The judges for the IFA Woman of the Year award have deliberated, cogitated and digested and finally whittled down their list to five “superwomen”.
These nominees are among the most qualified, successful women in the industry and there is a pattern emerging. The list shows some of the best financial advice in the UK is clearly coming from south Wales, where three of the candidates are based.
This is the first year of the award and the judges have been bowled over by the standard of the entrants who have had to go through rounds of intensive interviews. Four of the final candidates are mothers and all are running successful firms.
The Women's IFA Group (Wig), a non-profit network for female IFAs, set up the award to recognise and promote the achievements of women IFAs.
Founder and chairwoman of Wig Fiona Price says: “This award represents a major breakthrough for women IFAs in the UK. It celebrates their success and will certainly help to raise women's profile in the world of personal finance. The calibre of entrants has been outstanding and shows that women are especially suited to the flexible, challenging, and people-orientated role of an IFA.”
Saran Allot Davies from Heron Financial Management is the only Welsh born and bred nominee. Originally from Abercarn, she now lives just outside Newport in South-east Wales with her husband and two children.
Unusually, she followed her mother's footsteps into financial services. After graduating from Cardiff University with a degree in business management, she started her own firm eight years ago and is based in Newport where her co-director Chris Jordan is the only male member of seven staff.
She started working from home but soon needed to take on an assistant and eventually got her own premises.
She says: “I was really surprised when I got so thoroughly turned down for a loan when I had a really good track record, client list and business plan. Wig would really have helped me if it had been around then and I think it is great for the industry to promote it and encourage more women to make the switch into financial advice.”
She hopes to take on more female graduates and train them in-house. She believes a career as an IFA can be a great choice for women who want a life outside work and says she can now juggle her career with children.
Viv Belcher is 45 and lives with her husband in a country cottage near Nantwich, Cheshire, and works for Hornbuckle Mitchell group in Cheshire.
She went to school in Somerset but, by the sixth form, she was not enjoying it and “bottled out of school”, looking for something more practical. She started her professional career in banking, leaving home at 17 and going to work in Bristol.
She puts her independence and self-motivation down to being an only child: “I always had a bent towards the financial side and a good head for figures but I worked my way up right from the bottom punching numbers into machines.”
After a spell as a life insurance broker and in consultancy, she realised she wanted to do more client-based work and became an IFA in 1994. She started with part IFA firm, part pension trust James Hay.
Now at Hornbuckle Mitchell group, where there are 44 staff with eight RIs, she is set to become a shareholding director at the end of October.
She moved there because of the option of an equity stake and because she feels better suited to a smaller company. She says: “It is really more like working for a family firm. At James Hay, I was part IFA, part management, and I have twice gone into management and I just don't enjoy it as much.”
She says: “I think I have been shortlisted because I am professional and successful – you have to have a certain self-belief in your own abilities – and because I have high standards and good technical knowledge. As an IFA, you are totally involved with the clients and that is the part that I most enjoy.
“I love my job as it is and I don't want to do anything more. I have looked after a lot of my clients for seven or eight years and they have become friends. I am still taking on a lot of new clients but there will come a saturation point.”
Elaine Birch set up her own firm just a year ago. She is a 41-year-old mother of two who works from home in a New Forest village near Southampton.
She left school after A levels and has worked across the financial services spectrum. Although she intended to be an accountant, she found it “too mechanical” and preferred working with customers face to face. She worked for the Halifax and moved to Friends Provident, becoming the first female life inspector. After a break from financial services to tour Spain on a bicycle with her husband, she returned to Poole and Bournemouth to work for Black Horse Financial Services and then BDO Stoy accountants where she became a managing director.
She says: “I became dissatisfied with the inflexibility of the approach and found myself delegating all the work that I really enjoyed doing. I have been absolutely humbled by the number of clients that decided to follow me when I set myself up on my own.”
She thinks she was nominated because: “I am focused on a caring attitude and providing a high level and quality of advice.”
She intends the firm to stay as a small business and says: “My clients will remain the most important thing and the rest of it will follow.”
Julie Lord is a 41-year-old financial planner with Cavendish Financial Management in Cardiff. She lives in Chepstow with her two daughters Mary and Annie.
After graduating from Lancaster University with a maths and computing degree, she started teaching in Malvern but quickly decided it was not for her and moved into financial consultancy at 24, not really with any idea what she was getting into but realising that she had a good head for figures.
She says: “I realised teaching was not ever going to pay much and I did not enjoy it so I made a change and became a financial planner and consultant in 1986. I set up my own company in 1991 which now has 11 members of staff, with four RIs.”
Her business is fee-based and she believes, by eliminating commission right from the start, she set her firm apart from other businesses and encouraged a more trusting relationship with her clients.
She is not only a fellow of the Society of Financial Planning but has been both chairwoman and president of the Institute of Financial Planning and believes this contribution has partly led to her nomination – that and her commitment to raising standards in financial services.
Marlene Shalton is another mother, with Chambers Morgan James, Cardiff. She is 51 and lives outside Cardiff with her partner.
She left school at 16 and took A levels at night school, ending up working as a probation officer for 13 years. She decided she wanted a change and says: “I got into financial services by accident really, I knew I wanted to work for myself. At the time, it was an area that needed very little capital to get into and I just wanted something where I would be working with people.”
She has been an IFA since 1990, after working in direct sales for Hill Samuel. She set up on her own in December 1991 but ran into problems when it came to applying for an overdraft. She says: “The bank did not help at all with the funding to set-up the business, which made me all the more determined to do it all myself. All the money made was ploughed straight back into the business. I was serious about what I was doing but even the female bank manager looked down her nose at me.”
Shalton is managing director of her own firm, which has three RIs. She was nominated by one of her clients. Some of her clients have been with her for more than 12 years now. “I'm accessible and never too busy to talk to them or research a query. The difference is that I really do care about the clients,” she says.
In the future, she sees the firm expanding but does not want her role to change too much as she prefers working with clients rather than as a manager as she says that no matter what anyone says this would dilute the service. “It would have to, by effect, become less personal and more automated.”
A circuitous route into financial services and a caring approach to clients and employees are clearly something that all the candidates have in common. The award will be presented on November 14 at a gala dinner in London. The winner will get a luxury holiday for two to the island of Ischia in the Mediterranean.