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Profile: ‘Awards show our staff they are part of our success story’

Aqua Wealth Management director on why entering industry awards is about more than just marketing opportunities

Many advisers will have attended an industry awards event. At the very least, it is a chance to let your hair down and catch up with people you have not seen for a while. But if you are among the select few who have entered or been nominated for an award, and have made the shortlist, there are more benefits to be had than a few beers.

St Albans-based Aqua Wealth Management is one of five firms to make the shortlist in the Best Mortgage Adviser category at this year’s Money Marketing Awards, to be held in London on 26 June. The firm also made the shortlist in the Best Legal and Financial Services Provider categories at the biz4Biz awards, which are open to businesses in Hertfordshire.

There is no denying it is good from a marketing viewpoint to win an accolade or two, but that has never been the motivation for Aqua Wealth Management.

“It’s not about shouting ‘look at us, we’ve won these awards’,” says the firm’s director Chris Pearce. “It’s about telling our staff what a great job they are doing.

“We see our staff, give them recognition, drop them an email – but how else can you show them they are doing a good job? We can tell them internally but it goes in one ear and out the other. That’s where the awards come in.”

Pearce says the faces of his staff lit up when they knew they realised they were in with a chance of winning an award.

“When you get shortlisted, staff get better recognition and they understand that we are providing a high level of service. It’s a mark of respect to them, showing them they are part of our success story – that we value them,” he says.

Pearce and fellow director Dominic Basilea’s reluctance to milk their firm’s achievements for marketing purposes may stem from their preference for organic growth, through client referrals and professional connections, rather than advertising.

Tellingly, the firm is located in the only commercial building in a residential street, rather than having a shop front in the high street.

How to get referrals right

“Our growth is built on trust with clients. That was the original philosophy of the business, building relationships that go a long way. It’s the strongest sort of advertising you can get when clients refer you,” says Pearce.

He and Basilea worked at IFA firm KDW Associates prior to launching Aqua Wealth Management seven years ago. Although they had complementary areas of expertise – Basilea in sales and mortgages, Pearce in pensions and investments – they shared the same ideas about what an advice firm should look like.

They wanted to build a brand that people regarded as open, transparent and jargon-free. This was even reflected in the name, with aqua meaning water, which is about as transparent as you can get.

“It’s hard to come up with a business name, something that is part of your philosophy that sums you up very quickly,” says Pearce. “At the time, the Yellow Pages was still in existence so Dom and I wanted something that began with A.”

Five questions

What is the best bit of advice you’ve received in your career?

A previous manager said to make sure notes are recorded straight after a meeting takes place. I still do that today – I put notes in as an appointment in my calendar.

What keeps you awake at night?

I’ve never had problems sleeping, but recently it’s been whether Liverpool could win the Premiership.

What has had the most significant impact on financial advice in the last year?

Mifid II and GDPR.

If I was in charge of the FCA for a day I would…?

Get all the PI insurers together and say you need to work with IFA practices, so the cost of cover is not just based on assumptions of what is happening in the market.

Any advice for new advisers?

The advice process takes time to build and understand, but don’t get frustrated.

Getting the best from rebranding your firm

One of the things that has helped the firm to grow is building a team of specialists. “I probably moaned at the time I did the G60 exam but I’ve learned that having a specialism is really important,” says Pearce.

Joining the pensions technical department at National Mutual (now LV=) early in his career gave Pearce the in-depth knowledge of different regimes, which gives him an advantage even now, as he will know things that some advisers may need to look up.  “I can identify that these were the rules for that – I have a good historical knowledge of how pensions have evolved because of the experience I have had. I know how it all works because I was brought in to it prior to technology.”

Pearce says having a team of advisers who specialise in different areas of advice enables the firm to offer a solution to all its clients. He is proud of the way its doors are open to anyone, regardless of wealth.

“We have best practice meetings where each of us presents what we’ve found and the conversations we’ve had with clients,” he says.

“If I’ve got a client who needs a bit more detail around IHT and trusts, they can speak to me, but if it’s more in-depth, they can speak to another adviser who specialises in that.”

Building a team of specialists has not prevented the firm from outsourcing in areas where it sees fit – its investment management is taken care of by Portfolio Metrics, through a centralised investment proposition, for example.

“We might get involved in the things they don’t do such as smoothed funds and structured products – but we have the peace of mind that their team has the same outlook on risk as us,” says Pearce.

Defined benefit transfers are a different kettle of fish, however. The firm chooses not to outsource this work as it has the experience in-house and wants to retain control, which Pearce believes is helpful when obtaining professional indemnity insurance.

“We’ve been with our PI company since our inception,” he says. “I can send them the cases I do, which are existing clients and referrals. It’s all in-house, so it’s not like I’ve outsourced it and haven’t a clue.”

Pearce says as the PI insurer understands how Aqua runs its business and the controls it puts in place, it was able to provide a more competitive deal than other providers. “I have worked in compliance and that has helped to instil it in Aqua,” he says. “Systems and controls are what I like.”

To secure the future of their firm, Pearce and Basilea have been bringing in a lot of young talent, including former apprentice Theo Saidis, now an adviser at the firm, and Pearce’s 19-year-old son, Cameron, an administrator.

CV

2012-present: Director, Aqua Wealth Management

2009-2012: IFA, KDW Associates

2007-2009: Client relationship director, Insight Investment

2006-2007: Sales development manager, MetLife

1995-2006: From pension technician to senior pension consultant, National Mutual (now LV=)

1994-1995: Complaints and investigation officer, Liberty Life

1988-1994: Customer services, Albany Life

Phil Bray: Five business lessons to help the next generation of advisers

Pearce says his son is very like himself in not wanting to go to university straight after his A-levels, so is taking a gap year to work and see where it goes.

Pearce met Saidis, who was set on a sports career, at a golf club.

“He realised he wasn’t going to be a professional golfer so I showed him the routes he could go down,” says Pearce. “It proved to Dom and I that we could take someone on with no industry knowledge – just a passion for learning, dedication and motivation.”

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