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Nigel Speirs

Mounting frustration with product providers led the chief executive of Wales’ biggest IFA firm, Buckles, to take them on with his own investment product, the Snowdonia Oeic. In an interview with James Salmon, he explains why IFAs should refuse to be subservient to providers and what he believes is wrong with principle-based regulation.

Nigel Speirs, chief executive of Buckles Investment Services, the biggest IFA firm in Wales, walks into the Money Marketing offices brandishing a heavy, pointed object in a plastic bag. He has spent the previous evening celebrating at the Institute of Financial Services awards ceremony, where his firm picked up a trophy for the most innovative training initiative.

The award was in recognition of Buckles’ successful graduate training scheme, which now has 12 members, including Speirs’ youngest daughter.

It does not take long for Speirs to reveal one of his pet hates – product providers. “If I never have to deal with another provider, I will be a happy man,” he says.

“IFAs have been foolish – and I include myself in that – in that we have distribution and yet for some reason we allow providers to determine what we get paid. For years, they had the power and believed that we should be subservient to them.

“Providers have cheated the customer once too often. What they have done with with-profits has been dreadful and they have lost customers’ trust. Their admin has been notoriously bad and what they have done to IFAs’ business is dreadful.”

This tirade against providers might seem daring, if not reckless, coming from an IFA but Buckles pits itself against life offices. It also helps explain why the firm came into being.

Speirs started his working life by moving to North Wales to become a trainee with Abbey National. After 11 years, he set up a solicitors financial services firm before buying a general insurance broker called Buckle & Co in 1989. It left the Law Society and joined Fimbra for regulatory purposes in 1990.

Speirs says the business took on its current form in 2001 when it shed its unprofitable mortgage business and began concentrating on investment. In 2003, as the with-profits market faced problems, Speirs says he was confronted with the dilemma of how to get advisers to sell a consistent product range. He was anxious to add value to Buckles at a time when some IFAs were not trading profitably and had been been advised that funds under management carry far more value than renewal commission.

The firm had been damaged by the with-profits problems and was anxious to move away from a reliance on providers.

So the Snowdonia Oeic was born. Buckles’ flagship diversified collective investment is managed by UBS and consists of four sub-funds – balanced, growth, income and property.

UBS essentially acts as a discretionary fund manager, making all the decisions independently of Buckles.

Speirs says there is no conflict between the firm’s independent tag and the fact that it effectively sells one investment product – its own.

“What is the alternative? If we use Skandia or New Star products, we have no influence over who the fund manager is. I strongly believe that IFAs are not qualified generally to select funds and we derisk our business by not doing so. IFAs add value by making sure the clients have the right protection, tax wrappers and inheritance tax planning. It is about financial planning. Fund selection is best left to the professionals.”

Speirs argues that providers are guilty of setting an agenda in the market that is at odds with the interests of IFAs and that the commission versus fees debate is a classic example. “I am fully bought into the idea of the fee model but there is no appetite for fees outside London.”

On the advent of depolarisation, Speirs says 30 per cent of his clients cancelled their appointments with the firm when they thought they would have to pay a fee of £125 an hour. When clients were told the appointment would be free, the cancellation rate dropped to 3 per cent.

He says platforms such as Cofunds and Transact have their place but believes that wraps are a waste of time and money and are a purely defensive move on the part of providers.

“Providers think they can just come out with wrap now and say: ‘Would you mind ignoring the past 20 years of sins and use this nice clean wrap?’ Life companies have just sat there and said: ‘How the hell are we going to make money in this new world?’ The answer for them is to get all clients’ assets under management and on to their balance sheet.”

Another of Speirs’ bugbears is principle-based regulation. He compares complying with the FSA’s treating customers fairly regime with “trying to hold water in our hands”.

He says: “As a nation we want rules, we like rules and we do not want principles.”

But Speirs believes that principle-based regulation will eventually cut down on red tape and also says the FSA is improving as a regulator as it is becoming much more responsive to IFA concerns.

When Speirs is not railing against providers and running his IFA firm he loves to travel but nowhere too exotic because he hates long flights. He and his wife are also members of the local church.

Born: Orpington, Kent, 1957

Lives: Colwyn Bay with wife Jan

Career: 1975-87, Abbey National; 1987-89, established GKB Financial Services; 1989, bought general insurance business Buckles, moved from Law Society regulation to Fimbra; 2001 to date, chief executive, Buckles Holdings

Likes: Success, seeing others achieve, releasing potential, having a new idea

Dislikes: Anything that gets in the way of success

Drives: Jaguar XJ8

Favourite film: Shawshank Redemption

Favourite book: Most John Grisham novels – anything in which I can escape

Favourite singer: Barbra Streisand

Heroes: Chris Kerin – “He works with me and I want to be like him when I grow up” – and Winston Churchill

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