At first glance, engineering doesn't have much in common with providing financial advice. But Frank Cochran, the 51-year-old founder of Wolverhampton-based FSC Investment Services, found that his background as a former BT apprentice helped greatly when he started out in the financial industry, in 1979. To Cochran, independent financial advisers (IFAs) were just "glorified problem solvers", and he took to the job immediately.
Over the course of more than ten years he worked for a host of firms. But in 1991, after being made redundant by investment bank ING, he spurned an offer from Britannia in order to set up on his own, taking his many "satisfied clients" with him. Most were senior teachers. "They were well paid in the late 1970s and by the 1990s they had built up quite a sizeable investment pot." Over the first five years, these clients and others from his contact book helped him to grow his assets under management by more than £1m a year. Aware that he needed fresh clients to keep growing, he carried out aggressive regional marketing campaigns and began writing for the local newspaper. "It made us recognised and trusted within the local businesses community."
Yet FSC's growth coincided with growing criticisms of IFAs. The press (MoneyWeek included) increasingly attacked the role of commission payments, rather than a customer's best interests, in driving sales. Concerned about a backlash, Cochran visited Australia in 2006. "We'd heard that any reform would be based on Australia's system." There, he realised "the old commission-based days were over". He changed the fee structure of FSC so it no longer received commissions for selling certain products. It was a smart move, pre-empting a UK ban on commission from 2012, under the Financial Services Authority's Retail Distribution Review.
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"It changed the way clients looked at us. We became advisers rather than sales people. And it helped that we moved before lots of the opposition." By now, FSC was attracting around £5m a year, and funds under management had grown to £34m. But it was a chance encounter in 2008 that really transformed the firm.
A client invited Cochran to the Royal Variety Show. He was introduced to several celebrities who admitted they had no financial adviser. "I was amazed." Cochran raced home and scoured the internet. Finding that no other IFAs offered specialised services for celebrities, he set up Celebrity Financial Planning. He decided the best way to find potential clients would be through PR agencies. He struck a deal with Max Clifford, allowing him to offer advisory services to his celebrity clients. He also opened a London office, realising the stars would be reluctant to travel to Wolverhampton. Deals with other agencies followed.
So how do celebrities' needs differ from others'? "The main thing is discretion. It's very important you respect their privacy." He also added services such as purchasing holidays, jewellery and cars on their behalf. "I don't make money out of the extras I just do it to keep them happy." His total funds under management have leapt to £51m, earning him £1.2m. He plans to build new business areas around his famous clients, including a "real-estate advisory company with my son".
James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a NCTJ certificate in journalism.
After working as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries, and a spell at ITV, James wrote for Television Business International and covered the European equity markets for the Forbes.com London bureau.
James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report.
He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.
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