Decide2 managing director James Dean’s entry into financial services is a reminder of how far today’s advice industry, with its focus on professionalism and client service, has come.
Dean started out as a salesman with Norwich Union’s private clients division, a period in financial services he refers to as “a bit like the Wild West”. He says: “I was a self-employed, cold-calling, commission-only salesperson. After a five-day training course, I still did not know anything about financial advice but I was authorised to sell it, which was worrying.”
Dean enjoyed life as an adviser and felt he was part of a sector that served a purpose but he was effectively made redundant when NU closed its private clients division. He joined Provident Mutual as an adviser but, as the only one in his regional office who had obtained the financial planning certificate, was quickly appointed as a supervisor.
Provident Mutual was then acquired by General Accident. At General Accident Dean became regional manager for the North-west, building the regional office over two years to become the most successful region.
It was here Dean’s career reached a turning point. As his job changed from regional manager to national sales development manager, his employer merged with Commercial Union and later NU, to become CGU then CGNU.
The role expanded into designing CGNU’s laptop-based point-of-sale technology. The system he helped establish was known as Remote Integrated Office.
He left to join his wife’s IFA practice, Sherwen Dean, where he stayed for just over a year, but he realised he wanted to be part of building a business.
“Skipton Financial Services advertised for a call centre manager. There was no contact centre and no process for lead generation. I ended up joining them to build what they did not have. It was the proverbial blank piece of paper.”
Dean knew from his insurer days that customers do not react well to scripted sales calls and staff should build relationships with customers, understand their needs and explain what an adviser does.
He created Skipton’s direct business centre as part of a conscious effort to differentiate from the poor service associated with call centres. Dean says the direct business centre played a key role in Skipton winning relationships with high-profile media partners such as the Daily Telegraph.
“It was not just about making it commercially viable, it was upping the ante in the customer service stakes as well.”
Having fulfilled his brief, Dean ended up at Aegon, which wanted to distribute its products, serve orphan clients and build on existing media relationships. The result was Aegon Direct, where he was appointed chief executive.
Aegon Direct provided annuity advice to members through its commercial partnerships for just under two years until it was shut down last September.
“It is an irony that a lot of life offices and providers now are looking at how they can build direct-to-consumer propositions. All providers have this problem, including Aegon.”
Decide2, which was launched in February, is an online and phone-based mass-market advice service, covering protection, investment and retirement. It targets advisers who want to service existing clients who do not fit into their RDR business model. It will also work with consumers directly and the company is in discussions with pension scheme trustees and employee benefits firms.
Dean is also developing an “assisted non-advised process” that will run off the Cofunds platform and use model portfolios from Seven Investment Management.
“We complement what an IFA does rather than compete with them. If an adviser decides they cannot serve a client, we work with them to provide that advice. But, if during the process, we find information that exceeds the basics of our proposition, we will pass that client back to the IFA, with an explanation to the client.”
Dean sees the service offered by Decide2 as focused advice, which allows flexibility in meeting clients’ specific needs. He feels the FSA’s final guidance on simplified advice, published in March, made it difficult for firms to offer such a service. He says requirements for emergency savings and core protection to be in place before simplified advice can be offered only served to build firewalls into the process.
He says the Money Advice Service offers clear information for mass-market consumers but is critical of the way the MAS has handled itself since launch last year.
“The amount of investment for the service being delivered is disproportionate. It is far too expensive. The MAS also alienated what should have been its biggest advocate from day one, with its advert straplines claiming to offer free, independent and unbiased advice.
“The MAS lost its opportunity to effectively become the marketing arm of the financial advice profession and to be that source of consumer engagement and provide a link to an adviser.”
Dean hopes the advice gap after the RDR can be addressed by firms such as Decide2 but remains concerned about the lack of consumer engagement.
“There has been a lot of comment about the loss of doorstep advice and the man from the Pru. That was far from ideal in terms of getting the right value products but at least there was that encouragement to save. Without that positive push, and given the difficult and unpredictable economy, that presents a challenge.”
However, Dean says when he puts his firm in the context of the size of the possible UK market, he sees the advice gap as less of a challenge and more of an opportunity.
Born: Harrogate, North Yorkshire, 1968
Lives: Skipton, North Yorkshire
Education: Wetherby High School
Career: 2011-present: managing director, Decide2; 2009-11: chief executive, Aegon Direct; 2008-09: various consultancy projects; 2002-08: manager of the Direct Business Centre, Skipton Financial Services; 2001-02: partner, Sherwen Dean; 2000-01: national sales development manager, Norwich Union; 1997-2000: regional manager, General Accident; 1995-97: adviser and supervisor, Provident Mutual; 1993-95: adviser, Norwich Union Private Clients Division
Likes: The great outdoors, cycling and a well-kept pint
Dislikes: Ikea on a bank holiday and poor customer service
Book: Thomas Hardy, interspersed with books on behavioural economics
Film: Star Wars
Album: Battle for the Sun by Placebo
Career ambition: To be the proud leader of a client-focused financial advice business, accessible to all
Life ambition: Winning the battle of fit versus fat
If I wasn’t doing this I would be…Travelling the world by bike and on foot with my wife