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Niche targeting pays off for Whitewell Financial Planning

Phil O’Connor, founder of Whitewell Financial Planning and The Divorce IFA, works with those going through divorce. Here, he tells Adviser Business Review why he chose this niche market, the challenges of setting up his own business and his plans for the future

Adviser Business Review: What made you decide to set up your own business in 2008?

Phil O’Connor: I previously worked for the three biggest accountancy practices in the UK – Baker Tilly, KPMG and Haines Watts – and while I liked the professionalism of those firms, I didn’t necessarily agree with the ethics. I wanted to be creative and explore certain avenues and that didn’t fit with the companies I worked for. In 2007, Baker Tilly was acquired and that was the catalyst for me – it was the ‘now or never’ chance for me to set up alone.

I joined a network and I stayed with a network for six of the seven years I’ve been in business. However, I began to find it more and more restrictive and not fit for purpose. In hindsight, I should have gone directly authorised from the start, but at the time the costs and support meant it was easier for me to join a network.

From the outset, I knew I wanted to work with niche segments of the market and today my clients are roughly split 40% divorcees, 40% medical professionals and 20% business owners.

ABR: Why chose to target the divorce market?

PO’C: I remember an old manager at Baker Tilly telling me that if I set up my own business, I would be better off working with niche markets and becoming a specialist in a particular area. It was good advice, because once you become an expert you are recognised as the go-to adviser for that market.

Personal experience played a huge role in my decision to work with the divorce market; my parents got divorced in 1994 and I had always wondered whether there was a better way to settle financial matters, especially where there are children involved. There’s much more to it than the money, I really like helping people through what can be one of the most difficult times of their life. You need to have empathy and understanding in what is often an incredibly sensitive matter and I think having gone through it with my parents helped. I work objectively as a mediator with both sides of the couple, and I also work strategically for one partner looking at their actuarial findings and future plans.

I qualified as one of the first Resolution Accredited IFAs at the start of 2007 and received my reaccreditation in 2012. I went on to train as a mediator in 2014 with the Family Mediation Association.

ABR: Does being a specialist in this field make it easier to bring on new clients?

PO’C: Like anything, it’s all about networking and forging relationships. I’m lucky that I have great relationships with a core group of five or six lawyers who refer business to me, as well as a loose network made up of a further 20-25 lawyers. Through one of those connections, I was recently given the opportunity to work with a group of 50 policemen going through divorce in need of pensions advice so knowledge in this area can open many different doors.

My divorce IFA website attracts a lot of enquiries and I also regularly attend the Greater Manchester Collaborative Law, Merseyside Collaborative Law POD and Bolton POD meetings. I do a lot of presentations and I find those are a really great way of getting my name out there.

Marketing is an important tool in growing a business and attracting new clients, so in January this year I took on a trainee marketing assistant who is helping me raise my profile and engage with the media. I’m unique in what I do, and I have a lot of experience but I now need to work on raising awareness of my business. I have joined Vouchedfor and Unbiased and I’m about to give a talk to the Family Mediators Association.

ABR: Why did you decide to also target medical professionals?

PO’C: I gave a lifetime allowance presentation back in 2006 when I worked for Baker Tilly and afterwards I was approached by an accountant who asked if we could talk because he would have a lot of clients affected by it. Off the back of that, I got involved with advising medical professionals and it’s a good segment of the market to work with – they’re high earning professionals, reasonably sensible in their approach to financial planning, tend to be married to other professionals of a similar income and often, they tend to inherit a lot. I work with four specialist medical accountants who refer clients to me, and I’m looking to grow the number of medics I work with.

ABR: What are your growth plans for the future?

PO’C: As I grow the business, I want to expand into different niche markets, possibly sports professionals and FTSE directors. The middle part of what we do as advisers is very similar – investment proposition, mortgages, financial planning – and we all get our ideas from the same place, so you need to ask yourself what makes you stand out. Working with niche markets, and being seen as an expert in those fields, is a way of differentiating yourself.

I’m currently looking to hire another adviser, someone experienced who can get off the ground running. Thereafter, I will look to take on younger people who can learn on the job.

At the moment we have 44 ongoing clients, plus a 100 individuals I’ve done transactional work for. Over the next three years I would like to grow my client base to around 75 and increase my assets under management from £15 million to between £20 – 25 million.

It really is a very interesting time for financial advisers, as the growing complexity of regulation means there are more and more people in need of financial advice so the opportunities to grow as a business are huge.

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