Slap bang in the centre of England is a town which, while not particularly well known as a cultural hub, has in fact been quietly churning out hugely influential forces on the British public, writes Anna Dumas. Gary Lineker, the Sipp and even Gok Wan all hail from Leicester, and I made my way there to have lunch with another one of its acolytes, CEO of GHC Capital Markets, Paul Harris.
The Case, our chosen venue and the city’s self-acclaimed ‘original and finest champagne bar’ boasts vaulted ceilings, antique floors and a direct view of the car park where they dug up the remains of Richard III.
This window into the town’s heritage prompted me to ask what exactly it was about Leicester that made Harris decide to set up shop there; was it his local ties?
‘Nope,’ he said, ‘it’s because it’s right in the centre of the country and my client base is spread all over the UK so this is a great spot to be in. Also of course, the overheads aren’t as extortionate as they can be elsewhere.’
Apart from a spell in London, Harris has spent the better part of his career in the area, starting out at local firm Hill Osborne and Co (now part of Brewin Dolphin) in the late 1980s.
Delving into our starters, goat’s cheese mousse for me and black pudding for Harris, I asked how he came into the industry.
‘I left school at 18,’ he said. ‘My dad said that I needed to join the army or go to university - so I did neither and joined a local stockbroker as a blue button.’
From there, he explained, it was a direct road to investments.
‘I caught on to things pretty quickly and ended up as a trainee. Fortunately, being the lowest paid person in the office meant that when we went through downturns, I kept my job. I probably cost less than the coffee bill.’
My vision of Harris was then briefly obscured by the arrival of two enormous platters of fish and chips. Tucking in, we got to talking about how, since his career began, he has seen the industry change ‘beyond recognition’ mostly thanks to consolidation.
‘You’ve got financial planners opening up discretionary fund management arms, stockbrokers morphing into wealth managers and all sorts providing Sipps. And all of this can lead to more acquisitions,’ he said.
‘When I first started, everyone was a specialist, but now most firms are moving towards a full service offering.’
Neither of us felt the need to point out one of the main drivers of this trend; I’ve yet to meet a wealth manager for whom regulatory change and its inherent cost isn’t the ever-present elephant in the room.
Harris, for one, believes wealth managers aren’t out of the woods when it comes to such changes. ‘It’s by no means over. We’re all still essentially treading water as we wait for the next regulatory onslaught. It’s so destructive because it stops business being forward looking, it stifles innovation. There’s always the fear that you’ve missed something.
‘Don’t get me wrong, there were real issues in this industry, but the demonisation of financial services became more about politics than anything else.’
Transparency, we discussed over plum crumble and crème brûlée, is being used to soften the public’s attitude towards financial services, but Harris is wary of it being used as a PR battleground rather than a push on best practice, particularly when it comes to the question of wealth firms disclosing total expense ratio figures.
‘Charges should be market-driven,’ he said. ‘If a few firms decide to publish TERs for commercial reasons, the playing field stops being level. That’s why the decision to publish them needs to be regulator-driven. There are too many different ways of calculating them, so we need a regulator-enforced process that everyone has to adhere to, then markets can take care of the rest.’
Rounding off our delicious meal with some dessert wine, I asked what, in the midst of regulatory upheaval and industry change, keeps him optimistic in his role. His answer was simple: ‘Meeting people, getting out there and growing the business.’