Keith Churchouse already has reason for Christmas cheer as Chapters Financial continues to grow at an impressive rate. He now wants his revamped robo-advice proposition to deliver the gift of advice to the masses.
Keith Churchouse, director of Guildford-based Chapters Financial, is pretending to be a Scrooge. He describes himself jokingly as ‘mainly grumpy’, and says ‘we’re not doing anything for Christmas’.
But in reality, Churchouse, who last appeared on the New Model Adviser® cover in 2008, has already put up some decorations in his office on Guildford’s high street. And he comes across as ebullient and positive as ever.
In the past nine years, this optimism has helped him continue to fight to become ‘the father of digital advice’. He did so initially with a brand called Advice Made Simple, then with its new incarnation SaidSo.co.uk.
KEITH CHURCHOUSE CV
- 2004–present Chapters Financial (Churchouse Financial Planning until 2012), director and chartered financial planner
- 2003–2004 Cartlidge Morland, financial adviser
- 2003 Standard Life, financial adviser
- 2001–2002 HJP Financial Services, financial adviser
- 1994–2001 Equitable Life, representative and financial planner
- 1988–1994 Sun Alliance, senior mortgage manager
- 1985–1988 Lloyds Bank, supervisor
- Chartered Financial Planner
- CFP Chartered FSCI
- Fellow of the Personal Finance Society
- Fellow of the Chartered Institute for Securities and Investment
Around 2007, Churchouse launched websites Advicemadesimple, Planmypension and Investmentmadesimple. By 2010, he realised it was a tall order to manage all these, especially given the growth in the main business.
But in 2014, he saw the advice gap growing post-retail distribution review and resolved to revive his digital proposition with the help of his wife and fellow director Esther Dadswell (pictured below).
Following a comprehensive review, they consolidated the sites into one with the new name SaidSo in 2015. This evolved into a much clearer, simpler message, with better graphics, and integrated social media, says Churchouse.
SaidSo’s second iteration is due in January 2018. It includes refreshed graphics, aided by Surrey-based web developers Kyan. It also features a so-called chatbot, which uses artificial intelligence (AI) to help answer user queries during the advice process.
Last year, Dadswell created the SaidSo Wealth Dashboard, an app that uses around five data points to calculate how much users could earn in retirement. The dashboard links to the main SaidSo site, which offers free financial planning guides in exchange for an email address. If clients want full independent advice, it then takes them through a fact-find and decision tree with 100 potential data points.
‘It is a hybrid robo service,’ says Churchouse. ‘It refers out to remote human advisers on mortgage issues and more complex planning, such as the lifetime allowance, pensions and divorce. If they want full advice, a Chapters adviser also checks the final report.
‘The biggest criticism is that it can be long-winded. If you want thorough advice, you need all that data. But we are looking at ways to reduce the time involved.’
Dadswell says: ‘Next year, we hope to have an even funkier AI system to speed up the process. The chatbot will learn things that can feed back to the system. After someone completes the form, around 60% of the report is prepared automatically.
‘Our systems do another 20%, then humans complete the final 20%.’
The long game
Like most robo-advisers, SaidSo has not made a profit despite this level of automation. Churchouse says so far ‘not many’ people have paid the £299 it charges for an online advice report, but 31,000 have visited the site in the past three years. 25% of those have downloaded its free guides. That means they have around 7,750 email addresses of people who have used the service and therefore may need advice in future.
‘It is not yet a commercial success, but we will continue to build it whether profitable or not. There is an advice gap and people should be able to access advice as and when they need it,’ says Churchouse.
‘In January, we will also reduce the price from £299 to £199 for a period. It is a war of attrition, but our 10 years’ experience means we don’t need to throw millions at it to make it happen. We will evolve it as far and as fast as we can, but if someone with more funding wants [to acquire it, that is another option].’
Chapters, meanwhile, has gone from strength to strength, with funds under advice growing from £37 million in 2008 to nearly £150 million in this financial year to date. Profits have grown from £76,000 in 2008 to nearly £275,000 in this financial year to date. This means Chapters is close to hitting its projected targets for next year, which Churchouse says are conservative.
The only recent blip in profits came in 2015 after Chapters set up a new office in Woking in 2013. ‘We tried to diversify to West Surrey but it didn’t work,’ he says. ‘It’s a different town from Guildford, with younger commuters. We were surprised at the low level of enquiries from there, so we closed it in December 2016.’
This year Churchouse has also streamlined Chapters’ processes and invested in infrastructure. These include new servers and systems that are more efficient, and a spacious office. It has helped push the firm’s profit margin to 50%.
‘Our goal is to accelerate fund growth,’ says Churchouse. ‘After £150 million, we might recruit another paraplanner and add to our existing two advisers. Then we will target £250 million in five years.
Chapters’ apprentice, who joined as part of a programme to encourage new starters, will move on next year. So a new paraplanner would bring staff numbers back up to six.
Chapters charges a fixed fee for all initial advice and implementation, calculated at £315 per hour for all staff work, regardless of seniority. Ongoing work for new clients is charged at 0.75% a year. ‘We can normally calculate it back to the hourly rate to demonstrate the value,’ says Churchouse.
For the ongoing fee, clients receive unlimited access; regular updates and news on market changes; annual meetings; extra valuations during the year; and a quarterly newsletter written in-house.
Average recurring income per active client is around £1,200. Churchouse says it takes around three hours to prepare for and complete a review meeting.
There are approximately 50 inactive clients who pay no remuneration to Chapters, although it may still receive a small commission from historic plans, where applicable.
‘These clients still receive our regular focused newsletter and contact on policy issues identified by us, or contact from them, when required,’ says Churchouse. ‘We are ready to re-engage as the client requires, maintaining appropriate records in the meantime.’
Despite his thwarted attempts at building scale at Chapters by welding bits on, Churchouse still believes it can grow substantially.
‘There is scale [by growing] staff numbers,’ he says. ‘But you need to focus hard on your goal: is it funds or staff? We never chase money. But we have highly motivated staff who can help grow funds, then you keep segmenting roles and [specialising].
‘If you have set the company up correctly, met International Organisation for Standardisation and British Standards requirements; maintained your ethic; and do it for the love of financial planning, I don’t see any major challenges.’
Staff are paid a salary and discretionary Christmas bonus. Churchouse and Dadswell own Chapters and receive an undisclosed salary and dividends.
Churchouse also plans to keep growing Chapters by consolidating its position in Guildford, where Chapters has a strong reputation. Churchouse has appeared regularly on BBC Radio Surrey for 13 years and writes often for Chapters’ website and other media.
‘One key is to understand your market,’ he says. ‘Guildford has an older population, highly educated, well-off and wise. So we educate them and know where to add value throughout the process. Writing a lot on our website allows people to [see what we’re about]. Plus all our terms are on there, so by the time they contact us, they are well informed. We get three or four enquiries a week from the site.
‘We sponsored roundabouts for many years, which made a huge difference. Clients would hear me on the radio, see the name on a roundabout, then get in touch.’
Other useful initiatives have included becoming directors of a local business improvement district; and sponsoring Guildford Fringe Festival with SaidSo and the town mayor’s ball with Chapters. Churchouse also chairs Headway Surrey, a brain injury charity.
Chapters offers clients active, in-house portfolios and a range of discretionary choices
The Chapters Financial investment committee meets quarterly. It is comprised of Churchouse, Dadswell, associate director Vicky Fulcher, and external consultant Steve Williams, managing director of Cormorant Capital Strategies. Williams helps research asset allocation and fund selection using criteria such as charges, performance, and quality of fund manager and fund house.
Chapters provides five mostly active in-house model portfolios, tailored where needed, to 290 clients; and outsourced discretionary fund manager services to 60 wealthier ones.
‘We use LGT Vestra for those who want a more aggressive stance within their risk tolerance, and Charles Stanley for a more cautious approach,’ says Churchouse.
The Chapters Financial Balanced portfolio has outperformed the Investment Association Mixed Investment 40% to 85% Shares over the past three years (see chart, right).
The Franklin UK Mid Cap fund, managed by Citywire A-rated trio Mark Hall, Paul Spencer and Richard Bullas, has supported this performance. The Unicorn UK Smaller Companies fund, managed by Citywire + rated Simon Moon, and the Baillie Gifford High Yield Bond fund, managed by Citywire + rated pair Robert Baltzer and Donald Phillips, have also contributed.
Chapters has reduced UK commercial property exposure over the past year in favour of European equities. ‘The post-Brexit moratoriums in some commercial property funds were unnecessary. All bar one were quickly withdrawn again,’ says Churchouse. ‘Will they repeat that if we get another blip? It indicates a lack of confidence. So where we had 15% in commercial property, we have reduced it to 7.5%.’
Churchouse is chartered, certified, and a fellow of the Personal Financial Society and the Chartered Institute for Securities and Investment (CISI). He is also vice-chair of the CISI southern branch. He helps to grow membership, for example through blog writing to improve awareness.
He previously held the IOS22222 standard for financial planning and Chapters held the BS8577. ‘They added huge value when we first started,’ says Churchouse. ‘I recommend that process to anyone. But we lapsed them this year after eight years as the annual investment [had diminishing returns].’
Churchouse has no further study plans, but says he will probably write more books to add to the five he has published already – mostly on various financial planning subjects.
‘The books have also mostly not been a commercial success, but they have been hugely valuable,’ he says. ‘The research that goes into them is a great way of extending knowledge for me and the company.’
Like Scrooge’s employee Bob Cratchit, Churchouse says he has had no work-life balance for the past 10 years and does not expect one soon. But he does not resent this. On the contrary, he says: ‘I love this job. It is a gift and if you are healthy enough to carry on, why not?’
In that sense, it is the gift that keeps on giving.
FIVE TOP TIPS
- Be the best you can in your chosen field and stick to it.
- Ask yourself: would you do this or sell this to a member of your family? If the answer is no, why would you sell it to the client?
- Check your suppliers and professional indemnity insurer annually or biannually. Are they still offering value? When was the last time you did due diligence on them?
- Maintain a clean desk policy at all times for security and ease of working practices.
- Do not be scared to disengage with non-profitable clients.