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Simon Chamberlain

A spell of gardening leave gave this founding partner of J Rothschild Assurance time to reflect on life. So, as he sets out on the acquisition trail as chief executive of Thinc Group – now part of the Axa stable – he stresses that it is what you are, not who you are, that is important. Interview by Sam Shaw

Thinc Group has been reborn, with a new adoptive parent, Axa, and a new identity. Chief executive Simon Chamberlain is now firmly on the acquisition trail.

Thinc intends to buy five firms in the IFA and wealth management arenas in the immediate future. The business, which recently exceeded 1,000 advisers and £75m turnover, seems to be realising its ambitious growth plans.

With the acquisition by Axa complete, Chamberlain’s job is to ensure integration takes place effectively. “My responsibility for this company, now the sale has happened, is to make sure integration takes place. I am committed to protecting the integrity of it as an independent business and it is my privilege to work with these people.”

But the path of its leader could have taken a very different turn. Chamberlain considered going into politics and only entered financial services by accident. “Straight out of college, I went for a job as a consultant at a bank, thinking it was a management consultant rather than a financial one.”

He cites Ian Shipway, his manager at Merchant Investors and now Thinc’s investment director, at the most important influence on his career so far. “He taught me to strive for a level of honesty with clients and colleagues that will grow the success of the business.”

Following his year at MI, Chamberlain moved to Royal Life as sales manager before helping to set up J Rothschild Assurance – later to become St James’s Place Capital. He was the top partner in 1993 and 1995, ahead of the company’s flotation in 1997.

He accepts that a lot has changed since then, saying he expects a typical adviser firm today to be a hybrid of a handful of registered individuals, in which three might be tied agents, one a multi-tie and one an IFA.

Chamberlain says Thinc will launch its wrap proposition – an extension of the technology platform it has had in place for three years – to the whole market, which will make it the first wrap run by an adviser group to be made available to the competition.

He says many providers have entered the platform space to protect their assets, afraid of re-registration depleting their funds under advice. “It is the platform providers that will become the managers of money, certainly. Thinc’s platform will launch with the backing of Axa, eventually. It might even be the next generation of advisers that fully take up the proposition but, at the end of the day, it is not the platform but how the advisers use it that counts.”

He is keen to promote factory gate pricing, with all costs fully disclosed to the client. “The menu prices will not hold up on a quality test. Pricing for delivering service has to be decided by the advisers.”

Chamberlain believes the industry has a duty of care to help people who are willing to save but says its powers are limited. He says treating customers fairly is about providing all suitable options, whether for people managing their debts or orchestrating savings and investment through intelligent tax planning.

He also believes that the UK could learn from the US and Australia when it comes to solving its pension crisis. But he points out that research on compulsion carried out recently in the US, where an “opt out” or an “opt in” are offered, indicates that apathy will dictate in such a system, with 20 per cent of people acting in either direction.

However, Chamberlain believes that such an approach will work in the UK, saying: “I think an automatic superannuation scheme would serve to guarantee people save for retirement.”

A staunch Tory, the current state of British politics has left him somewhat disillusioned. “I think the political system in this country has become too Americanised. The political parties do not present a big difference any more. With David Cameron, we are seeing a celebritisation of him and politicians generally. There is a real Hello magazine feel about it all.”

Although from Sussex and a loyal supporter of Brighton FC, Chamberlain lives in Crackington Haven, North Cornwall, which he claims is his sanctuary.

“Cornwall taught me it is very much about what you are, not who you are. In this industry, I am Simon Chamberlain, chief executive of the Thinc Group. That is who I am to people but that tells people nothing of what I am.”

Following the flotation of St James’s Place, Chamberlain went on gardening leave for about 18 months. It was then that he “rediscovered that he had a family”, having focused his efforts on work for the previous 10 years. “Without meaning to sound cheesy, I realised that there is a huge difference between being a parent and being a father.”

During his year of reflection and having redressed his work/life balance, Chamberlain wrote a book called Why, Not What, which has yet to be published.

“It will be my legacy. If we stopped to ask the question ‘why?’ more often, rather than focusing on ‘what’ people are doing, they could go a lot further and achieve a lot more.”

Born: London 1965

Lives: North Cornwall, with wife and three children aged 13, 11 and seven

Education: Warden Park Comprehensive; BA (Hons) in politics and economics at the University of Central England

Career: 2005 to date, chief executive officer, Thinc Destini, rebranded Thinc Group in late 2006. Also, chief operating officer from 2003 to date; 2001-03, national recruitment director, Zurich Advice Network; 1999-2001, national development director, Zurich Advice Network; 1998-99, gardening leave; 1992-97: founding partner, J Rothschild Assurance; 1991-92, sales manager, Royal Life; 1989-90, financial adviser, Merchant Investors

Likes: Golf (“but play badly”), opera, football, Brighton FC

Dislikes: Lack of confidence to tell the truthDrives: Mercedes SLFavourite book: Biography of John F KennedyFavourite film: Kenneth Branagh version of Henry V

Favourite music: La Boheme, anything by Puccini, film scoresHeroes: Gordon Ramsay (“People say we look alike and have the same management style”), JFKCareer ambition: “To lead the industry with a sense of accountability, showing that we could make a difference to society”

Life ambition: “Would like to leave my family secure and happy”

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