Becoming directly authorised is a big deal for Seer Green Financial Planning. The Welsh IFA firm changed its status in October, having previously been an appointed representative of Network Direct.

Speaking to Seer Green director Siobhan Thomas, who co-founded the firm in 2010, you get a sense that going directly authorised is a major milestone. It is like the rite of passage in childhood when the stabilisers come off your bike and you finally experience the freedom of riding without support.

Thomas says: “As an appointed representative you’re part of a network; you’re one of a number of businesses. Now we’re directly authorised we’re in complete control over all our processes and costs, as well as how we shape the business.

“Our last network was supportive but we were doing all the stuff that directly authorised firms would do with reporting requirements. It gave us the confidence to say ‘well, we’re doing it already’.”

Confidence – or rather lack of it – is the reason Seer Green was first established as an appointed representative. With five years’ experience as an IFA under her belt, Thomas knew she wanted to start her own business but at the outset was not sure about being directly authorised.

Building a business as part of a network provided the comfort of having some support but, over the last six years, that has given way to the confidence that comes with experience.

“My vision for Seer Green was to get directly authorised. We felt that was important for the business but it has taken a lot of work to get there. For the future, we’re looking at continuing to grow by increasing the number of advisers. But we’re also talking to other firms that might want to become appointed representatives of us, perhaps to build a small network. The key is planning and we want to recruit 10 new advisers over the forthcoming year.”

Thomas was introduced to the world of financial services through a friend, whose brother worked as an IFA. She joined Berkeley Berry Birch subsidiary Weston Financial Planning in 2005 as a trainee IFA and ended up working for several firms by default, due to successive acquisitions.

“In financial services you can sit at the same desk and work for about eight different companies in a short space of time.”

By the time she had decided to set up Seer Green, Weston Financial Planning had evolved into Honister Capital. Bates Investment Services – part of The Money Portal – bought Weston Financial Planning in 2006. Three years later Honister Capital acquired The Money Portal but it had all gone pear-shaped by 2012 when Honister was forced into administration.

Thomas concedes that working for a company where acquisition followed acquisition was a factor in wanting to set up on her own.

“At that point I’d been in financial services for quite a while and it felt like the right time. I felt like I wanted to be in control. It was probably about a year later that Honister went into administration. With these types of companies you can get to a certain point or a certain size when the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.”

Going from an employee to building a business was a challenge but an exciting one, even down to looking for office space. The highlight was building Seer Green’s team of advisers and support staff.

“We’ve got a good team in the office, we feel as if we are family. I see it as not just my business; all staff have got a say and they take ownership.”

As a working mum of two young children aged two and four, Thomas finds it an ongoing challenge to juggle work and family. “Sometimes you feel pulled in all directions.”

But she would like to see more women in the industry as she feels the flexibility it offers makes it a great career choice for those who need to combine work with the demands of other responsibilities such as children.

“There’s a huge opportunity for women that is being under-utilised. I deal with a number of solicitors and their referrals often involve divorce matters.

“A female client might say their husband took care of everything and they don’t want to use his IFA. It all depends on who clients feel comfortable with.”

The future of financial advice

Thomas is positive about the future of financial advice. “All the changes we have seen will increase competition and put the industry on a par with other professions like solicitors and accountants. There’s been a lot of talk about robo-advice and technology. My view is that face-to-face advice will remain. It certainly continues to be the preference for many of the clients
I deal with.

“That said, it depends on the complexity of advice. A lot of people do their research on the internet in advance of a meeting and ask their adviser to validate if they are on the right course. I’m not sure how it would work for more complex advice but technology can give more people access to simple advice.”

As a specialist in retirement and investment advice, Thomas sees her role as demystifying pensions and driving home the benefits often overlooked due to negative perceptions.

So what does she think needs to happen to ensure more people save for retirement?

“We need to make people more informed about what it costs to get a decent level of income in retirement. If you ask people how much they think they will need to get £10,000 a year they are often way off.

“People have no concept of how big a pension pot is needed to get a decent income. Education has to start with younger people through financial management in schools.”

Five questions

What’s the best bit of advice you’ve received in your career?

Keep it simple as much as possible, even though the world conspires against you sometimes.

What keeps you awake at night?

My two children.

What has had the most significant impact on advice in the last year?

Pension freedoms. We are seeing more enquiries from people with final salary schemes who want to unlock their pensions and have been told to get advice.

If I was in charge of the FCA for a day I would…

Speak to small advice firms to get feedback on what they think the FCA could do to give them more support.

Any advice for new advisers?

Keep gaining qualifications and work towards chartered status. It takes hard work but it is a rewarding job.

CV

2010-present: Director and co-founder, Seer Green Financial Planning

2005-2010: IFA, Honister Capital (via acquisition of Weston Financial Group by Bates Investment Services/The Money Portal)

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