First Wealth on the road to becoming MM’s Small Adviser of the Year

Villis

The managing partner of Money Marketing’s Small Adviser of the Year Award very nearly didn’t become an adviser at all. In fact, First Wealth’s Anthony Villis says he only applied for a job at Chase de Vere, among roughly 20 other local firms, to stay close to his then girlfriend, who was studying at Bath University.

Of all the firms approached by Villis, only one accountancy and Chase de Vere replied, with the latter telling him it would take him on if he could pass the relevant qualifications.

Villis and his sweetheart separated just two months later – before he had even started his new job – but now, six months shy of 20 years in the industry, he still thanks his lucky stars at the outcome.

And when Villis describes the Chase de Vere of the mid-1990s, it is perhaps not surprising: the business built networks that have lasted him a career.

“As a youngster going in there, it was a really exciting way to get your career going. The first seven or eight years were so exciting that it was difficult to see myself doing anything else,” he says.

Villis’ time at the company saw him climb to become a senior account manager, meaning that when Bank of Ireland came calling to buy the firm, he was able to take enough cash to spend two years travelling the world.

“If I’m honest, I think I probably said at that time I wouldn’t go back into financial services because I just fancied a change,” he says.

Still, when the phone rang and a former Chase de Vere contact asked whether he would help Target Chartered Accountants set up a London office for financial planning, Villis agreed.

The process gave him an appetite for launching a new business and an opportunity to spend time rebuilding a network of clients after so long away.

“Working on the close interplay between tax planning and financial advice, started my brain thinking that this could be is a great business model.

“But it didn’t work out. It was a mix of coming back from travelling and having all that freedom, to going into a business and feeling restricted. It just all added up to thinking, I’ve got to change this.”

And so he partnered with another former Chase de Vere planner, Robert Caplan, and the pair spent 12 months working on the launch of First Wealth.

It was 2008 and Villis says that, although the broader financial world was in crisis, it was nonetheless good timing to launch a financial planning firm.

“Although the world had fallen apart, in many ways it was a good time as it really couldn’t get any worse. Exciting is a good phrase to use,” he says.

“When you start you don’t know where it’s going to go. You just hope it’s going to stick and you’ll be around for three years. After six years of relative success, however, we’re really thinking we can take this business to the next level and that’s pretty encouraging.”

The next level, Villis says, will see it try to set itself further apart from other planners and centre itself on lifestyle financial planning.

“We’re trying to get to grips with what a client wants,” he says. “Not capital growth, but finishing work to move down to Cornwall to spend more time with their grandchildren. Or going on that round the world trip themselves or setting up their own business.

“If we can get to that, we can set all the financial planning stuff around it to give us a clear sense of purpose.”

The hard bit, Villis admits, is articulating that message to future clients, and will see the firm redesign all of its marketing materials and website so that First Wealth can better stand out.

“The problem with our website at the moment is that it looks like a financial planning site. We’ve fallen into the same traps as everyone else.

“The new branding will help us and then we need to reinforce that when we meet clients with things like the way our offices are and the marketing and PR that we’re putting out there as well.”

At the same time, Villis is conscious of his own entrance to the world of financial planning and is trying to make sure his business does not miss out on similar recruits with a new graduate scheme, currently being drafted with the assistance of First Wealth’s own trainees.

“One of the big problems our industry faces is that it’s hard to get into financial planning now,” he says.

“We have taken four or five graduates into the business over the last three or four years. But we want to formalise that a bit more and say ‘this is what we’re doing, this is the process, this is the time scale and the exams, and this is how you’re going to experience financial planning’.

“We’ve asked two of the graduates to write it for us and we’ve asked them, in an ideal world, what it would look like. We kind of know what we want to do, and we have some strong ideas, but they’re bright people, so they probably can do that as well as me, if not better. So why not let them have a go at it?”

Villis adds that, as the business grows, it will seek a new structure to move away from simply increasing numbers of advisers under a flat management model.

“There are some problems with that and one is the risk to the business if you have 20 advisers and something goes wrong at some point. It doesn’t matter how good they are; those risks are quite high.

“We want to build the business so it looks more like a legal company or an accountancy practice. You will have a client partner and underneath that a financial planner, a paraplanner and an assistant.

“Then every piece of advice that goes out is looked at by at least two pairs of eyes, maybe three. Mistakes will still happen but the chances of that will be reduced.”

It is a transition in process, he says. The firm is aware it currently lacks the numbers of staff to sit between its chartered advisers and its graduates.

“We have a bit of a skills gap in the middle, so we’ll bring in one or two paraplanners or technical analysts to help us to deliver the advice but also to help train up those other guys as well.

“Rather than going down the route of just hiring more and more advisers, the plan is less advisers but with better quality administration. That is a better way for us to grow.”

Five questions 

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

Don’t be the guy that tells you in the pub: ‘I could have been a professional footballer’. Fulfil your potential.

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

Pension freedoms.

What keeps you awake at night?

My seven-month-old daughter.

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

Strike a few repeat bad advice offenders off the FCA register. You know who you are, guys.

Any advice for new advisers?

Believe in the power of lifestyle financial planning to change peoples lives.

CV

June 2009–present: Partner, First Wealth

2007–2010: Adviser, Target Chartered Accountants 

1996–2004: Senior account manager, Chase de Vere