Attention to detail and personal touches can make a big difference to any relationship, not just that of an adviser and client.
But according to London Wall Partners chief executive Nick Fletcher, one key ingredient determines whether a relationship is built to last: sincerity. You can roll out the red carpet for someone but, if you do it for the wrong reasons, the gesture loses its value.
For Fletcher, an adviser should do the right thing for clients because they genuinely want to – not to pay lip service or because the regulator has imposed it on them. Take the RDR. It is widely credited with bringing greater professionalism into the industry; removing potential commission bias through fees and promoting higher qualifications among advisers. But pre-RDR there was nothing to prevent advisers from exhibiting such professionalism under their own steam.
Fletcher says he was in the habit of putting clients’ interests first 20 years before the RDR. He felt the commission system led to a conflict of interest and he did not want to do business with clients from behind an “invisible glass wall”.
So he disclosed all commission to clients before working on a fee basis, like a law or accountancy firm. He also fought to get clients fairer deals from fund managers who tried to pass on their own marketing costs within high initial charges.
He says: “Anything that improves matters for clients is welcome but there is a difference between being told to do it by a regulator and doing it because it is the right thing.
“The introduction of these factors through the RDR does not necessarily mean advice is better, as that is likely to be based on training, natural gifts and experience.
“But being told to behave properly by a regulator is precisely why a regulator is required: to protect people. Too many so-called advisers were able to practise without the necessary experience, training or qualifications, which led to much of the misselling we have read about in the papers.”
Striking gold at Saunderson House
His view of a fragmented advice market with plenty of scope for improvement was one of the reasons Fletcher joined the industry in his late 20s. He had worked in marketing, then spent a year at the financial planning arm of American Express. But he wanted to provide independent advice and joined Saunderson House in 1993, seeing it as an opportunity to change the face of the industry.
“The retail financial services industry was rife with obfuscation. It lacked transparency in a major way, was characterised by the selling of products for commissions rather than the provision of advice and was highly disjointed. This presented a huge opportunity to provide honest, open, clear, high-quality advice sitting on the client’s side of the table.”
“Too many so-called advisers were able to practise without the necessary experience, training or qualifications”
Fletcher spent just under 18 years at Saunderson House, becoming chief executive in 2003 and seeing it grow from negligible to multimillion-pound profitability.
“The early days were totally pioneering and hard work, creating the offering of transparency and independence. There was no model to follow other than those of professional services such as the law or accountancy, who were acting for their clients for a fee.”
Fletcher resigned in late 2011 and established London Wall Partners in 2012 with the encouragement of his wife, who had told him: “If you don’t do it now, you’ll always wonder.”
He admits it was a wrench to leave Saunderson House. “It was probably like saying goodbye to a child one had spent time bringing up, feeding and nurturing, and whom one might not see again.”
That feeling was eventually swept aside by the excitement of establishing London Wall Partners on the principles of partnership, teamwork, ownership and culture, which he fervently believed in.
“It was pleasing that my long-time colleague, David Lovell, also joined London Wall as a partner. A good number of clients followed us in the early stages and this is continuing now that we are well established and profitable. Clients take comfort from our experience and gravitas in dealing with their family’s needs in an uncertain world. They also like the investment returns derived from more focused portfolios.”
“It was probably like saying goodbye to a child one had spent time bringing up, feeding and nurturing, and whom one might not see again.”
Growing new careers
London Wall Partners provides financial planning and investment management advice mainly to City professionals, entrepreneurs and government officials. Although the firm is profitable, it also does some pro bono work, which Fletcher deems a form of corporate social responsibility.
Drawing inspiration from City law and accountancy firms, the business was founded as a partnership structure.
Fletcher says: “Some of the most superb businesses are partnerships. These firms are more able to contain the culture, whereas those where ownership and management change frequently are much less stable in terms of maintaining their original and the right culture.”
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Fletcher saw how firms with a partnership structure attracted and retained a mix of experienced partners, up-and-coming associates and trainees. “You need that blend, with different levels of expertise. People like to grow their career and to become a part-owner of a business if they can.”
He takes pleasure from nurturing talent. “If we can do that profitably, it’s good for everyone.”
So what are his plans for the future at London Wall Partners?
“To grow profitably and develop the client base with the highest-quality staff and service possible, and outstanding investment performance.
“We would love to acquire or join forces with individual firms or teams that would like to benefit from our experience. This would have the benefit of growing the firm and achieving economies of scale.”
What’s the best bit of advice you’ve received in your career?
From Rudyard Kipling: “I had six honest serving men who taught me all I knew; their names were what and why and when and how and where and who.” People don’t generally ask anywhere near enough questions, which leads to unnecessary misunderstandings, errors and omissions.
What keeps you awake at night?
Nothing. But I do wake early in the morning and think about priorities for the day.
What has had the most significant impact on financial advice in the last year?
The changes in capital gains tax rates and pension death benefits in terms of how to draw cash for regular requirements.
If I was in charge of the FCA for a day I would…?
Request a meeting with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister and thrash out how to improve the regulatory environment, enabling people to be better educated on financial matters in schools, and simplify regulation.
Any advice for new advisers?
Transport yourself into the client’s heart and mind so you look at matters from their perspective. Provide clear absolute advice with rationale rather than woolly, ill-thought-out options. Ask questions, use common sense and don’t advise anyone to do anything you would not do for yourself, your grandma or your children.
2012-present: Founder, chairman and chief executive, London Wall Partners
1993-2011: Various roles from financial adviser to chairman and chief executive, Saunderson House
1992-1993: Tied representative, Acuma (part of American Express)