As depolarisation approaches and the IFA market begins to reshape itself, many are questioning the role high-street banks will play in a new environment where, arguably, multi-tied agents might become the norm.
The woman behind adviser strategy at the Halifax has been watching this carefully over the past few years and believes her organisation has got the right mix of advice, product and reputation to make ground in the depolarised world.
Jo Dawson started her career in banking at NatWest, where she worked in branch banking and credit analysis. After obtaining an MBA from Warwick Business School she moved into corporate banking. The move across to retail banking and management of advice came in 1997, when she was given the role of looking at internal sales for NatWest.
“It fascinated me that banks had all these potentially excellent assurance products but were not using them effectively. Moving to the Halifax gave me the opportunity and credibility to get to the core of what customers wanted in these products, and to use advisers and branches to provide them.”
Dawson is scathing of many of her high-street competitors. She says bancassurers have always enjoyed structure advantages because they already have a large customer base to sell to. But she believes banks are notorious for using this power inappropriately with unwieldy, expensive products.
She says Halifax has reinvented bancassurance with “simple, customer-friendly, transparent products” and that it is this approach to banking, coupled with Halifax's strong investment management, that is allowing the bank to go head to head with IFAs. The bank's hooks are simple products, low charges and strong investment performance, she says.
As general manager for retail sales, Dawson believes her role is one of customer champion “challenging the norms of the industry and changing its economics”. She says the group is geared towards providing problem-solving advice for its clients and she has set about making sure that branches identify customers who would benefit from the bank's financial services offerings.
“For banking products to be competitive they need to have greater cost-base efficiencies than in the past. Other banks are abusing their position and ripping people off. We were doing Sandler with advice before Sandler was announced. We believe our product set and approach are competitive with the IFA market. Our advice is tailored for the mass-market client. Our model will not have to change after depolarisation because we already have the scale to deal with any new tied players. In the new world, it will be necessary for large IFAs to improve distribution drastically. We already have a good distribution channel.”
Dawson is responsible for 850 branch-based, tied personal financial advisers, operating out of 1,000 Halifax and Bank of Scotland branches across the UK. She also manages 250 client managers for the bank's financial planning arm, the Bank of Scotland Investment Service and Bank of Scotland Private Banking, which has 30,000 high-net-worth clients. She says the group has been built up to be the most trusted brand in the marketplace.
Dawson believes Halifax has a solid investment base in Insight, the bank's fund management arm. It manages 14 funds, most of which are performing better than current trends, she says. This has recently placed 33 per cent of Halifax's funds in the top quartile of the marketplace, the only high-street bank to achieve this. “We also have 15 per cent of the liquid savings market. Starting from a position of trust gives us a competitive edge in the advice and investment market.”
When the snow starts to fall, Dawson is quick to get on the internet for breaks on the slopes. “I'll make any excuse to ski.I love Zermatt in Switzerland but my favourite place is Les Trois Vallee in the French Alps.” She has been skiing for 10 years now and thinks it is the perfect combination of the great outdoors, beautiful scenery, exercise and socialising.
Dawson is also an avid sailor, a pursuit she started with a baptism of fire – in 1996 she took a ten-month sabbatical to take part in a race around the world, sailing the “wrong way”.
“Almost everyone who sails around the world sails with the prevailing winds. For this race we sailed against it, which is extremely difficult. Fewer people have accomplished this feat than have climbed Mount Everest. It was a challenge that has given me the confidence and courage to accomplish a lot in life. It is something that I apply to my work as much as I can.”
The Global Challenge was devised to prove that ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary feats given the right training and opportunity. Because of the harsh conditions, racers are provided with comprehensive training and sail specially designed 67ft steel yachts.
Dawson says she was attracted to the idea because it was aimed at taking the snobbery out of sailing.
When not in the water or piste, she calls herself a Radio 4 junkie and is a keen Archers' fan. “I know it is not the most exciting thing in the world, but once the show gets under your skin, it is very addictive.”
Born: London 1962
Lives: Harrogate, with her cat
Education: Undergraduate, Cambridge; MBA Warwick Business School
Career: 1985-1991, NatWest – branch banking, credit analysis, head office finance and strategy roles; 1991-1993, MBA Warwick Business School; 1993-1996, NatWest – corporate banking; 1996-1997, sabbatical for BT Global Challenge Round the World Yacht Race (finished second); 1997- 1998, NatWest – internal sales/marketing consultancy; 1998-2000, business development director, Green Flag Group; 2000-2001, general manager retail sales, Halifax Bank – development of sales processes/culture in branch network; 2001 appointed head of regulated sales, retail division, Halifax Bank of Scotland Group
Career ambition: “To continue to make a big difference in whatever I do.”
Life ambition: “To enjoy everything I do.”
Likes: Skiing, sailing, good food and wine
Dislikes: Bad food and wine. Negativity
Drives: Mercedes CRK
Peers say: “Jo is a bright individual who can apply rigorous analysis to any business problem. She brings a huge amount of energy to anything she does and is able to communicate effectively with staff members throughout the organisation.”