‘He nearly fell off his chair laughing,’ recalls Neil Moles, describing his first meeting with Dominic Scoffield, the owner of Leeds-based financial advisory Lawrence Scoffield.
The then 24-year old Moles had told Scoffield that he would join his firm if he could buy it. His new boss was impressed by his front, both were true to their word and four years later, Moles went on to lead a buyout back in 2008.
Now rebranded as Progeny Group, the company has been completely overhauled. It has offices in Leeds and London and its proposition has been broadened from pure financial planning to include discretionary investment management, and private and corporate legal services – what Moles describes as the four pillars of the business.
Still shy of 40, he has never been one to let his relative youth deter him from taking on a challenge. Moles left school at 16, initially shunning the conventional route of going to university (‘I’m not a big lover of debt’) because he knew he wanted to work in financial services.
He instead opted for an apprenticeship at Skipton Building Society, later moving to its advisory arm, Skipton Financial Services, where he quickly set about building his professional qualifications. After a brief stint at Bates Investment Services in a technical admin role, he joined Manor Financial in 2002, first as a paraplanner, before qualifying as a financial planner.
‘I realised that at 18/19, no-one took me seriously in front of clients, so I continued taking my exams. The only way I could do it was by being the best,’ he says.
‘I continued on the professional route, but I still knew I had an educational gap so I did a degree in business management in a year. I was 22, had no debt and was way ahead of my friends coming out of university. I had professional qualifications and life experience.’
While at Leeds-based Manor, Mole started visiting London one day a week to build and diversify his client bank, and it was his success in doing this that was one of the things that caught Scoffield’s eye.
‘I didn’t know them, but he said he’d heard of me and wanted me to come and join,’ he says.
That prompted the 2004 meeting in which Moles launched his ambitious takeover gambit, and after working his ‘proverbial off’ for three years, he felt the time had come to follow through with the proposition.
‘I emailed Dominic in 2007 and said I’m ready and want to buy the business. We met for lunch the next week and he wrote a number on a napkin and said if you can get me that by next year you can have the business – the figure was £5.25 million,’ he says.
Moles and the company’s management team were able to get the cash together and the transaction was completed on 4 March 2008 in the eye of the credit crunch.
He admits it was a risk, both personally and professionally, but he was sanguine, believing that ‘you get one, or maybe two, chances in life if you’re lucky’.
Now at the helm of Lawrence Scoffield, Moles set about restructuring it in a bid to improve both its professionalism and profitability. The company on paper had 10,000 clients, but he admits that in reality, the vast majority were dormant.
‘We took it down to 350 clients who wanted to work with us and pay us,’ he says. ‘Every time we reduced the list, our profits went up.’
That provided a base, which has since grown to 1,200. Over time, as the company starting making more and more family office contacts, Moles decided it was time for a deeper rethink about how the company was positioned.
The management recognised that high net worth clients, who were often spread across multiple jurisdictions, needed other professional services beyond financial planning.
‘When we were dealing with wealth clients, they all had trusts and we found no client just needed wealth advisory – it wasn’t joined up. We also recognised that these high net worth clients own property and businesses, and have a whole raft of other legal needs,’ he says.
‘So we created Progeny in 2014. It was a case of do we evolve Lawrence Scoffield or do we start afresh. We chose Progeny and the brand is really important to us, it means child of or next generation.
‘Rebranding is very hard. You need to change the mindset of individuals and sell them your USP – I hate to use the word sell, but you have to when you’re launching a brand.’
The financial advisory core of Lawrence Scoffield was renamed Progeny Wealth and the first new pillar added was on the legal side with the company hiring in a team in Leeds to build Progeny Private Law in 2015. The company brought in a specialist corporate lawyer to create Progeny Corporate Law and recruited a team of six from Redmayne-Bentley to establish Progeny Asset Management last year.
With the four pillars now in place, Moles believes Progeny can offer the breadth of services to meet the needs of the most complex and demanding client, while being positioned for growth.
All of the divisions have adopted a fixed fee model for transparency and Moles says this also promotes efficiency as ‘it’s our responsibility to make a profit and not just charge the client more because we can’t.’
It remains early days for the company in its current guise and it is difficult to get a grip on the numbers. Its new divisions are in their infancy and the company only files abbreviated accounts, which do not require the disclosure of past profitability. Assets under advice or management are also undisclosed.
But as significant shareholders in the business, the executive team is clearly incentivised to make it work, and Moles stresses the importance of key staff having ownership
‘We have four separate companies under the Progeny Group, which is owned by the management, so everyone shares in its success or failure. From a client perspective, they get frustrated when people move around and with the shares – we are able to lock people in,’ Moles says.
‘If we buy a business, we’ll only do it if the existing management rolls over a significant amount of their equity into the company, if they believe in the business and we’re in it together. We don’t want them to take a pay out and ride off into the sunset.’
Further acquisitions to accelerate growth and build scale could be on the cards, but Moles stresses that they would have to fit culturally and be immediately accretive to profitability.
‘I’m excited about the future. We have 52 people in the group, including a lot of back office staff because there needs to be. It will have probably doubled next year with a couple of acquisitions, but they have to be right.’