Cascading at 100mph on a zip wire across a north Wales slate quarry is hardly just another day at the office. Yet that is what Holly Heald, director of Norfolk-based Just Financial Planning, found herself doing recently.
The stunt, in which Heald and co-director Roy Durrant descended the fastest zip wire in the world (and the longest in Europe), was organised in aid of charity. In one fell swoop it captured two crucial parts of Heald’s personality: her outdoorsiness and her passion for giving back to the community.
The Just Financial Planning office is nestled in the picturesque surrounds of the Norfolk Broads opposite a parish church. It is a stone’s throw from meadows lining the banks of the River Bure, so it is not difficult to see where her love of the outdoors comes from.
‘You can literally go on a country walk at lunchtime if you want to,’ Heald smiles. ‘Although you might need a change of shoes.’
Along with gardening, cycling, swimming and walking in the office’s verdant surroundings, she occupies herself with the adventurous charity events the whole team takes part in. If that all sounds inadvisably time-consuming, think again: she is keenly aware of the importance of striking an optimal equilibrium between work and life.
‘It’s balancing off the stress,’ she says. ‘I do a body combat class, for example. If you’ve had a stressful day, there’s nothing quite like a bit of combat to make yourself feel better.’
Does she create even more time by having a financial planner of her own? ‘I think I might find that a bit strange,’ she says. ‘My husband would describe me as a control freak when it comes to certain aspects.’ She and co-director Roy Durrant would always be comfortable chatting things through together, but she advises herself.
With a degree in business and economics, Heald says she always wanted to run her own firm, but started out her career at Norwich Union, as it was then known, in 1998. From there she moved to Larking Gowen, a chartered accountants operating out of East Anglia, to develop its financial services department.
‘We provided a very professional, advice-focused service. That was before the retail distribution review [RDR], but the firm was always very fair to clients,’ she says. Soon enough, she gained enough experience to begin advising clients of her own.
It did not last forever, though. After six years at the firm, while she was on maternity leave with her first daughter, the firm sold its financial services department. She was transferred to Knowlden Titlow Financial Services, which she says ‘wasn’t her cup of tea’.
Her clients there were reassigned when she was on maternity leave with her second daughter in 2007, and she felt the time was right to start from scratch elsewhere.
Heald’s vision was to build a business with its sights set firmly on the bigger picture. The name Just is a reference to the importance of fairness. This emphasis was a move away from the pre-RDR climate she experienced at Knowlden Titlow, now purely an insurance broker.
‘There were some really good advisers there, I’m not knocking it, but it was just very hit and miss who you got, and I felt it was a bit inconsistent to clients. I wanted to build a practice that had fairness at the heart of it.’
A year after the birth of her second daughter, she was setting up her business just as the financial crisis was beginning to bite. Some saw her as ‘completely and utterly nuts’, but she ploughed on, deliberately growing the business slowly for the first three to four years because her children were very young.
She stuck to working around school hours, then increased the workload as the children grew up, a process that is set to continue.
‘It’s no secret we’ve been looking to grow our adviser base,’ she confirms. But she includes a note of caution.
‘You have to make sure you’ve got good administration and paraplanning support,’ says Heald. ‘If you try to grow too quickly and just bring loads of advisers in, your clients are going to get very upset when suddenly your service standards drop off.
‘When you’re looking after lots of funds under advice it’s not about trying to go and get more and more clients, it’s about looking after and giving good advice, often to whole generations of the same family.’
This approach has proved successful and the firm has received several phone calls about acquisition, though they have all been declined. Selling up is not on Heald’s agenda, even if she understands why the trend exists.
It can be difficult for small businesses to cope with professional indemnity (PI) insurance costs and the possibility of unexpected levies from the Financial Services Compensation Scheme, she says. Coupled with regulatory changes, it’s a climate that tempts some small firms into selling up.
Assets under advice and income increased dramatically when Heald was joined by co-director Durrant in 2017, who brought over his own client bank, and increased the firm’s business-winning powers. Until then Heald had been the only financial planner at the firm, the other fee-earner being a mortgage adviser.
That same year the firm also saw an increase in queries about defined benefit transfer advice. Just is based in Norwich, somewhat of a hotspot for final salary members, a legacy of Norwich Union, now Aviva, being a huge employer in the town.
Heald charges a set fee for transfer advice (from £1,000). She says despite rising PI insurance costs, she will not close her doors to clients who need a professional service, adding they often advise people to stay put.
Frame of mind
Though there might be challenges, Heald feels the profession as a whole is in a much better place since the RDR.
The culture of people thinking they are going to be flogged a product has almost gone, she says. ‘It’s very much not what our business is about,’ she says. ‘We’re about working with people over the long run and I think that’s been a really good thing for the profession.’
She adds: ‘We very rarely lose a client. Most of the clients I lose, sadly it’s because they’ve passed away or in a couple of cases they might have emigrated. You can never be complacent. It takes years to build that trust, and that’s something I enjoy doing’.
She cites one client who had a degenerative disease and had to stop work. He and his partner had got themselves into a muddle, but they had a lot of value in their house and the prospect of some money in the years to come.
Heald produced a plan, so ‘in five years’ time they would be debt free and back on an even track. In the meantime they’d have enough money to live rather than finding themselves in a complete crisis’.
The bigger picture
The firm is chartered, while Heald is the deputy president and charities representative of the Insurance Institute of Norwich. It all comes back to what she calls ‘the bigger picture’: a holistic approach that considers the wellbeing of clients, her team, and wider society.
This might take the form of team fundraisers like the zip wire, which was in aid of the Norwich & Norfolk Association For the Blind. Last year the firm hiked across Cumbria in aid of Walking for the Wounded, while this year they will be climbing London’s O2 in silly costumes. Then there are more everyday shifts like going paperless where possible, trusting staff with flexible working hours (see page 16), and composting tea bags.
After our interview, Heald sets off to work with someone as part of The Insurance Charities, which was set up to support people who worked in financial services and the insurance industry but have fallen on hard times.
Akin to a solicitor or doctor’s pro-bono work, it seems a fitting note to end on: a use of her skills as an accomplished financial planner that undoubtedly contributes to the bigger picture.
Just Financial Planning charges a tiered initial fee ranging from £300 up to £1,000. A typical fee would sit in the middle at either £500 or £750.
The implementation fee is also tiered, based on how much a client has to invest. A greater investment requires a smaller initial fee, which is calculated on a percentage basis. Typically the implementation fee is around 1% to 2% in total including the review fee, which is offset against it. The firm’s ongoing fee is between 0.5% and 0.75% per year.
The firm carries out some corporate advice, but it is not a big part of the business. Where it does look after schemes, it often works for the directors (as individual clients) as well. On these occasions it tends to operate on a fixed-fee basis with a fee quoted in advance.
A typical client tends to aged around 40 to 60, often a business-owner or recently retired business person. The size of portfolios varies from multi-million pounds to £100,000-£200,000, with an estimated average at around the £300,000 mark.
Heald claims her business looks beyond the bottom line, and one thing that differentiates Just is there is no minimum investment amount.
‘We have a minimum fee structure, but we don’t say: “unless you’ve got £120,000 to £150,000 don’t bother darkening our doors”. That’s important because I think people should be treated with respect.
‘One of my core values is that people should have good access to advice regardless of how wealthy they are. We’ll always have that initial meeting.’
When it comes to segmenting clients, Just’s service proposition is built around what kind of assets the client has and what kind of advice they need. But it can depend on the complexity.
‘The more wealth someone has the more complex their wealth will be,’ says Heald. ‘It’s not always that way but it usually is, because care is needed from all kinds of different angles. But it also depends on the client themselves.’
No discretionary powers
Just avoids putting all its eggs in one basket when it comes to investing. It operates an approximate 50/50 split when it comes to active and passive funds, and uses a mixture of discretionary fund managers (DFMs) and bespoke in-house advisory portfolios.
Although Heald is herself qualified to bring discretionary permissions in-house, the firm believes handling all investment itself could result in a conflict of interest. In short, if a firm is not doing a very good job handling a client’s money on a discretionary basis, what incentive is there to tell them?
The firm’s investment committee meets monthly and monitors asset allocations, but does not have a fixed in-house view.
Heald’s co-director Roy Durrant and chartered financial planner David Coleman run a rigorous research programme to decide which DFMs to use, which all begins with due diligence. Once they are happy the required standard is met, they use FE Analytics to ‘plot all of their different performances on a like for like basis over different timescales’. The firm currently uses LGT Vestra, Brewin Dolphin, Brooks Macdonald and Tatton Investment Management.
Additionally, Just runs a wide range of different bespoke investment solutions in house, to cater for people with socially responsible investment needs for example. It charges a slightly higher percentage for bespoke services because an advisory portfolio is more expensive to run. ‘We charge a bit more, and we pass the saving onto clients where it’s cheaper for us to run,’ Heald says.
‘As an IFA, I’m never going to dictate to my clients what they should do with their money, it’s entirely up to them’, she says. ‘But I’ve noticed more people are asking us about sustainable and ethical investment than ever before. We always ask clients about that.’
She considers it a complex grey area in which people have different views, but will always endeavour to ask the right questions and ensure clients are informed about how best to ensure their investments mirror their priorities. ‘It fits with our general philosophy of doing the right thing for clients, understanding what they’re looking for and putting their interests first.'