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Behind the scenes of a start-up adviser firm

Rebecca Aldridge talks to Fiona Bond about her reasons for setting up her own financial planning firm, Balance: Wealth Planning, promising uncomplicated financial advice, and why she felt it was important to charge monthly fixed fees and publish them on the website

Financial planner Rebecca Aldridge has enjoyed a varied career, one she credits with providing her with the “fantastic exposure and experience” needed to start up her own business, Balance: Wealth Planning, in November 2014.

Rebecca began her career at James Hay and then Talbot & Muir as a SIPP and SSAS specialist, before joining Cooper Parry Wealth, where she spent nine years advising clients, often business owners. Following her decision to leave the company, Rebecca worked as a business consultant, providing support and advice to small and medium sized financial advisers wishing to take their business to the next level.

She says: “As an adviser I was extremely fortunate to work for a large firm and be exposed to all different sides of the business. There’s no doubt that the knowledge and experience I gained was beneficial to the smaller firms I worked with as a consultant. They wanted to grow, solve problems and improve their efficiency, but often didn’t have the expertise or resources to do it alone.”

Rebecca worked with a range of clients, both on one-off projects and on a regular basis but despite her success, she knew she wanted something different. She had always had concerns about the way that many financial advisers operated and had clear views about what she thought was the best approach for clients. It was while she was helping other businesses to change their models and become more profitable, that she questioned why she wasn’t doing the same for herself.

Setting up the company

In 2014, Rebecca made the decision to return to financial planning and set up her own practice, Balance: Wealth Planning. She says: “Setting up my own business was a huge step. I thought about it very, very carefully and allowed myself a lot of time. I’ve never been someone to make rash decisions and setting up a business in this profession takes a great deal of commitment and self-belief.”

Rebecca wanted to build a financial planning business with a fresh approach, offering “clear, simply and easy to implement” financial advice. She chose the name because “in so many decisions we make in life, there’s a balance to be struck.”

Rebecca applied for direct authorisation, devoting a month to putting together all the paperwork required by the FCA: “People had warned me that the process could take a long time and I should allow at least six months. I was very surprised – and overjoyed – to hear back after just three months with my application approved. The positive response I received from the FCA on my business plan just reaffirmed what I was doing,” she says.

The company was launched in November 2014, and Rebecca spent the first two months focusing on the internal running of the business, before turning her attention to building a client base.

Published fees and timeline

Rebecca’s ethos is to be client-centred, innovative and open. She places much weight on being transparent and her values are easy to see throughout her business: “I believe in living a kind, worthwhile and fulfilling life. I’ve always believed in doing the right thing. The service I offer to clients, and the way in which I charge for it, is what I firmly believe to be the right approach and I’m very fortunate that I am able to stay true to my principles and make it work from a business perspective.”

Unusually, Rebecca has put her timeline and fees on her website. She provides clients with a 12-month timeline as an illustration of what could happen from the point when they first make contact. She also provides a guide of initial costs, as well as monthly fees, depending on the client’s personal circumstances.

“I remember reading an article from Which? about financial advisers failing to explain their charges in any way on their website and even refusing to do so over the phone and thinking to myself, why? As a consumer shopping online, I like to know how much I can expect to pay for something and I actively choose not to use services that aren’t clear about costs. Why should it be any different for someone looking for advice?” she says. “The FCA is very clear on the fact they want fees to be explained clearly and early in the relationship, and I agree. As a profession, we have a duty to clients to be as open as we possibly can.”

While Rebecca acknowledges that being so open could lead to other advisers undercutting her on price, she says that her decision to do so was in line with her values and would hopefully be attractive to prospective clients. Rebecca also made the decision to charge in monetary values rather than a percentage of assets.

She says: “I don’t work with percentages because I think a fixed monthly fee, based on the expected time spend, is much more transparent and fairer on the client. As a result, some clients will pay less than they might do under a percentage model and others will pay more, but each one can have a service properly tailored to them and is profitable in their own right. There is much less cross-subsidy.”

Client reaction

Rebecca acknowledges that her approach has been a challenge but believes it remains the most transparent way of charging and that it is becoming more popular. However, she admits that she hasn’t quite had the reaction from clients she was expecting.

“It’s been quite interesting because clients haven’t had much to say on the matter, mostly because they don’t know what the norm is and therefore don’t appreciate the difference.” In contrast, it’s had a much greater impact among professional connections who, she says, “are much more familiar and comfortable with the concept of charging per hour. As a result, they have been much more keen to support the business and make referrals.”

Rebecca has been encouraged by the enthusiasm and support shown from both professionals and existing clients for her business and is feeling very optimistic about the future.

“I always knew it would take a long time to do the first few cases, which can be frustrating when you’re raring to go, but the future is looking really promising. I’ve been very heartened by the number of enquiries we have received; our pipeline is looking very healthy and I’m excited for the year ahead,” she says.

Rebecca made the decision to list Balance: Wealth Planning on VouchedFor, which she says has been extremely helpful in attracting potential clients: “I’m absolutely thrilled with the results so far. I’ve received five good leads in the past three months, one of which is already a client and two are looking very likely. It paid for itself within the first month and I think it’s an excellent platform.”

Confident that the business will grow, the company appointed Gemma Murden as director and financial planner in February and hopes to take on further staff in the future.

“I’m thrilled with the progress of the business so far. I’ve always believed in putting my values first and never compromising on what I believe is right. The reviews I’ve received from my first few clients are so heart-warming and just reaffirm why I set up Balance: Wealth Planning,” she says.

Visit Balance: Wealth Planning website

Read the Which? article on adviser fees

Fiona Bond is a freelance business writer

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