If it had not been for Sean Ewing's standing as a local golf hero in Londonderry in the mid-1980s he may never have secured the bank loan necessary to buy his first financial services business and launch his career.
Having played senior amateur level golf for a decade up to 1986, Ewing found the local bank manager, who was also a member of the golf club receptive to his request for a loan.
He bought half of the financial services arm of a local accountancy he had recently started working with and has never looked back.
Last week, with the help of financing company Asset Strategies that he heads, Ewing bought a 33 per cent stake in leading IFA Bates Investment Services.
It is the first of several investments and acquisitions that Ewing hopes to make as he works to build Asset Strategies into a company worth £50m to £100m. The shell has the support of several institutional backers such as Friends Ivory & Sime.
He says he will be selective about who he considers working with, pointing to the fact it took more than two years of discussions with Bates Investment co-founder and now chief executive Graham Bates before the deal was signed.
They are not looking to snap up control of distribution, as he describes the actions of many of the life and pension providers active in the acquisition market, but rather to make investments in companies which are well placed to grow and make money.
Ewing says he does not understand many of the smaller investments made by providers as there does not appear to be any clear strategy. “I do not think it is a hugely sensible thing what a lot of the larger companies are doing in terms of buying these IFA groups. I don't know how well thought out their long-term strategies are.
“A lot of providers are taking 3 and 5 per cent stakes in a number of different companies. It looks to me like they are betting on a number of different horses and not sure which horse is going to win the race. I do not see a consolidated focused development. You wonder within the Assureweb situation the motives of the providers getting involved. Is it to be part of Assureweb or is it to secure Misys distribution?”
One might ask the same question of Ewing, given that his other major pursuit is as chief executive of FundsDirect, the fund supermarket he launched in 1999. Now owned by online financial services provider Egg, which bought it earlier this year, Ewing has ambitious plans for FundsDirect but says acquisitions of IFAs have nothing to do with it.
He concedes that Bates has agreed to use the platform but says it is not an exclusive agreement and really has little to do with the investment. “Bates has agreed it will use the FundsDirect platform but there is no other alignment between the two companies. Funds Direct is not and will not be buying IFAs and Egg, as far as my understanding goes, is not interested in buying IFA businesses.”
On one hand, Ewing says he is not in a rush to make any more deals but on the other he predicts that, with the present state of consolidation, there will not be many more IFAs of any size or quality to buy in a year's time.
He hopes to expand the platform not as a consumer proposition as much as one that key investment intermediaries will use. Ewing says he sees the future growth in the investment world coming from providers which offer wrapped products or funds of fund managers rather than individual fund managers.
“We are not giving out the platform to everybody, we will require certain levels of business from IFA firms. We are in discussions with a number of the key players in the marketplace. I think it will be a softly, softly approach we take rather than a big splash.”
Ewing comes from modest beginnings which saw him working for his uncle's engineering company so he could afford to go to university part-time. He now lives in a 14th Century manor house that he and his wife Terry bought three years ago. He practically glows as he mentions their first child, Susie, who was only born last week.
He is clearly content with life as he describes his home, which lies south of Bath in Upton Scudamore. He says it is not haunted, but “what a story it could tell if it could speak”.
Ewing is a member of the local golf club and his youthful prowess has obviously not abandoned him as he won the club's championship last year. He maintains a handicap of two and admits that he only gets to play twice every three weeks these days. Ewing's other sporting passion is being a keen supporter of Bath rugby club.
Originally from County Derry in Northern Ireland, Ewing settled permanently in England in 1996 after selling Life Securities. By that point, he had grown it into an asset management, trust planning and financial advising business, which he owned outright. During this period, he completed a degree, a post-graduate diploma and an MBA from the University of Ulster, the latter completed while he was laid up for six months following a serious car crash.
Moving to London he founded a holding company called Farlake Group which at the time consisted of a Bristol-based IFA and 12 employees. Between 1996 and 1999, the group bought three companies and the businesses of two others, growing the operation into one having more than 100 employees.
Farlake launched Funds Direct as what Ewing calls the UK's first fund supermarket at the tail end of 1999 and when he sold the group to Seymour Pearce the next year the only bit of it he took with him was the platform.
Ewing calls himself an entrepreneur and certainly his track record of founding or buying small operations growing them and then selling them on for tidy sums seems to back this up.
One day he hopes to spend more time playing golf but one gets the impression it will not be for some time yet.
Born: March, 1965.
Lives: Upton Scudamore, south of Bath with wife Terry and infant daughter.
Education: BA in business studies, Diploma in Management Studies, MBA all from University of Ulster in Derry.
Career: 1985 started working for financial services company Life Securities, 1986 bought 50 per cent of company, 1988 bought rest of company, 1995 sold Life Securities, arrived in London founded Farlake Group, 1999 founded Funds Direct, 2000 sold Farlake Group, 2002 sold Funds Direct, 2002 founded Asset Strategies, September 2002 signed deal with Bates Investment Services.
Career ambition:To make FundsDirect part of an infrastructure change in the processing of intermediary business in the UK.
Life ambition: “In due course, to focus on my golf.”
Likes: Good wine, energetic and pleasant people.
Dislikes: Preambling, non-productive discussion.
Car: Mercedes 320CLK.