Essential Wealth managing director on coming up through the ranks of the graduate scheme she now runs
Growing anything – whether that be a vegetable patch or a team – requires nurturing and giving it plenty of time to develop.
Those who have not got that luxury (or the patience) will tend to buy the finished article when they need it, albeit paying extra for the convenience. Unfortunately, recruiting staff is not as simple as buying pre-packed fruit and vegetables from the supermarket, particularly for smaller advice firms.
The difficulty for some is being able to find the required skills locally at the right price. For those firms, training someone up solves the problem in the longer term, but not the immediate skills shortages they face. Essential Wealth managing director Sonia Wheeler has a solution. While it involves a bit more forward planning, it delivers the skills her business needs on an ongoing basis.
Essential Wealth runs a graduate scheme that was initially set up by the firm’s previous owner, Helen Newport, who wanted to have a succession plan in place. Wheeler came through the ranks of that scheme, joining in 2006 and rising to managing director in 2012. She eventually bought the business from Newport, keeping the graduate scheme in place. “Three of us here have gone through the scheme and we are looking to take on someone else at the moment,” she says.
“We don’t have a programme where we take on graduates every year; we take them on when we need them.
“By that, I mean we recruit when we need additional administration support but about two years ahead of when we would need an additional paraplanner.
“Graduates would not be ready for that role immediately; it takes two years at least.”
Wheeler adds: “We see that need as we get more demand, more clients. We have a structure in place that leans more towards private tutoring than private study in the graduates’ own time. Although this means the graduates need to have a mentor, someone with overall responsibility for them, you would have to do that anyway if you recruited a fully qualified adviser.”
Having come through the graduate route herself, she has seen it from the other side and is now fully aware of the bigger picture. “There are simply not enough advisers coming through the ranks. We need more, as the average age of advisers is older than we would want. I’ve had many clients choose to go with me as they think I’ll outlive them. That was a real shock for me but it’s very honest,” she says.
Wheeler came into financial services in 2003 straight from university. She worked in a building society as a mortgage adviser and, after a few years, decided to spread her wings into financial planning.
She applied to become a trainee paraplanner at Newport’s firm, the Financial Advice Company, which set her on the path to her current role. “Helen was a successful adviser looking for someone to train up. She sponsored me to do my qualifications. She was very positive about qualifications, telling me to do more and get better,” she says.
Newport retired in 2013, giving Wheeler the chance to steer her own ship. So how has she found it being a woman in the financial advice business? She says: “Helen was one of few females in the industry at the time that she mentored me, but I didn’t really recognise it was a thing.
“I have always had very positive experiences of being a woman in financial services.
“I don’t look back and think of any particular challenges I faced when I first started. It was a good time to be in the industry, as people like Helen had overcome most of the issues so that women of my generation could come in, in the late 2000s.”
2006-present: From trainee paraplanner to managing director, Essential Wealth
2003-2006: Mortgage adviser, Newbury Building Society
Earlier this year, Wheeler – a member of the Openwork network – co-founded the Openwork Women in Business forum to connect female advisers around the UK.
She says: “I spend time in the South East and in London but tend to see the same people.
“This is a group for women advisers or women who run an adviser business that wouldn’t normally meet because we are dotted around the country. We talk about what works well and challenges in the business.”
Having benefited from a strong female role model, Wheeler believes the key to getting more women into the industry is for them to see that others are running successful firms in many different ways.
She adds: “It is important for women to see there are different ways they can have a successful career in financial planning.
“I came through the route of the graduate scheme, then buying the business because it was small and Helen was retiring.
“But it’s important women share all their different experiences; I wouldn’t want people to think you have to buy a business to have a successful career.”
What is the best bit of advice you’ve received in your career?
Set goals and establish the “why” around them before starting on the “how”.
What keeps you awake at night?
Thankfully, nothing. I am confident I am always doing what is right.
What has had the most significant impact on financial advice in the last year?
GDPR has had the most significant impact on our working processes.
If I was in charge of the FCA for a day I would…?
Tackle the issues of supply versus demand and how to provide advice effectively for more people.
Any advice for new advisers?
Strive for qualifications, have clear goals and review them, and join networking groups. Also, arrange one-to-one meetings with people doing what you want to do and find out how they did it.
Wheeler has joined several peer groups in order to share her experiences further.
She says: “When you run a business, you always have issues, but I always want to be better than I was last week. The best way to do that is to share ideas with people who are doing a job in a different way. In my peer groups, we all have different specialisms and different clients, so that variety brings us together. We are all trying to learn from each other.”
That being said, Wheeler has found that you can have too much of a good thing.
She concludes: “You need to find out which ideas suit you, rather than trying too many and changing everything.
“I’ve learned to validate what others are doing and take it on board. There comes a point where you can be in too many groups. I am in three or four.”