For many people the new year means taking stock of the previous 12 months and reviewing long-term plans. Ascot Lloyd chief executive Richard Dunbabin is no exception.
Dunbabin’s plans for the national advice firm to float on Aim were abandoned in October. Interest from investors was slower than expected and Dunbabin attributed this to worries about inflation, interest rates rising and the economy as a whole against the backdrop of Brexit and the US presidential election.
Now he is planning to increase adviser headcount by up to 10 per cent – or between five and 10 advisers – and is keeping his options open on the IPO situation. Understandably, he wants to see how things pan out before deciding whether to reopen or close that particular door completely.
He says: “The tricky thing is understanding what’s unclear in capital markets; the uncertainties. It really is difficult to predict. For the time being we are reviewing the options.
“One of those is to come back to capital markets in the middle of the year. Our strategy as we kick off 2017 is to think about what the world looks like and what the UK financial services sector looks like.”
The IPO process was both a challenge and a highlight for Dunbabin.
“The process is a major challenge – you should not undertake it lightly. In terms of preparation, it is quite arduous but I expected it to be so. As a result, Ascot Lloyd is prepared for public life. We are virtually a public company but not quoted.”
Dunbabin has spent the last 14 years building Ascot Lloyd into a national firm through a combination of acquisitions and organic growth. It was created in 2003 when he bought GHM Financial Services before changing its name. Since 2004 it has made 28 acquisitions.
“The rationale behind the listing was to continue that journey. A lot of vendors started in the 1980s and are looking for an exit in retirement. I saw that as an opportunity to provide an exit and take on firms where the client is already engaged in the advice process, so they already understand its value.”
Despite putting the IPO on hold for the time being, Dunbabin stresses Ascot Lloyd will continue to acquire businesses selectively. However, he does not think it is possible to rely purely on acquisitions for growth.
“I don’t think things can continue in a dynamic growth curve; the curve would flatten when it gets to a certain point and the rate of growth deteriorates.”
So what makes a good acquisition?
“You’ve got to take into account the infrastructure and the people in the business. It can’t be at the expense of the underlying business.
“For us, cultural alignment is key, as well as continuity for the client in terms of expectation. We need to know we can deliver a service that is as good as, if not better than, the client has had before.”
A seamless transition is the ideal scenario for Dunbabin, as staff tend to not like change.
“Change must happen but it’s how it happens that’s important. And when other staff are coming across it is also important to look at things like the track record of complaints and for what reasons they were made, as that is an indication of the culture of that business.”
“I don’t think things can continue in a dynamic growth curve.”
Technology will not triumph
As a child, Dunbabin wanted to be a pilot in the RAF but changed his mind growing up as it would have involved moving to the opposite end of the country.
Given that his father worked in the pensions industry, it is not surprising he landed his first financial services job as a pension consultant with Providence Capital.
“I was there a short time because I didn’t like the inability to offer choice. I had to offer their products. A firm of accountants referred clients to me but they required me to offer choice. I needed to deal with other companies so I took on agencies and started my own business.”
By 1999, Dunbabin had sold that business – Lynx – to launch an online insurance business, Rapidinsure. “The internet had been born and I saw the opportunity for financial services on it. As a result of that, I joined a couple of other people to form Rapidinsure. It was one of the first in the UK to do simple insurance products online.”
But the predictions at the time of huge growth in online business transactions over the next couple of years just did not materialise, Dunbabin recalls.
“People didn’t have the technology and the ability to transact online, so we sold the business.”
It was while working as a consultant with Marsh & McLennan, a traditional offline business that looked at the threat of online distribution in financial services, that Dunbabin had a “lightbulb moment” which ultimately led to the creation of Ascot Lloyd.
“I realised the researchers were getting it wrong. The opportunity with Ascot Lloyd was about recognising the fact that people still need to deal with people.”
That observation still resonates in 2017. In Dunbabin’s view, the greater use of technology has introduced more confusion into the financial services sector, with people going to an adviser once they have looked up information online, perhaps used some online tools and ended up drowned by it all.
Similarly, he feels auto-enrolment and pension freedoms have compounded the need for advice on retirement strategies.
“It’s clear from the Financial Advice Market Review that a large proportion of the public does not have access to the advice it desperately needs. The FAMR sheds light on the advice gap and technology is an affordable solution to that. I absolutely do believe there is a place for it.
“But what we do tends to be driven by adversity – personal injury, divorce, inheritance – a problem to sort. People can look online and get some answers but many want to deal with someone who can give face-to-face advice.”
What is the best bit of advice you’ve received in your career?
Nothing happens until you make it happen.
What keeps you awake at night?
My neighbour’s dog. But, seriously, anything that keeps me awake needs dealing with so it doesn’t keep me awake.
What has had the most significant impact on financial advice in the last year?
The FAMR. Fair access to financial advice is essential to the future of our industry.
If I was in charge of the FCA for a day I would…
Start an industry-led initiative to educate consumers on the value of advice.
Any advice for new advisers?
Concentrate on obtaining and keeping all relevant knowledge but translate it into plain English when explaining it to clients.
2003-present: Chief executive and founder, Ascot Lloyd
2001-2002: Financial services distribution consultant, Marsh & McLennan,
1999-2001: Managing director, Rapidinsure
1980-1999: Managing director Lynx Insurance/Lynx Management
1979-1980: Pension consultant, Providence Capital