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Vantage point

It is widely recognised that, over the past 24 years, Har-greaves Lansdown has grown from a two-adviser firm to one of the biggest financial advice businesses in the country with over 400 staff. What is perhaps less well known is that in recent years, it has also bec-ome one of the most proficient IFA firms when it comes to the use of technology.

Last week, I visited the company in Bristol to look in more detail at some of its systems. Many of these systems are being built as solutions which could easily be provided as components to cli-ents or other major adviser firms rather than just to serve the firm’s own requirements.

Established in 1999, Har-greaves Lansdown’s online stockbroking business has grown to be one of the top five in the UK and, according to the group, is the most profitable. Over a similar period, the Vantage service has evol-ved from a fund supermarket to a full wrap offering Peps, Isas, funds, Sipp and equities trading capabilities to over 180,000 customers.

Its discount operation still represents a very significant amount of the firm’s business but it is by no means a discount-only adviser.

Many of the e-commerce services developed recently have been to support more traditional advice areas. A good example of this would be Hargreaves’ annuity comparison service which powers its online annuity supermarket.

Created using the latest Microsoft.net technology, this currently accepts XML quotation feeds from Canada Life, Clerical Medical, Friends Provident, GE Life, Legal & General, Prudential and Stan-dard Life, with two more pro-viders due to join shortly.

The service presents the consumer with the best quotation from up to eight different options. Only the leading provider is presented as Har-greaves believe the consumer priority is to have the leading providers for as many different options rather than showing the runners-up.

With open market options being such an obvious way for advisers to help consumers get a greater income in retirement, this service must have massive potential. This raises the question of whether electronic submission of annuity proposals is now viable.

Clearly, providers will take extreme caution when transferring actual funds but I cannot help thinking it should be possible to set up some form of electronic clearing facility among the major pension and annuity providers.

Another area where Har-greaves is probably not one of the first advisers to come to mind is group pensions, yet the company now delivers branded corporate employee benefits websites to nearly 100 major companies, including over 15 per cent of firms on the FTSE 100 index.

Clients include Sainsburys, Gap, ITN and O2. These ena-ble Hargreaves to deliver scheme-specific literature together with online joining and admin in support of the group presentations and oneto-one joining sessions operated by their employee benefits consultants. It is only fair to point out at this stage that the online joining process is not entirely straight-through at this time.

One part of this service I particularly like is the member pension calculator. In a single page, this allows the potential member to input brief details of their existing pension fund, salary, etc, and then be given projected fund and income details at retirement both on a cash and real terms basis, the latter using SMPI rules.

To adjust age at joining and retirement date, the user simply moves slider bars on the screen and an additional pop-up screen can also cater for cost of delay.

This sort of tool is nothing new. What-if calculators such as this have been around for over a decade. An increasing number of firms also offer them as web components but this is a particularly elegant solution which addresses complex calculations and communicates the effect in a simple way which any moderately intelligent consumer should be able to grasp.

Another major project lead by the company has been Funds Library. Operated as a separate company within the Hargreaves Lansdown group, it provides a wide range of fund information and data not only to Hargreaves’ Vantage service but also Norwich Union’s Lifetime Wrap platform and is in final stages of negotiation with two major Fund Supermarkets.

The concept behind Funds Library is simple yet highly effective – to bring together all the information that an adv-iser needs from a wide range of fund managers into a single location from which it can be disseminated or downloaded.

Funds Library brings tog-ether 121 items of information per fund. These are divided into sub-sets of data and are submitted by the fund manager using XML. This means that the information can easily be regularly updated to meet compliance obligations.

The data can be either documents, for example, key features, factsheets and rep-ort and accounts, dynamic data such as percentage of asset classes within a fund or standing data such as the product types that a fund can be used in.

By capturing details of not only who within a fund management organisation has submitted information but also when it was submitted, what the changes are and their effective date, the service will in the future be able to create documentation as it would have appeared historically. For example, in 2009, it would be possible to recreate what an individual document would have looked like at a given date in 2005. This has very obvious compliance benefits.

Funds Library was rec-ently used to populate some 400,000 consumer mailings for Vantage. With this service already meeting the information needs of Hargreaves Lansdown group and an increasing number of fund managers and wraps, it is not difficult to see how Funds Library could have a great deal to offer and other major advisers could benefit by re-using this service rather than building similar capacity themselves.

I am increasingly seeing major adviser businesses ach-ieving significant benefits through the adoption of technology. In Hargreaves Lans-down case, it would appear to have enabled the company to achieve cost-effective entry into significant additional business areas. Given its overall success in the last 24 years, this might be a valuable lesson for other adviser firms.

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