Aifa director general Paul Smee has been fighting the IFA corner for five years but will be leaving the organisation in December.
Smee, who is joining the Association for Payment Clearing Services as chief executive, joined Aifa as director general when it was set up in 1999 primarily as an alternative to the IFA Association although it also amalgamated other IFA organisations such as the Large Networks Association.
He has raised hackles in some quarters during his time at Aifa but he has also established credibility with the FSA.
Aifa predecessor the IFAA clashed with the Labour Government over the pension review. It was highly critical of the Government's policy and pulled no punches when it came to fighting the FSA over IFA issues.
Aifa, under former civil servant Smee's leadership, has taken a more diplomatic and, some would argue, successful approach. It has been credited with establishing a more conciliatory relationship with the FSA which has, among other things, helped lead to the regulator granting waivers to IFAs struggling to meet their professional indemnity requirements.
Aifa's pressure on the FSA over CP121, which could have led to all IFAs charging fees to call themselves independent, caused the regulator to change its position and adopt Aifa's payment menu.
Institute of Financial Planning chief executive Nick Cann says: “Paul has done an excellent job of building links bet-ween the Government, the FSA and IFAs. It is sad that he is leaving as he has done a great job of managing all the different sectors.”
Some believe Smee's departure could be down to his rec-ent savaging at the hands of the Treasury select committee for his refusal to condemn IFA firms which dump liabilities in shell companies, leaving the Financial Services Compensation Scheme to deal with them.
However, the timing of his departure at the end of December – so close to the end of polarisation – has caused some in the industry to ask if he is unwilling to deal with the problems that depolarisation will surely bring.
LIA head of public affairs John Ellis believes the time was right for Smee to leave, with the natural break prov-ided by the end of polarisation and the start of depolarisation. Cann says the job would have become no easier with depolarisation.
Speculation and concern over Smee's replacement is widespread, with some commentators leaning towards the election of a figure already in the industry.
Former IFA Association chief executive Garry Heath says: “Aifa will need someone as good as Paul as a replacement and people like that do not grow on trees. It would be a complete disaster if someone from outside the industry took on the job – anyone who does not understand our situation and would have to learn about it would be a liability as there is so much going on now with depolarisation, mortgage regulation and general insurance regulation. The replacement would have to be up to speed.”
Women's IFA Group chairwoman Fiona Price is adamant that a replacement for Smee needs to come from the industry as they will have to hit the ground running and be sufficiently knowledgeable to be able to make a difference.
Cann feels that Aifa needs someone with very strong leadership skills. He says: “We need someone who can grab people by the scruff of their necks. Paul has done good diplomatic work but the role will change with depolarisation – the person coming in must be pretty dynamic to gather the new marketplace together.”
Heath also questions whe-ther Aifa will want to appoint another diplomatic ex-civil servant to the role and wonders if these are the attributes which will be needed for a depolarised world.
Price says Smee's replacement will have to get on with people from many different spheres and it would not serve Aifa well if personality went in front of duty. She says: “The representative of our leading trade body must maintain good relationships with all manner of people and should not be larger than life.”
All admit that whoever picks up Smee's mantle will be dealing with one of the biggest changes that the industry has seen.
Heath says: “Aifa director of policy Fay Goddard could do the job if she wanted to – she is up to speed on everything that is going on in the industry and could move across nicely. She has all the tact that seems to be necessary for the position and she would definitely be a very welcome possibility.”
Price believes Smee will be a difficult act to follow and does not think it will be possible to find someone who will handle the job in the same way. She says: “You can never replace someone exactly – we need to find someone as efficient as Paul but who deals with problems in their own way.”
Smee is not revealing anything, merely saying that Aifa will be advertising to fill the position. The industry appears united in saying that Smee will be missed and it awaits with interest the changes his replacement will bring.