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MM Profile: George Higginson

Sesame Bankhall’s chief executive officer has a reputation for delivering big changes and he is developing a series of ambitious solutions to cater for independent and restricted advisers Interview by Rachael Adams

I have not told many people this,” says Sesame Bankhall Group chief executive officer George Higginson, “but I started my career as a motor mechanic for the police authority in Northern Ireland. Then, I was a driving examiner.”

Higginson was introduced to financial services when he started working part-time for Legal & General. He was making as much money doing that as he was as a driving examiner, so he decided to take a full-time job with Allied Dunbar.

“I did not go through the historical branch structure. In Ireland, there were a few firms that were set up as what we now call appointed representatives. I had spoken with Allied Dunbar and did not want to go to them but a family friend owned this AR. My fear was not having enough clients but they had thousands.”

Within six months, the AR was Allied Dunbar’s top adviser firm, with a £3m turnover. Higginson moved into management before entering the Zurich regime.

“Zurich wanted me to move into operations, overseeing sales and the manufacturing end. Plenty of people rise through the sales ranks but the step to operations director was quite unusual. I did section 166s through to recruitment and I think the plethora of roles was why I stayed there so long.”

After overseeing the creation of Open-work for Zurich, Higginson took a two-week holiday and then went off to set up Intrinsic as one of its six founders, with funding posing the biggest challenge. “I mean proper funding, not this £200,000 rubbish people talk about. I left the Marriott in Swindon on July 15, with Zurich paying my bills.

When I returned on August 2, I was paying them myself,” he says. The project required £20m of funding, which Higginson and the five other founders achieved.

Initially restricted-only, Intrinsic bought Mint Financial Services in 2008 to broaden its proposition. Higginson was put in charge of Mint. “It needed a lot of work, so I was parachuted in but I am a believer in taking businesses through big changes rather than just evolving.”

His reputation for delivering change was behind Higginson’s move to Sesame Bankhall in 2010 to put in place its proposition for the retail distribution review. “People knew me and I spoke practically about the RDR a lot. Sesame could have run along for three more years but it would have been like British Airways, which was top of its game but dismissed low-cost airlines. We did not want to make that mistake.

“I met Ivan Martin at lunchtime and he was drinking a pint of beer. I thought, ’this is different’. I was gobsmacked when he asked me because I thought I was there on Aifa business – but I did not hesitate.”

It was not without its challenges. “I had learned through Mint that there was not much difference between independent and restricted but I did not know so much about the directly authorised side. We had so many locations – one day I was put on a train to Cheltenham and I did not even know we had an office there.”

Higginson says he has had to temper his natural tendency to want to be in the middle of things. “I am big enough to admit I need people to help me. It became obvious last year there were a few key players missing, so we made six big hires.”

It has also grown its membership figures. “We saw natural attrition last year because we got complacent and had to be proactive. We have got 200 new recruits already this year – we had a total of 400 last year. We are pushing now because we expect slow growth in the fourth quarter.”

Sesame is putting a number of big plans into action. It announced its intention to launch Optimum Investment Management, a joint venture with Henderson. It is due to launch in June.

“We launched it because I genuinely do not think most advisers have the time or capability to run their own portfolios. In Australia, it is all done by professional investment management companies owned by distributors, which is what we will have.”

However, the key addition to Sesame’s armoury will be Iress, its technology offering that will include a restricted panel. “The first phase of the Iress launch will be to restricted advisers but it will look more or less like an independent offering. In the third quarter, we will make it available to the independent guys, then in quarter four it will go into the Bankhall proposition for DAs.”

Higginson says he has been surprised by the response from the independent quarter. “A lot of them use multiple systems but they are saying they want one that can do front and back end. Advisers are saying they want to stay DA but they want to bolt our fully compliant service on.”

He is dismissive of those who say networks that offer restricted do it for themselves rather than the end-client. “People who say that are the ones who do not have the knowledge to understand restricted – and you can quote me on that.

“We are not pushing restricted, independent or anything, we are a home for professional advisers. We already have DA guys saying they want to be part of a network but they want the network part to be restricted.”

It is also a question of managing risk, he says. “With Iress, consumers will not end up with a Ucis fund on a £27,000 pot because we are doing the due diligence.”
Higginson expects the RDR to engender new models of advice other than restricted and independent.

“We have had most interest in what you would call hybrid. You can have independent and restricted within an AR on the Sesame network, which means advisers can choose the middle ground.”

He hopes to achieve a lot over the next 12 months. Alongside getting £500m of assets on to the Sesame One platform, helping members prepare for the RDR and launching Optimum, Higginson wants to get 200 member firms on to the restricted network and generally keep increasing memberships. “If I get all that done, I will have a very good Christmas.

Born: Carrickfergus, Ireland, in 1963
Lives: Cultra, Holyrood in Northern Ireland (home of Rory McIlroy)
Education: Belfast High School and the University of Ulster
Career: 2010-present: chief operation officer, then chief executive officer at Sesame Bankhall Group; 2009-10: chairman, Mint; 2006-10: founding director and commercial director of Intrinsic Financial Services; 1998-2006: financial adviser, management roles then operations director at Zurich; 1992-98: IFA at Allied Dunbar
Likes: Travelling, positive people and watching my son grow up
Dislikes: Politics, can’t-do attitudes and people who think the world owes them a living
Drives: A Maserati and a Ducati motorbike
Book: Don’t get much time to read with the amount of paperwork I have
Film: The Godfather, The Usual Suspects and Wall Street
Album: AC/DC Live
Career ambition: I am lucky to have achieved a lot so far but probably to have left a good mark on financial services
Life ambition: To be happy and enjoy every minute of my brief time here
If I wasn’t doing this I would be… Sailing my boat in the Mediterranean

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