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Special treatment

“A specialist is someone who does everything else worse,” acc-ording to American violinist Ruggiero Ricci. However, many IFAs are questioning the idea of a generalist practice and an increasing amount are occupying niches.

Niche can be construed in two ways. There are IFAs who specialise by serving a particular sector of the population. Then there are those whose specialism relates to the particular kind of products that they advise on. Sometimes, of course, these arbitrary distinctions dissolve, as in the case of the Nursing Home Fees Agency, where the particular nature of the clientele – the elderly or those acting on behalf of the elderly – and the product – long-term care insurance – obviously coincide.

The nature of specialisation means, perhaps, that there are few generally applicable rules. Media coverage is, however, something mentioned by many niche practitioners as important to their businesses, perhaps as traditional methods of promoting business such as advertising or mailshots are not appropriate.

While some have fallen into a specialism almost by accident, many IFAs have personal reasons for choosing a niche. But this does not mean that commercial considerations are subservient – most say they do not believe an IFA can continue to have detailed knowledge across the board. Certainly, the trend would seem to be one way, with the stories tending to be about people specialising and not the other way around.

Ruth Whitehead Associates principal Ruth Whitehead, whose practice specialises mainly in providing advice to women and gay men, laughs at the idea of her business coming about as a result of

a business plan. Like many niche practices, it evolved out of personal conviction. In this instance, Whitehead is herself a gay woman.

Eleven years ago, and while still a music teacher, Whitehead was sold what she des-cribes as “a mortgage from hell from a man in a suit”.

She says: “I cursed myself for being so stupid, decided to learn what I should have done and put into effect a chain of events which led to me becoming an IFA.”

What she feels she can offer to clients is an environment where people feel comfortable and a detailed knowledge

of the underwriting criteria of the various providers, essential for gay men who she des-cribes as suffering “blatant discrimination” from the insur- ance companies.

Whitehead says she cannot think of anyone who needs the services of an IFA more than a gay man, not just any IFA but one who has a sympathetic grasp on the issues involved.

She says the need for her specialisation is also borne out by the examples she encounters when she goes on training sessions, which are all based on married couples with 2.4 children. People who do not fit this mould can feel that financial service providers are not interested in them, she says.

But Whitehead has advice for any IFA thinking of specialising. She says: “Rule one of investing is not to have all your eggs in one basket and this applies to your business, too. We have two client banks and a further specialism in non-standard mortgages.”

On the other hand, she believes that a degree of specialism is necessary given the scope of financial services, “otherwise you go mad”.

She makes the comparison with solicitors, who will always specialise.

However, Whitehead is keen to say that all her practice does is reflect the diversity of the area in which she works and she would not want specialisation to be the same as typecasting.

Simmonds Ford managing director Keith Simmonds has developed a specialisation advising religious communities. He says monasteries,

bigger dioceses, some public schools and care homes

need advice just as other employers do.

Simmonds is not a Catholic but has developed close links with the Catholic community and is a trustee on various staff pension schemes.

He says this specialisation grew out of an association with a public school.

Simmonds says: “What the clients are looking for above all is a good professional job rather than a personal connection. Religious communities are not receptive to a straight sales pitch. You need to understand their requirements and how they conduct their life to make them feel comfortable and obtain their trust. They are not an easy touch but are quite astute

and professional.”

Referrals come by word of mouth recommendation from satisfied clients but also from other advisers such as accountants and lawyers retained

by the various different religious communities. Just under a third of Simmonds&#39 business comes from the religious communities.

Simmonds says: “My advice to any IFA seeking to specialise is do your research. It is important to understand the kind of person or organisation you want to advise before you get involved. The same hierarchies and needs will be there but they come in different forms.”


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