I had intended writing about the closure of the IFA Centre when the news broke a few weeks ago but other events consumed most of my time back then.
A month on from that announcement, it is worth trying to understand what happened and why, as well as to come up with a balance sheet of the IFA Centre’s work in the 15 months of its existence.
At first sight, the demise of Gill Cardy’s organisation seems purely down to economics. For the centre to be financially viable, she needed at least 500 members willing to pay an annual fee of about £200. By the time it closed, she had 238 members from 102 firms.
To be sure, that was up a notch from the numbers she had revealed last July. But what they also demonstrated was an incredibly sluggish uptake in membership. Perhaps equally significantly, Gill faced a hard sell when it came to renewals in the coming months.
So what went wrong? My own view is that it was down to a combination of factors. First, there was the organisational one. In my experience, if you are forming something new, it is generally either the product of a bottom-up grassroots movement or it is a top-down launch.
In the first instance, hundreds of people in many disparate locations discover over time that they have a shared vision of the future. They may even be part of local groupings and the realisation that there are others like themselves all over the country inspires them to come together to create a voice for their views. The old Nfifa run by Garry Heath was a product of this approach.
Alternatively, a few people with a vision decide they want to share it with others. So they launch an organisation with as much fanfare and upfront funding as possible and hope others will rally to their banner. Aifa was born in this way, albeit that its funding came overwhelmingly from life insurers and networks.
The IFA Centre, by contrast, was neither fish nor fowl. It was formally launched after months during which it appeared to exist in a semi-official capacity. In other words, it limped into being rather than bursting on the scene with a bang.
What it really needed was a couple of dozen big industry names prepared to commit themselves publicly to the new organisation as part of a launch statement.
Apart from anything else, this would not just have demonstrated the quality and breadth of the IFA Centre but also given prospective members a good idea of the kind of people they would be standing alongside were they to join. In fact, it proved remarkably difficult to identify IFA Centre members publicly.
Had I been Gill, even before launching I would also have organised a speaking tour of maybe 15 or 20 of the UK’s biggest IFA population centres, perhaps hosted by a friendly local independent adviser in each area.
The aim would have been to create a rough organisational structure on the ground. Such a structure would almost certainly have been amended or refined as time went on, but it would at least have created a reference point for new members in each locality.
It might also have been possible to gain a higher and more credible profile outside the trade press by talking to consumer journalists about why your members really are the cream of the crop. That didn’t happen either.
Instead, the image we saw, perhaps unfairly, was that of one woman trying her utmost to be chief recruiter, campaigner and administrator all at once, with no one willing to stand by her side and help out.
Perhaps the biggest problem, unfortunately, was not one of tactics but a political and representational one. At the end of the day, if you want people to pay to join your organisation, you must have a key purpose they agree on and want you to fulfil.
Yet the IFA Centre’s central function was never clear to me. Was it there because there were specific issues relating to independent financial advice compared to restricted advisers, which needed separate representation with regulators and politicians?
Was Arch cru, about which Gill became a key campaigner, really one of those distinctive IFA-only issues?
Did the centre harbour dreams of acting as a quality destination for fee-paid IFA professionals, promoting higher standards – that is to say, did it hope to emulate the IFP but in a marginally less restrictive, broader church?
Or was the IFA Centre aiming to act as a reference point and propagandist for IFAs now that Aifa had morphed into Apfa? If so, did Gill’s new body also want to play a role as a mini-IFA Promotion?
All of the above are worthwhile aims and it would have been possible to integrate several of them in one organisation. Instead, the message that came through was confused and made it difficult to ‘sell’ the benefits of the IFA Centre, no matter how brave its founder.
As someone who passionately believes that IFAs need a voice to articulate their distinctive commitment to ethical professional values, I regard the centre’s demise as desperately sad – and as an opportunity missed. It is unlikely IFAs will be offered another one.
Nic Cicutti can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org