The glacial pace of change in wealth management means it is likely to take another two generations before female executives become the industry norm, says Sarah Soar.
While she would stop short of introducing quotas, she is passionate about promoting the career to women, particularly the younger generation. Now head of investment management at JM Finn & Co, Soar was previously the first female executive director at Brewin Dolphin.
‘The frustrating thing is that wealth management is a very good career for women and women make very good wealth managers – there just aren’t enough of them. Women do tend to do well in the industry and the hours are not uber-demanding,’ she says.
‘I’ve spoken at schools because that’s where it needs to start. We need to encourage more young women to come into the industry and see it as a good career – law used to be like that, but now it’s changed. We need to start now, but it is two generations away.’
Soar admits that she ‘got into the industry by accident’ after graduating in marine biology and zoology from the University College of North Wales, Bangor. She joined Brewin Dolphin in 1984, where she spent seven years before being headhunted by Seymour Pierce Butterfield in 1991 to run its office in Marlborough, where she has a home.
The move proved fairly shortlived when the company decided to sell its UK business and Brewin bought the office, which saw her return as a divisional director in 1994. Soar went on to work her way up the ranks, being appointed to the executive board in 2007, and latterly serving as national director and head of business development.
She is now coming up to her third year at JM Finn, which she joined in December 2013, and happily she has been able to effect gender equality changes far more swiftly at the company than in the wider industry.
‘I was attracted to the culture and the people. We have investment managers sitting on our management committee – they are not remote – and our chairman manages a book. I think it’s quite important in terms of the decisions we make – it means they are aligned and we can look further ahead,’ she says.
‘JM Finn is 70 years old and it is steeped in history with a loyal client base, not like these boutiques that are setting up everywhere.’
Her first task was to overhaul the systems in place to support the investment team, underpinning the business with a strong technology platform, before fine-tuning the fund proposition.
‘There was clearly a need to enhance processes and procedures. A lot of what I’ve been doing is creating very solid internal processes for our investment managers – we use Beta Global for the back office and eXimius for the front office,’ she says. ‘It was a big task, but what’s great is that we are not dealing with legacy technology.’
For Soar, this was key to future growth as JM Finn does not employ relationship managers, an approach she believes is fast becoming a differentiator in the industry.
‘The investment manager is the relationship manager,’ she says. ‘It is a very strong and powerful model and as more firms separate those two roles, the more important it is to retain that.
‘By making everything electronic, we are giving the investment managers the toolkit to be as efficient as they can be.’
JM Finn’s 64 investment managers are spread across its five-strong office network, with its headquarters in London and regional outposts in Bristol, Leeds, Bury St Edmunds and Cardiff. They are supported by the firm’s research team, which produces recommended lists of direct equities and funds. Soar stresses that the lists are not prescriptive, with individual investment managers free to buy and sell what they choose, provided they document the rationale behind the decision.
‘It’s very much the investment managers’ own decision what they buy, the research is there to support them, it is not prescriptive,’ she adds.
The buy lists do however form the nucleus of JM Finn’s different collective portfolio services, which are central to how the firm segments its clients.
The company’s direct clients, many of whom come through a combination of referrals and JM Finn’s relationships with solicitors and accountants, tend to typically favour bespoke equity-based mandates, although they can access the funds for diversification purposes. Indirect clients, which primarily covers business generated from the IFA market, tend to be served through the firm’s different tiers of model portfolio services (MPS). Larger individual adviser clients can also access bespoke services.
The MPS range was expanded in the summer with the addition of five risk-rated multi-asset portfolios targeted at the intermediary market. These are overseen by JM Finn’s director of intermediary solutions Michael Mount and invest in a blend of passive and active funds.
They are designed to complement the firm’s existing Coleman Street Investment (CSI) portfolios, which are objective-based with income, growth and, income and growth funds.
JM Finn also offers a Tailored Portfolio Service, which as the name suggests, enables intermediaries to define their own specifications and white-label the funds.
‘We can go to the IFA and say what do you need – MPS, Tailored or bespoke? We’ll now consolidate what we have and I believe this meets the needs of clients, whether direct or indirect,’ Soar says.
More developments are in the pipeline, with JM Finn set to dip its toe into financial planning later in the year. It has been a slow burn. The firm hired Anna Murdock from UBS Wealth Management last November, where she was UK head of financial planning, to build the proposition.
‘We’ve now got our permissions on the wealth planning side and are going to soft launch it towards the end of the year. It’s an exciting addition to our suite of services. It seems to be the direction in which the industry is travelling. As part of that, we have also developed our IHT offering,’ she says.
‘We will build up the team to meet demand, but it will be controlled growth. We’re not rushing it and we carried out research on pricing – we’re not expensive, but we’re not cheap – we’re in the middle.’
Work is also underway to revamp the company’s client portal to fully bring the firm into the digital age.
Although not directly linking JM Finn’s move to improve electronic access for clients to the rise of robo, Soar admits the new breed of online investment manager has forced the old guard to up their game.
That said, she believes that while robo-advisers will appeal to certain segments of the market, particularly smaller clients with little choice, she does view it as a major threat to the wealth incumbents.
‘I do actually applaud robo – it has shaken everyone up a bit, but we’re human beings and want to talk to people,’ she says.
‘Clients want to be able to easily see their portfolio online, but not for the initial face to face meeting. A lot of clients with smaller portfolios who’ve been pushed away from the larger institutions are turning to robo and they don’t understand whether it’s advice or not.’
As with encouraging women to enter the industry, Soar believes investing in youth will prove key to ensuring it remains positioned for the future.
‘We are very keen to promote young talent and with technology moving at the speed it is, we need to embrace that. As an industry we have a bit of catching up to do.’