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John Simmonds

Launching a new business is tricky and launching in the teeth of a recession makes the process more fraught but Bluefin Advisory Services CEO John Simmonds is upbeat about the economic headwind.

The Bluefin business has been over two years in the making, driven by Axa’s desire to have an advisory business.

As former chief executive of Towry Law Simmonds is no newcomer to financial services distribution and says he was specifically employed to build an advisory business as part of Axa’s overall strategy.

This strategy saw Axa acquire a number of separate businesses, in different sectors of distribution which have now been combined to form one business.

“Over the last two years we have been acquiring various businesses, which has culminated this year in the launch of Bluefin.

The new business is split in two separate but complementary strands, general insurance and advisory services, with Simmonds heading advisory services.

The advisory services side is split into three sections – Bluefin Financial Advice, Bluefin Wealth Management and Bluefin Corporate Services.

Simmonds says the corporate advisory business is currently the biggest single part of the business, incorporating what was PIFC, EB Consultants, SBJ Benefit Consultants and Orbit Benefits, with Thinc group forming the backbone of Bluefin Financial Advice.

Simmonds’ current priority is finishing the integration of all the existing businesses. He says they were keen to get the businesses working together as soon as possible and they already operate as one single business but the next three to six months will see the process ironed out. Until this process is complete, the business has no further plans for acquisition.

“At the moment, having bought a lot of businesses, we are concentrating on putting those businesses together and launching the new brand. But there is no doubt that in the future we will return to growth and acquisition could be one of those growth strategies.”

One of the areas of integration Simmonds was keen to see was the move from multi-tie to whole of market from the national distribution business, both from a practical point of view and from a point of principle.

“We want to be an independent business and that is very much at the heart of what Bluefin does and it makes your process/proposition a lot simpler.”

But although Simmonds says whole of market is the way he wants the Bluefin business to proceed, this does not extend to members of the network. “The people who are part of the network, it is their business and they can choose what they want to do. Our national business is Bluefin and that is our proposition, so the two models are quite different.”

The new business is also going to be putting time and effort into raising professional standards and qualifications. This is an issue that Simmonds believes is central not just for Bluefin but also for financial services as a whole. “Regardless of the timing of the RDR, one of the crucial things to get the brand for financial services right, never mind Bluefin, is that as an industry we have got to upskill to satisfy regulators and consumers. Regardless of the RDR, in a way, crucially what we are going to do is get to the right level of qualification as soon as possible.”

Part of this professionalism is the move to greater transparency, particularly on fees.

“If you look at the wealth management business, it is already totally fee-driven. The vast majority of our corporate business by definition is fee-driven. If you look at the financial advice model, they have moved from higher up-front commission to lower up front and recurring already.”

In addition, later this year, Bluefin Financial Advice will be introducing a menu system, based on three levels of service which are selected on the basis of remuneration.

“We will have an approach that is a bit like a menu, that says, at this level that is what you pay and what you get.”

Simmonds does not mention specific growth targets for the business but says, like all good businesses, the business plan is dependent on the current environment. As a result, they are watching the results of the first few months of this year with particular interest.

In the longer term, he has no doubt that there are opportunities in financial services, both in terms of organic growth and acquisition.

Simmonds says he sees the future of distribution as a choice between being a big player or a small niche player. With the backing of a company as big as Axa, the potential for the new business is clearly there and Simmonds says they have no shortage of enquiries from other businesses, both small and large, about future growth plans.

“Over the next two to three years, there is an opportunity for an advice business to emerge in the UK, or several, to come out of this market that almost sits between the great big bank insurance world and the cottage industry.”

These businesses will be based on the quality of the advice and the service proposition and brand will be a key part of this.

“That overall challenge to me, if you look at our industry, individual advisers are very highly rated by their clients but I would say the overall industry is not viewed in the best quality.

“The biggest challenge in my view is, can we create a sizable business that means something, so is a sort of beacon.”

The Bluefin name is an important part of getting this recognition but Simmonds says that rather than having a symbolic meaning, the process of choosing the name was more prosaic. They wanted something that was memorable but was also available as an internet domain name. From a list of 300 possible names, they quickly came down to a dozen and these were then put to customers, staff and some independent testers. The name Bluefin stood out as a memorable one and it was easy to set up an online domain.

Simmonds says the result seems to have been the right one. He still does a number of client visits and says most people like the new names. “Probably every visit I have made in the last month or two, from a little retired lady in south Wales to the MD of a fairly large company, they always get round to saying, where did you get Bluefin from? And one of them will say, it reminds me of dolphins, I love it.”

Born: Rochdale, Lancashire

Lives: Cambridge

Education: Balderstone Comprehensive, Rochdale; Manchester Polytechnic, BA Hons Business Studies

Career: 2006-present: CEO, Bluefin Advisory Services; 2002-2006: managing director, Towry Law; 1995-2002: general manager, marketing at Pearl AMP, then general manager for general insurance; 1990-1995: managing director tied business, Sun Life; 1986-1990: from branch manager at Target Life to IFA specialist sales director Axa Equity Law; 1981- 1986: SIMCO Money fund, part of Mercantile House Holdings; 1980-1981: financial consultant in financial services practice of stockbroker Bell Holdsworth & Co

Likes: Business, I am a big rugby fan, golf, a glass of good red wine

Dislikes: Long meetings,

Drives: Mercedes

Book: The Genghis Khan Approach to Business, books by Tolkien

Film: Zulu

Musician: Jools Holland

Career ambition: Bluefin, I want to build a brand that is highly thought of both in financial services and externally

Life ambition: I would like to do more walking

If I wasn’t doing this I would be…Working in a national park

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