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Up close with Phil Billingham

21 December 2016

Salesman, manager, trainer, adviser, financial planner, consultant – Phil Billingham has been them all, but working directly with clients is his greatest passion, as Jennifer Hill found out.

Handshake

Living in the West Midlands in the middle of a recession in 1982, Phil Billingham had two options open to him: sell double glazing or sell insurance.

“I left school at 16 and went into the Royal Navy, but that didn’t work out,” he concedes. “I became a trainee industrial chemist in the steel industry, but then managed to fail my second year of my degree.

“I had no real qualifications and no real experience. I had to get a job – any job – and selling insurance was the cleaner option. It was hard: I didn’t know many people and a lot of it was cold calling. I stubbornly stuck with it; it didn’t occur to me to quit.”

Alongside colleagues, he developed a more scientific approach to generating leads and improving his chances of success, and climbed the ranks to manager. “I started to make some money, then started to make some more,” he says.

Following the introduction of the Financial Services Act in April 1988, he was seconded to the training department as a junior training officer and discovered a passion that has remained with him since.

“I absolutely loved it,” he says. “I’d come to think of selling as being the most fun you could have with your clothes on, but training was even more fun.”

String of letters

Phil went on to perform a variety of roles in the financial services sector – adviser, financial planner, business and technical consultant to other advisers – and now boasts a string of letters after his name: he is both a certified and chartered financial planner, associate of the Chartered Insurance Institute and fellow of the Personal Finance Society.

He built his consultancy, Phil Billingham Associates, from a standing start in 1999 to two offices and 12 staff before selling the compliance side of the business in 2004. He merged the consultancy side into Threesixty five years later. As head of business consultancy for the support services provider he prepared 600 member firms for the retail distribution review.

“We didn’t lose anybody; we took everyone safely through RDR,” he says. “Lots of people regard me as a compliance expert, but I became much more involved in business change and regulatory change; I know how to run and develop a business within a regulated environment, and that entails a slightly different mindset.”

He has served on the boards of a string of professional bodies, too – The Society of Financial Advisers (now the Personal Finance Society), the Institute of Financial Planning (IFP) and the Regulatory Advice Panel of the Financial Planning Standards Board.

He has worked with advisers and regulators all over the world – the US, Canada, South Africa, Australia, Monaco, Bulgaria, Hungary, Gibraltar, the Isle of Man and Eire.

From 1995 to 1996 he lived in San Francisco and worked with the National Association of Personal Financial Advisers and the Consumer Federation of America. “The US was miles ahead of us then, especially in terms of technology: it gave me an early insight into what the future [of the UK advice sector] could look like.”

As a child, he lived in South Africa for six years while his father worked in the country’s steel industry and has more recently travelled to and throughout South Africa for chunks of time, running workshops on treating customers fairly, which South African regulators adopted from the UK.

People business

In 2010, the 55-year-old and his second wife, Shannon Currie, who hails from Zimbabwe and South Africa, established their own financial advice practice, Perceptive Planning, in Essex. The company’s office is in an old Edwardian dairy on a working farm and the couple drive to work through the neighbouring fields.

Shannon undertakes 95% of the financial planning; Phil heads up the operational side and carries out pension transfer work.

“I married the best financial planner I’ve ever known,” says Phil, who was born in Port Talbot, Wales. “We always knew the sort of business we wanted to run – a client-focused financial planning business.

“I’m passionate about not working in the money business; I spend time in the money business, but ours is a people business. The client is everything.”

Phil regards the late David Norton, a former chairman and president of the IFP, as one of the unsung heroes of financial planning in the UK.

“One thing he said, that’s stuck with me, is that he wanted to create and run a practice whereby clients would cheerfully pay his fees. How competent has your advice got to be, how good has your service got to be so that clients cheerfully pay your fees? That’s the magic,” says Phil.

“So we are really careful about the little things: who in the office should call clients by what name? We never do mass emails, and have tried to adopt every good idea going: most of our clients have first generational wealth, and we offer advice – at our expense – to their children.”

Small ambitions

Phil and Shannon employ four staff – two paraplanners, a client services administrator who looks after new clients and a PA – and are seeking another financial planner, possibly a retiring adviser looking for an exit. Perceptive Planning has around 130 clients, £37 million under advice and turns over £350,000 – a figure Phil would like to grow to £1 million.

“We have enough scale to build, but don’t want to take over the world,” he says. “We want to keep it small: that’s one of our commitments to our clients.

“We are part of their lives and they are part of our business. A client’s wife sadly died recently and we were the second call he made. If we grow too big everything we’ve built goes out of the window.”

One of the areas Phil would like to develop is the company’s ‘world citizen’ offering, whereby it works with advisers in South Africa, America and Australia to undertake pensions and tax advice for clients who live elsewhere but still have assets in the UK or are moving here from another country.

“We travel a lot and we kept running into people in bars who were born in one country, work in another and live in a third,” says Phil, who alongside Shannon and two industry pals became a world record breaker after visiting 18 countries in 24 hours in 2014.

“I’ve lived on three continents and Shannon has lived on two, and we still have a business and property in South Africa, so it’s a lifestyle we know well.”

Two professions

Phil foresees two professions emerging from the financial advice sector and draws an analogy with the medical profession.

“One hundred years ago doctors and pharmacists were the same people, diagnosing patients and prescribing drugs. Today, doctors treat patients and pharmacists – equally highly trained, ethical and regulated – sell drugs.

“So if you need something for insect bites you don’t bother your doctor, but if you’re having dizzy spells you consult a doctor who will look at your blood pressure, weight, lifestyle. Drugs might be part of the outcome, but not the whole outcome.

“That’s where we’re going: we should occupy the space of professional doctors. But if you just want to top up your ISA you might not need a financial planner – whether you call that robo-advice or whether you ultimately do that at the checkout in Tesco.”

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

From dawn to dusk

Dawn:
I’m a caffeine addict, so coffee is my first port of call before I walk the dog – a jet black Labrador/Rottweiler cross who’s the soppiest dog ever. South Africa is an hour or two ahead, so I do that work first to get a kick on the day. I sometimes catch Australian advisers just as they’re winding down at the end of their day. I start a ‘to do’ list, which evolves with the day.

Dusk:
We try to leave the office by 6pm. I like to cook. When we can, we open a bottle of wine and have a sundowner by the river at the end of the garden. We’re extending our house just now, so that’s often our focus in the evening.



Top tips

  • It’s all about the client, not a clever tax product, software or fund allocation
  • Remember that people often come to us at times of maximum stress in their lives; we do this stuff all of the time, but clients often only divorce once, only retire once and certainly only die once
  • Financial planning is not only great for clients – it’s a great business model, but it needs to be run purposefully


Quick fire Q&A

I get out of bed in the morning because...
Building a business is fun but always a challenge

My ideal job, other than this one, is...
There’s someone at Monterey Bay Aquarium who is a surrogate parent to sea otters – that

My first pay packet was...
£9 as a 16-year-old butcher’s assistant

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I’ll only admit to speeding offences

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Wales, with South Africa a close second

Favourite band...
Queen

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Booking.com

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A Jaguar XF Sportbrake; I’d love a V6 version

I’d describe myself in five words as...
Large, bald, passionate, truthful, irritating

I’d like to be remembered as...
A force for good in the profession