Some people may find this hard to believe, but I have always had a soft spot for Garry Heath.
Many years ago, when Garry was chief executive of the National Federation of Independent Financial Advisers, Garry and I were, if not best pals, certainly pally with each other.
As I have written in Money Marketing before, I was even briefly offered a column in NFIFA’s monthly magazine.
That slot disappeared overnight, when I dared to offer some mild criticism of Garry’s trade body in my own newspaper, including what by today’s standards was a risible capital adequacy requirement. Still, that kind of thing is par for the course and it never stopped me respecting NFIFA or the man himself.
In any event, a year or so later it was Garry’s turn to be defenestrated from NFIFA’s successor, the IFA Association, by a coalition of life offices and some networks fed up with his posturing, which they felt was beginning to alienate the general public against the industry.
The deal, as I recall, was that if a newly-formed and much more responsible trade body, Aifa, were to be formed without Garry at the helm, they would support it financially.
Fifteen years later, Apfa, as Aifa was renamed a year or two ago, lurches from one financial crisis to another, in hock to adviser networks who help keep it on life support but without the resources to function effectively.
Afpa faces continual barracking from a small but vocal minority of advisers who believe it to be an irrelevance and refuse to join. From the other side, a smaller number of highly respected financial planners have long since quit on the grounds that Apfa no longer represents their more professional aspirations.
Meanwhile the majority of advisers, as far as I can make out, remain semi-voluntary members thanks to their networks’ block affiliations. But their interest and genuine support for Apfa’s work is limited at best.
Enter Garry Heath once more, this time at the helm of a new trade body, Libertatem, which one Latin definition I consulted last week describes as the “accusative singular” of Libertas, or freedom.
Which seems apt somehow, bearing in mind that the formation committee includes not just Garry, who was never shy about picking fights with regulators, but also Highclere Financial Services partner and former Money Marketing columnist Alan Lakey, ex-stalwart of the IFA Defence Union, Adviser Alliance and briefly, Apfa itself.
Garry wants Libertatem to recruit 4,000 individual advisers and 1,200 firms – 20 per cent of the directly authorised market – in the next 15 months. Financially, the target is to raise up to £1m in that time, roughly equal to Apfa’s annual budget of £800,000 or so.
The theory is a new Conservative Government will be more receptive towards advisers’ representations against overbearing financial regulations. Advisers will also be attracted by somewhat cheaper membership fees compared with Apfa’s.
On paper, it all sounds very good. My problem, however, is not just with the incredibly ambitious expansion target but with the underlying rationale for the launch.
I freely confess to not having a direct line to the Government’s new Treasury team. But I would be gobsmacked if David Gauke, who has just been re-appointed as financial secretary, or other more junior ministers including pensions minister Ros Altmann, will prove particularly sympathetic to Garry’s “accusative singular”.
The fact is a lot of water has passed under the bridge since Garry last led a trade body.
Compared with 15 or 20 years ago, when the media, myself included, were prepared to give Garry and NFIFA a respectful a hearing, things have changed. Expectations of the industry are different, as are assumptions many people have about advisers.
What helped change impressions, ironically, was the sight of Garry leading a – temporarily effective but ultimately self-defeating from the PR perspective – legal battle against IFAs having to carry out the pension review. There may have been some valid reasons for NFIFA’s defence of non-compliance, but the harm it to the image of all advisers did was incalculable.
This would become even more evident if Garry were to summon up some of the belligerence for which he is renowned, backed by loyal acolytes like Alan Lakey, when attempting to negotiate with the FCA.
As it happens, I am not even sure most advisers are in the same mental and emotional space as they were a decade or two ago. Many of Garry’s allies back then are less likely to want to pick fights with regulators and politicians, or the media.
They just want to get on and do their jobs as well as possible. And if that means putting up with some occasionally daft rules and regulations, so be it.
Which is why ultimately, what I suspect Garry’s new vehicle is far more likely to achieve is the further weakening of Apfa. A small rump of a few hundred, maybe even 1,000 members will attract cash and support away from advisers’ more established trade body, creating a long-term rivalry between the two. But it will not change the industry’s fundamental direction of travel.
Still, at least it gives Garry a few newspaper column inches. He has been starved of those for a few years.
Nic Cicutti can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org