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Profile: Chris Williams on why the advice gap is really an access to services gap

WealthHorizon chief executive Chris Williams talks about the potential for a simplified advice offering to meet mass market demand.

Chris Williams believes there is no advice gap as such rather an “access to services” gap. The distinction is important to the Institute of Financial Planning board member and former chief executive of Ashcourt Rowan Financial Planning because he has just announced the launch of his new business, WealthHorizon, to service this gap.

“The advice industry has moved away from the person on the street and that is wrong, in my opinion,” says Williams.

“I understand how it has got to this point but so many consumers are looking for advice, support and guidance. 

“They [have become] alienated and disenfranchised from advice.”

Finding the middle ground

Williams says full financial planning services sit at one end of the spectrum while at the other end is “the DIY route” – but the needs of the majority of people fall somewhere in the middle.

“DIY suits some people well but it is just one service. A lot of people want guidance and advice. And that’s been the problem; there has not been enough choice. It has been either traditional advice or DIY, with nothing in between.

“We’re looking to fill that gap in the middle. We’ve got to stop thinking in terms of either/or. It’s about delivering the right service at the right time and that’s the way the industry has to move. Sometimes face-to-face advice will be the right service but at other times it will just be providing information online.”

The idea behind WealthHorizon, which is due to launch in the summer, is to deliver affordable access to advice for everyone through online and telephone services. “It came about as a result of proposition work in the run-up to the RDR. We realised we needed to approach clients and advice differently,” says Williams.

He came to the conclusion that needs-based advice, rather than
a one-size-fits-all approach, was the way forward post-RDR.

“The reality is that the majority of people have simple, straightforward needs. With traditional advice, as soon as we see a client we put them through a full fact-find and push it to them when actually that may not be what they need. They want their financial problem solved now and it may be simple and easy to solve. 

“At WealthHorizon, we are starting with the clients’ needs and servicing them as appropriate at the time, providing clients with as much or as little advice as they need.”

Williams believes it is important for advisers to engage with customers in the way that suits each client, rather than clients being forced to fit in with their adviser’s business model.

Limited market

He thinks face-to-face advice will always have a role but believes it is a limited market.

“The reality is there are only 850,000 individuals with more than £150,000 to invest. If you divide that by the number of advisers, which is around 20,000, that works out at roughly 42 clients per adviser. Although successful firms will do well with that model, the majority will struggle,” he says.

Williams believes full financial planning services and advice will continue to be required by wealthy clients with more complex needs and by less wealthy clients at life events such as divorce or retirement. “These are the areas where you need the empathy of a human being sat alongside you,” he says.

At WealthHorizon, clients who need full financial planning will be referred to other advisers who can provide that service.  “The people we will refer clients to will be vetted to make sure they will deliver a professional service. We are building that group of advisers at the moment,” says Williams.

His own journey through the financial services industry began in 1997 when he joined IFA firm Sedgwick as a graduate trainee. 

“It was brilliant; I gained a wide range of experience and enjoyed the client side of things. 

“Technical skills are more important for advisers now than they were when I started out. Advisers need a greater level of technical proficiency and qualifications,” he says.

In 2001, Williams moved to Rowan & Co – now Ashcourt Rowan – and found that climbing the career ladder meant leaving the client side of the business behind. 

“It was difficult as I had built up some great relationships. But I had a good team around me so I was comfortable and confident in passing them on. 

Williams says his work with the IFP has helped him stay in touch with the issues that advisers face on a daily basis, both in dealing with clients and in running their business. 

He was elected to the IFP board in 2012. His IFP agenda includes rebuilding trust in the advice industry, enhancing financial literacy and improving access to advice – which he is trying to address through his new business.

“Trust has to be earned and requires action, not words. We have to act in a trustworthy way, being clear, open and transparent. Over a period of time that will translate itself into people’s consciousness.
I think there needs to be less talking and more action.”

School curriculum

Williams is pleased that financial education has at last reached the secondary school curriculum but would like to see more of a focus on financial behaviour, not just the mechanics. “You have to get pupils to understand the right type of financial behaviour but I think this gets a bit lost.”

Williams says that setting up WealthHorizon has been both the biggest challenge and greatest highlight of his career. 

“It’s been terrifying but exciting,” he says. “There is huge potential for this market. A lot of client journeys are starting online and we believe a lot will also end online in the future.”

Five questions

What is the best bit of advice you’ve received in your career?
Adapt to change, learn from others, you make your own luck and surround yourself with talented people.

What is keeping you awake at night?
Currently it’s Barney, our new dog.

What is the most significant impact on financial advice in the past year?
The Budget. It was a hugely populist move and provides a great opportunity to engage people.

If I was put in charge of the FCA for a day I would…
Encourage innovation. The industry needs to feel allowed to innovate without fear of regulation.

Any advice for new advisers?
Never accept the status quo – challenge the accepted norms to bring about change.

CV

2014-present: Chief executive, Wealth Horizon

2012-present: Board director, Institute of Financial Planning

2012-2013: Chief executive, Ashcourt Rowan Financial Planning

2010-2012: National sales director/business development director, Ashcourt Rowan

2009-2010: Financial planning director, Rowan & Co

2007-2009: Branch director, Bath, Rowan & Co

2001-2007: IFA, Rowan & Co

1997-2001: IFA, Sedgwick IFC

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