The most chilling thing Future Life Wealth Management founder Jillian Thomas has ever had to do is take her passport to a police station to prove she was alive. Thomas was among those missing, presumed dead, following the 2004 tsunami in Thailand which killed 226,000 people.
She had been on a Christmas break with her mother and the experience prompted Thomas to reassess her life and launch her business.
Having spent almost nine years building up her financial planning brand through media exposure and getting involved in local business through the Sheffield Chamber of Commerce – where she was only the second female president in over 150 years – it is interesting to learn that being in the spotlight does not come naturally to her.
She says: “I am an incredibly insular person. I don’t like the limelight but I realise I have to go on stage and perform.”
Thomas, who is BBC Radio Sheffield’s personal finance expert (and even has her own jingle), is now gearing up to host Future Life’s Is This The Future? conference at Westfield Health in Sheffield on 19 September. She will speak about financial planning issues, including tax and the state pension increase. Past speakers at this annual conference include Nigel Farage and the current line-up hosts 7IM’s Justin Urquhart-Stewart, who will discuss life after Brexit.
The original purpose of the conference was to build the Future Life brand. Thomas was keen to do this quickly and hired a PR specialist from day one – a decision which, she says, raised a few eyebrows. However, she feels it has paid off.
“You don’t have to be a big multi-national to get the exposure. Ever-yone thinks we’ve been around for a very long time, so we were punching above our weight. We had to get a new company out there in a city with a lot of established players. We had to break down relationships and put ourselves in that environment with a marketing campaign to establish our own brand.”
Part of that campaign was to get involved in the local community through the Sheffield Chamber of Commerce and local business events like Is This The Future?
“We brought people together where we could demonstrate how professional we were and put concepts and ideas across. You’ve got to create trust, like and respect. Slowly but surely, by networking, you create these.”
Describing her rise through the Sheffield Chamber of Commerce ranks as “meteoric”, Thomas was effectively promoted year on year, which helped raise her profile among potential clients and professional connections.
“At the Chamber I was given a platform to speak to people on a regular basis. I still network. Networking is about finding the right people. I am constantly looking for people who can assist me and my business.”
A renewed sense of purpose following her tsunami experience is the driver behind much of her career and her personal life. “What happened to me in Thailand was pivotal. It was like a cleansing of my life. Things that weren’t benefiting me, I was getting rid of, but at the time I had no idea I was doing it.”
Thomas recalls how this subconscious spring clean and not wanting to waste precious time impacted every aspect of her life. Asking herself the big life questions like “Why did I survive?”, “how good am I?” and “if you really stretch yourself what are the benefits?” led to a series of life changes.
She made sure her mortgage was on the best possible rate, she ended a relationship and she left the advice firm where she had learned her craft to go it alone.
“I am a lot of what I learned there.But I thought ‘if I don’t do it now I’m never going to do it’.”
Thomas had no clear vision for Future Life at the outset. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted but what I found was the requirement for a bespoke style of investment planning for those people who are very busy and want to subcontract their financial life to someone they can trust; put themselves in the middle and build a framework around that of accountants, solicitors and people who can touch them if their financial plan needs to change.”
A lot of Thomas’s clients are high- profile men who specifically chose a female adviser. “That was quite revealing. Women, in their perception, take less risk, listen and are more attentive to their financial needs. But I don’t treat myself as a female financial adviser; I’m just a professional.”
Indeed, marketing Future Life as a female advice business has never been tempting to Thomas. She employs two men and seven women – all appointed on merit.
“I don’t want to restrict myself to 50 per cent of potential clients. But – and I’m contradicting myself here – I have won quite a few ‘women in business’ awards. I can help encourage other women in business and I’m happy to support that.”
Businesses in the Sheffield area have their challenges and Thomas has her work cut out at times trying to convince owner/manager clients to confront their problems before she can start work on their financial planning.
“A lot of companies in the region established final salary schemes and have got liabilities they have to meet before they can introduce new lines and create jobs. The liabilities are potentially open-ended and can’t be sold because of that.
“But some have their heads in the sand, so you have to get them to own the problem before trying to find a solution. Sometimes you have to be quite brutal, so you need to know them well. It goes back to building trust, like and respect.”
Thomas wants to grow her business from the current £167m of client money to around £200m by the end of the 2018.
She admits to being worried about the demographics of the advice industry. Her response to advisers who say they do not have the time or resources to train younger people? Neither does she, yet she has an apprentice who is studying for exams and is taking on another who will be leaving school shortly.
“You have to make the time and find the resources because the reality is we’re not going to have an industry unless we start to think about this.
“Future planning is not only for our clients, it’s also important for our businesses.”
What is the best bit of advice you’ve received in your career?
Listen – but also listen to what is not being said as that can be more important.
What keeps you awake at night?
What has had the most significant impact on advice in the last year?
The enhanced values on transfers out of defined benefit schemes.
If I was in charge of the FCA for a day I would…
Introduce a red, amber and green traffic light system on products so that the risk warnings on different products were clear.
Any advice for new advisers?
I would say find a mentor – someone you respect or who is respected – that you can learn from and who allows you to absorb their knowledge.
2009-present: Managing director, Future Life Wealth Management
1997-2009: Director/financial adviser, R A Cowan & Partners
1996-1997: Account executive, Allied Dunbar broker division
1990-1996: Pensions account manager, Scottish Widows
1978-1990: Various roles at Guardian Royal Exchange and General Accident