Cheeky business partners Simon Frost and Scott Atkinson of Hertford-based GPFM Financial Planners call themselves ‘the Ant and Dec of financial planning’.
Having bought the firm eight years ago, they discovered the best way to promote their double act was to gain chartered status and market it through professional connections and online.
The co-managing directors first met 24 years ago and, just like the TV duo, say they clicked instantly and have been friends ever since.
‘We have been mates for so long we are like an old married couple,’ Atkinson says. ‘We are the Ant and Dec of financial planning, but I’m not sure whose forehead is bigger.’
Having discovered a talent for running a business, Frost and Atkinson say they will not be yelling ‘get me out of here’ any time soon. Frost says: ‘When we bought the business, we had a five-year exit plan and I didn’t want to recruit other advisers, because I liked the business the way it was.
‘Now we have a team of 15 and no retirement plan. We enjoy the job too much and our work-life balance is better than ever.’
SIMON FROST CV
- 2009-present GPFM Financial Planners, joint managing director
- 2009 The Clarkson Hill Group, self-employed IFA
- 2003-2008 BDO Stoy Hayward Investment Management (formerly Numerica), IFA
- 2003 Opus Consulting (formerly C E Heath Financial Services), administrator and IFA
Chartered Financial Planner
Frost and Atkinson served as apprentices with Gerald Pepper when he was running the Hertford branch of CE Heath Financial Services, now owned by Punter Southall. Pepper later set up Gerald Pepper Financial Management (GPFM) after his protégés left to work for other companies. But Frost and Atkinson kept in touch and in 2008 decided they wanted to run their own business.
They contacted Pepper, who they knew wanted to sell, and acquired GPFM, with the help of two private investors, in 2009. The value was based on a multiple of income from profitable clients, and they paid half up front and half on an 18-month earn out.
Pepper stayed on for that period to help smooth the transition and introduce clients and professional connections.
Atkinson says: ‘Buying a business in the middle of the credit crunch was good in that we got a good price. But banks wouldn’t lend to us so two clients, Richard Miller and Chris Edwards, helped us out by investing.
‘They have had various business interests, ranging from recruitment to private medical and general insurance. They had already bought and sold businesses, so could give us good advice on the purchase and continue to add value with their advice on running the business.’
He adds: ‘We also spoke to the non-profitable clients and most signed up to our new ongoing service. We only lost about two. We paid for about 44 profitable clients, converted another 20 to 30 non-profitable ones, and brought around 100 of our own.’
The pair spotted early on that awareness of and demand for the chartered designation was growing and client numbers have more than quadrupled as a result.
SCOTT ATKINSON CV
- 2009-present GPFM Financial Planners, joint managing director
- 2008-2009 The Clarkson Hill Group, self-employed IFA
- 1995-2008 C E Heath Financial Services/Opus Consulting/Punter Southall, IFA
- 1989-1995 Opus Consulting (formerly C E Heath Financial Services), administrator and IFA
Diploma in Financial Planning (CII and PFS)
Atkinson and Frost own 33% of the firm each, with the remainder shared by their two investors. Given their larger existing client base, they did not necessarily need to buy GPFM and give up shares to investors. They could have started a new company with their own name and structure. But they saw a gap in the market for a chartered practice in Hertford with a strategic head start.
‘We were keen to get involved with Gerald’s professional connections, lawyers and accountants,’ says Atkinson. ‘Gerald was well connected locally and that was key to how the business has evolved.’
Frost says: ‘The connections saw two young guys riding into town, so we had to gain their confidence. The company name and introductions made a huge difference.
‘We also held lunches with accountants and pension update presentations to prove our knowledge to them.’
GPFM charges up to 3% initial and 1% ongoing – to a maximum limit of £30,000 a year – priced individually and based on the complexity of work.
3% may seem a high initial fee but Frost stresses this is a maximum. Clients with a straightforward £300,000 investment would typically pay a 2% initial fee and 0.75% ongoing.
‘Clients that need to see us more frequently will pay 1%,’ says Frost. ‘Those with less frequent meetings pay less. Every client gets a comprehensive valuation and review pack and a meeting at least once a year.’
He says with meetings, 10 newsletters a year and other contacts, clients receive a quality service.
Atkinson adds: ‘The clients that see us four times a year do so at their request, as often we’re managing in excess of £1 million for them.’
The firm has around 50 non-active clients on its system. Frost says: ‘These have received a letter saying they are "administration only", so we maintain their records and if they need advice in the future they can get in touch.’
They aim to make £2,000 annual income per client per year, enough to provide the service with a profit margin. The actual average recurring income fell from £1,963 in 2015 to £1,448 this year. It appears, then, that for the past two years, the ongoing service has not been profitable and the firm has been relying on initial fees to stay in the black.
Frost says he and Atkinson will review the ongoing service as a result of this analysis, but he thinks hiring two new advisers brought the figure down for two years. Previously recurring income per client was above £2,000 and it is increasing towards that again, alongside the average net worth, he says.
Most importantly for the overall firm, total profits rose strongly – from £391,000 to £616,000 – in the past two years, and percentage margin remained steady at around 35%.
Taking it further
The pair continued to build links with professionals after Pepper’s retirement and now teach and largely delegate that task to other advisers in the firm. Three to four connections came from the original deal but the firm has 12 now.
After the acquisition, Frost and Atkinson also started building service levels. This included offering more regular contact, for example up to four annual meetings and 10 newsletters a year. They also invested in technology, such as Voyant cashflow modelling; Enable back office; the Fusion platform; and, most recently, Enable’s client portal.
To cater for the consequent growth in clients, GPFM has expanded to 15 staff, comprising six advisers (all employed except one), three paraplanners, three administrators, two in operations and one apprentice.
Frost says the firm now has the right support and infrastructure to recruit three more employed advisers in the next 18 months.
Atkinson adds: ‘That’s phase one. Phase two would be expanding the support team further. We could also look to buy another retiring adviser’s business and open another larger office, or a second one in another location.’
To help build a pipeline of talent, the firm has run an apprentice scheme since 2012. Of the scheme’s four participants, two are still at the company; one working as an administrator, with potential to become a paraplanner; and the current apprentice.
Frost says: ‘50% retention is excellent for a scheme of this type. I gather that in other sectors, many do a year then leave. We have had good feedback from the local college on the variety of work we give them.’
GPFM blends active funds at ‘sensible’ cost with selective use of passives
Before Frost and Atkinson bought GPFM, it tended to pick funds for clients individually. The pair therefore moved quickly to a centralised investment proposition to create more structure and consistency.
They started by recommending risk-targeted, multi-asset, multi-manager funds. Then, having adopted the Fusion platform 18 months ago, the firm switched its main proposition to model portfolio services (MPS) and fund strategies run by Fusion Wealth, Heartwood, Seven Investment Management (7IM) and Brooks Macdonald.
Frost says: ‘We start with the Fusion portfolios, which mainly use active funds at sensible money. I find most people who only use passive do so "to keep costs down". We don’t use the cheapest solution but blend active and passive when appropriate and relevant for the client.’
GPFM uses the 7IM AAP range for clients who prefer some passive investments. Heartwood and Brooks Macdonald use a combination of active and passive funds, and add more diversification for clients with more money. Fusion and 7IM also have ethical options; and Heartwood, Brooks Macdonald and 7IM have income-oriented portfolios.
‘Heartwood is more cautious and focused on risk management, liquidity and avoiding drawdown,’ says Frost. ‘It does a handy monthly strategy call, so we can dial in and listen to updates. Plus we meet their people and other IFAs who use them quarterly.’
The firm added Brooks Macdonald recently as it wanted a choice of four fund managers’ MPS for larger cases. ‘Its reporting is also good, but it focuses more on growth within a given risk parameter, compared with Heartwood’s smoother ride,’ says Frost.
The Fusion Wealth 4 portfolio has lagged the Investment Association Mixed Investment 20% to 60% Shares sector over the past three years. However, the portfolio matched its own more specific sector benchmark closely and has beaten it over five years.
‘We are not looking to outperform the average spectacularly, because that would be equally likely to underperform,’ says Frost.
Spreading the word
In recent years, Frost and Atkinson have worked hard to broaden GPFM’s marketing mix. This included working with online marketing company The Tree. They improved the firm’s website and manage its newsletters, blogs and social media feeds.
‘That has enhanced our proposition and made sure our name is in front of contacts at least once a month,’ says Frost. ‘Since we became a chartered firm in 2014, we have attracted clients looking specifically for firms with the designation in Hertford. We get about one client a month from online marketing now.’
The firm has also started running seminars and client events, such as boat trips, golf days, horse racing, wine tasting, and charity fundraising activities. It also sponsors local basketball, rugby, cricket, bridge and bowls clubs. All these activities have helped bring in new clients, say the managing directors.
Looking back, Atkinson says the pair have made mistakes. For example, they tried to buy a sophisticated back-office system in the early days when they did not have enough people or resources to do it properly. But this was a minor setback compared with the many highlights.
Though they have the same job title, Frost and Atkinson have different roles, with the former doing more marketing and the latter handling the finances. They also manage separate internal teams to promote friendly competition.
They say they challenge each other but have never had a big fallout. ‘It’s been my longest relationship ever,’ jokes Atkinson. ‘But we have so many complementary traits.
‘I have the ideas and Scott completes them. It was an easy decision to go into business together.’
FIVE TOP TIPS
Contact your clients at least eight times a year, even if it is only for a chat.
Surround yourself with quality, passionate, reliable people.
Build a team of sponges, not rocks.
Do not spread yourself too thinly: be excellent at what you do and delegate.
Avoid being a busy fool.