Five years ago, Blue Sky Financial Planning managing director Gary Neild set up a coffee shop. But this was no ordinary coffee shop. Alongside a mouth-watering array of cakes and Belgian chocolates, The Coffee Lounge at Local Epicentre offers people in the West Moors area of Dorset advice on financial, legal and tax matters.
“A lot of people thought I was mad – setting up a coffee shop offering financial advice,” says Neild. “Actually, it was much more than this. I wanted to create a focal point of information in the community. It has been described as a modern day Citizens Advice Bureau but in my opinion, it’s far more stimulating.”
Neild saw that people are often reluctant to seek advice because they don’t know who to talk to,;they are not sure who they can trust and have a fear of how much advice will cost. “I have always felt that there is a huge knowledge gap on matters transcending legal, tax and financial affairs. After all, where do we learn all this?” he says. “We shouldn’t underestimate the fear and anxiety manifesting from a lack of understanding and confusion. It takes a lot to go and see a professional adviser, so I thought I would bring advice to the community. Weekly drop-in clinics allow access to professionals at no cost in a lovely, relaxed and friendly coffee lounge.”
Membership of the Local Epicentre is free – people can either pick up and complete a membership form in The Coffee Lounge or print and complete the form on its website.
“Just a few weeks ago we had 18 people for a morning drop-in session for advice with a solicitors practice – proof that there is a real need. The venture was established as a community interest company with any profits going back into community ventures voted for by members,” says Neild. “In its five-year existence, it has made a real difference to many people. The only downside is that I’ve had to fund it. It’s a pity that funding isn’t available to roll this service out across more communities, because it works.”
Neild – a former secondary school teacher – is passionate about education and service. It was one of the reasons he left his previous IFA firm, Andrews Neild, to set up Blue Sky Financial Planning. He had strong views on the importance of communicating frequently with clients and doing this in a certain way. However, this can be difficult when you’re having thrash it out with a business partner who has their own ideas. As a result, Neild joined forces with a local solicitors practice and established Blue Sky Financial Planning.
“At the time, the opportunity was really exciting, but cultural differences came to the fore yet again, with the solicitors struggling to engage commercially in a meaningful way. It became clear to me that I had to ‘plough my own furrow’. In hindsight, I should have done this much earlier,” says Neild. “My advice to any adviser thinking about setting up on their own would be to think clearly about their ethos and values before setting out to mould a company in line with their beliefs. It might take longer to achieve the numbers on the balance sheet but you’ll have more credibility and you will achieve more fulfillment along the journey.”
2002-present: Managing director, Blue Sky Financial Planning
1997-2002: Director, Andrews Neild
1992-1997: IFA, Colin D Hookey & Partners
1987-1992: Mortgage broker (self-employed) then appointed representative, Commercial Union
Having bought the solicitors out of the business in 2006, Neild started to bring his vision for the firm to life. He left teaching after becoming disillusioned about the infighting during teacher’s strikes and was offered a job as a mortgage broker while looking to buy a house, which became a springboard to becoming an IFA. Over the years, he found that he had a different attitude to many in the industry who had worked for the big banks and insurance companies.
“They had an acceptance of ‘this is how things are done’ but having never been ‘corporatised’ as I call it, I was able to challenge standard practice. There seemed to be a lot of protectionism at play, with less emphasis on informing and educating the end user,” says Neild. “As a result, I did not like placing assets with many companies and I was an early adopter of wrap accounts. I began using them as my main offering in 2003. Transparency was key for me.”
The industry has come a long way in recent years but Neild still has concerns. “I believe there are still too many advisory practices that are hiding behind the title ‘financial planner’ when in fact they are still rooted in the old ways of selling products. Just because we charge fees and don’t take commissions, it doesn’t suddenly manifest in professionalism. Sure, the reporting standards have had to be improved, as has the recording of information, but administrators are often brought in to do this.”
Neild thinks the perception of the advisory sector is improving as compliance and exam requirement become more progressive. However, there is still more to be done in bringing on new talent. Neild, who has taken a university student on internship, believes there is a huge amount of talent being lost to other industries. “I don’t think we are advocating the creative side of our business enough, nor the scope for technological development,” he says. “The advisory space is on the edge of revolutionary change and we need younger blood to help deliver best practice and allow clients to engage through a number of mediums,” he says.
Neild recently put pen to paper for his local newspaper to discuss the ‘Paradise Papers’. Does he think legitimate tax planning is more difficult for advisers given the Government’s preoccupation with stopping tax avoidance? “We are pleased that the Government has clamped down on tax avoidance schemes as it removes a lot of ambiguity,” he says. “We have never strayed into any grey areas of tax planning. The thought of being investigated for tax down the line is counter intuitive to what we look to achieve with our clients,” he says. “Unfortunately, ‘offshore’ has become a dirty word. Anyone who has money offshore appears to be judged by a moral compass which, in many instances, is misguided. Holding money offshore is not illegal. Hiding money without declaring it is the problem.”
What is the best bit of advice you’ve received in your career?
Have the courage of your convictions and build a company which reflects you.
What keeps you awake at night?
Everton football club! Seriously, probably my overactive mind.
What has had the most significant impact on financial advice in the last year?
The number of enquiries regarding transfers from DB pension schemes.
If I was in charge of the FCA for a day I would…?
Recruit better qualified staff to get out and visit more advisory companies. Visits should be short, sharp and should include meetings with clients of each firm, chosen at random.
Any advice for new advisers?
Surround yourself with those who share similar values to you. Culture is key.