First Wealth is a business that is keen to be constantly evolving.

    Following a moment of reckoning five years ago, managing director Anthony Villis and his team continue to work towards building a financial planning firm that, in his words, is “as good as it can be.”

    There are elements of best practice, gleaned from Anthony’s early career at Chase de Vere and elsewhere, that have made their way into the First Wealth model.

    Along the way, he has faced some defining moments too about applying lifestyle financial planning principles to his own life as well as the lives of his clients.

    The picture Anthony paints is of a lifestyle financial planning practice with a firm eye to the future, putting in the groundwork in a number of business areas in a bid to stay ahead of the curve.

    Laying the foundations

    After an economics degree at Bath University, and a raft of speculative letters looking for a job, Anthony landed a role as an adviser at national IFA Chase de Vere. He was in at the deep end, sat next to co-founder Mike Edge and told to ring out a list of old contacts.  

    He joined at 21 years old, and says his first role gave him a great grounding and insight into the world of advice.

    He says: “When I look back now in terms of what we’re doing with our processes, our delivery and our consistency of approach, a lot of it came from that period. Either Mike could see what was coming, or he’d learned the same way of working.

    "The process of how you give advice, what you say in meetings – it was all laid out for you, so it was a matter of learning the way things were done. That’s probably why Chase de Vere has been so successful.”

    Anthony stayed until 2004, a few years after Chase de Vere was sold to Bank of Ireland. He benefitted from some share options as part of the deal, but with the introduction of a more corporate culture and with many of his friends having left already, he followed them out the door.

    Wanting something different from life, Anthony decided to go travelling.

    He didn’t do it by halves – a trek across the Sahara Desert in Morocco was followed by a trip to Thailand and a five-month stint in Australia. He was in New Zealand for the infamous 2005 Lions rugby tour, and spent another few months travelling around South America.

    Anthony had made a clean break from the advice market, and had vowed never to go back to financial services. But on his return from travelling after two years away, somehow or other financial planning lured him back in.

    He began doing one day a week with Robert Caplan, who he’d worked alongside at Chase de Vere, at First Financial, a predominantly mortgages and protection- based business.

    Then another old friend, Jon Rolfe (now a partner at Epoch Wealth Management), got in touch about a possible opportunity.

    At the time, Jon was working for Bath-based Target Accountants. It was setting up a London branch and needed someone to head up the office and oversee the integration of the firm’s existing accountancy services with financial planning.

    Anthony saw first-hand how financial planning could interact with accountancy. But he also struggled with the way the business was run at the time.

    “Unfortunately, I didn’t see eye-to-eye with senior management. It was very driven by spreadsheets, and wasn't as client-focused as it should have been, which didn’t sit well with me. Ultimately that was why I left to set up First Wealth.”

    The First Wealth story

    Around 2007/2008, in the middle of the financial crisis, Rob and Anthony began to discuss whether they should build an advice business together.

    They spent about a year thinking about the proposition and whether it was viable, before launching First Wealth in August 2009, each owning a 25 per cent stake. The other 50 per cent was split between First Financial founder and Rob’s father Michael Caplan and his brother James.

    (Last November the business was converted from an LLP to a limited business, with Rob and Anthony now owning 50 per cent each. The deal was funded through a loan from Benchmark Capital, parent company of First Wealth’s network Best Practice.)

    The business hit the ground running, adopting a fee-based model from the outset and becoming an early adopter of Voyant’s cashflow modelling system.

    “It was like Groundhog Day. We had set up with the best intentions of doing something different and within two years we were doing exactly the same thing. Something obviously wasn’t working.”

    The philosophy of lifestyle financial planning was also there from the beginning, with the company’s first business cards including three words: life, finance and plan.

    Yet although the building blocks and good intentions were there, they found themselves being dragged back into the same investment-led conversations with clients they’d always had.

    “If you think about the timeline, we were a couple of years in and we were bang into the euro and Greek crisis. So it was all about markets.

    "Because we weren’t strong enough on the lifestyle planning piece, we got sucked back into all those conversations, like ‘what do you think’s going to happen to the euro?’ and ‘what do you think is going to happen to stockmarkets?’

    “It was like Groundhog Day. We had set up with the best intentions of doing something different and within two years we were doing exactly the same thing. Something obviously wasn’t working.”

    The First Wealth team took some time to reflect, and had some honest conversations about whether this was really the kind of advice they wanted to be delivering.

    Anthony says the “moment of change” came in 2014, after signing up to Paul Armson’s Inspiring Advisers programme.

    He credits this as playing a big role in changing the firm’s outlook, and re-energising them around their original business aims. “That was a pivotal moment, yet it was only five years ago, which seems amazing.”

    The financial planning service became geared around client questions like ‘what do you want to do with your life?’, and how much money clients needed to give them their desired lifestyle without running out of money.

    Clients welcomed the different kind of conversations they were having, encouraging Anthony and the team to build on the renewed emphasis on lifestyle financial planning even further.

    “The reality is people don’t go looking for a financial planner. When we’re marketing the business we’re not necessarily marketing financial planning, but marketing around life’s transitions.

    “We shouldn’t forget the real reasons clients are looking for advice in the first place, for example, a partner being unwell, a couple who’s had their first child, someone looking to set up their first business, parents who aren’t well – they’re the trigger points for advice.

    “We know that transition is part of a bigger financial planning piece, so we need to try and capture people at those moments and introduce them to the planning that will last for the longer term.”

    Anthony believes the profession is going through its own transition, and sees behavioural finance as the next “big leap for financial planning.”

    “I would argue the behavioural piece is probably the most important element of what we do. You can build the world’s greatest financial plan, but if the client doesn’t stick to it, it’s meaningless. So the part where the financial planner adds the most value is the one that’s probably most underexplored.”

    Anthony began to look in more detail at the subject of financial biases and where they come from. This led to a client series on behavioural finance, including contributions and insight from psychotherapist Professor Brett Kahr, who just happened to be one of his clients.

    First Wealth also uses a questionnaire it calls ‘Money Habitudes’, which has been designed to understand clients’ relationship with money and their ‘money personalities’.

    Anthony is keen is to do more around behavioural finance, and use these insights to improve the advice process both for clients and for First Wealth.

    “There are ways to improve risk profiling and risk tolerance by using real data, which is a piece of work we want to start looking at. There’s a lot that can be done, including looking for correlations in the data.

    "The ultimate goal is towards building a lifestyle financial planning process that will still need human involvement, but employs a series of joined-up tools that talk to each other and educate us and the client along the way. Can we use tools more intelligently to get to a really good starting point, rather than the client coming in with a load of paperwork and asking to talk to us about their free-standing AVC?”

    The personal application

    There are probably many financial planners who work tirelessly to support clients in achieving their ideal life, but perhaps not as many who are as good at heeding their own advice.

    Anthony admits he used to be terrible at applying the principles of lifestyle financial planning to himself, but he is undoubtedly getting better at it. This newfound sense of what’s important (or what matters most, to use First Wealth’s own slogan), was hard won out of very difficult circumstances.

    His fiancée Petra was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015. She has thankfully since made a great recovery, but it was she who forced the issue about whether Anthony was really living the philosophy he espoused to clients.

    Anthony Villis composite
    Snapshots of family life

    “She has been an amazing guide, if that’s the right word. We’ve been through a massive amount together, and we have a four-year-old daughter, Lux, which of course also changes the way you look at the world.”

    Petra’s illness was one of the reasons the family moved to Poole in Dorset two years ago, in the spirit of spending quality time together and redressing their work-life balance.

    “Talk about human biases. We’d actually talked about moving out of London for a while, but the house was worth more than it was a year ago, so we had an anchoring thing going on. Then there was some loss aversion in terms of what if it’d be better for us to stay in London, and that fear of the unknown. Perhaps there was some status quo bias as well.

    “Petra’s illness was a defining moment, and I remember her saying to me: ‘All this stuff is nonsense. This fixation on the financial aspects isn’t going to help us. Do we want to live in London or not?’ For us it was a no, so we asked ourselves: ‘Well in that case, what the hell are we doing here?’

    "We needed that moment of clarity. It’s not all about maximising your balance sheet, it’s about living your best life.”

    The First Wealth framework, and what the future holds

    The robust processes Anthony encountered in his early career have found their way into the First Wealth model. There is a module on the company share drive for everything they do, from onboarding new clients and marketing to mentoring trainees.

    Anthony describes this as trying to build a “lifestyle financial planning firm in a box.”

    As the business looks to scale up, it’s important to him to make sure the team is having the right conversations with clients.

    To support the firm’s next generation of advisers, First Wealth has built its Life Goals app to help younger advisers broach the sometimes challenging questions asked as part of the lifestyle financial planning process.

    Life Goals app
    Screenshots from the Life Goals app

    Life Goals builds on the company mantra of ‘what matters most’ with client questions such as ‘are your family going to be alright?’ and ‘what is your legacy, and how would you like to be remembered?’ 

    Clients work through these questions ahead of the first meeting, and the adviser then works through the life goals with clients, and helps to bring them closer to fruition.

    In terms of future aspirations, Anthony is looking at moving towards a more evidence-based investment proposition, as well as what he calls “evidence-based marketing”.

    The latter will involve rigorously testing what marketing campaigns are working, and which blogs and videos are generating the most engagement.

    He also signals a slight shift in messaging, to reflect the realities clients are dealing with in their daily lives.

    “We want to be a very real business – most clients are not in a position to sell up, go and buy an island somewhere and spend the rest of their life on a beach. Most of us are having to make choices.

    “As a dad, my choices might be where do I want Lux to go to school, how much time do I want to be at home, or how do I pay my tax bill on time. Based on our experience, a lot of our clients are thinking the same thing.

    “So rather than the messaging being around ‘let’s all run off to the beach’, it’s going to be more around: ‘Listen, we know that stuff is going on and it can be hard to choose. Let’s sit down and work out what matters most to you, and build you a plan that makes sure you’re living your best life.”

    At a glance: First Wealth

    Company launched: 2009

    Number of clients: 740

    Number of staff: 14

    In a nutshell: At First Wealth we want to advance the financial planning profession by creating a business that helps our clients and team to live their best life.

    He says having been at both ends of the advice spectrum, from product sales to lifestyle financial planning, he’d like to rein it back just slightly towards more of the middle ground in terms of the real choices clients are facing.

    He is also ambitious about what he wants to achieve with First Wealth, and to grow the business through a merger or acquisition.

    “We want to get to stage where like-minded businesses could look to collaborate with First Wealth.

    "We would like to build a financial planning brand, that’s our ultimate goal.

    “We are actively looking to buddy up with firms who are interested in doing something bigger than just doing it on your own.

    "We’re having conversations all the time, it’s just finding like-minded companies that feel they could benefit from working with us. It’s also about the fit – the planning piece first, investment second, and the importance of behavioural finance as well.”

    Like many owner managers, Anthony gets frustrated with the way the advice profession is regulated, with resource being pulled into compliance rather than necessarily keeping clients happy.

    He cites Mifid II reporting as a prime example of something that is taking time away from client servicing, despite the regulation’s laudable aim of trying to boost transparency.

    Yet he chooses to focus on the positives, and how financial planning is developing. He sees the ongoing rate of professional development as something to be celebrated.

    “We talk about this change in the way financial planning is going – a lot of this is new. These are relatively new things we’re looking at, whether it’s the tools we’re looking to build, the ways we’re presenting to clients, or gaining additional skills around coaching.

    “There’s an element of trying something, and if it works keep it and if it doesn’t, let’s move on. This isn’t just a First Wealth thing – we’re building a profession that’s evolving into something that looks entirely different from how it did even five or six years ago. That’s the opportunity.”

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