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Why patience, PR and setting yearly business goals works

Jonothan McColgan, founder of Combined Financial Strategies, talks to Adviser Business Review about the challenges of setting up and growing his own business, and the strategies he has used which this year, he says, have attracted more new clients than in the past five years put together

Adviser Business Review: What did you set out to achieve when you founded Combined Financial Strategies?

Jonothan McColgan: I had always strongly felt that many companies had money, rather than clients, at the heart of what they did. There is a sales culture within some firms, which can make the whole financial planning process feel quite transactional. For me, it’s always been about providing the client with comfort and peace of mind. I only do what I really believe is in their best interests and I wanted to create a company where clients feel they’re valued and receiving the best possible service.

I started in 2008 with 20 clients and have since grown that number to 151, of which 41 receive the full, ongoing wealth management service. I advise a wide range of people, and my services include corporate, personal and professional, as well as trust planning.

ABR: What’s been the biggest challenge operating as a small business?

JM: The biggest challenge I’ve faced in running my own business is having patience. Being the sole owner and manager, I’m responsible for every decision and they can’t be made in the blink of an eye. Every year I set myself a goal as a way of improving the business and learning. Last year I focused on creating a social media presence, which shows existing and potential clients I’m active. I really believe that if someone hears your name, googles you and you don’t have an online presence, you’re already starting off on the back foot. This year, I’m planning a website redesign, as the existing format is no longer fit for purpose.

As a business owner, you need to give a lot of thought to the mission of the business – do you want to create a lifestyle business or have something solid to pass on when you retire? If you’re planning on growing your business, what would your company culture be? I recently set up a small business advisory group, which has three other chartered financial planner members. We get together every quarter to discuss problems, issues and ideas we have. It’s good to have that support network when you’re doing it alone.

ABR: How do you grow your client base?

JM: I’ve built my client base through client recommendations and professional connections. I have great relationships with individuals at 4-5 accountancy practices and 3-4 law firms. However, I have focused more heavily on this area over the last 18 months, as a result of featuring in FT Adviser’s ‘Mystery shopper’ feature. I received a score of 34/35, which at that point, was the highest score. Six months McColgan pull quote bluelater, they featured me again and that time I scored 35/35.

It dawned on me that I while I was obviously doing something right, I needed to get that message out to the public. I used those scores to first approach local press and then national press. I chose to do it myself rather than employ the services of a PR firm as I figured I was the one who would be making comments, so I might as well forge those personal relationships. I kept my eye out for journalists writing on the topics I was interested in and made contact.

It certainly takes a great deal of time and effort to make headway, but I have achieved a lot of national press coverage off the back of it, as well as lots of new enquiries. I would say that I have had more new clients approach me this year than the past five years put together.

ABR: Do you have an ideal client?

JM: Not as such; I give advice to anyone I believe can benefit from it. However, the majority of my clients tend to be 55 plus and have over £100,000 investable assets, simply because that makes most sense from a fee-point of view. It’s a really exciting time at the moment as the baby boomers reach retirement, with more money than any other generation previously.

There’s a lot of talk about going down the ‘specialist’ advice route, but as a chartered financial planner, I believe my qualifications put me in a position of being able to advise a wide spectrum of clients. My clients tick a lot of different boxes and they’re all interlinked – they may be a business owner who requires corporate advice as well as a personal client who requires help with pensions or inheritance tax. As an adviser, you need to be able to see the bigger picture. In my view, the idea of being a ‘niche adviser’ is more of a marketing ploy, rather than of any great benefit to clients.

ABR: Does auto-enrolment present a good business opportunity for you?

JM: It certainly posed a reasonable opportunity for me, but I would say that is now petering out. I read a lot about advisers looking to capitalise on auto-enrolment, but I fear they’re probably 12 months too late. Last year, business owners really needed a lot of help and guidance and much more so than now, as in that time payroll systems have improved greatly and the role of adviser has been reduced. Last year, auto-enrolment work amounted to 30% of my business turnover, but that figure is much lower this year.

ABR: What plans do you have to grow the business over the next five years?

JM: I hope to be able to grow the business the way I have done and in the long-term, have something I can pass on. I currently have one part-time administrator and I would like to increase my administrative support. I have an income target and once I pass that I will be in a position to recruit. It’s a big responsibility employing someone new; as well as being able to offer them security you also need to find someone who shares your ethos and principles.

I find this job incredibly interesting and I’m very passionate about my clients – it’s one of the few jobs where you really get to know and understand the people you service. It’s a lovely feeling for me to be able to take away people’s fears and give them peace of mind for the future and I would want my staff to share that.

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