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Profile: ‘The Pension Transfer Gold Standard would have helped the steelworkers’

Belmayne partner explains why his firm has signed up to the new voluntary code of good practice for DB transfers

It is a fact of life that while some people want to help the vulnerable, others will see them as easy targets to exploit for personal gain. In the financial services sector, it is the regulator that everyone ultimately looks to in protecting the vulnerable. However, everyone in the industry can contribute to best practice, ensuring the good guys outnumber the bad. As one of four partners at north-east Derbyshire IFA Belmayne Independent Chartered Financial Planners, Ben Smalley regularly comes into contact with vulnerable people.

Alongside the usual range of services for businesses and individuals, he and his colleagues provide specialist advice in areas such as personal injury, Court of Protection and divorce. They also operate in the defined benefit transfer market, an area of advice which, as Smalley says, has its fair share of vulnerable people. “As an example, the British Steel workers were arguably vulnerable as they wouldn’t have had any knowledge of pensions and the financial services sector in general,” he says.

Belmayne had been looking into the benefits of the Pension Transfer Gold Standard, the voluntary code of good practice for DB transfers launched by the Personal Finance Society’s Pensions Advice Taskforce, before signing up last month. 

Smalley concedes that it is too early to assess the impact the code will have on advice standards in the DB transfer market, but he sees it as a “step in the right direction”.

Six hundred advice firms adopt PFS DB transfer standard

The gold standard is based on a set of nine principles that advice firms must comply with. Smalley points out that these include “avoiding unregulated investments and introducers”.

“Had there been communications to the steelworkers that they should see an adviser with the pension gold standard – had it been around then – they would have got appropriate advice because they wouldn’t have been dealing with unregulated advisers,” he says.

“But, like a lot of things in financial services, it’s a case of closing the barn door after the horse has bolted.”

Smalley adds that Belmayne was ticking the same boxes as the gold standard before it came out, and feels it “sticks in the craw” that businesses who have been doing all the right things and remain in the DB transfer market have seen their professional indemnity costs increase dramatically. Drawing a parallel with chartered status, he says a high percentage of advisers have or are on their way to attaining chartered status, which he believes is raising standards in the profession.

He would love to see the gold standard do the same for the specialist area of DB transfer advice.

“I’d like to see fund managers, trustees and pension scheme providers communicate to members the benefits of using advisers with the Pension Transfer Gold Standard, not just citing Unbiased as an example of where to get advice,” he says.

Five questions 

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

My focus determines my reality. 

What keeps you awake at night? 

My workload and all the things I need to do. 

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

The fallout from the British Steel debacle, which has led to problems in the PI market, and the Financial Ombudsman Service compensation levels increasing.

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

Think of what else we could do to deal with unregulated investments and poor customer outcomes. 

Any advice for new advisers? 

Knowledge is power, so never stop learning. 

Can the Pension Transfer Gold Standard make a difference? 

Smalley joined Belmayne in 2015, having previously spent 11 years climbing the sales/business development career ladder at Aviva. After leaving high school in Venezuela, where his father’s job as an operations director in the retail sector had taken the family, Smalley initially worked in the hospitality and gaming industries.

“Then something clicked in my head and I realised I needed to improve my future prospects. I decided that I was best-suited to a sales job, so I went to a recruitment agency and Norwich Union offered me a role,” he says.

When the company restructured in 2013, Smalley – who had been thinking of becoming an IFA for some time and had already achieved the required level four qualification – decided it was now or never. He applied for voluntary redundancy and got it. After speaking to Belmayne partner David Bashforth, he was soon taken on by the firm.

With four partners at the helm, outsiders may wonder if there are “too many cooks”. However, Smalley says that could not be further from the truth. “We are stronger together than working independently. We all play to our strengths and we hold monthly partner meetings to discuss and deliberate anything that is subject to approval. Any decisions will need to be approved by at least two partners before being carried forward,” he says.

Organic growth is on the agenda for the short to medium term, and Smalley says the partners would like to find more people like Belmayne trainee adviser Chris Pond.

“As well as a background in financial services at university, Chris has a ‘can-do’ attitude and a willingness to learn,” he says.

Smalley has proved to be instrumental in establishing the Belmayne Foundation, which aims to raise money for small local charities. 

It recently held a charity ball which raised more than £8,000 to split equally between four charities, including a scout group and a riding group that works with disabled people. “We think it’s important to give back to the community – all the partners here do pro bono work – and we run pension surgeries that aim to do the same kind of thing as the Belmayne Foundation,” says Smalley.

On Wednesday evenings, Belmayne has recently started to throw open its doors for people to discuss preparing for and living through retirement on a no-obligation basis. These surgeries have only been running for a month but Smalley says they have already shown that many people do not understand what pensions they have, how they are invested, or where they are invested.

He adds that they might also be taking too much risk at the wrong stages of their retirement plans.

CV 

2013-present: Chartered financial planner/partner, Belmayne Independent Chartered Financial Planners

2002-2013: From campaign manager to business development manager, Norwich Union (Aviva)

One third access pensions cash without advice, ABI finds

“We saw in the press that a lot of people are not seeking financial advice and are doing it themselves, which is crazy because they often make poor choices through a lack of understanding of their options,” he says. “So Martin [Birch, Belmayne partner] came up with the idea of having free pension surgeries,” says Smalley.

“We say ‘please come in and speak to us; you will not incur any fees and we may be able to help you’. It’s just a chat and if it is something we can help with, it will lead to advice.”

Smalley says a local MP is also helping to spread the word about the surgeries. “We invited MP Lee Rowley to our charity ball and he donated a House of Commons bottle of wine signed by Boris Johnson,” he says. “We also told him about the pension surgeries and he is mentioning this in his constituency.”

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