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Up close with Ken Davy

31 October 2016

Ken Davy founded SimplyBiz, the UK’s largest provider of outsourced regulatory and business support to financial advisers, 14 years ago, but at the grand age of 75 has ambitions to return to advising, writes Jennifer Hill.

Tailor measuring suit

One can’t fail to be impressed by Ken Davy’s CV. During a 46-year-long career in financial services, he has built three thriving businesses from scratch.

He has known political success too, being elected to Huddersfield Borough Council in 1968, aged 26, after campaigning for Huddersfield Sports Centre to be built. He ceased serious political involvement after the October 1974 general election to concentrate on his career as a financial adviser.

He regards financial advice as “one of the finest careers one could have”, but it wasn’t his first. Following four years as a cruise ship photographer – the last two as chief photographer on the Oriana, then the world’s third largest liner, during which time he became the first in the world to process and print commercial colour photographs at sea – he started a photographic business in Huddersfield shortly before his 21st birthday.

“Working with a partner, it became very successful, but by 29 I was spending several days a week on voluntary work both as a borough councillor and a parliamentary candidate,” says Ken, who has four daughters, 11 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren with Jennifer, his wife of 53 years.

“I was married with a young family and decided I needed to find a new career which would give me the freedom to work my own hours. I had a self-taught background in psychology, economics and investment – I bought my first shares at 19 – and also loved helping people, so financial services seemed a natural choice.

“I gave my half of the photographic business to my partner and joined Abbey Life as a commission-only direct salesman in December 1970.”

Founding figure

Ken became an independent financial adviser in 1980 and founded his own practice, Kenneth E Davy Financial Services. He has advised more than 2,000 clients and their families during his career.

He helped to form the Life Insurance Association (LIA) in the early 70s and served in almost every role before becoming its president in 1991. He was also a founding director and joint deputy chairman of IFA Promotion and a founding director of the Association of Independent Financial Advisers.

He regards his involvement with the LIA as the most memorable period of his career. “The ability to learn from my peers whilst also sharing my own knowledge, experience and philosophies was a fantastic opportunity which I’ll never forget,” he says. “Many friendships continue to this day.”

In 1983, he created the network concept to train and support other advisers on compliance and regulation. His network, DBS, became the largest business of its kind in the UK, employing 400 staff and serving 3,000 advisers. It was one of the first companies to join AIM, the London Stock Exchange’s junior market, and achieved a full listing before being taken over in 2001.

A year later, Ken founded his current business, SimplyBiz. “I was searching for a new challenge,” he says. “After listening to and chatting with a great many financial advisers I concluded that there was both a demand and a need for a compliance and business support service that combined straightforward practical help for advisers with cost effectiveness.

“At the end of July 2002 Jennifer and I headed off for an Alaskan holiday and I wrote the business plan on the nine hour flight to Vancouver. A month later SimplyBiz was born and at the end of November we launched to the IFA market.”

One year in, the company was serving 300 firms. Today, its 360-strong workforce provides compliance, software, technology and training support to 2,600 directly regulated firms and more than 6,000 individual advisers. Services range from helping firms become regulated for the first time to highly specialised technical support.

People person

Ken describes himself as a “people person” – “I’m as at home dealing with top executives and government ministers as I am the most junior member of the SimplyBiz team” – and cites his top tip for advisers in today’s marketplace as “see the people”.

“It sounds trite, but the reality is that you can have all the financial qualifications and technical knowledge in the world, but if you don’t put it to work by meeting prospective clients and using it to solve their problems it is worthless,” says the SimplyBiz chairman.

For Ken, clients’ goals have changed little over the years. “Whatever changes in the world – be it economic collapse, rampant inflation, low inflation, credit crisis, high taxation, low taxation, Labour, Tory or coalition governments, self-regulation, strict regulation, good markets or poor markets – the hopes, dreams and aspirations of clients and prospective clients remain unchanged,” he says.

“They want impartial financial advice from someone they can rely on who will help them protect themselves and their families from the problems and challenges of living too long or dying too soon.”

While he believes robo-advice presents “some exciting possibilities”, he doesn’t see it replacing the personal touch: “It’s likely to be most effective when used in conjunction with relationships and personal advice from real people.”

Serving clients

Serving clients profitably is the biggest challenge Ken sees facing advisers today as the increasing complexity of regulation continues to add time and cost to the advice process.

“The advances in training and the professional development of advisers are building financial advice into a valued profession on a par with accountancy and the law – a far cry from 50 years ago and a very positive change,” he says.

“Conversely, the importance and value of qualifications, regulation and compliance must not be allowed to blind us to the reality that financial advice is about helping people improve the quality of their lives and of those they love.

“Financial planning is an art form, not an exact science, and when the regulators and academics imply otherwise they do the public and the profession a huge disservice.”

SimplyBiz continues to grow month-on-month and Ken’s short-term objective is to keep clients happy.

“We want to ensure that every firm we serve has everything they need to be compliant and successful to the fullest extent of their own individual ambitions,” he says. “We serve them, not the other way around.”

Longer-term, however, it seems the 75-year-old has little desire to slow down. “The need for life assurance protection is greater than ever and I have an ambition to eventually go back to advising clients directly on their protection needs,” he says.

Community spirit

Ken contributes extensively to his local community – giving both time and money. For the best part of five decades, he has committed an average of a day a week to voluntary activities.

In 1995, he donated a six-figure sum to save Huddersfield Giants Rugby League Club and has been its chairman ever since. In 2003, he took over Huddersfield Town Football Club and its debts of £1.5 million to rescue it from administration and was its chairman until 2010.

In 2006, he invested a substantial sum to establish the charitable Huddersfield Community Trust to provide a children’s sports and leisure facility known as The Zone and has also funded the degrees of 25 underprivileged students at the University of Huddersfield.

His significant contribution to sport, charity and the community, as well as the financial services sector, has been recognised by a string of local and national awards over the years.

“It’s for others to determine how I will be remembered; I have simply tried to live my life with integrity and by straightforward principles along with a determination to succeed,” he says.

Jennifer Hill is a former deputy Money editor of The Sunday Times, personal finance correspondent of Reuters and personal finance editor of The Scotsman.

My typical day

I spend about five or six days a month in London for meetings, which means leaving home at 6.15am. When in Huddersfield I only live a few minutes from the SimplyBiz office and get in between 8.30am and 9.15am. My first task is usually to deal with emails. Wherever practical I ring senders as bouncing emails backwards and forwards is often more long winded and less satisfying. I particularly enjoy speaking to advisers at the firms we serve. Where the email is from someone internal I much prefer to walk across the office and chat through the issue unless an email is needed for an audit trail.

As the day progresses I have a mixture of informal and formal meetings, primarily with senior staff and visitors. At least twice a month I meet with the joint managing directors of SimplyBiz, Matt Timmins and Neil Stevens, and finance director Sarah Turvey, all of whom do an outstanding job. I also chair our monthly group board meeting which brings the whole senior team together along with our two non-execs.

If I’ve been in London I often don’t get back until late, otherwise I’m usually home by 5.45pm. I very rarely carry any baggage, which means I can switch off almost instantly. Though the TV will be on it rarely grabs my attention, as I will be either reading or writing about one of my many interests. As a Freemason for more than 40 years I’m out at least one night a week and greatly value the chance to re-charge my batteries in an environment where one’s external achievements are irrelevant.

Quick fire Q&A

What or who has been your biggest influence?
In life, my father, who taught me to believe that anything was achievable if you’re prepared to pay the price; in financial services, the Million Dollar Round Table, which has given me the opportunity to be inspired by some of the world’s greatest speakers whilst sharing friendships and camaraderie with financial professionals from across the globe

When I was young I wanted to be...
A game warden in Africa (ultimately the only way to achieve this would have been to emigrate as a young farmer – not a price I was prepared to pay)

The worst piece of business advice I’ve ever received is...
In 1964 I had the opportunity to buy a row of houses for £1,100 and the estate agent told me not to bother as they’d be pulled down in a couple of years; they’re still standing and today worth a couple of million

I’d tell my teenage self...
Beware of over caution

If I was Chancellor for the day I would...
Introduce genuine simplicity to pensions in respect of contributions, accumulation and taxation and get rid of the ridiculous fund maximums

My biggest extravagance is...
The Huddersfield Giants Rugby League Club by a country mile

Favourite book...
I Can: The Key to Life’s Golden Secrets by Ben Sweetland

Favourite drink...
A Cobblers Cooler cocktail

The thing or person who makes me laugh is...
Mrs Brown’s Boys

The financial advice sector today is...
Set for continued growth