Profile: John Spiers on life after Bestinvest

Johnspiers

It is difficult to find an article about EQ Investors chief executive John Spiers that does not describe him as “Bestinvest founder”. Does he ever tire of this constant harking back to his past achievements with the firm he founded in 1986?

“I don’t mind,” he says. “I’m proud of what we achieved but life is about what’s ahead of you.”

For Spiers, that means EQ Investors, the financial planning business he bought from the Truestone Group and rebranded. Launched last October, EQ Investors provides wealth management, financial planning and employee benefits services.

Spiers’ creative streak is clearly at work in his new venture: not only in his vision for EQ Investors as a business but also in the design of its London office. The modern interior features bold geometric shapes and a beach-themed meeting area comprising rattan sofas, bright parasols and striped deckchairs. This was Spiers’ idea: “Otherwise we’d have just had rows of desks,” he explains.

Bringing something fresh to convention or tradition is how Spiers tends to do things. Perhaps it is linked to his forward-looking attitude. “I’m not one for worrying about the past,” he says. So is it fair to say EQ Investors was never going to be a carbon copy of Bestinvest?

“When you see how you design a business today, it doesn’t look like Hargreaves [Lansdown] or Bestinvest,” says Spiers. In his view these business models reflect how technology and financial services were 20 years ago. “It’s different now,” he says. “The vast majority of individual customers look for managed investment solutions with guidance on optimising the tax and financial planning angles. A few years ago you could only get a managed solution if you had a lot of money. But now model portfolios can provide managed solutions to portfolios of almost any size.”

EQ Investors offers model portfolios, bespoke solutions and a range of specialist portfolios. Spiers believes that most people want a professional to manage their portfolios rather than doing it themselves. “Some people do want to manage their own investments and that’s great but the majority don’t. They want a real professional to deliver results and keep in touch with them about what’s going on,” says Spiers.

He admits to being overly optimistic the EQ Direct discretionary service for smaller investments would be up and running by now. “But it will be ready before the end of the year,” he says.

After Bestinvest – which he sold to 3i in 2007, returned to as chief executive in 2008 and left for good last year after its sale to Permira – it was inevitable Spiers would return to financial services given his “long-standing love of the business”.

“I’ve been involved in it virtually all my adult life and it was time to rethink a little after Bestinvest finished,” he says.

Spiers says his biggest challenge at Bestinvest was losing massive amounts of business to Chelsea Financial Services and Hargreaves Lansdown in 1998. “We’d take 2 per cent initial commission plus trail but we were giving advice. People were coming to us for ideas, asking what we would do, then go to Chelsea and save the 2 per cent,” he recalls.

This led to his biggest highlight: winning that business back, times seven, by moving Bestinvest from upfront commission to trail income despite being told doing so was not viable.

Spiers credits his father with getting him interested in investment. “He used to come home with the London Evening Standard in the mid-1960s, buying and selling shares, telling me what was happening. He gave me some M&G Recovery units when they were launched and gave me some more money, so I started buying and selling shares,” he says.

At university Spiers studied engineering – a practical subject that was considered a route to a steady career. He became “bored stiff with engines” but computers and the world of technology was something that did interest him. He once designed a computer programme to work out his social calendar. Nicknamed Black Eagle, it suggested which pubs Spiers and his friends should go to, based on variables such as how cheap the beer was and how recently they had been there. It is another illustration of Spiers’ creative streak, which also explains why he became bored with his early career as an investment analyst.

It is difficult to find an article about EQ Investors’ chief executive John Spiers that does not describe him as “Bestinvest founder”. Does he ever tire of this constant harking back to his past achievements with the firm he founded in 1986?
“I don’t mind,” he says. “I’m proud of what we achieved but life is about what’s ahead of you.”
For Spiers, that means EQ Investors, the financial planning business he bought from the Truestone Group and rebranded. Launched last October, EQ Investors provides wealth management, financial planning and employee benefits services.
Spiers’ creative streak is clearly at work in his new venture: not only in his vision for EQ Investors as a business but also in the design of its London office. The modern interior features bold geometric shapes and a beach-themed meeting area comprising rattan sofas, bright parasols and striped deckchairs. This was Spiers’ idea: “Otherwise we’d have just had rows of desks,” he explains.

Bringing something fresh to convention or tradition is how Spiers tends to do things. Perhaps it is linked to his forward-looking attitude. “I’m not one for worrying about the past,” he says. So is it fair to say EQ Investors was never going to be a carbon copy of Bestinvest?

“When you see how you design a business today, it doesn’t look like Hargreaves Lansdown or Bestinvest,” says Spiers. In his view these business models reflect how technology and financial services were 20 years ago. “It’s different now. The vast majority of individual customers look for managed investment solutions with guidance on optimising the tax and financial planning angles. A few years ago you could only get a managed solution if you had a lot of money. But now model portfolios can provide managed solutions to portfolios of almost any size.”

EQ Investors offers model portfolios, bespoke solutions and a range of specialist portfolios. Spiers believes most people want a professional to manage their portfolios rather than doing it themselves. “Some people do want to manage their own investments and that’s great but the majority don’t. They want a real professional to deliver results and keep in touch with them about what’s going on,” says Spiers.

He admits to being overly optimistic the EQ Direct discretionary service for smaller investments would be up and running by now. “But it will be ready before the end of the year,” he says.
After Bestinvest – which he sold to 3i in 2007, returned to as chief executive in 2008 and left for good last year after its sale to Permira – it was inevitable Spiers would return to financial services given his “long-standing love of the business”.

“I’ve been involved in it virtually all my adult life and it was time to rethink a little after Bestinvest finished,” he says.

Challenges and highlights
Spiers’ biggest challenge at Bestinvest was losing massive amounts of business to Chelsea Financial Services and Hargreaves Lansdown in 1998. “We’d take 2 per cent initial commission plus trail but we were giving advice. People were coming to us for ideas, asking what we would do, then go to Chelsea and save the 2 per cent,” he recalls.

This led to his biggest highlight: winning that business back, times seven, by moving Bestinvest from upfront commission to trail income despite being told that doing so was not viable.

Spiers credits his father with getting him interested in investment. “He used to come home with the London Evening Standard in the mid-1960s, buying and selling shares, telling me what was happening. He gave me some M&G Recovery units when they were launched and gave me some more money, so I started buying and selling shares,” he says.

At university Spiers studied engineering – a practical subject that was considered a route to a steady career. He became “bored stiff with engines” but computers and the world of technology was something that did interest him. He once designed a computer programme to work out his social calendar. Nicknamed Black Eagle, it suggested which pubs Spiers and his friends should go to, based on variables such as how cheap the beer was and how recently they had been there. It is another illustration of Spiers’ creative streak, which also explains why he became bored with his early career as an investment analyst.

“I got to do work on stocks. I’d come and persuade big institutions to buy and sell stocks, making money on the commission. It was well paid but after eight or nine years I got bored – you are not creating anything,” he says.

Spiers then moved into the more exciting world of corporate finance, where he was involved in raising money for small quoted and unquoted businesses, but eventually decided to start his
own business. “It came out of an idea by Roger Carroll, who was the personal finance editor
of the Sunday Telegraph,” says Spiers. Characteristically, he never looked back.

“I’d been the classic ‘bad employee’, moaning about management but when you run your own business you have to fix things. I found it stimulating – everything is in your own grasp and you could do anything you wanted to.”

Having the ability to do what you want with pension savings now as a result of the recent freedoms is viewed by Spiers as both an opportunity and a challenge.

“It’s great that people have more flexibility and it’s good in principle for advisers as people need help in deciding what to do. But there are dangers.” Spiers points out PI insurers are not happy about clients taking pension withdrawals. He is also concerned advisers could face compensation claims from clients who want to take money out despite being advised not to do so, and about availability of advice.

“The high level of professional qualification means the quality of advice that is available is good – but unfortunately that advice is not available to 90 per cent of the population and that feels wrong,” he says.

For Spiers, regulation is a problem, particularly for small to medium advice firms. “Smaller advice firms find it difficult to interpret the rules,” he says. “When it [regulation] was principles-based, the regulator didn’t notice if all the box ticking wasn’t done as it wasn’t causing too much trouble. Now you have got to get the letter of the law right – but language is never powerful enough to encapsulate every action.”

Five questions

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

We were publishing newsletters and Roger Carroll said: “We need to use those new Apple computers.” That opened my eyes to how desktop publishing could be faster and cheaper.

What keeps you awake at night?

Nothing; I sleep like a log.

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

The changes to pension regulation.

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

Not have enough time!

Any advice for new advisers?

Put the interests of the client at the forefront of everything and don’t be swayed by short-term commercial considerations.

CV

2014-present: Chief executive, EQ Investors
2010-2014: Non-executive director, Bestinvest Group
2008-2010: Chief executive, Bestinvest Group (second spell)
1986-2007: Founder and chief executive, Bestinvest Group
1984-1986: Corporate finance, head of venture funding, Greenwell Montagu
1983-1984: Investment analyst, Granville & Co,
1981-1983: Investment analyst, W. Greenwell & Co
1979-1981: Investment analyst, WI Carr
1975-1979: Investment analyst, Galloway Pearson