice in the last year?

Pre-Brexit uncertainty, Post-referendum ‘Breality’ and technological futurism.

If I was in charge of the FCA for a day I would…?

Make it easier for ethical advisers to support and abide by the rules by simplifying, signposting and explaining clearly the desired outcomes of regulation.

Any advice for new advisers?

Don’t pursue qualifications at the expense of people skills; you will need both to achieve competence and confidence in the advice process. Learn to add value through experience and acquire the trust of clients by delivering affordable suitability. Time is on your side.

CV

2001-present: Principal, Mike Oliver Associates

1999-2000: Regional manager, Mortgages Direct (part of Haart Estate Agents)

1997-1999: Regional manager then financial services manager, King and Chasemore (part of Countrywide Assured)

1995-1997: Consultant then area manager, Bairstow Eves (part of Countrywide Assured)

1992-1995: Manager, The Galleries Mortgage Shop (part of Gordon Lamb Estate Agents)

1991-1992: Mortgage broker, Scottish Amicable

1990: Self employed sales associate, Allied Dunbar