There is a claim you hear when you travel through the Northern Powerhouse: it is very difficult to set up a wealth management business from scratch.
Even if it is ‘one of the big boys’ of wealth management, it can be a challenge, as Rowena Houston, head of Leeds at Investec Wealth & Investment, points out.
According to rivals, Investec W&I’s branch is by far the biggest in the city, although the company does not disclose regional assets under management. It has 130 staff, including 33 investment managers and four financial planners, occupying a whole building by the canal.
Investec W&I has been able to establish a strong local presence and virtually all the big wealth management names, aside from Rathbones, have offices in the city, which has in recent decades opened a new chapter as a regional financial centre. But for boutiques, setting up will be more challenging, Houston says.
‘Certainly the names we come up against when we’re pitching for business or doing the beauty parades are the same companies.
‘They’re very well respected in the city and have been here for a very long time. The key is the connections that they’ve got, and the people they bring in. Without that, it’s very difficult to start from scratch and build that history and that connection with the city and the region.
‘In the IFA world, there might be different companies appearing, but again I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the people underneath that company are longstanding people of this region.
‘But certainly, in our world, it tends to be the key players that have been here for years.’
She adds that a few of the major players who have not been in the city have tried setting up shop, ‘but they haven’t lasted long’.
So how did Investec W&I manage to not only have an office in Leeds, but also become the largest one among its competitors?
The group, which has £32.5 billion in funds under management, entered the city with an acquisition, which is also how Houston came on board some 20 years ago.
She actually started her career in London, in 1993, at Lloyds Investment Managers, which merged with TSB Group two years later.
She then decided to move to Leeds in 1996, and took up the role of investment assistant at BWD Rensburg, a Yorkshire-based stockbroking firm, which had three established offices in Leeds, Bradford and Huddersfield with long histories.
Not long after, the firm was taken over by Investec W&I, which decided to merge all three offices into a single hub in Leeds to capitalise on the growth of the financial services sector in the city.
Houston became a senior investment director in 1999 and in January this year was rewarded for her loyal service, having stuck it out for more than two decades in the city.
Combining the three offices of BWD Rensburg gave Investec W&I the strong starting point it required, but the company needed someone to take that forward.
Houston’s predecessor Simon Kaye was the man and stayed at the helm of the branch for more than 20 years.
It can be daunting to replace someone who has been in a job for that long, especially when it is the person who developed a well-established business in one of the core cities of the Northern Powerhouse.
That was the challenge facing Houston, who was handed the reins by the retiring Kaye. Held in high esteem by rival firms in the city, he had built a lot of respect in the local wealth and investment management scene.
But at the time of her appointment, Investec W&I chief executive Jonathan Wragg said Houston had also played a ‘hugely significant role’ in building the firm’s presence in Leeds and the wider region.
Like all newcomers to a top job who replace long-serving popular figures, Houston admits the first few months have been ‘difficult’, with the work-life balance proving to be a particular struggle.
But she is not the only one at the firm who had to adapt to now being the one in charge.
Along with Houston, it has been all change at the top in a lot of Investec W&I’s northern offices over the past year or so.
Jon Seal and Jonathan Quick, respective heads of Investec W&I’s Liverpool and Manchester offices, both retired in the past year and have been replaced by Carl Cross and Richard Greenhalgh, respectively.
In Sheffield, former head Tom Street was promoted to managing director, allowing senior investment director Matthew Beddall to step into the role.
Having three other Investec W&I office heads who are comparatively new in their role has been a source of help for Houston.
‘The four of us are new office heads so we’ve set up a group where we get together, share ideas, things that have happened, problems that we’re up against or issues we’ve come across that we’re not quite sure how to deal with. Just pooling those ideas and sharing that has really helped,’ she says.
It has also been a useful mechanism to help find ways to improve the business, Houston adds. ‘We don’t want to radically change what we do because there’s nothing wrong with what we do, but we want to look with fresh eyes at some of the processes that we use, best practice around the organisation and have a little bit more cross collaboration.’
Houston also says Kaye has been instrumental in helping her find her feet in the new role.
‘When [Simon Kaye] took the decision to retire – and he was part of my appointment as well – he was very supportive. Not telling me what I should be doing, but just being there if I need that support.
‘He offers advice if there’s a situation I’ve not dealt with or maybe a group or committee that I’ve not been part of and he has.
‘He’s been able to coach me and mentor me in that way. That’s been really good.’
Now that she has taken the top job in Leeds, Houston’s plans for the office seem to involve an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach.
‘It’s not about doing anything massively different to anything we’ve done in the run-up to me taking the office role,’ she says, ruling out going on a big recruitment drive or bolstering the office in the short-term with acquisitions.
‘It’s more about making sure we’re investing in the people we’ve got, making sure the new people coming through have the right talents, qualifications and skills, and building on the network of people we know in the region to make sure we’re the first name on the tip of their tongues if clients want investment advice.’
As for looking after clients herself, Houston has no plans to stop doing that, despite taking on the extra responsibility of running a whole office. She sees it as a good way to actually improve the offering.
‘There are some clients that have been with me since I started, and I still look after them,’ she says. ‘I get Christmas cards from them and pictures of their 70th birthday or 50th anniversary. It is something that I will continue doing.
‘If someone comes out of the blue and says “look, I could really do with a good investment manager, who would you recommend?” then I would pass them onto one of our investment managers.
‘But if it was a friend, or someone from my professional network who I had known for the past 20 years, then I would probably look after them myself.
‘I like being at the coalface, it’s what I’ve done my whole career. And I think it’s really important to get that feedback, to know what we are doing well and what we can do to improve.’
Having taken over from someone who had been in the job for practically three decades, does Houston envisage herself emulating her predecessor’s stint in the post?
‘Yes, I hope so!’ she says. ‘But I’ve never really set myself career goals, I’m just not driven that way.
‘The thing that drives me is being given a job or getting a job and then doing it and doing it well, and fine tuning and honing those skills and just improving as I go through my career. And more by good fortune really that has been recognised along the way so I’m just approaching this job with the same attitude.
‘I’ve been given this opportunity, I’m embracing it and I’m trying to do the best I can do and I will continue to do that. If that’s good enough to be recognised in the future in some other way, then great. That’s all I can do really.’