It is a rare experience for me to interview someone younger than I am.
It is rarer still to come across someone who is a fellow of the Personal Finance Society (PFS), a chief executive with two financial planning businesses to her name, and who is also a registered life planner. And all before her 30th birthday.
Enter Jo Little of Hertfordshire-based Emery Little. Were it anyone else, her list of professional milestones would make the rest of us mere mortals a bit sick at the prospect of all this overachieving. Except that Jo is so lovely that’s it’s all you can do to wish her every success.
Jo is also a rare breed in that she is the third generation in her family to work as a financial planner. Her grandad Bryan is based in Salisbury and still working, though he is thinking about retiring soon as he’s about to turn 80. Jo works alongside her dad Andy, who is scaling back his involvement in Emery Little for Jo to take over in leading the company.
The daughter/dad dynamic
Jo helped out her dad during the summer holidays for a bit of pocket money, doing administration, answering the phone and bringing up client valuations, and she chose to study industrial economics at the University of Nottingham. While she was surrounded by financial planning from a young age, she initially resisted joining the family firm. It was a tough job market, and an offer from her dad, that ultimately changed her mind.
She says: “Growing up I just assumed I wouldn’t join the family firm, because there was something in me that was saying ‘I want to do my own thing’. When I was about to graduate, it was 2010 and just after the financial crisis – the recruitment landscape was pretty bleak. I remember one day I was at home in Nottingham, and my dad rang me up. He said: ‘You’re about to graduate. If you get a good grade, would you consider working for Emery Little?’
He explained that in order for it work from both his and Jo’s perspective, Jo would need to commit to a minimum of two years in the business, with a view to seeing how things were going at that point. “I thought: ‘What have I got to lose?’ I figured I could do two years there, and when things had settled down a bit out in the big bad world, I could spread my wings and do something else. Eight years later, I’m still there.”
Both Jo and Andy were conscious that Jo had to earn her place in the business, and not be seen as having an “easy ride” because she was the boss’s daughter. Jo says one of the benefits of being in a small company is that everyone in the team can see each other’s progression, and how much work everyone is putting in.
“I was conscious of my age, and thought no one would take me seriously until I'd become chartered and a fellow of the PFS. But once I had, it wasn’t that no one cared, but more that I realised what a confidence boost it was for me."
She joined as a junior paraplanner and soon discovered what financial planning was all about – building relationships and helping clients. She began taking her exams and began to enjoy the technical aspects of advice, and writing reports.
Jo benefitted from working alongside her colleague Alfie Mullan, who is similar in age to her and progressed through his advice career at Emery Little as Jo was making the same journey.
Her age was something that played on her mind, which fuelled her drive to get qualified.
“I was conscious of my age, and rightly or wrongly I felt I needed to get my exams, to get diploma qualified and chartered, and to become a fellow of the PFS, which I did when I was 27. In my mind, I thought that no one would take me seriously until I had done all of this stuff. But once I had completed those things, it wasn’t that no one cared, but more that I realised what a confidence boost it was for me.”
Jo says she is thrilled to have discovered a love of financial planning, and that she decided to stay on beyond the initial two-year term. But she admits there are quite specific challenges associated with working with a parent.
“The hardest thing has been working in a family business as part of the family, and having that separation between work and home life. When I first started I was still living at home, so if there was a falling out about not making the bed for example, it was hard not to then carry that into work.
“The dynamic of a dad/daughter relationship means you’re always second guessing a little bit so it took a while to get over that. A lot of people tell me they could never work with their mum or dad. It’s a whole new skill that you have to learn.”
She adds: “On the plus side, once you get to a certain stage, it’s actually really rewarding. When we’re not working so well together, it’s awful, but when we’re working really well together, it feels amazing. Anyone going into a family business has to be able to address things – you have to be able to communicate, even when you know it’s going to be difficult. There is no other option.”
‘Walking the talk’
After a few years in the family firm, it became evident Jo wasn’t going anywhere, and Andy shifted his thinking from planning to sell the business in future to drawing up an internal succession plan.
She progressed from paraplanning to advising, starting with clients’ children before taking on existing relationships and then building her own. She became a director in 2014, and started to understand more about how the business worked and to provide her input into Emery Little’s long-term strategic direction. Andy turned 55 last year, and Jo turns 30 next week. With Jo’s youngest brother having recently graduated, and with Andy keen to spend more time with Jo’s mum Julia, it made sense for Jo to take on a bigger role, and she was appointed chief executive in January this year.
Andy spending more time “living life on purpose” as he describes it also chimes with the financial planning messages he gives to his clients on a daily basis.
“One of our core values is we ‘walk the talk’, and Dad has been telling his clients for so many years that they’re only here once, and if there are things they want to be doing they should do them while they are fit and healthy. He’s getting to the point where it’s time for him to ‘walk the talk’ himself in order for the message to be authentic.”
She was introduced to life planning initially by Andy, who attended a George Kinder course. She says after she did her technical exams the timing felt right to go through the two and five-day courses, followed by a six-month mentorship programme which she completed earlier this year.
Life planning isn’t for everyone, and there are cynics who are wary of the slightly evangelical overtones. Jo says before she attended the workshops, that was “100 per cent her view” too.
“Before going, I was quite anxious about the whole experience, because up until that point I had seen my strengths as being very much on the technical side, that’s where I was comfortable, especially with clients. I thought that was going to be my contribution to the company. I felt that where other people prefer the client relationship management side, the more ‘hippy stuff’, they can do that.
“I cannot tell you how much I loved it. It was one of the most life-affirming experiences. The five-day course is very practical, and you essentially work on your own life plan. It’s just a really great way of seeing how when life planning is done really well, what an impact it can have on someone’s life.
“It’s definitely made me a much more rounded adviser in my relationships with clients. I’ve learnt genuine ways of listening, and better ways of communicating. It was an intensive way of me finding out what I needed to but more quickly than I would have done otherwise.”
Not content with everything she’d achieved thus far, last year Jo launched another business with her colleague Alfie. Eelah was set up in September as an appointed representative of Emery Little to deliver financial planning to tech entrepreneurs. It derives its name from the word ‘Ilah’, used by an indigenous tribe called the Kelabits to describe wisdom, or the ‘ability to think and act with knowledge, insight and good judgement.’
Eelah was a year in the making and was born out of how much Jo and Alfie enjoyed working with kids of Emery Little clients, and working with clients their own age.
They attended an event held by Octopus Investments, where the speaker talked about their Titan venture capital trust, and in particular two company founders in their late twenties who had just floated their company and made a lot of money in the process.
“We realised there are people out there who are similar in age to us [who need advice], but who were their financial planners? We asked the question, and found that no one was really helping these people beyond the big investment banks.
“We thought: ‘Wouldn’t it be great if they could choose someone much more boutique, and closer in age to them?’ That was such an exciting opportunity for us that we decided to give it a go. Having a separate entity from Emery Little when it comes to brand and marketing was really important. We didn’t want to dilute the existing Emery Little brand in terms of who they were trying to attract.”
Jo splits her time between Emery Little and Eelah, and says Alfie has been hugely supportive since she’s taken on a bigger role at Emery Little.
She realises now they were perhaps given a false sense of security at Emery Little in terms of not having to work for client referrals.
“Naively, we thought there’s loads of people that need financial planning in the space that we’re looking for, and as long as we get ourselves out there it should be a piece of cake, right?” She laughs. “Spoiler alert, it’s not that easy. There is a preconception around what a financial adviser is, what type of person they are, within the tech space. Until people meet you, they assume you work for a big bank, and that’s not the people they’re looking to work with.”
Jo says Eelah has been helped by where it’s based – a trendy ‘co-working’ space in London, where she and Alfie work alongside a lot of technology and creative companies. Octopus have helped through their venture capital connections, and they’ve also learned a lot from Adam Carolan, NextGen Planners co-founder (and fellow Illuminate interviewee) who also specialises in looking after younger business owners in the creative and digital industries.
Attracting younger advisers
Given her perspective, Jo seems as good a person as any to ask how advice firms can go about attracting young, ambitious individuals into their teams. She says for her, and other younger advisers like her, it comes down to whether you can demonstrate there is a future for new recruits within your firm.
“It’s about knowing from the owner’s perspective, are they genuinely invested in a succession plan? Or are they looking to grow their company organically with a view to selling it on to an external person? If they want to genuinely invest in an internal succession plan then that’s something that would really appeal to me because there is that progression if the person wants it, and that continuity.
At a glance: Emery Little
Company launched: Emery Little (in Wilton) was set up in 1974 and Emery Little (in Hemel Hempstead) was set up in 1998
Number of clients: 348 families
Number of staff: 19
In a nutshell: Through our true wealth management financial life planning service, we help clients unlock the value in their money to enable them to live life on purpose.
“If given the choice, finding a really great home from a professional perspective is massively attractive, rather than thinking that in order to get the experience you need to work for a certain number of firms in a certain number of roles.
"It’s much nicer to do it in one firm and really love it there. If you can have stepping stones within one company, that’s even better [than working at multiple firms]. It’s about making sure people are fulfilled in their roles, and are excited to be able to move up if they want to, and have the opportunity to do so.”
Taking this a step further, Jo is worried about the lack of paraplanners and planners generally. She is encouraged by the recent initiative launched by the PFS to offer a free financial education programme in schools.
She says: “This is great, but there’s a separate issue of getting people to aspire to work in financial planning. I think it’s amazing, and I never thought I would say that!
“In the same way that people grow up wanting to be a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer, wouldn’t it be amazing if you had kids saying: ‘When I grow up I want to be a financial planner.’
“The majority of advisers say they came into this sector by accident. It would be great if going forwards that could be less and less the case.”