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Leading an adviser business

Stephen Harper, CEO of Attivo Group, gave ABR editor Rob Kingsbury his views on leading a business that has grown from a small IFA firm to a group of companies that include financial planning, employment benefits, a SIPP provider, a SSAS provider, a property company and a discretionary fund manager.

How challenging has it been to set up and grow your business from scratch?

It’s been a challenge to set up and manage and grow a financial services business, particularly in the last 10-15 years when we’ve had to contend with a number of significant issues: a changing regulatory environment, the poor economic environment and volatile stockmarkets.

In the 15 years between setting up Fountain Independent Ltd, a small IFA firm, to now as the chief executive of a company of over 60 people that is looking to grow quite aggressively, I’ve had to be prepared to learn and work on my skills as a business owner. You deal with things and your skill sets evolve; they have to.

Have your views changed over those 15 years?

I started in the industry at a blue chip insurer and life company. The view of those around me at that time of how things should be done were very different to how I run my company now. I soon came to realise when I was working for that company that I had to get out and set up my own business, because, in my view, they weren’t doing the right thing by clients – they were flogging a load of products based on profitability not on best advice. I wanted to give people good advice based on what was right for their situation not on what was best for the company. So my views and principles haven’t changed that much since starting Fountain, we’re just able to offer our clients a lot more with their best interests in mind.

What’s your leadership style?

My background is in engineering, which is probably reflected in the way I run the company. I’m a bit of a perfectionist by nature and I think if you aren’t a perfectionist then you can’t run a business. You always have to be looking at the business and how it can be done better. A business never stands still and you are never finished. The day that you think you are is the day the business will start to fail.

What’s holding back businesses in the financial advice market?

I think business owners are scared to spend money on building the business because if it doesn’t go well all they see is a waste of money, time and effort. But actually, if it does go wrong, it’s the best learning process you’ll ever have experienced.

It’s often said that sports teams learn the most when they get hammered in a game because they look at what went wrong and they see where they could have done better.

I’ve made loads of mistakes. If you read the books about the people who are successful, they have been prepared to have a go, make a mistake, learn from it and move on.

Part of the reason is that in the current regulatory environment people are scared to innovate. They are terrified to make a mistake. But as a businessman you’ve got to be prepared to try new things. You can’t just copy everyone else. It’s a learning process.

What’s the best business decision you’ve made?

One of the best decisions I have made in the past couple of years is to put in place a managing director to run the business for me. Now that is a scary thing. The first time I did it I got it wrong and I had to correct that. The second time I did it I got it right and it’s made an incredible difference to the way the business is being run.

A lot of people in the same position might not have progressed it any further.

It’s a big decision to employ someone to run your business for you. It costs you money and if it goes wrong it costs you more money and it could cost you your business and your livelihood. But get it right and it’s the best decision you’ll ever make.

Where do you get inspiration?

I’ve done a lot of reading over the last 15 years, books on business as well as books by entrepreneurs like Richard Branson; I’ve read all of his books. I think you can learn a lot from the outlook of people who have been successful in building their companies from scratch. Years ago I read all of the Dan Sullivan (The Strategic Coach) books too.

But also you’ve got to have the best advisers around you in your business. And when they give advice you’ve got to be able to take that advice. You don’t know everything but so many people have an arrogance and an ego that gets in the way of them listening. In fact that’s one important point that Richard Branson highlights, have the best advisers around you – surround yourself with a top team. It makes all the difference even if you have to pay more for it because it will pay you back over time.

See our interview with Stephen about his aims and ambitions for the Attivo Group in our Company Profile series under Special Reports

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