Profile: Stephen Gazard draws a line in the sand for troubled Sesame

Sesame Bankhall Group boss Stephen Gazard is determined to look forward. After guiding the business through a turbulent restructure that saw Sesame’s investment network shuttered, with advisers told to move to the firm’s directly authorised Bankhall option or relocate elsewhere, it is perhaps not surprising.

Gazard admits parts of the firm’s journey since his arrival in 2013 have been difficult but he says SBG saw this summer as a clean break.

Indeed, he declines questions on whether SBG was sufficiently aware of its own strengths and weaknesses – “Pass. I wasn’t here” – and sidesteps when asked at what point it became apparent the investment business would have to go.

“The history and the legacy of the strategic review have been well covered by people like John [Cowan, SBG executive chairman],” he says. “The reality is that we have been through that process and we are now at the end of it. August and September were a line in the sand for us, and it’s time to drive the business forward.

“It has been a painful journey on occasions but it’s something we have, as a team, faced head on. We’re now looking at the future.”

Speaking to Money Marketing just days after the Institute of Financial Planning’s annual conference in Newport, Gazard says his focus is now on engaging with the industry on the offerings of Bankhall, PMS and Sesame’s mortgage network.

Bankhall in particular, he says, is a business that has not been “shouted from the rooftops in any shape or form in the past”. However, he highlights the fact it represents the biggest population of advisers SBG serves, even when it had an investment network.

“If we launch a proposition on that side of the business, it affects more of the UK financial services population than anything else we could do. We’re really excited about Bankhall and are launching a whole series of initiatives over the next three to six months, beginning with the partnership with Distribution Technology,” he says.

He maintains, nonetheless, that his focus will be shared across the entire SBG business, with more work expected on all fronts. In particular, Gazard faces a mortgage division without a leader following the departures of John Cupis and then his successor Lisa Martin.

A recent restructure gave Gazard responsibility for the business but former managing director Cupis is to join Openwork, while Martin, whose appointment as Cupis’ replacement was announced at the start of September, will head to LSL.

“They have been instrumental in building the business, but no business – and certainly not this one – is reliant on one or two individuals,” Gazard says.

“The key thing for us is to analyse where the gaps are, talk to the current team about whether anyone wants an opportunity to step up, and then we’ll go out to market and get the relevant people for the relevant roles. What we’re not going to do is make any knee-jerk reactions. We’re going to take this opportunity to step back, engage with the stakeholders and ask, now that we are in a unique position of having come through that review, where are the gaps now?”

The mortgage network has also come under scrutiny, with one Sesame member writing to Money Marketing’s sister publication, Mortgage Strategy, to question the value of a network model.

Gazard says the firm needs to be much better at communication: “We have often seen with firms that go from a network to being directly authorised that there is an awakening in terms of all the stuff that was done behind the scenes. If you’ve been part of a network for a long time, you perhaps do not see that because it becomes the norm.

“We have to do a better job of promoting what we do day-in and day-out. But that all comes back to engagement and ensuring we are running the right type of adviser forums, the right type of one-on-ones with firms and the right type of training and development support.”

Meanwhile, Gazard is optimistic about support from SBG’s new parent, Aviva, which took on the business as part of its deal for Friends Life. Friends Life previously put SBG up for sale in 2013 but Gazard is adamant he has the support of the Norwich firm after agreeing a three-year plan for development, which runs to 2018.

He says: “That is not to say things will not continue beyond that but the reality is we have put together a robust three-year plan. That is the bit we are committed to delivering and we have got support from Aviva to do so.”

All this is a far cry from his beginnings as a businessman, when a teenaged Gazard started his own car valeting service, which he later sold off while studying at university. He then launched a business making accessories for satellite dishes and built and designed the first 3,000 in a garage, before a larger international operation took up the same idea.

“They basically said: ‘You are two guys in a garage. Are you going to sue us?’” he laughs.

It is an example of a varied early career that also took in antiques, receiverships and an estate agency but ended when the 21-year-old Gazard sold a house to a man from the Pru, who returned later to recruit him.

After a few years, Gazard left to go independent, chafing under the management of a corporate entity after so long as an entrepreneur.

A devotee of management books, he says he believes in building teams around the attributes of individuals and it was this approach that saw him give up his advising permissions to focus on management after joining Falcon Group in 2006.

“I realised that while I was an okay adviser – and I enjoyed it – what I was actually more gifted for was facilitating others in the advising arena to do it much more efficiently and effectively.”

CV

2013-present: Managing director, Sesame Bankhall Group

2011-present: Vice chair, Meningitis Now

2013-present: Council member, Apfa

February 2013-June 2013: Distribution director, Sesame Bankhall Group

2011-2013: Managing director, Lighthouse Advisory Services

2006-2013: Managing director, Falcon Group

1998-2006: IFA and director, Kilminster Group

1996-1998: Adviser, Prudential Private Financial Planning

Five questions

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

Never be fearful of recruiting people better than you. Surround yourself with better people and don’t be afraid to promote on attitude rather than skill.

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

The phenomenal increases in regulatory costs, which will drive many out of business and further reduce access to quality advice.

What keeps you awake at night?

Clearing my inbox but sleep is over-rated.

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

Explore real long-stop opportunities. Too many quality individuals are leaving the profession in fear.

Any advice for new advisers?

Time with clients is key. Concentrate on that and delegate the rest.