Tony Boorman says he has never had a career plan, quipping that “nobody goes to university wanting to be an ombudsman”.
But the Financial Ombudsman Service interim chief executive believes his Oxford University degree in PPE has nonetheless held him in good stead for his current role.
“The combination of politics and philosophy against an economic background is appropriate for this job,” he says. “They are all disciplines of analytical thought and careful analysis of the facts.”
Boorman started his career in the energy sector, with several years at providers before joining the electricity and gas market regulator Ofgem.
He says he fell into the sector but enjoyed its variety. “It covers everything from the safety of kettles to deciding where to build nuclear power stations,” he says.
At Ofgem, Boorman focused on the regulator’s competition agenda, overseeing a project to liberalise the retail electricity market and end the monopoly of regional providers.
He says: “Ofgem is an economic regulator, primarily concerned with competition and pricing issues rather than conduct, so it is as different from the FCA as a regulator could be. A lot of the work I did was about deregulation. I have always believed that light-touch regulation is the best approach.”
After 10 years at the regulator and looking for a change, he joined what was then the Insurance Ombudsman Bureau in 2000. It was the first voluntary ombudsman scheme in the UK, set up in 1981.
In 2001 the bureau joined with seven other schemes to form the FOS as a result of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000, to settle disputes between consumers and businesses providing financial services. Joining the FOS as one of three principal ombudsmen, Boorman initially focused on health and insurance complaints, which he says is the area of complaints he finds most interesting.
“Health insurance complaints are accessible as human stories,” he says. “To do this job you have to be interested in the human condition and what motivates people.
“Our case handling is always at its best when it is firmly set in that context, but that sometimes gets forgotten about the ombudsman, particularly because of its connection with regulation.”
Boorman concedes it can be difficult to determine the exact circumstances of a complaint, particularly when faced with two contradictory testimonies.
“That is part of the judgment call and sometimes you really cannot be confident about what happened,” he says. “But what you can do is understand the circumstances
of the parties at the time.”
He says it is pointless for the FOS to ask consumers about their attitude to risk.
“Most consumers do not understand that question,” he explains. “Our approach is a simple one: to consider the circumstances of the time, and whether the advice was appropriate for those circumstances.”
Boorman says in the past, however, the FOS did ask consumers that question.
He says: “My favourite ever answer to that was: ‘I liked an occasional flutter on the horses’.
“That is a great bit of testimony and it tells me far more than a series of tick boxes ever could. It creates a picture of this man and his circumstances, which can give
a sense of how well he would understand the terms and conditions of a financial product.”
Boorman argues that claims management firms can interfere with getting to the heart of complaints, saying: “They take the voice of the customer out of the process.”
He says he was pleased to see the Ministry of Justice warning claims firms last month that they are causing delays by unnecessarily chasing the FOS for updates on payment protection insurance complaints.
He says: “Everyone, including claims firms, knows we have had a torrent of PPI cases. Claims managers hold themselves out to be professional claims handlers and that should include understanding how the ombudsman works.”
Advisers are likely to share Boorman’s misgivings about claims firms but many also hold concerns about the FOS itself. A recent Apfa survey found a third of advisers who have had a complaint referred to the ombudsman said it did not take their evidence into account. But Boorman says the ombudsman’s statistics tell a different story.
He says: “The reality is that we uphold about 50 per cent of complaints in favour of the consumer and about 50 per cent in favour of firms. The number of complaints we receive about advisers is also very small.”
Of the 512,167 complaints the FOS received in 2013/14, just 0.5 per cent of complaints were about advisers.
Boorman says: “Advisers are small businesses and are passionately committed to what they do.
“I was brought up in a small business – my parents were pharmacists – so I understand that they take these things very personally. It is their business, their advice, and here we are receiving a complaint years later and saying it was not up to standards of the time.”
He adds: “Will people feel we haven’t taken account of everything they have to say? Inevitably, in those circumstances, quite often.”
Boorman took the helm at the ombudsman when chief executive Natalie Ceeney stepped down in November. The organisation is still recruiting for a permanent replacement. Looking ahead, he says the biggest challenge for the FOS is the need to modernise.
“We have been diverted by mortgage endowments and PPI into a series of firefighting exercises,” he explains. We still rely a lot on paper communications and we need to respond to technological changes or risk becoming a service which is no longer relevant for customers.”
What is the best bit of advice you’ve received in your career?
Think deeply. Explain simply.
What’s keeping you awake at night?
My wife, my kids, but more recently my bladder.
What has been the most significant impact on financial advice in the past year?
It’s tempting to say pension liberalisation. But I think in the real world it has and will continue to be our ever-growing reliance on the online world.
If I was put in charge of the FCA for a day I would…
Hand the job back straightaway to Martin and John. What the sector and its customers need is calm, consistent and effective regulation, not day-to-day changes.
Any advice for new advisers?
Keep the needs of your clients to the fore. You can’t build a successful business without clients that respect you for consistently professional advice.
2000-present: Principal ombudsman, then deputy chief executive, then interim chief executive, Financial Ombudsman Service
1990-2000: Director, then deputy director general, Ofgem (formerly the Office of Electricity Regulation)
1985-1989: Director, Electricity Consumers Council
1983-1985: Policy manager, Central Electricity Generating Board
1981-1983: Team manager, Southern Electricity