Ailsa Brown’s hands-on, listening-focused approach as well as her attention to the nitty-gritty, is quietly winning over clients at Gilliland Neilson Brown.
Gilliland Neilson Brown (GNB) is a case study in fine tuning. There are countless firms that are louder and more brazen, yet managing director Ailsa Brown’s approach of tailoring advice to fit the needs of each client, along with a focus on security, is striking the right chord.
In 1993, Brown sat down at her desk with an empty filing cabinet and lofty ambitions for her new firm, Neilson Brown and thought, ‘what do I do now?’
New businesses can struggle, but Brown was able to guide her first solo venture through the tricky early years. Introductions through lawyers and accountants, and a mailshot delivered to local houses, managed to get the ball rolling. The clients were smaller than some IFAs might speak to, but Brown was able to carve out a steady high street presence.
However, it was 10 years before the firm became GNB, following a successful merger with Gilliland & Co Financial Services. This bold step pushed business to new heights, enabling it to attract clients bearing higher net worth and more complex financial needs. ‘That was the biggest springboard,’ reflects Brown. ‘Prior to that it was just me, and there’s a limit to what you can do by yourself in a little office.’
AILSA BROWN CV
1993-present Gilliland Neilson Brown, managing director
2000-2002 AIFA, chair
1998-1993 Scottish Widows, account consultant
1986-1988 HMB, financial adviser
- 1984-1986 Scottish Amicable, sales support
Chartered Insurance Practitioner
Advanced Financial Planning
The business continued to make incremental gains with no major hiccups or dramas in the years that followed, and now is an ideal moment for GNB, as its recent advances are unprecedented. For instance, funds under advice jumped by more than 25% in 2016 alone, and client numbers remain on the rise. The non-active clients on the database are not receiving ongoing advice or are in the early stages of becoming clients.
What is the secret to the recent success? ‘We’re about looking after our clients; it’s the entire focus,’ says Brown. ‘If we don’t have happy clients we don’t have a business.’
We have heard that before but that is not to say it is untrue. Where Brown differs is in what she considers to be the most important aspect of advice: security. ‘A hugely overlooked element of what we do is making sure people have protection in place. The whole plan can go to pot if the breadwinner dies or has serious ill health.’
GNB charges an initial fee of £100-£125 per hour, and for the vast majority of clients, a fixed fee will be arranged for initiating the advice process. For ongoing fees, GNB charges no more than 0.75%, and this fee will reduce as funds grow.
The firm does not charge for the first meeting, and aims to make costs as clear as possible for clients. ‘We’ve always been very upfront about costs,’ says Brown. ‘We have a living to make, but charges and costs should always be fair to the client.’
Paying attention to easily overlooked details could well be GNB’s unique selling point. Making sure the fundamentals of advice are carried out to the highest possible standard will not lend itself to snappy LinkedIn quotes, but it will make for a strong advice offering.
Further, Brown shows a passion for engaging with the nitty-gritty aspects of the profession, and, by contrast with many IFAs who outsource much of their proposition, she has built many parts of the business from scratch. This includes GNB’s cashflow modelling tool, its risk-rated model portfolios, and in previous years included its back-office system too.
Why do it? ‘I like to understand what’s behind something,’ she says. ‘If I don’t know what the underlying assumptions are, how will I know that the outputs are correct?’ Building on this, she notes that GNB has not been stung by any of the more ‘artistically designed’ products that are available on the market. ‘If I can’t explain it to clients, I think the risk is too great,’ she adds.
GNB does not shout about its qualities, and there is an understated manner to the firm’s approach that is a million miles from the ‘I will change your life’ approach you might see elsewhere. In this respect the business reflects its managing director, who despite being humorous and friendly, does not need to hog the limelight.
Even so, she has many great stories to tell, such as detailing her adventures in Japan, China and France; her time working as a member of the pit crew for her son, a motorcycle pro who used to compete at the level of the British Superbike Championship, the UK’s leading road race; and her time with the Women’s IFA Group in the early 2000s.
‘I’ve been really lucky that life has given me the opportunity to do these things, and you have to grab these opportunities when they come along,’ she observes. ‘I don’t want to get to the end and think "I wish I’d tried this or done that".’
Active approach that eschews tendency to over outsource
GNB runs most investments on its in-house model portfolios, which are designed with a particular focus on diversification. The portfolios are risk-rated from three to eight, and all based around a similar selection of core funds.
Brown insists on an active approach to investment, as she believes the returns will outperform passives over the long term. ‘They’re slightly more expensive than the passives, but some of the passives are priced too highly for what they do,’ she observes.
Among the biggest contributors to performance have been the Fundsmith Equity fund run by Citywire AAA rated Terry Smith, the CF Woodford Equity Income fund, run by + rated Neil Woodford and Old Mutual UK Mid Cap fund run by AAA-rated Richard Watts.
The portfolio uses a composite benchmark generated by the platform to match the portfolio. The portfolio (6) is mixed investments, with around 80% in equities and the rest in fixed interest, property and so on.
Brown said: ‘With the only exception of the past 12 months, we’ve outperformed the benchmark,’ she says, noting the portfolios were only 1% below the benchmark over the past year, as hedging ensured the full benefits of sterling depreciation were not reaped.
For clients with more than £500,000 to invest, GNB will outsource investment predominantly to Brewin Dolphin, but also to Quilter Cheviot. GNB constructs bespoke portfolios for some clients with small sums to invest, or for clients with particular needs better met by a bespoke solution.
Brown feels IFAs should not necessarily bow to the pressure to outsource all investments. ‘A lot of IFAs have been told they’re not capable of managing investments and can’t possibly have the right resources to do it.
‘But many advisers have the resources and size to do it. I hope that trend reverses, because I think this is one of the things we’re good at.’
Listen and learn
How does Brown encourage clients to make the same reflection? ‘Lots of questions and lots of listening,’ she says. ‘You have to listen far more than you question, but you need to pick up on certain answers.’ She admits, having said that, that this process can take years rather than minutes when done properly.
Brown intends for GNB to continue growing its funds under advice, with a view to enhancing the portfolio offering. ‘I love that part of the job,’ she explains. The other goal is to take on a few new recruits and focus more on business development. Nonetheless, she has no plans for GNB to become ‘huge’.
Away from the desk, Brown will also be devoting more time to playing the clarinet. She took up the instrument eight years ago and has since reached Grade 6. ‘I tried the piano and I was alright, but not particularly good,’ she says with a little chuckle.
‘I was asked what I wanted for Christmas, and after a few glasses of red wine I said, "You know what, I’ll try the clarinet."’
It is this same attitude that led her to take up motorbiking along with her son and husband, and no doubt it is this readiness for a challenge that enabled her to go it alone with Neilson Brown back in 1993.
FIVE TOP TIPS
Build a good team around you and delegate.
Employ people with a variety of skills – not clones of yourself.
Keep focused on the bigger picture – not caught up in the detail.
Look after your clients at all times.