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What we learned by becoming the best financial planning firm in the country

Provocative title eh? Yes, but it’s a provocative article designed to spark some discussion and debate. I’ll start at the beginning. In May 2004 I launched Capital as a one-man IFA firm from a room above a shop in London’s Victoria.

As a rather inexperienced entrepreneur I had a grand ambition and wanted to build my fledgling business to become the’ best IFA firm in the UK.’ I wasn’t at all sure how I would measure it, but I decided that it would be rather like an elephant – hard to describe but you know it when you see one. I would ‘just know!’

Fast forward to a year ago – its November 2017 and I am at the Personal Finance Society awards dinner at the Roundhouse in Camden. Around 10pm the big award of the night and probably the year is about to be announced- Chartered Financial Planning Firm of the Year.

Capital had been shortlisted along with some other outstanding firms and we were all now waiting for the amiable host, Gyles Brandreth make the announcement. And the winner is…. Long pause… Capital Asset Management.

Standing on the stage in my penguin suit, posing for photographs and lapping up the applause I fleetingly remembered those days back in my little office in Victoria and felt that,  Yes, at least by some measures, to be voted by peers and industry experts as the best firm within a highly competitive field of leading firms (by definition Chartered firms have demonstrated higher professional qualifications and standards and only around 10% of firms have achieved the coveted status)  I felt, yes, ‘mission accomplished!’

But over the next few days and weeks as the applause faded, and reality resumed, I reflected on the value of industry awards. Is the effort worth the reward? are they meaningful? and does winning awards increases revenue, bring new clients or improve any metric by which successful businesses are measured – other than some noise on social media and a trophy for the cabinet.

Let’s face it there are dozens of awards, lists, prizes and Top 100s and at Capital, we’ve enjoyed our fair share of success over the years. However, as a result of the proliferation, it’s now hard to find a firm or adviser who isn’t ‘multi award winning’ – it seems that every man, woman and their dog can lay claim to some sort of industry recognition or inclusion in a ‘Top Something’ list and this inevitably leads to a downgrading of the overall value.

If there was some way of grading the awards it may help. In football parlance, there is a big difference between coming third in the English Premier League and winning the Checkatrade Trophy and I have a good idea which team is likely to be better. In our sector, however, it’s hard to distinguish as many awards sound similar with little point of reference.

Some awards, like the Chartered Award are very hard to win and others get handed out for completing a form – in fact for some awards not even a form is required, and they are simply offered at the discretion of an awards panel.

Then we come to the issue of sponsorship and the not so gentle encouragement to pay for a table at an awards dinner if you get shortlisted. Having been nominated for an award at a trade publications event a while back I was strongly encouraged to buy a table for 10 at the ‘very reasonable’ price of £3500 plus VAT. I’m sorry but for £400 a head, I can take my team to the best restaurant in London and ply them with vast amount of champagne rather than an industry awards dinner and I rather suspect that they would prefer that!

It seems a shame if many smaller advice firms are priced out of attending awards dinners or prefer to allocate the entertainment or team budgets elsewhere. This inevitable will lead to the awards being dominated by the largest firms with the deepest pockets, not necessarily the best firms.

The latest development in the world of ‘trophy wars’ is simply paying for a grand sounding but nebulous award for a ‘small administration fee’. I can’t be the only adviser who has received emails from very official sounding publications and websites profusely congratulating me on winning some title like ‘Best Financial Expert – UK’ and all I have to do us send a cheque (four figures) to claim the award and buy an ad in the sponsors publication to share the news with the world! No thanks.

However, it’s not all negative by any means. Winning awards can be good for team morale, helpful to share with clients and reassuring to professional connections. However, in our experience, winning is unlikely to drive armies of new ‘ideal fit’ clients to your door and there are some amazing, highly professional and fast-growing firms that have never won or even entered an award.

Some awards are certainly more valuable and prestigious than others and if you do want to test how good your firm really is in a competitive market, I encourage you to enter the Chartered Firm of the Year – the experience is a positive one. Good luck to the firms shortlisted for the 2018/19.

For now, we plan to give the award circuit a break, focus on looking after clients, building the team and growing the business at a time of amazing opportunities for good planning firms.

If you do decide to enter an award, be selective, test yourself, enjoy the experience, and good luck!

Alan Smith


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