Something happened in the sleepy Midlands town of Leamington Spa two weeks ago that sums up the revolutionary urge to professionalise that is sweeping the advisory sector.
Members of the Gateway Consortium, the club of ‘commercially minded’ IFAs founded by Clive Holmes, the veteran life office salesman, unanimously pledged their intention to gain chartered financial planner status in two years.
It is a punchy target and shows the genuine excitement the new qualification has generated among intermediaries since its launch by the Personal Finance Society last year. Brian Steeples, the former PFS president who attended the Gateway meeting with his chief executive Tim Eadon, achieved chartered status in 15 months to prove it can be done. He says: ‘It isn’t a pushover but it’s doable in two years’.
For Holmes, Abbey Life’s top salesman for many years and a founder of the Life Insurance Association (LIA), the decision to go for chartered status alongside
his members is a highly personal one, as well as a canny attempt to improve perceptions of what Gateway is about.
Like many people who leave school at 18 and do not go to university, Holmes, 67, has retained a lifelong fascination with learning and a need to prove his academic credentials. Earlier this year he graduated with a history degree from the Open University (OU). He recalls how he was ‘deeply moved’ by the ceremony in Dublin in which he was presented his degree by Betty Boothroyd, former Speaker in Parliament.
The event took on a wider significance the following month when he read the report in the PFS’ FS magazine about the first graduation ceremony for chartered financial planners (see New Model Adviser® issue 6, 6 March 2006, page 3). ‘I saw that and went, “wow! This is terrific!” A lot of people there were buddies like Brian Steeples.’
In his 40-year-long career Holmes has seen many low points in financial services. But the development of the chartered status is clearly a high point, and moreover an achievement he says could never have happened with LIA or Sofa, with which it eventually merged. He relishes the commitment it is arousing in advisers. Recalling the meeting in Leamington, he says. ‘All our people committed to being chartered in two years. The enthusiasm in the room was incredible.’
Research and learning form an important part of Holmes’s personal and public life. He is proud that the OU has accepted him as PhD student – he plans to write his thesis on John Palliser, the 19th century Irish-born geographer and explorer whose main claim to fame is mapping the boundary between US and Canada from Lake Superior to the Pacific Ocean. Palliser lived in the large house between Cork and Waterford that Clive now owns.
One of his mentors was Sir Mark Weinberg, co-founder of Abbey Life, who he praises for ‘thinking outside the box’ and for writing a ‘seminal thesis on takeovers at the LSE [London School of Economics]’.
But the main person who changed his life was Ben Feldman, the legendary US salesman who inspired Holmes with his motivational presentation at a Million Dollar Round Table conference in 1971. Like many who saw Feldman, Holmes came away with his ‘mind blown’ by the passion the American had for life insurance and the belief in the good it could do for clients.
Holmes kept in touch with Feldman for many years as he launched a UK version of MDRT and later the LIA. Feldman’s focus on finding owners of small family-owned businesses as clients remains one of Holmes’s key strategies.
Another important strand to his work, picked up from his days at Abbey, is an almost obsessive search for new tax-efficient products, which will give clients much better prospects than pensions, which he describes as a ‘black hole’.
Holmes pours much of his energy in finding new investment opportunities and in devising products with ‘strategic partners’. This week he is off to Poland, which he describes as the ‘new Ireland’, to research a new residential property scheme run by a subsidiary of Commerzbank.
The last item on the academic theme is a truly surprising one. Holmes is an advanced ‘neuro-linguistic programmer’, a discipline that emerged in the 1960s to study how humans think and experience the world. A key tenet is that people have different internal languages, indicated by the preference for some to say ‘I feel’, others to say ‘I see’ and others to say ‘I hear’, when they understand something.
For Holmes the practical point of all this slightly hippy-dippy discourse is that the true function of an adviser is as a communicator. Speak to people in their own language, he argues, and success will follow.
And success is what Gateway is all about. At the end of it all Holmes is a consummate salesman and members pay up to 10% of their turnover in order to learn his hard-nosed techniques on finding ‘capacity’ and ‘corporate’ clients, who can put thousands of pounds each month into life insurance regular savings plans
and other vehicles.
Holmes, a keen horseman who likes to ride with his local hunt in Ireland, is determined to raise his members out of financial obscurity and to push them towards turnover of £1 million plus. At the monthly training sessions he gets Gateway advisers to think big, describing his method as ‘the transference of an idea to someone who can afford it’. Commissions pay a big part of this but he dismisses talk that this undermines his members’ independence or professionalism.
Interestingly, like many fee-based advisers Holmes feels life offices are increasingly irrelevant, as he works with a range of boutiques on product developments. He points out Gateway members make less than 30% from conventional life offices. He adds, ‘our single preoccupation is how can we achieve the best result for the client. Why should I think of anything else? Money is immaterial to that. If you are doing really well, money comes anyway.’