I the pleasant surroundings of Cambridge in a region of Britain with the lowest proportion of female IFAs, a small firm of all-women advisers has been growing rapidly in clients and holdings – as well as repute.
Karen Ritchie and her partners set up Finance4Women in 2002 with a view to providing advice for the women of East Anglia. The firm has quickly grown with a reputation of delivering solid financial advice with no jargon and no hard-sell to women of all ages and walks of life.
But since the start of the year, the firm's growth has almost become overpowering for the four-adviser firm. With a view to continued expansion and a heightening of brand awareness, the company has just signed a deal with M2, which last week acquired the Finance4Women as an all-female arm to the national IFA business.
Ritchie says when they were looking to set the firm up, they were aware of the Cambridge community's huge number of academics and IT professionals. “There was definitely a gap in the market that we felt we would be able to fill.”
But now the firm seems to be a victim of its own success. The business has developed at a rapid pace and outgrown its present arrangement with Millfield. The quick growth has meant that Finance4Women needed to work on a business plan to move forward and it did not look like the fit with Millfield could continue.
“We wanted to team up with a specialist that could help develop the brand but was small enough to take on new ideas from us. We are all in our 30s and wanted to find a company with a similar age structure and outlook.”
Ritchie says the company looked at staying with the Millfield partnership but felt a split would better serve its interests and from first talks, a link-up with M2 seemed a natural fit. “M2 has been very supportive and kept its promises. It has a similar ethos to us, with all of its management in their 30s.”
While professional indemnity insurance has a been key factor for many IFAs wanting to find safer harbours, Ritchie says it was not an issue for Finance4Women as it is a relatively new company with no legacy. She says admin and compliance, however, are increasingly becoming a time constraint for smaller IFAs.
“Unless you have a decent system, it takes advisers away from the face of the client. M2's remote support facilities and back-office support will let us carry on with what we all enjoy – providing advice to our clients.”
Ritchie learnt her trade at Fiona Price & Partners, where she says for the first time in her career she felt at home with what she was doing. “My time at Fiona Price was a key formative stage. I was comfortable with the values of the firm and wanted to continue building the same kinds of relationships when we set up Finance4Women.”
Ritchie is a staunch advocate of fee-based advice, believing it provides a more professional, impartial perspective for the client. She says Finance4Women will take commission if the client is more comfortable with such a pricing structure but that the nature of the firm's business means its clients are usually more comfortable with fees.
“Initially, many of our clients start out as women who have had bad experiences with salespeople or women who have never managed their own finances before such as divor-cees. They come to us as referrals from solicitors or accountants, so they are used to being charged a fee for a professional service.”
But it is a business model that does not just appeal to women. Ritchie points out that even though the company is called Finance4Women, 40 per cent of its customer base is actually men. “It is a proposition that works for everyone.”
After the merger, the company will continue to operate from its Cambridge offices, which suits Ritchie, who commutes from Hertfordshire. She bought a house two years ago and by her own account has not been as diligent with the DIY as she would have liked. “I love my DIY – pottering around the house and making it a home that suits me – but work has been so busy that the DIY all came to a standstill a few months ago.” She describes her house as a half-finished masterpiece, which does not look to be finished any time soon. “We are all working ridiculous hours at the moment, which is fine if we are working with clients.”
Ritchie's colleagues joke that she often compensates for missing out on DIY at home by fixing things around the office and she has been dubbed Bob the Builder by her workmates.
She is also interested in gardening and says once she finishes her house she would like to turn her hand to the “large patch of grass” behind it. “Gardening at the moment is more of an intent than a hobby but I hope to get around to it before the summer completely disappears.”
Ritchie says part of Finance4Women's success has been its intimacy with its clients. She believes that because of the nature of its client base, the team is able to form relationships outside the financial arena.
“Because a large number of our clients are divor-cees coming out of relationships where they have not had any control over their financial interests, we are not only able to provide them with a framework to take control of their finances but we can also empathise with the situations that they have found themselves in.”
She says many of the firm's clients like to fill in their advisers about what is going on in the rest of their lives. “We often get emails from our clients about what they are doing in their love life or social circles. Advising is not just about products. It is about education and relationships.”
Born: 1970, Windsor
Lives: Bishops Stortford, Herts
Education: Economics, Cardiff University
Career: 1992-94 chartered accountant, Coopers & Lybrand; 1994-97 graduate trainee WH Smith; 1997 Eaglestar training academy; 1998 IFA, Morgans; 1999 IFA, Fiona Price & Partners; 2002 co-founding partner, Finance4Women.
Career ambition: “For Finance4Women to become the premier name for finance for women.”
Life ambition: “To get a life outside of work.”
Likes: People who speak their mind, golden retrievers, chocolate and Veuve Clicquot.
Dislikes: People who take half an hour to say something that should take three minutes;poor service.
Drives: Audi TT(on order)
Peers say: “Enormous dynamism in such a compact package. She has got integrity, energy and a quick mind to boot.”