Somewhere, close to the brink
This year, I will have been operating professionally within financial services intermediation for a total of 34 years, 27 of those as an IFA and 14 of those as owner-manager of the best independent financial-planning network in the UK. This year, ValidPath will be fifteen years old (established in 2002, shortly before I took over) and, as with all businesses which have grown and developed over such a period, it's not that difficult to look back over our experience and chart the highs and lows - and, generally, be thankful for the quality of the people we have as Members. As the years progress, any temptation to take for granted the quality of our people has become vanishingly small.
Of course, any reflective consideration of highs and lows benefits from the kinds of rich pickings that our profession generates with a consummate ease. As I write this piece, I am thinking of a more recent experience as someone forced, by means of legacy business, to utilise the Grim Morass of Uselessness which is Old Mutual's platform (previously Selestia). I accept that my reactions to a phenomenon which is a close parody of the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory, are necessarily influenced by the comparisons one might make with decent, robust and functional alternatives. The fact that Transact was able to build something that worked, was reliable, and did not drive the user into the kind of pathological state which required industrial-strength sedatives, seventeen years ago, makes Selestia and Old Mutual's (OM) approach to things even less forgiveable. And, before someone accuse me of unfairness, let it be said that my subsequent conversations (in tears) with an OM representative confirmed that they are aware of these...er...'issues' and are planning a rebuild for later in 2017.
These days, a web-based solution which will only work with Internet Explorer is an unusual liability - especially when it will only work with a particular extension to the browser being enabled. That should help frame one's understanding that this is a solution built around the core concept of obsolescence, one which is not malleable to future improvements and development, but rather where the only viable approach is to employ the technological equivalent of a wrecking ball. Having spent many fruitless hours on their system, hours which I will never, ever get back, the vision of a wrecking ball featured prominently in my imagination - and, latterly, in my dreams too. Here is something which appears to have been developed without even a token nod in the direction of logical process, where nothing is connected and where any slight hope of success almost invariably turns out to be false.
Last week, after hours of joyless perseverance, I was able to finally recommend the appropriate funds which an elderly (age 83) client could use to re-establish the correct exposure to risk within her OM Collective Investment Bond - using data supplied by OM for her particular contract. This week, in a particularly fiendish re-enactment of 'Groundhog Day', I have had to redo all that work when it transpired that the funds data supplied by OM for that Bond, were not really for that Bond but another one. You could not make it up. The helpline representative did suggest that we might switch to an alternative charge-structure, thus allowing access to the original set of alternative investment solutions, but only if the client encashed the bond and started another one. I am not sure in which universe that option is a logical solution, but it is doubtful if such an action would cover me in clouds of glory as far as the client was concerned, given the latent gains and tax position.
It is not often that the mere use of a system is sufficient to cause one to question the entire direction of one's life, and wish that one had entered closed, monastic orders immediately after graduating from University. Whilst OM might not win prizes for their technology, this system took me close to the edge and certainly resulted in the least profitable piece of work that I have undertaken in 34 years - some feat.
OK, so this is a bit of a rant (it's what the Blog is for), but there are some serious points here:
The fact that one company (Selestia) could design a new proposition years after another company developed the technology successfully (Transact), and manage to achieve something so profoundly dysfunctional, says a lot about the focus and direction of the company. The former is focused entirely upon product, and the latter on outcomes. The former eventually becomes bogged-down with legacy issues, whereas the latter continues to support the advice process - as do other, more modern alternatives, such as Parmenion.
I cannot think that I am unreasonably picky in terms of my expectations of systems which may support decent client advice and service. The IFA needs to think carefully about legacy business where the provider is actually a hazard to satisfactory outcomes.
According to ValidPath's systems, there may be something in the region of £11m sitting on the OM platform - not a huge amount, but (depending upon wrappers) it may be about £11m too much.