Taking the baton from former cover stars Sandy Robertson and Bill Saunders, Acumen directors David Gow and Keith Mackie have picked up the pace and powered ahead.
I meet Keith Mackie and David Gow, directors at Acumen Financial Planning, on a cold February morning. I should not be surprised by the frost forming at the end of my nose, as it is winter and we are in Edinburgh.
The running track at the Saughton Sports Complex takes for an appropriate backdrop, as Mackie quips that Acumen ‘is in it for the distance’.
Sadly, I failed to convince them to don their running shorts on this coldest of days.
The Acumen story has appeared on these pages before, as managing director Sandy Robertson and certified financial planner Bill Saunders were New Model Adviser® cover stars back in 2008.
Back then, the firm had been making rapid progress, with £93 million in assets under advice and income of just over £1 million. Besides the numbers, Acumen had four businesses running from its Aberdeen head offices, adding an accountancy firm, Acumen IT and professional services company Freelance World to the advice business.
DAVID GOW CV
- 2008-present Acumen Financial Planning, director
- 2007-2008 Towry Law, private client manager
- 2002-2007 MLP Private Finance, regional manager, financial adviser
- Fellow of the Personal Finance Society
- Chartered Financial Planner
- Certified Financial Planner
- Diploma in Financial Planning
Out of the blocks
Acumen’s Edinburgh office was still in the process of building a presence, and its financial advice clients were largely from the oil and gas sectors. Things have progressed since then, as assets have quadrupled to over £400 million and annual income is comfortably above £3 million.
So much for the phrase ‘it is a marathon, not a sprint’. Acumen is doing both, despite the fact that running twice as far, twice as fast is not usually sustainable unless you have Lance Armstrong’s doctor.
Staff numbers have increased in step with client headcount and asset growth, doubling in the past four years alone. The firm now has 27 staff in Aberdeen, four in Edinburgh, three in Elgin and one member of staff in Norwich.
The recent acquisition of Edinburgh-based Duckworth Alexander (a cover star firm in 2014, issue 422), and with it the hire of its former director Iain Duckworth, means even more hands on deck.
KEITH MACKIE CV
- 2004-present Acumen Financial Planning, director
- 2002-2004 Skipton Financial Services, IFA
- 2000-2002 H & R Life and Pensions, IFA
- 1995-2000 CGU, senior financial consultant
- 1985-1995 Clydesdale Bank, personal customer adviser
- Certified Financial Planner (Level 6)
- Diploma in Financial Planning
Focus on the future
Acumen has since divorced itself from the other three businesses to focus purely on advice, and as the company has expanded in Edinburgh clients are now coming from a broader range of backgrounds.
Mackie still has many oil and gas clients, and has several self-employed fishermen on his books.
Gow has picked up numerous medical and dental clients, as well as collaborative law clients (primarily divorce cases), which are overseen by managing director Robertson. Acumen has also developed a fruitful line of business servicing small businesses, with head of corporate services Jonathan Craig covering auto-enrolment, workplace pensions and group protection.
A lot has changed since 2008. From a strategic and structural perspective, the business continued to change in its bid to be the best. ‘All I’ve ever seen is evolution,’ says Gow, who joined shortly after the interview with Robertson and Saunders went to print. ‘There’s been an element of evolution every year.’
Gow joined with no clients, but by 2011 he was boosting profits. It was decided he would join the strategic committee, along with Mackie, Robertson and Saunders.
The committee helped spur Acumen to new heights, but a roadblock emerged as Saunders stepped back from the opportunity to be a director in 2014. Robertson may well have asked himself if it was time to sell up.
Acumen charges a 1% initial fee and a 1% ongoing fee.
The initial fee is tiered downwards above the £1 million of assets point, with the next £1 million charged at 0.75%, and the £1 million after that at 0.5%. From £3 million upwards, all funds are charged at a rate of 0.25%.
The firm has a published minimum client asset size of £100,000, and accordingly a minimum fee of £1,000. However, this is under review and Mackie is considering raising it.
For any pension transfer business, Acumen has a minimum flat fee of £1,500, which is essentially a fee for the transfer analysis.
Acumen also provides non-investment-related advice for which it charges a fee. For financial planning, advice on a protection issues or advice on divorce, Acumen will charge a project fee or an hourly charge. Hourly rates are as follows:£200 per hour for directors and pension transfer specialists, £150 per hour for financial planners, £90 for paraplanners and £75 for administration staff.
Taking the lead
Mackie and Gow saw this as the time to step up and ask for a stake in the business. Robertson duly obliged, and this endorsement meant a lot to the duo. ‘Sandy’s very astute,’ Mackie says. ‘If he didn’t think we were up to the job he wouldn’t have accepted our offer.’
Gow agrees: ‘I joined the company because of Sandy and Bill. They’re both inspirational people. My own understanding is that our managing director is the grandfather of financial planning.’ Mackie nods. ‘There’s a quote,’ he says. (Robertson was indeed the first person to pass the Institute of Financial Planning’s fellowship examinations in 1993.)
A year later, Acumen went through a rebrand and set out its plans for the future. Taking inspiration from the British cycling team and the philosophy of marginal gains, the firm set its sights on getting the business in the best shape it could be in time for the next Olympic Games. The name for their plan is 2020 Vision.
Numbers, strategy, vision. These are all key, but Acumen would add culture to that list. Mackie and Gow believe the ethos and attitudes within the business have underpinned its growth. The pair talk passionately about team spirit and dedication to clients.
‘I saw immediately this company was going places,’ Gow says. ‘I wasn’t sold a job. I was sold the ethos of the company, which is still delivered and created by our managing director.’
Mackie had a similar revelation in 2004 when he joined the team. ‘I’d been in sales jobs for several years. Sandy said, "We’re not looking for a salesperson. We do proper financial planning, and we offer a fantastic service,’’’ Mackie says.
Client education goes hand in hand with this, and Acumen encourages clients to take a greater interest in personal finance.
Gow points to two essentials regarding this side of their work: having the trust of the client, and being able to explain what changing circumstances mean to the client in real terms.
For example, how legislation or tax changes will effect their financial plan. ‘When you do that time and again, the client will go, "We trust you, we’re in safe hands, and you’re going to look after us,"’ Gow says.
Mackie notes the delight clients express when being made aware they can retire. ‘I’ve had people come up and say "you’ve changed my life". It’s fantastic, and it’s a great feeling,’ he says.
‘How many more clients can we do that for? You want to repeat that, and repeat that, and repeat that.’
Acumen lays passive foundations, but favours active in some areas
Acumen generally considers itself to be a broadly passive investment firm, although there was an office-wide debate surrounding the percentage split for active/passive in its portfolios, centring on the classification of Dimensional funds.
However, Mackie and Gow settle on a split of 35% to 65% in favour of passive, noting that Dimensional would consider its funds to be more active than a pure passive offering.
‘We believe our foundations come from passive investing, but there are certain asset classes that we access through active funds,’ says Gow.
Acumen does not outsource any of its investments, and has developed in-house model portfolios for clients.
Acumen uses the platforms of Transact, Old Mutual Wealth and Aviva, and uses Portfolio Design Document for risk profiling. In terms of funds, the firm picks out Dimensional UK Value fund and TR Property Investment Trust as two funds that they have stuck with for the long haul. The Dimensional fund has been selected based on Acumen’s belief in the value premium, though the firm recognises that performance can suffer when ‘value’ is out of fashion.
The TR Property Investment Trust, managed by Marcus Phayre-Mudge, is singled out for its ‘closed end’ structure, and the relatively illiquid ‘bricks and mortar’ proportion of its holdings, as well as its performance.
Acumen won this year’s New Model Adviser® award for Scotland and Northern Ireland. ‘It’s fantastic we won the award,’ Mackie says. ‘However, my success is shown by my clients. They judge how good I am, and you’re only as good as your last client meeting.’
Gow, a keen runner, makes no apology for being competitive. ‘I like to win things, and even if I don’t win, I still like to aspire to win,’ he says. There is a difference, Gow says, between being the best and aspiring to be the best. ‘I don’t think we’ll ever sit back and say "we’re the best". I don’t think we’d ever say that,’ he says.
‘I don’t think anyone should ever do that. We should always evolve, we should always aspire to do something different, year in year out, that is an improvement on what we did before.’
Acumen is hitting its stride now, and is breaking its own records with the confidence of a 2008/09-era Usain Bolt. Mackie says each year the firm is adding £20 million of assets under advice. This firm does not believe in standing still, and the 2020 Vision plan includes a more concentrated focus on growth, marketing, staff qualifications, and new staff. ‘How much better could we be?’ Mackie says. ‘We want to see how good this can get.’
Gow says he recently reflected on the personal enjoyment he gets from being an adviser. ‘I think everyone loves the role they play, and the job,’ he says. ‘I asked people that question in London [at the New Model Adviser® annual conference and awards in January], and they all said they absolutely love the job.
‘I wake up in the morning and I’ve got a spring in my step and I can’t wait to get to the office: to deal with clients, and any issues that arise. It’s all positive.’
Acumen proves the power of proper business culture, and shows how an inspirational individual can produce a legacy that stands up strongly to the test of time. By April, Robertson will no longer be advising, and will be shifting to a three-day working week.
Judging by the numbers, and the warm but highly motivated words of Mackie and Gow, he need not worry about the immediate future of his firm.
To stick with the theme, the task for Acumen is to stay on track. ‘It’s just a fantastic firm to work for,’ Mackie says. ‘We hope it’s here for as long as it can be.’
FIVE TOP TIPS
- Have a vision of current and future financial services provision in the UK and the exact role you wish your firm to play in that.
- Put clients first – design an engaging client experience and apply it consistently.
- Recruit bright, enthusiastic people in all departments of the business and continue to develop them.
- Through branding and marketing make your firm visible to the client segments you wish to attract.
- Be flexible, receptive to change, open to opportunities and listen to good advice.