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MM Profile: Lou Macari

From running his own restaurant to leading a financial services consultancy team may seem a big leap but Axa Wealth head of business believes the bottom line remains the same – productivity, streamlining and providing a good value product and service to customers Interview by Rachael Adams

What is the difference between an ice cream parlour and an IFA firm? Not a lot, according to Axa Wealth head of business Lou Macari.

“I grew up in the family business, which was an ice cream cafe,” he says. “My father took ill when I was 17, so I ran the business. My colleagues laugh when I compare financial services companies with restaurants but all I see is a business with customers and processes.”

Macari ran three businesses before joining Zurich in 1997. “I had two successes and one failure. You are supposed to have the failure first but I got that bit wrong.”

When he was 21, he started his own audiovisual supply company, Omni Visual Services. “I got some good money out of that business but I had always wanted my own restaurant.”

Luigi’s opened in 1988, just in time for the recession of the mid-1990s. “I invested all my money in it and lost everything. I joke to my clients now that they are getting the benefit of a very expensive education.” Macari believes this experience taught him about productivity and profitability, lessons he passes on to Axa Wealth customers.

This led Macari to a stint in business lecturing at Glasgow University. “I thought if I could not run my own business, working with people who wanted to was the next best thing.”

From there Macari amassed a client bank that he used to launch his own freelance business consultancy but then the question of what to do next came up. “I was 38 with three young children, so I decided not to start another business.”

Instead, he joined Government-sponsored support service Business Link as an adviser. During his time there, Macari saw an advert saying Allied Dunbar was looking for a business strategy consultant. “I never planned to get into financial services but it was a great introduction to how advisers work, although I worked with the practices on a business rather than a financial front.”

When one of Zurich’s sales directors moved to Axa, it was not long before he suggested Macari join him. “I was drafted in to start the business consultancy team. There were only three of us. The premise was to get Axa’s customers in a healthy position, as we distribute through them.”

The platform boom meant that five years later, Macari found himself heading a much bigger team with a dedicated platform consultancy arm. “Consultancy got a new lease of life when platforms came along. We took the understanding we had of running financial services practices and helped them make the transition to using platforms.”

Following April’s rebrand, there are now three teams under the Macari-led Professional Edge umbrella. “We have 60 staff, with 38 platform consultants, 12 consultants and eight support staff.”

The widening of his remit has not changed Macari’s reasons for enjoying consultancy. “It is very rewarding. Business is very personal to people, second only to family and health.”

His love of the job remains unaltered but the issues are very different from when he joined the industry. “Profitability was not an issue 15 years ago. Most advisers saw it as a given. Now we are doing a lot of profitability work because IFAs are having to build RDR-friendly propositions. They are learning the hard way that the bottom line really matters.”

Macari feels this is where platforms come in. “They address some of the core issues IFAs face under the RDR – productivity, streamlining and client management.” That is not to say Macari thinks the retail distribution review is a bad thing. “It has just accelerated things. All the RDR is saying is that advisers should be taking a fee that matches the level of service they are providing. Why would they not do that anyway?”

He adds: “I do understand that the RDR is one more thing for advisers to worry about.” That is why Professional Edge runs seminars and workshops alongside the consultancy, most recently launching a four-day business transition workshop.

One issue Macari has seen coming up again and again is segmentation. “It is about making sure you get a return on the service you deliver and that customers are willing to pay for it. It is the same for IFAs as it is for restaurateurs. You have 40 seats to fill and you have to make £1,000 a night, you have 120 meeting spots a year and expenses to cover. A lot of IFAs have not thought about this until now.”

Macari and his team also help IFAs communicate their value to clients, something that will be of utmost importance come the RDR. He says: “The main problem advisers have is articulating their value. I was talking to an adviser last week and I said, ’Do your clients know what you do behind the scenes?’ and he said, ’Probably not.’ Customers see their IFA filling in a form and think that is all he does.”

However, he says advisers have to take responsibility for changing this. “When I first meet IFAs they start by telling me all the qualifications they have and I sit there thinking, ’Well, that is what I expected.’ They have to look at value from the client’s perspective and it is things such as always phoning back and being readily available, not certificates. It is about support.”

Macari believes Professional Edge is well placed to help advisers offer this support, which will continue with its plans to focus on business after the RDR.

“Right now it is all about segmentation and the RDR – but things are going to evolve.”

He also predicts changes in the industry in terms of company size. “This is a cottage industry but I think we are going to see the emergence of larger businesses, so we will be focusing much more on personal coaching. We just want to help people achieve what they want to achieve.”

Born: Ayrshire in Scotland, 1957

Lives: Chippenham, Wiltshire, with wife and three children

Education: BA in economics and marketing from the University of Strathclyde, MBA from Strathclyde Graduate Business School

Career: 2001-present: head of business services, Axa Wealth; 1997-2001: senior consultant/ project manager, Zurich Financial

Services; 1995-97: business consultant,

Business Link; 1994-95: freelance business consultant; 1988-94: owner/manager, Luigi’s restaurant; 1980-94: owner/ director, Omni Visual Services

Likes: Films, Italian food and good conversation

Dislikes: Politics, exercise and golf

Drives: BMW 5 Series

Book: Nostromo by Joseph Conrad

Film: The Bicycle Thieves

Album: Dylan by Bob Dylan

Career ambition: To write about the lessons small and large businesses can learn from each other

Life ambition: Not to have ambitions that stop me from enjoying the life I have now

If I wasn’t doing this I would be…Working in the catering industry, which was my first love


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