PERSONAL FINANCE: Acumen are striving to make planning for the future transparent and accessible for all
They say it makes the world go around. We certainly can’t get far without it, sometimes it’s all too easy to let it slip through our fingers, and it’s definitely far too hard to get.
Then, when we’ve got it, it can be tricky to figure out just what to do with it: stash it, blow it or put it to work?
According to David Gow, Director at Acumen Financial Planning and one of the few Chartered and Certified Financial Planners in the land, money is among the top three essentials of our lives.
“First comes health, and second is social – our relationships with family and friends,” he says.
“And the third? Finances.”
Of course, you may expect a Director of one of country’s leading financial planning firms to suggest just that. But he does have a point. After all, when our financial cushion becomes too squeezed, our stress levels soar, health and relationships suffer and we’re despondent, deprived of the things we want and need.
Which means that ensuring our finances are working hard for us now and for our futures, clearly makes a lot of sense.
For many of us, however, financial advice takes the form of a quick chat with a chap in an office somewhere off the high street. We might pop in, organise a new ISA or shuffle around the pension pot, and then head off, job done while the adviser gets remuneration for their services via the products they sell.
Acumen Financial Planning, points out Gow, takes a more innovative, in-depth and transparent fee-based approach. More akin to the kind of professional approach you may expect from your accountant or lawyer, it makes use of innovative technology and old-fashioned expertise to steer clients’ finances for years to come.
As a result it has grown to become one of the UK’s largest and most respected firms of its kind, with 1300 client families on its books, a £4m turnover and a clutch of awards including the New Model Adviser Award (Scotland and Northern Ireland) for the second year running, and Chartered Institute for Securities and Investment’s Accredited Firm of the Year 2016.
The firm has just moved into a new Edinburgh office in Randolph Crescent, which is home to a team of six – including David Gow – and has plans to expand further as the concept of fee-based, client-centred financial advice becomes the norm for more of us.
Indeed, it turns out Gow is passionate about evolving the financial advice sector away from an outdated image of ‘one man band’ selling a handful of products, into a highly polished and professional one, which more of us can access confident that we are receiving truly impartial advice.
“An accountant deals with the past, with what’s happened to their clients’ finances over the past year. And a solicitor will deal with legal aspects of finances. No-one expects them to provide their advice for free.
“But a financial planner deals with today and tomorrow,” he says. “They look at whether wills have been written and is Power of Attorney in place? How a business is doing, how might it perform in the future.
“If I asked you to name a big accountancy firm, you could. Or a solicitors’ firm. However, you would struggle to name a big brand of financial adviser or financial planner – and that’s something that should change.”
Acumen Financial Planning could well be the firm to drive that forward. The business was launched in 2002 by now-Managing Director Sandy Robertson after he was inspired by a presentation given by former Institute of Financial Planning Chairman, the late David Norton, who passionately argued for the idea of a client-centred, ‘paid for’ profession.
Rather than focusing on selling products in order to receive payment, he argued that the financial adviser role should shift focus to a fee-based profession on a par with accountants and solicitors.
It could then be better placed to deliver more transparent and individually-tailored financial support to clients using the latest technology and old-fashioned expertise to analyse the wide range of issues in their lives and their financial choices.
From a small office in Aberdeen with a team of seven and a handful of clients, Acumen has grown to establish offices in Peterhead, Glasgow, and Norwich as well as Edinburgh.
It is one of the few financial planning firms in the country which is an Accredited and Chartered firm, which means it meets strict professional and ethical standards of practice from the Chartered Insurance Institute and the Chartered Institute for Securities and Investment.
Acumen has also pushed the boundaries of innovation and modern working practices to create a vibrant new face for the sector – and as a result, attracts a good number of younger clients alongside the older, more established generation.
Gow, who joined the business 10 years ago and became a Director in 2014, works with a well-qualified team of financial planners and paraplanners which collaborates internally and with clients to deliver a comprehensive financial planning service from retirement planning and pensions, to investments and savings, tax management and corporate finance.
Some are experts in certain areas: Gow is highly skilled in working with NHS-related pensions, there are others who specialise in dealing with divorce-related financial issues, or have particular skills in dealing with financial matters linked to IT or oil industry contractors.
Gow’s vision is for a visit to our financial planner – whether as individuals or in a business setting – to be as much a feature on our once-a-year to do list as our tax return or checking the interest payment on our savings account.
Then, as the benefits of such comprehensive financial support becomes clear, for families to stay with their financial advisers’ firm from generation to generation.
While the business uses software to help predict the impact of a range of scenarios on their clients’ finances, it retains an old-fashioned, face-to-face approach which Gow believes is best for them and the client.
“Technology isn’t what makes a good financial planner,” he explains. “It’s understanding the output of the technology and being able to deliver it in a way that the client comprehends – that’s what matters.
“Financial advice is important and should be delivered with a sense of importance,” he says. “It’s not just a case of ‘How is your pension doing? Oh, it’s up four per cent’ and that’s it.
“That’s no use. People need to know what it means, how long will their money last and what problems could there be ahead?
“Technology lets us be more efficient and delve into a client’s current and future situation but face-to-face advice is something that will be always exceptionally important, not just for financial planning, but for the client.”
Because of its specialised approach, financial planning may be considered by some to come with a hefty price tag. Gow says that’s not necessarily the case.
“We work with clients with different levels of wealth. Take a company down south, it might have two or three advisers, a couple of paraplanners and some admin and 50 clients with an average of £700,000 of investment.
“Because of the system we have in place, we can deliver the same level of service as those guys, but with many times more clients.
“We don’t cherry-pick clients. Some are wealthy, and some not so wealthy. They pay for the appropriate level of service they receive.”
At the heart of Acumen’s ethos are four key principles, he adds. “Approachable, collaborative, dedicated and straight forward.
“It’s important clients can come in and know we’ve got their backs. Financial planning can be really complex, so we want to take a more straightforward approach.
“We don’t talk in complicated or abbreviated language. We make it easy to understand.
“That makes us approachable. When we work with a client for many weeks, they tend to tell us quite personal things about their finances.
“If you aren’t approachable, they won’t share that.
“And we’re dedicated to helping clients achieve financial security.”
Flexible and forward-focused
Since its launch, Acumen Financial Planning has pushed the boundaries of its sector, using innovative ideas that are helping to propel it into a new era of professionalism.
Well before the trend of cash flow software, Acumen had its own version, developed with complex formulas aimed at providing a clear view to clients of their financial future.
It also has established a high 1-1.5 ratio of planners to paraplanners, enabling a deeper level of research and support.
An Aberdeen-based administration team helps ensure consistency and efficiency of workflows, while a dedicated business support team covers IT, HR, training, marketing and compliance.
Open plan offices mean planners and paraplanners work alongside each other to create a strong team environment – an emphasis on career progression, development and training including creating graduate and school-leaver opportunities for a new generation keen to be part of this fresh, professional approach.
The firm’s efficient approach has enabled it to commit to flexible working hours and a standard 35-hour week for staff – its offices close at 2pm every Friday, enabling staff to achieve that prized ‘work-life’ balance.
For more information, click here