If there is one thing I have learned about Chris Cummings in the past couple of days it is that he must be a very good poker player.
Only a few weeks ago, I interviewed him in depth for an article in Money Marketing. At that stage, he must already have been holding talks, if only preliminary ones, with TheCityUK, the new membership body which aims to promote the UK-based financial and professional services industry.
I would never have guessed this was the case and, for so leaky an industry, news of his appointment did not seep out until a formal announcement needed to be made last week. That is quite something.
In leaving Aifa after five years, Chris is continuing in the tradition of Paul Smee, who stayed for a similar period of time before moving on to the Association for Payment Clearing Services. Maybe that is about as long as anyone can take in representing an IFA sector that is never very clear about what it wants – only what it doesn’t.
After this time at the helm of Aifa – and the Association of Mortgage Intermediaries before that – tributes will be paid to Chris. Chief among them is the observation that he was a skilled negotiator. Money Marketing editor Paul McMillan is right to point out that his “restrained diplomacy” probably won IFAs many more victories than they may have realised.
The big question now is who should replace Chris at the helm of Aifa. This is where things get interesting. So far, the discussion seems to be whether the next person will be internal candidate or external, from another trade or professional body or perhaps even a big IFA or network.
If that is as far as the debate goes, a historic opportunity will be missed, not so much to find the right person but, much more important, to really change the role that Aifa has in the wider world – and the role of the IFAs it represents.
For years now, since Paul Smee replaced Garry Heath, Aifa has operated on the basis of what most people would assume are “responsible” discussions and negotiations with the FSA, the Treasury and, increasingly, in Brussels.
At one level, that makes sense. For all the excitement that Garry brought to the role at Nfifa, his bombastic comments and perceived obstructionism with regard to the SIB-inspired personal pension review tended to isolate IFAs at a time when they needed friends. Bringing Aifa down to earth was seen as essential by key parts of the industry prepared to fund a more “responsible” type of trade body.
The problem now is that after 10 years of calm, generally dispassionate, behind-closed-doors style of operating, most people assume it is the only game in town, hence the focus on individual candidates rather than trying to map out a totally new direction for Aifa.
Where would I like to see the leading trade body for IFAs heading towards? The most important change I want is passion for independent financial advice, shouted loudly and from the rooftops, as an alternative to the bank and insurance-based selling practices that have cost consumers so dearly.
But that passion also means zero tolerance for anything that might stand in the way of consumers identifying with IFAs as their protectors in a harsh financial world. Aifa needs to be firmly at the forefront of raising standards for advisers and for the immediate expulsion from the industry of those who fail to meet those standards. Aifa must become synonymous with quality, professionalism, dedication and total commitment to consumers.
From that platform and that platform only, it will then be possible for Aifa to defend IFAs against accusations that they are only in it for the money, that they are “just salespeople”.
The only way you can defend your sector appropriately is if you can demonstrate that you and the members you represent are totally above reproach.
That is a lesson, ironically, that Paul Smee and one or two other Aifa representatives were taught in 2004 when they where monstered by theTreasury select committee over a variety of issues, including the liquidation of Berry Birch & Noble, the assumed lack of ethics of the industry, as well as the complexity of product structure.
Many people at the time felt the MPs’ criticism was unfair but it was Aifa’s contradictory role that put Paul in that position.
The path I am proposing is totally at odds with the one that will seem easiest to follow for the majority of those who will be appointing a successor to Chris Cummings.
The temptation will be to go for more of the same. And it’s true that another “Cummingsmee” chief executive is not the worst that can happen to Aifa.
But it would mean passing up an opportunity to do something much more meaningful for and with the IFA sector.
Nic Cicutti can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org