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Mary Stewart

Training to be a vet is not the most conventional route into financial services but Hornbuckle Mitchell’s marketing director Mary Stewart began her working life caring for animals. After four years as a vet, she decided to try her hand at sales and marketing as she had always been interested in business so she joined Mars to promote a range of prescription foods for cats and dogs to vets.

She liked it so much that she stayed for 14 years, becoming brand manager for Whiskas, before moving away from animal products and toward core marketing and innovation across Europe.

After having three children, she decided to set up her own marketing consultancy business and ended up working with Hornbuckle Mitchell which she came into contact with because her children went to the same school as former managing director Neil Marsh’s children.

“Neil said, we have not done any marketing, we could really do with some help, how about coming and doing a project for us? It started initially for three weeks and turned into six months and just grew.”

Although she had no experience in financial services, she has always had an interest in the world of finance and had kept up to date with developments.

In mid-2007, Marsh asked Stewart to join the company as marketing director. Following Neil Marsh’s death last year, Stewart became one of the main spokespeople for the firm, a role she shares with managing director David White.

Stewart is also responsible for brand strategy, communications and new product development. She was heavily involved with the launch of the flexible income pension plan last year and says the idea sprung from a workshop with IFAs at the Money Marketing retirement planning summit two years ago.

“We had a discussion with some IFAs about scheme pension and one of the IFAs said isn’t it a shame that you can only use scheme pension if you have a sponsoring employer, Wouldn’t it be fantastic for an individual? And it was from that, on the way home, Dave White, Neil Marsh and myself said let’s have a look at this and see whether there is any way it can be used for an individual.”

Hornbuckle Mitchell was the first provider to offer a scheme pension for individuals in a Sipp and Axa and Rowanmoor have recently followed it into this area.

The Fipp gives clients the option to choose from full or phased income drawdown, alternatively secured pension, an annuity or scheme pension.

Stewart says the entrepreneurial spirit at Hornbuckle is one of the aspects that attracted her to working here.

“If there is a way of doing something and it is going to benefit IFAs and consumers then we are going to try and find a way of doing it.”

Hornbuckle Mitchell also provides small self-administered schemes and Stewart says the firm has seen a resurgence in the Ssas market since the availability of credit has dried up for small businesses.

“Either banks won’t lend or else they will lend at an astronomical rate so we have seen more interest in Ssas recently because of the loanback opportunity. We have even seen some people transferring from Sipp into Ssas and then use the money they have got in their Ssas to do a loanback to the company.

“It is a very cheap way of borrowing money and, of course, the interest payments that you do make go back into your pension, you are not making interest payments to your bank so it has a double benefit.”

Hornbuckle employs around 180 staff and has over 12,000 clients, with the average Sipp size standing at £270,000.

The economic downturn does not seem to have hit business and Stewart says so far the company is having its best year yet with first-quarter business up by 25 per cent on the same period last year.

She believes this is because market volatility drives people to want to have more control over their money.

“I think people have put a lot of money with insurance companies and trusted people to look after it for them and have been badly hit. I think a lot of people have decided they would rather take the money into their own hands and, with their IFA, make their own decisions and at least feel in control of it and perhaps along the way be able to do some more interesting things with where they are investing so I think in some ways it has helped support the Sipp market.”

She believes the Sipp market will continue to grow as the mass affluent market becomes increasingly aware of the products but she does believe there will inevitably be consolidation among providers as the burdens of regulation and capital adequacy put pressure on the small, niche Sipp providers.

Stewart is unimpressed with the way the Government handled the removal of higher-rate tax relief on pensions.

“It is just another example of the Government failing to think through the implications of its actions. It seemed to be surprised that after A-Day, having said to people you can contribute as much as your annual salary up to a certain limit and have higher-rate tax relief, that people actually did that and took them up on their offer.

“They said they wanted people to take care of their own retirement but, having done that, they have now U-turned on it which is just another example of them not thinking things through.”

She believes it will have a negative impact on the size of contributions into Sipps and believes life offices that charge a percentage of assets under administration will be hit hardest by the changes.

Last year, it was rumoured that Hornbuckle Mitchell was up for sale but Stewart says this mainly arose off the back of the sale of Suffolk Life to Legal & General, although Hornbuckle did appoint Ernst & Young to look at strategic options for the business.

The firm has had some approaches from interested parties over the years but Stewart says they will not sell at the moment. “We are very happy as we are. We are growing and we have got a really dynamic management team and we have got no plans to sell.”

Born: Ghana, West Africa, 1964

Lives: Rutland (and at our second home in Pittenweem in Fife whenever possible)

Education: School and University in Edinburgh (Veterinary College).

Career: 2007-present: marketing director at Hornbuckle Mitchell, 2005-2007: set up and ran her own marketing consultancy business, 1991-2004: Mars in a variety of marketing roles, 1987-91: a vet in a variety of locations, including New Zealand and Australia

Likes: Clever, funny people, Scotland, scuba diving – I’m a divemaster.

Dislikes: This Government, slow-moving people, life offices jumping on the bandwagon and marketing personal pensions as Sipps, rather than focusing on true innovation for consumers

Drives: Audi TT

Book: On Green Dolphin Street by Sebastian Faulks

Film: Gregory’s Girl

Album: Soul by Seal

Career ambition: I would like to continue developing my career in financial services, innovating and providing genuine choices for IFAs and consumers.

Life ambition: To sail around the South Pacific and scuba-dive with a whale shark.

If I wasn’t doing this I would be…Walking along a wind-swept beach in Fife.

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