Adviser profile: Sharon Sutton of Thornton Chartered Financial Planners

Former Commonwealth Games competitor Sharon Sutton loves a challenge.

Sharon Sutton's CV

2017–present: Personal Finance Society, president

2012–present: Personal Finance Society, member-nominated director

2000–present: Thornton Chartered Financial Planners, managing director

1999–2000: Marsh (Isle of Man), assistant director

1984–1999: Barclays, various roles from office junior to IFA

Sharon Sutton's CV

2017–present: Personal Finance Society, president

2012–present: Personal Finance Society, member-nominated director

2000–present: Thornton Chartered Financial Planners, managing director

1999–2000: Marsh (Isle of Man), assistant director

1984–1999: Barclays, various roles from office junior to IFA

Sharon has given us these top tips for business: 

1. Invest in your community. If your community becomes more successful, so will you. It is the law of the universe.

2. Assemble the very best team. Hire people smarter than you to get you there. Get the specialist help you need.

3. Listen to podcasts, read books, talk to business owner clients and listen to them. Remember to shut up.

4. Walk the talk and be the best you can be. Decide on how best to deploy your time and talent.

5. Remember the answer to ‘better’ is technology and be prepared to pay for it, both in time and money.

'I don't do things by halves'

Looking around her at the start line of the 2002 Commonwealth Games road race, Sharon Sutton had a revelation. Despite hundreds of hours of cycling training, she realised the bike was not her calling after all. Financial planning was.

This was a defining moment in Sutton’s career. It has led to her mastering financial planning at her own firm and becoming president of the Personal Finance Society (PFS).

‘Planning took over from cycling,’ she says. ‘I don’t do things by halves.’ Once she had decided not to continue pursuing a professional cycling career, she threw everything into the firm she had founded two years previously: Thornton Chartered Financial Planners.

‘I only know how to do things one way and that is all in,’ she says.

She attributes the route she has taken to a series of ‘wake-up calls’: moments when she found herself in frustrating and unrewarding roles.

‘It was a wake-up call for me working as an office junior at Barclays. I could see this life where I could stay in Ramsey, Isle of Man, and be a cashier forever. That was my glass ceiling.’

 

Fast learner

Although her mother was a successful entrepreneur, money soon became a persistent worry for Sutton’s family in Ramsey. She felt pressure to start earning as soon as possible after her parents separated, forcing mum and kids out of the family home.

Her mother left the children’s nursery business she had set up and took on four cleaning jobs to pay the bills.

Higher education was not a financially viable option for Sutton in those days. But she achieved the degree equivalent qualification of chartered financial planner in 2009. She states proudly she was the first chartered financial planner on the Isle of Man.

However, similar to gearing up on the start line at the Manchester Games, Sutton had another realisation years later when, soon after attaining chartered status, she attended her first PFS annual conference.

Looking at the calibre of planners around her, she could see they were streets ahead, providing high-quality, life-changing financial planning for their clients. But this time she did not step aside. She made it her mission to get to the same level.

‘I saw [life planner] George Kinder and [Informed Choice financial planner] Nick Bamford present at the conference and I thought: “Hang on, I don’t do any of this.”

‘I was a chartered financial planner. But from what I could see, I was not really doing what I consider proper financial planning.'

Support network

Sutton highlights Tina Weeks, director of London-based Serenity Financial Planning, and Ruth Sturkey, client director of London-based The Red House Consulting, as ‘real role models’. She also looks up to Jane Gow, chartered financial planner at Chester-based Clear Cut Financial Planning.

‘They showed me what I should be doing to deliver what I knew my clients needed. They need peace of mind they are not going to run out of money before they run out of life.’

In 2012 she met Paul Armson, a consultant who runs the Inspiring Advisers financial planning training course. He trained Thornton in using the Truth cashflow modelling software.

‘It was a big change for us at that point when we started to use cashflow modelling and lifestyle financial planning.’

Unlike her mother, Sutton did not have to sacrifice her business venture for her family. Her husband, Julian, who had been her dentist for 20 years before they got together, retired from dentistry to be a stay-at-home father to their son Luke. Now Luke is older, Julian works as compliance director at Thornton and sits on the firm’s investment committee.

Sutton joined the PFS board in 2012. She later became a nominated director and was eventually appointed president of the board in 2017.

However, Thornton’s location presents challenges for the business. Firms on the Isle of Man are regulated by the Isle of Man Financial Services Authority. But, they can opt into the regulations of the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) as well.

Thornton has adopted the majority of the FCA’s Conduct of Business sourcebook rules and uses the same suitability regime as the UK. But staff need to be up to speed with two regulatory systems.

Island issues

Another disadvantage is that providers are reluctant to approach firms based on the island. To do business on the Isle of Man, providers regulated by the FCA may need to seek authorisation to work with non-UK firms.

Providers have to make a decision as to whether this would be worth their while. Considerations include how it might affect their professional indemnity insurance.

This limitation makes it impossible, in Sutton’s view, to be a fully independent advice firm there. 

‘There are many advantages to working on the Isle of Man,’ she says. But it is really hard to be independent, whole of market because you are selected against constantly by UK providers.’

For this reason, last year all Thornton clients signed new terms of business for a restricted proposition.

‘You cannot really be independent here,’ says Sutton. ‘There is no point selling ISAs for example. You cannot advise on structured products.

‘Our clients have signed new terms of business on that basis. We have explained that we consider ourselves to be whole of market for the Isle of Man in that we consider everyone we can that is available to us.’

Thornton’s restricted proposition offers clients discretionary investment management for portfolios worth over £200,000 to platform investment on Parmenion or Old Mutual Wealth for smaller portfolios. Sutton says the segregation is not strict however.

‘Over £200,000 to £250,000 we outsource because that tends to be the minimum for the discretionary services,’ she says. ‘It is not a hard and fast rule though. In the meetings, it comes down to whether clients value a bespoke fund manager and the things that go with that or not.

‘If needs be, we are happy to use a platform investment if that suits the client. They might want a wholly passive or an ethical portfolio, which Parmenion does beautifully.’

Social awareness

Sutton is acutely aware of areas in which finance and financial services have historically let women down.

‘Money is good at doing all sorts of things but it is not very good at supporting many roles women find themselves in, such as carers and educators,’ she says. ‘They tend to be less valued and they have to be funded by taxes and charity.

‘Social care has not been monetised or professionalised in the way we would have liked. That all comes back to the values we ascribe to dealing with money.’

She is also all too aware of the lack of women in leadership positions in business. She is prepared to do what she can to rectify that.

‘If I can find other board roles that do not conflict with my current roles, I would definitely consider them,’ says Sutton.

However, she will not be taking on any additional roles until she has completed her term as PFS president. On top of running her firm, she is heading up a newly formed PFS financial planning practitioner panel. She is also taking the lead on PFS events such as the upcoming Power Live conference in June.

PFS chief executive Keith Richards says Sutton’s work is already making waves in her role as president.

‘As a successful practitioner running a progressive business on the Isle of Man, her personal insight and first-hand experiences are invaluable,’ he says.

‘Sharon is passionate about the profession she represents. She gives up her time willingly to give something back.’

He said she had invested extra time during her year as president while playing a key role in her local adviser community. 

‘Her presidential theme of “financial planning good practice” has already had a positive impact,’ says Richards. ‘She is a true professional and a pleasure to work with. I would like to thank her for her commitment, expert counsel and support.’

It is clear her drive to keep improving standards in the profession is no less than the determination and commitment it took to get to the Commonwealth Games. 

The fees bit

Thornton offers a free initial meeting for potential clients to establish whether they are a good fit. If they choose to proceed, they are quoted a fee for the second phase based on the work required, which would include a cashflow planning exercise. This starts from around £1,500.

The first meeting on financial goals is about tackling a key issue for clients: how much is enough?

‘We are really good at fact finding,’ says Sutton. ‘We go through some fairly in-depth questions about whether their money is giving them the right return on life for example.’

After completing a full analysis, Thornton provides a financial report. The cost of implementing any recommendations depends on the amount of work required and the level of investment responsibility the firm is taking on. Thornton tends to factor the cost of the planning exercise into the subsequent implementation fee. The firm would not disclose this because, Sutton says, it is bespoke to each client.

Implementation fees are not charged on a percentage of assets basis because, Sutton says, it is an administration function.

She believes the value is in the plan. To keep that on track, clients pay an ongoing advice fee of 0.75% if investments are being held on a platform, or 0.5% if investments are managed by a discretionary fund manager (DFM).

For clients’ investment solutions, Thornton uses DFMs Quilter Cheviot or Thomas Miller, which both have a presence on the Isle of Man. Sutton says the early adoption of Quilter Cheviot has kept clients’ fees low over the years: 0.75% for portfolios of less than £1 million and 0.5% for portfolios more than £1 million. The fees for Thomas Miller are 0.75%.

Throughout the year, clients are entitled to a forward planning meeting and unlimited contact with the firm. Thornton acts as a gatekeeper, ensuring providers are doing what they say they will. The firm is on hand to update the client’s financial plan if anything has changed.

The investment bit

Thornton entirely outsources its investment management, mostly to Quilter Cheviot and Thomas Miller. The firm’s investment committee stays in regular contact with its outsourced investment managers to ensure they are working to what is suitable for the client’s attitude to risk.

‘We give the DFM a mandate,’ says Sutton. ‘We do the suitability and we know the client, so we guide the manager as to what he or she should be doing. We act as the conduit between the client and the manager.

‘We have an investment committee that carries out due diligence on all of our providers and we have regular meetings with the managers who work on the discretionary side.’

Where a client is not suited to a discretionary investment manager, Thornton will use a platform and choose a risk-targeted portfolio.

For clients with ethical preferences for their investments, Thornton rates the Parmenion platform for its flexibility.

‘Parmenion offers a whole spectrum of possibilities,’ says Sutton. ‘With some platforms you get one of the risk-targeted funds and have no choice on it. But with Parmenion you get a risk-targeted five, for example. But you can choose to make it active, passive, strategic and maybe ethical as well. You are allowed some choices.’

Twitter

You can follow Sharon on Twitter using the handle @sharonsutton99.

Here are her Twitter highlights:

 

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