Stepping into the prestigious Naval and Military In & Out Club in St James's Place, London SW1, it is difficult to believe I will be meeting a South African who arrived off the boat with £150 and a backpack barely 15 years ago.
But Alpha to Omega director Terence Rowe has not wasted the past 15 years at the Springbok Bar in Shepherds Bush. He has been busy building a strong IFA practice in Cameron Rowe and, for the past few years, a unique network offering in Alpha to Omega. The In & Out Club seems to fit him like a glove.
The Wildebeest, as he is known by his friends because of his imposing stature and “Saffa” roots, has established himself well in British society. In fact, his father was raised in Portsmouth and emigrated to South Africa, so he has always seen his arrival in the UK in 1989 as something of a homecoming.
Rowe had flown to Belgium and crossed the Channel to Dover, initially wanting to stay for one year. He caught the train to London and emerged from Victoria Station to see the equivalent of the entire population of Cape Town pass by in a single rush hour. “At that stage, it was the most impressive sight I had ever seen. I was a real greenhorn, never having left South Africa until I came here.”
He took the first job he could find, selling air-conditioning units. But when he called on a small IFA firm, Nicholas Phillips & Co, the managing director was so impressed with the young South African that he offered him a job.
Rowe left South Africa during the apartheid years and found London awe-inspiring. It seemed like a place where people were not restricted by unfair limitations. “You could make something for yourself. In South Africa, being deeply entrenched in apartheid, I could not see myself wanting to make a long-term future there.”
He considers his move to the UK as the beginning of a new start which gave him the ability to reinvent himself. As a dyslexic, Rowe had struggled through school, only able to make it because of his rugby skills, a heavy influence in the South African school system.
He set up his own IFA firm after only a few years in the business and quickly built it up within the Interdependence network. “Initially, this network was quite bespoke, with good service offerings, but after becoming part of Tenet things became more one-size-fits-all.”
In 2003, after a few years of thought and negotiation, Rowe and some partners launched Alpha to Omega as a bespoke network, convinced there was still a marketplace for a smaller, service-focused adviser network. “The suit needs to be made to fit the client, not the other way round. Advisers do not want to mould their businesses to the network's requirements.”
Alpha to Omega has positioned itself as a business facilitator or co-operative for what it sees as the best small high-net-worth firms in the business. Although Rowe is ambitious about growth for the network, he is keenly cautious not to grow the network in the wrong way. “We are not looking to grow by sheer numbers of RIs, our growth is about turnover per head.”
Alpha to Omega is recruiting firms with a minimum of £250,000 turnover a year with a maximum of around five RIs. Ideally, Rowe says a firm will be making this level of turnover with just two RIs.
“We are looking to help these businesses grow by providing them with whatever bespoke network service they need behind them, rather than limit our offerings to training and competence and commission collection.”
The network offering includes targeted business development assistance, Swat analysis, recruitment and help creating profit within the business. The three-year target is total turnover of £25m within the group with the lowest possible number of RIs. Once this has been achieved, Rowe says Alpha to Omega will close its doors to new members and concentrate on raising the network's productivity to £40m within a further two years. Since opening last year, he says Alpha to Omega is well ahead of target, already reaching between £10m to £11m turnover with 21 firms and 62 RIs.
But he says it has identified groups of companies that can add value to the network but which may not quite match the criteria so it is now offering a system of membership known as “chambers”. Chambers will be able to group together and share the membership load as well as the benefits of membership from a centralised hub.
“The idea of joining co-operatives as a chamber has been around a while but no one has really utilised it to it greatest advantage for a HNW network. Small groups of IFAs with a common bond, whether it be geographic, specialism or simply common work mentality, can now join Alpha to Omega as a chamber and will get a special deal.”
Rowe is excited at the new concept, believing it is innovations such as this that have kept him so busy that he has not had time to miss his old life in South Africa — apart from the sunshine. He is firmly entrenched in English life and has ambitions to become a Conservative minister, having just started the process of becoming a local councillor.
“I am looking to give back something to the country that has treated me so well,” he says, shaking my hand and showing me out of the In & Out Club as the interview finishes. You get the feeling this is not the last we have heard of the Wildebeest in this neck of the woods.
Born: 1961, Cape Town, South Africa
Educated: Plumstead High School, Cape Town; national diploma in mechanical engineering with South African Railways Career: Mechanical fitter in South Africa until 1989, when he moved to the UK and began selling air conditioners to businesses. 1990, mortgage broker with Nicholas Phillips & Co. 1992, IFA with Roger Abbott & Co; 1994, set up Cameron Roe; 2003, set up Alpha to Omega via a management buyout from Berkeley Berry Birch.
Career ambition: To be a top 10 professional IFA operation.
Life ambition: To be a Conservative MP
Likes: Lunching, good red wine, rugby, good people with good character. His hero is Nelson Mandela Dislikes: Disloyalty, cheap wine, people who do not know how to lunch Drives: Rover 75