Profile: Fiona Oliver and James Roberts of Partners Wealth Management

James Roberts and Fiona Oliver represent the changing face of Partners Wealth Management, which has drafted in a raft of big hitters since we last visited the firm

When Partners Wealth Management first appeared as a New Model Adviser® cover star, in 2014, we pictured five of its partners suited and booted in the City of London. All of them were men. Five years on, the team looks different and the culture of the firm has changed as well.

The big change has been to hire a professional business head for every department, such as compliance, finance, operations and marketing, as opposed to these being headed up by an adviser. Most of these have been women.

‘We have brought in a full-time specialist – a business manager – to lead each department,’ says managing partner James Roberts. ‘It puts risk management in place and means growth has been fantastic.’

It is, he says, the next step in the professionalisation of financial advice businesses.

‘A lot of advisers represent their clients so their skillset is very much in empathy with the individual. This isn’t necessarily the same skillset you need for structuring and running a business, for controlling risk and seeing the bigger picture.’

When Partners Wealth Management first appeared as a New Model Adviser® cover star, in 2014, we pictured five of its partners suited and booted in the City of London. All of them were men. Five years on, the team looks different and the culture of the firm has changed as well.

The big change has been to hire a professional business head for every department, such as compliance, finance, operations and marketing, as opposed to these being headed up by an adviser. Most of these have been women.

‘We have brought in a full-time specialist – a business manager – to lead each department,’ says managing partner James Roberts. ‘It puts risk management in place and means growth has been fantastic.’

It is, he says, the next step in the professionalisation of financial advice businesses.

‘A lot of advisers represent their clients so their skillset is very much in empathy with the individual. This isn’t necessarily the same skillset you need for structuring and running a business, for controlling risk and seeing the bigger picture.’

Wealth of talent

The first key hire was business director Fiona Oliver, who comes from a corporate background at Towry, Reuters and Siemens. The next was Lauren Postlethwaite, compliance and operations officer, who was brought in from the Financial Ombudsman Service.

Greg Young, who had run operations across the south of England for Tilney, is now operations director. Claire Reeve had worked at Morgan Stanley and is now head of finance, and Toto James heads up marketing, having come from marketing at large law firms.

‘We didn’t make a conscious drive for diversity. When we were hiring people to be leaders we were really open minded to not just blindly hire in our own image,’ says Roberts.

‘For example, when we met Fiona she was the standout candidate by a mile. When we looked into finance and marketing, Toto and Claire were the standout candidates. And what we found, and I think we were conscious we would find this, is that by having more women, we get different perspectives.

‘Toto’s also from a different background so that also brings a different perspective. And different perspectives lead to more considered decisions.’

The common denominator for most of these hires is they were previously working at large organisations but wanted more flexible routines. Which is where Partners has something to offer. ‘Claire wanted to come back to work two or three days a week so we’re getting someone really exceptional but working the flexibility she wants,’ Roberts says.

‘Fiona works four days a week, Hilary [Schofield, named a Timewise Power 50 ‘power returner’ this year] works four days a week. Claire works flexibly, people have the freedom to structure their work around their lives and that’s really helped with recruitment and it’s helped with culture as well.’

Oliver adds: ‘It has helped with culture because men as much as women today want to work flexibly. They have other things going on in their lives. For example, one adviser came to us from being a UBS private banker because he wanted to do charity work alongside his professional work.’

‘He now takes one day out a week to be the director of a charity. You couldn’t achieve that balance while working as a private banker at UBS,’ says Roberts.

Bright prospects

Flexible working has helped attract diverse talent to the firm, but what would Roberts say to firms worried about the financial or other implications of introducing flexible working? ‘The key is culture. You have to genuinely believe people perform better when being empowered to live life on their own terms.’

However, the situation is potentially simpler at Partners, which comprises self-employed advisers, because each adviser comes with a ready-made client bank.

As well as bringing people in at the top, Partners has been training up its own advisers through its academy programme. Two men and two women will receive a year of formal training follow ed by support, such as regular monthly meetings with Oliver.

The reason for the academy is twofold, Roberts says. ‘Some older advisers are ready to pass down clients and need the next generation coming through. And our marketing push means we have different client sizes coming through and we need the next generation to service professionals, for example aged 30-to-45, who are coming through the City.’

Oliver adds: ‘We had a request recently from an entrepreneur in their 30s. What better person to send along than a youngster who can relate to the trials and considerations that person has in their life? They’re the same generation so they get it.’

Academy advisers have already made an impact on the business. For example, one has taken over the client bank of an adviser who died, retaining 98% of clients. Another had developed a client base in conjunction with a senior adviser.

Another academy alumnus worked with an adviser to take over their client bank when they retire, and one is working in a dual paraplanner and adviser role.

Rate watchers

In our 2014 profile, Partners was excited about a piece of technology called Yodlee, which brings deposit accounts together. But in the end, Fusion, the platform the firm is largely reliant on, decided not to run with it, Robert says. Since then, however, open banking has provided a similar opportunity for Partners to collate and display its clients’ money.

‘We now have a service called PMW Deposit Service, which allows clients to take their money and split it between up to 20 different banks,’ says Roberts. ‘So they can derisk but at the same time digitally move money between those banks so they’re always getting the best rate.

‘We started this in January and 65 clients have moved their deposits to it. That then feeds into [our client] portal so clients can see this alongside their other investments.’

Oliver adds: ‘It is good for a number of clients. People who have had a divorce settlement or have just sold their business so have suddenly got an injection of cash have the 

comfort of knowing they can hold that somewhere secure without having to make a decision right away.’

With improved technology solutions, and increasing staff and clients, Partners has had steady growth. With income expected to be £11.2 million this year and £1.55 billion assets under advice, how is the firm using its profits?

The firm retains elements of profit for capital adequacy, staff bonus and reinvestment, distributing the balance to the 17 advisers who are qualified as members of the firm.

United front

One challenge to growth when it comes to staff is that internal social gatherings happen less organically. Events must be planned in advance and made suitable for a more diverse team.

‘We still come together twice a year for a Christmas and summer party,’ Roberts says. ‘But we need to be more inclusive, such as for people who don’t drink. So this year we’re thinking of going somewhere as an event to do things slightly differently.’

Another way staff can come together is at client events or charity drives. Client events this year include a ‘wine and wisdom’ event, where attendees learn about different wines from around the world and the economies of those regions. ‘That one is very oversubscribed,’ Roberts says. There is also an ethical investing event coming up in May and a women’s networking event.

It cannot be said that Partners staff are not prepared to break a sweat for charity. Demanding physical challenges await them this year, including walking the Three Peaks in 24 hours; a bicycle ride from London to Brighton and back, ‘because apparently just London to Brighton doesn’t cut it anymore’; and competing in a Tough Mudder race. This year Citywire donated £500 to one of the charities Partners is supporting, a charity aimed at reducing knife crime.

‘We feel [the effect of knife crime] in London. We’re really privileged to be sitting here in the middle of the City and yet you only need to go a mile in any direction to be in an area where there is cheek by jowl that success and alienation,’ Roberts says.

‘That common goal [of charity] brings in employee engagement. We’re not just here for work and that’s really helped,’ Oliver says.

The fee bit...

Partners’ fees have not changed since 2014. They are still up to 3% for initial and implementation, and up to 1% ongoing, with the platform fee discounted. This may have been considered high for advice firms five years ago, and perhaps certainly would now, following Mifid II regulations, a gloomy market outlook and an expected advice fee focus from the Financial Conduct Authority’s retail distribution review work this year.

‘The fee is dependent on size and complexity, and tiers down for larger clients,’ says Roberts. ‘So yes I would agree [3% up front is high] and a larger client wouldn’t get that fee. Our fee scale is bespoke to each client.’

Partners’ average client size has just surpassed £1 million in assets under advice. 

The investment bit

Since 2014 Partners has developed its investment proposition by agreeing a bespoke partnership with Asset Risk Consultants (ARC). ARC evaluates discretionary fund managers (DFMs) in the UK, but is doing a separate evaluation for Partners based on a bespoke set of criteria.

This is because ARC’s standard criteria weights reputation of the DFM very highly, and returns not as highly, says Roberts. He says ARC mostly works with trustees and people in charge of governance of money as opposed to those owning it themselves.

‘We found private clients venerated risk and return higher than reputation of managers so we’ve tweaked the standard ARC matrix to something bespoke.’

Clients can therefore access bespoke DFM portfolios, ARC managers directly via funds, or model portfolios. ‘It is via the models that we have really drilled down our fees,’ says Roberts. ‘We now have DFMs running portfolios for us from eight basis points.’

For whichever solution suits a client best, an external system – be that experienced analysts, reports, external oversight or an empirical system – must be used before an adviser can implement any investment decisions. This means there is not an investment committee per se.

‘The idea of no one in-house investment philosophy really resonates with clients,’ Oliver says. ‘It allows us to spread and reduce risk, which makes clients very sticky and keen to refer.’

Fiona Oliver's CV

2016 - present: Partners Wealth Management, partnerships director

2014 - 2016: Towry, head of practice (Guildford)

2008 - 2013: Towry, wealth adviser

2002 - 2006: Siemens, European sales manager

2001 - 2002: Siemens, European account director

1999 - 2000: Siemens, senior account manager

1996 - 1998: Reuters UK, account manager

1995 - 1996: Reuters UK, client support executive

1994 - 1995: Sharp plc, bilingual liaison executive

 

James Roberts' CV

2004 - present: Partners Wealth Management, managing partner

2002 - 2004: Scott Goodman Harris, IFA

2001 - 2002: Coutts, private banker

1999 - 2001: Equitable Life, representative

1993 - 1999: Endsleigh Insurance, south-east area manager

Professional memberships/qualifications

Diploma in Financial Planning

Certified Financial Planner

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