The glory days of the 1990's technology boom might seem a world away but after an absence from the limelight, Tomas Carruthers, the one-time chief executive of Interactive Investor International, is making his move back into the marketplace.
Carruthers has again taken the reins of the consumer fund supermarket Ample and will be developing it into a wrap platform – to be rolled out to IFAs.
Last month, Carruthers bought Ample from AMP in a move that is a sort of homecoming for him. In 2001, he helped Interactive Investor through its acquisition by AMP and the subsequent merger with Ample.
He now intends to develop Ample into an IFA-focused platform, which will involve building an open-architecture platform and developing wrap products and services for intermediaries.
This will not be easy going. It is a fundamental departure from what Ample has been doing over the past four years. But Carruthers is upbeat about the challenge: “No other company is better placed to bring this proposition to IFAs.”
Admittedly, Carruthers has a point. Ample has a strong customer base with 1.4 million registered users and 400,000 portfolio holders but hitherto it has had a consumer-facing focus. But he is nonetheless bullish: “This will not be an issue for us because 20,000 of our portfolio holders are IFAs and the necessary work now is to target our proposition to these types of customers.”
Since the purchase at the beginning of March, Carruthers has so far hung on to the Ample brand but now that he is nearing the end of a strategic review of the company he is guarded about the brand's future.
He will not be pinned down on any possibility of a name change but says Interactive Investor “still has a nice ring to it, even after all these years” and points out that he also still owns www.ifa.co.uk as a web address.
He is poised to embark on an aggressive push into the IFA market. Carruthers says discussions with many high-end firms have been “fruitful” and he alludes to some big announcements in the coming weeks.
He says his first step will be to launch a consultation period with IFAs so that it can hone its proposition. “We simply want to give IFAs the platform they want. A big part of this will be working out our wrap offering. Is there interest in wraps? What sort of form should they take? These are the issues we want to hear from IFAs about.”
Carruthers is using institutional money to fund the expansion into the intermediary market but he intends to let the consumer side of the business remain the same. Whether or not the business will be in direct competition with firms such as Cofunds is as yet uncertain. Carruthers gives the impression he has made up his mind to take them on, but he is playing his cards close to his chest.
With Ample preparing for its new incarnation with its old boss at the helm once more, Carruthers sees exciting times ahead. But it is also an interesting time for retrospection for one of the few long-term leaders of IT in financial services.
Like many mainstays of the IT boom and bust, Carruthers has had his fair share of ups and downs. In 2001, when Interactive Investor's share price bombed, the one-time dotcom darling of the financial services world had the misfortune of being booed and jeered as he gave a presentation at an awards ceremony.
But Carruthers takes it in his stride: “The same people who were heckling me at the end of 2001 had been pressuring me for more shares at the beginning of the year.”
He says, at one stage, demand for shares was so strong that the offering was 17 times oversubscribed. The allotments of shares had to be scaled back and he says he received two death threats at the time from people who wanted more shares.
Until the IT bubble burst, Carruthers had an impressive track record, with successful internet start-ups, one of which he sold to US web giant e-trade in 1997. He says he was the first person to bring online real-time share prices to the UK with Electronic Share Information, which he co-founded in 1994, and was also the first to bring online share purchasing to the UK.
“In a world where day trading is now old hat and most of a financial adviser's business can be done online, it is hard to imagine that in 1996 I was laughed at for telling a PIMS conference delegation that the internet would one day be central to IFAs' business,” he says.
Out of work, Carruthers spends most of his time with his family as he has two young children and another on the way.
He has developed a keen interest in languages, with his wife fluent in French, Arabic and English, and he says he is committed to raising his family trilingual. He has been busy learning Arabic himself and enjoys travelling to Lebanon. “In the 1970s – before the war – Lebanon was more frequently visited by Western Europeans than the Greek Islands. People are just starting to realise it is still a beautiful place but I'm glad they are not yet coming back in droves because it still has that newly discovered feeling for me.”
It is a sense of discovering a “good thing” that seems to be a trait of Carruthers', whether it be language, travel spots or gaps in the marketplace. He is yet to tell the industry what his latest venture will looki like but is hinting that it will be market-changing on an industrywide scale.
Born: June 1967, Westminster, London
Lives: Wapping, with wife, daughter and son and is expecting third child Education: Royal Grammar School, Newcastle; Jesus College Cambridge Career: 1989-94, Rutherford Manson Dowds; 1994, co-founded Electronic Share Information; 1997, sold ESI to e-trade and set up Interactive Markets; 1998, chief executive, iii; 2001, sold iii to AMP; 2001, private consulting until the repurchase of iii as Ample Career Ambition: “Not to have a career”
Life Ambition: “Simply to enjoy life at every opportunity”
Likes: Rugby, reading and travel
Dislikes: Physical training
Drives: Jaguar XJ and BMW 850