After half a decade of relentless growth, Truly Independent directors Andrew Goodwin and Cath Bowden are refining their approach, focusing on talent retention and brand recognition.
High growth, a bestselling book and a fully fledged succession plan are just some of the achievements Truly Independent can hold to its name since it last featured on our cover in 2012.
Directors Andrew Goodwin and Cath Bowden have, by and large, enjoyed the years that followed the London Olympics, the Diamond Jubilee and Gangnam Style.
Through an ambitious recruitment policy, the firm has multiplied its income more than 10 times, from £350,000 to £4.4 million. The directors now plan to invest in social media marketing in an attempt to make Truly Independent a household brand.
Goodwin has also received recognition for helping advisers develop their businesses with the publication of his book, Happy Financial Advisers, and its associated scorecard methodology.
The book has just become a number-one bestseller among the 4,500 books in the Amazon financial retirement planning category, and has 19 all-five-star reviews, including one from Daniel Priestley, author of Key Person of Influence.
CATH BOWDEN CV
- 2009-present: Truly Independent, founder and director
- 2006-2009: Positive Solutions, self-employed independent financial adviser
- 2005-2006: Dodd Financial Services, compliance/paraplanner/independent financial adviser
- 1996-2005: Sterling Financial Advice, compliance officer/independent financial adviser
BSc (hons) Mathematics
The exception to these happy days came, of course, in the shape of former IFA Alok Dhanda, whose conviction for fraud in 2014 was a major blow, despite the fact he spent just 53 days at the firm. Dhanda was ultimately jailed for defrauding his clients of £2.9 million between 2007 and 2014.
It turned out Dhanda had been asking his clients for personal loans for years, and their suspicion only arose after payments he was making back to them stopped. In truth, he had been using the money to bankroll gambling debts of £1 million.
It was a long while after he left that Bowden and Goodwin became aware he had still been taking these loans while working at their firm. Some comments at the time of the news suggested Truly Independent could have done more to check up on him.
Despite being well regarded in the profession before his arrest, Dhanda had joined according to Truly Independent’s standard new-joiner process. As an ‘experienced new entrant’ 100% of his regulated work was checked, the next stage being competent adviser status. He was still an appointed representative of Tenant. On joining he had been credit checked, criminal record checked, and had social and employer references going back 10 years.
His clients’ policies had not yet been transferred to Truly Independent’s agency at this point and still remained with Tenant. Truly Independent was not receiving any communications from those clients’ providers, meaning the surrender of any polices by clients would not be known about by the firm at that point.
So what happened?
‘Up to then, Alok was highly thought of in the industry,’ says Goodwin. ‘I think he pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes. It muddied the waters for us a bit. We had no upheld complaints relating to him and our compliance record is otherwise exceptional.
‘But that experience has made us ultra-cautious in our recruitment.’
‘We did all the checks,’ adds Bowden. ‘The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) say go back five years, we go back 10 years. We do everything we have to and above if we can, but unfortunately he was a bad apple. And because he was with us such a short period of time we did not have the opportunity to see any patterns of behaviours that would have alerted us. I think that would have happened: patterns of surrenders with nothing seemingly happening with the monies the clients were surrendering.’
ANDREW GOODWIN CV
- 2009-present: Truly Independent, founder and director
- 2003-2009: Positive Solutions, regional business consultant
- 1995-2003: GA Life/Norwich Union, corporate consultant
BSc (hons) Actuarial Mathematics & Statistics
AFPC, including G10, G60 & H15
In 2012, we asked whether Truly Independent was growing too fast. This is still a big question as the firm – which has expanded from three to 42 registered individuals since 2011 – has had several issues with advisers.
Six left for various reasons around the time of the retail distribution review (RDR) and there are outstanding disputes with two of the leavers.
Goodwin and Bowden say these events have been challenging, but the firm has kept a tight compliance regime and not had a single upheld complaint. They cannot give details about the disputes, but say they do not involve substantial sums and are of the type any large firm might encounter.
Bowden says the six advisers leaving was ‘a reality check’, and the directors have since put more focus on qualifications and encouraging all advisers to reach level six.
‘There is potential danger in growing too quickly,’ says Bowden, ‘but I don’t think we have. We’ve learned a lot from our experiences and can cope with our current growth rate.’
This summer the firm took on a full-time marketing coordinator to help make Truly Independent a household brand, with an emphasis on social media campaigns.
Bowden says: ‘Our new responsive website features a variety of interactive content, and we will be directing traffic towards this via search engine marketing, social media marketing, video and more.’ Goodman adds: ‘The right technology provides bespoke advice.’
Another focus will be promoting the book and associated website, happyfinancialadvisers.co.uk.
To bolster its leadership, a year ago Truly Independent’s first adviser recruit, Neil Jeffrey, pictured below, left, bought into the company with a small number of voting shares, becoming its third director.
Goodwin says: ‘Neil started as an IFA and took over my clients. Then he took a supervisory and mentoring role for other advisers. Now as director, he is also working in recruitment and business development. It was also part of succession planning for us.’
Truly Independent charges bespoke fees up to 4% initial and up to 1% ongoing, depending on complexity. A typical client with £45,000 would pay 3% initial and 0.5% ongoing.
Many new model advisers believe 3% and 4% initial is too expensive, but Goodwin says: ‘It’s just a method for getting to the pound value of what it costs. We operate very tight profit margins of 10% or less.’
He pointed out that, with 0.5% and sometimes less ongoing, compared with the 1% many advisers still charge, most Truly Independent clients would pay much less in the long term.
Recurring income per active client is £249, up from £54 in 2013. It appears this part of the business is therefore not yet profitable, and Truly Independent is still relying on initial fees to stay in the black. One solution for this could be setting a minimum for ongoing work as currently there is none.
Bowden says: ‘Our advisers are self-employed so they have their own costing, which varies based on their time and their efficiency.’
For the ongoing charge, clients receive seven service points, including annual reviews, access to their adviser whenever they need, secure messages, and real-time valuations through the client portal.
For further service points such as financial health check, annual rebalancing, and tax planning, the fee is bespoke.
Advisers and potential recruits can complete Truly Independent’s Happy Financial Advisers scorecard by answering 40 questions covering six areas: structure, strategy, systems, service, support and succession.
Goodwin says: ‘It gives advisers an idea of future direction, and helps them get involved with our brand. It is based on 2014 research from Warwick University showing that if you are happy in your work, you are likely to be 12% more productive.
‘The three determinants of happiness are: connecting with more people, making a difference to people’s lives and freedom to be yourself. Our strategy will help them do all three by [being part of a co-operative group], attracting new clients and supporting them to free up their time. The scorecard also enables them to benchmark against other advisers and highlights areas for improvement.’
To promote a co-operative structure, Truly Independent gave its first 20 advisers non-voting shares, with increasing dividend payments each year. It provides advisers with technical support including use of the True Potential back office, compliance, helpdesk, and platform and investment recommendations. In addition, it seeks regular feedback and encourages mutual support at group meetings and arranges CPD and social events.
‘Our scorecard results show that few financial advisers have thought about succession,’ Goodwin says. ‘So we are just starting a process where advisers can pass clients to another adviser within the firm, which will help them to manage that smoothly.
‘We have several advisers under 35 and want to recruit more younger advisers to allow for natural succession. We are therefore looking at creating a formal fast-track approach to qualifications for new entrants, and at apprenticeship schemes.’
Combination of adviser freedom and core funds covers all the bases
Truly Independent has no centralised investment proposition or committee as it prefers advisers to choose bespoke options for its clients, says Bowden. However, for those with relatively simple requirements, it does have a core of three approved platforms plus another seven secondary-approved platforms.
The firm also uses Morningstar research to create a list of 25 so-called affinity funds. ‘Those are funds we have conducted due diligence on, and are suitable for certain types of client and platform,’ says Bowden.
The list includes passive, multi-asset and multi-manager funds, and providers include Vanguard, Seven Investment Management, Cornelian and F&C.
Goodwin says: ‘The criteria for selection on the list include performance, cost, size and financial strength. We redo that regularly.’
About 60% of affinity funds are passive, with Vanguard LifeStrategy 60% Equity being a popular offering. This fund has outperformed the IA Mixed Investment 40-85% Shares over the past five years.
All except two planners are self-employed. Goodwin says one thing that has supported the firm’s surge in revenue is that average adviser fee income has risen from £65,000 to £102,000 since 2012. It has had relatively tight profit margins of 10% or less due to the high fee share it offers to advisers, including 90% to advisers for business over £100,000.
‘We are still aiming to get 100 advisers in total, with £10 million turnover by 2020. Also, we have a firm of knowledgeable, experienced advisers, but I would like to become a firm of elite advisers, so we encourage them to aim for level six.’
Truly Independent has around 2,000 inactive clients, which are those the firm has had some prior relationship or contact with. It is not receiving ongoing fees or commission from any of them, says Bowden. The directors receive a basic undisclosed salary and dividend, which last year was £50,000 split proportionately.
‘Having created this natural succession, we are freer now to do what we want,’ says Goodwin. ‘Our excellent staff are taking over running the company. So there is no need to sell. I get most pleasure from being able to attract good quality staff who I can see will take this further.’
The right kind of busy
Five years ago, Bowden and Goodwin said the workload was so intense they were almost in a dreamlike state. ‘Now it is better: busy, but only as much as we want it to be,’ says Goodwin.
Bowden adds: ‘One big challenge is that it is harder to recruit than it used to be; there are fewer advisers in the market and we are looking for the best. But when we hold our twice-yearly meetings with a roomful of advisers, it is brilliant to see that we are moving in the right direction.’
FIVE TOP TIPS
Start with the end in mind. Everything you do should contribute to building the most efficient business possible, creating a firm others would want to buy.
Match your business with the right technology. If it is not making you efficient and effective then change it.
Encourage your clients to accumulate assets. Work with them to help them bridge their savings gap.
Nothing worthwhile is ever achieved in isolation. Engage with a firm that provides you with the right support.
Prepare for retirement. Simple, but essential, and early planning will lead to an effortless transition to retirement.