Life in lockdown has taken some getting used to for all of us.

    As a financial planner based in the Lombardy region of northern Italy, at one point the epicentre of the pandemic in Europe, Jones Hill managing director Brian Hill has experienced lockdown in an altogether different way.

    He is someone who enjoyed a varied career even before getting into financial advice, with stints in the military and the police as well as management consultancy.

    He says: “I tended to have itchy feet with the things I did, which is very surprising, given that I've been advising for almost 15 years now.”

    Over time he has become known in the financial planning community for his expertise in the field of body language and non-verbal communication, and how this knowledge can be practically applied to the planning process.

    Two years on from the decision to base his life and family in Italy, we talk to Brian about what prompted the move, life in Italian lockdown and the power of deep client relationships.

    How love (kind of) led to advice 

    Brian says he came to advice relatively late compared with those who start out in financial services early on.

    In another life, he worked with solicitors’ case management software in a role which saw him manage the risk presented by solicitors’ caseloads. He then left that to work in management consultancy.

    The job was well-paid but demanding, and it was around this time he and his then wife separated and later divorced.

    Brian had kept in touch with a few of his clients from his solicitor days, and got chatting to one of them who suggested he should go on a blind date with her best friend.

    This was in December 2005. Brian and Lisa duly met up on Christmas eve, and moved in together a few weeks later. The rest, as they say, is history.

    Brian Hill video chat
    (Illuminate's first video interview - NB This is not Brian's boat)

    At the time Lisa had just bought the financial advice practice she worked for, The Independent Consultancy, which went on to become Jones Hill. Feeling bored of consultancy life, Brian joined in 2006, initially as a mortgage adviser.

    “It was very difficult because I went from a super salary down to about £10,000 in my first year. Then my daughter Maddi arrived in May 2007, and we worked out pretty swiftly after that there was no way for us to have a baby in the office with us every day, which is what we were doing.”

    Brian qualified as an adviser and took over Lisa’s client bank, which had been inherited from the previous business. He says the clientele of today are very different to the more transactional style of client they had originally.

    Jones Hill is based in Wiltshire, and with so many military bases nearby this has fed through into them serving a lot of local, ex-military families.

    “I don't think that's anything unique to us. However, we seem to attract them, because we have a deep understanding of the Armed Forces Pension Schemes.

    "In many respects, there's also an automatic trust of someone who has signed on the dotted line for Queen and country. You have an automatic affinity with them, whether that's army, police, NHS or any other public service.”

    In interviews gone by, Brian’s background in the military and police has guided the conversation, but life has moved on since then. Nowadays he just says: “That was many moons ago – I probably need to stop dining out on that.”

    Body language and advice

    Brian’s time in the military was brought to an end after an injury, and he spent five years in the police before going on to do different things.

    It was with the police that the interest in non-verbal communication first came about.

    “As a police officer, you have to be quite attuned to the environment and the people around you. You tend to pick up situations quite quickly.”

    By the time he became an adviser, there were certain aspects of these skills that were influencing his advice process.

    He started to get asked about it: Why is there just a coffee table and not a desk between you and the client? Why do you structure things the way you do?

    Brian explained it was about watching a client as an individual, and seeing them as a whole person rather than just behind a big desk. He adds: “And of course, it’s so I could see their feet.”

    There then follows a fascinating tangent about exactly why it is that advisers should be interested in their clients’ feet...

    “Your feet are controlled by the part of your brain that doesn't need you to think about it. Some people call it the dinosaur part of the brain, which controls the freeze, fight or flight mechanisms.

    “Obviously, you have to put what you see into context, but often it's a fairly reliable indicator as to where people's thoughts are. So, if I'm talking to you now, and my feet are pointing one way, and my body's at a bit of an angle, and the only thing pointing towards you is my head, actually that tells you the rest of me perhaps just wants to be somewhere else.

    “It might be that something else is more interesting. Or that you're pointed to an exit because you're double parked. Or you’re hungry or need the loo, or something else that says ‘I don't want to be here’. It’s a very useful indicator.”

    Brian pursued his interest in body language through further reading, and later by qualifying as a non-verbal communications trainer (or body language coach) in Portland, Oregon.

    He then completed a diploma in behavioural analysis and investigative interviewing as part of a Master’s degree in communication, credibility and behaviour analysis, which he completed last year. He now plans to start a PhD later this year.

    The investigative interviewing element was not quite Homeland, but more a critical discussion and comparison between the way British police and American police carry out interviews.  The work also examined how to elicit the best information out of people in the most ethical way.

    “I’m really interested in all this. At the moment I’m finishing my chartered exams, but I keep being drawn off to my PhD work. I’m just way more interested in learning about that than, say, discretionary gift trusts.”

    The birth of Kinesics

    Brian began training advisers and other professionals in the art of non-verbal communication, which he formalised through setting up the Kinesics Method in 2017.

    He has spoken at Humans Under Management and Back2Y, and may yet speak at the Personal Finance Society Festival of Financial Planning in November (subject to what happens with lockdown). He’s also worked with the sales teams at Parmenion and Octopus.

    Asked whether it’s about helping advisers embed the principles of understanding body language into client conversations, Brian suggests looking at it from a different perspective.

    “It may be better to reverse engineer it slightly, as what it leads to is looking at how do we improve great outcomes for clients.

    "One of the ways to do that is by making sure we are expert at our job, that we have all the required qualifications and more, and that we stay on top of those qualifications so that it's the right advice every single time. That, however, is just a seat at the table.”

    He says people are beginning to realise that, while it might not be explicit, clients and employers will often be looking at emotional intelligence.

    “They will look at your ability to understand the emotional state of yourself and of others, and manage it. So that’s key – not just understanding it, but managing it.

    “One of the things we do is ensure that people understand the channels of communication, not just what people say, but how they say it, the facial expressions, vocal quality, their body language, their psychophysiology and the way they interact. So, bring that all together, then you see the whole person.

    “It makes you more able to be emotionally intelligent within whatever role you're doing, whether that’s as a financial planner, or as a parent, partner, colleague or friend.”

    In terms of practical advice, Brian says active listening is really important, and asking as few questions as possible. It means not interrupting a client when they’re in full flow, or diverting them with a question that’s not relevant to what they’re saying.

    “I'd suggest that maybe 10 per cent of people do this naturally. 90 per cent of us don't. I didn't - it's only through practice, and then getting to a better level.

    “If we want to be better at what we do, and that’s in any profession, it's actually mostly about relationships. So that's essentially what we're talking about - how to communicate in a way that helps you understand that relationship, and making sure you're doing your part within that.”

    The tipping point

    Beyond financial planning, and beyond the keen interest in non-verbal communication, Brian is also an alpine ski instructor and takes part in endurance race events. (I particularly like one client testimonial where Brian is described as “outdoorsy and rugged-y.”)

    He and the family had been holidaying in Italy for several years before they decided to up sticks and move.

    He tells the story of how he was once asked where he was planning to ‘summer’ (the relevant Friends episode is here if you're interested), and after clarifying what that meant, i.e. your house where you spend the summer, he vowed to make ‘summering’ a tongue in cheek reality.

    “So we did, we decided to ‘summer’ in Italy.” (He can’t get this sentence out without laughing). “Because I teach skiing in the winter here as well, it was natural for us to say, 'one day we're going to move here'.”

    Unable to get their daughter into the UK secondary schools they wanted, Brian and Lisa were left upset and wondering what to do next.

    “I'm a big believer in that you're better to have an 80 per cent plan that's been violently executed today, than you are waiting for that 100 per cent plan to come together tomorrow.”

    The moment that sparked the move came when Brian was on the way back from training advisers in Huddersfield.

    “I was on the train at about 9pm - I think I'd actually got on the wrong train to begin with - and it was cold and wet and the train itself was from about 1945. Andthere were a couple of noisy drunks on the train. And I thought: that's it, it’s now or never.”

    The text conversation that followed went something like this:

    Brian: “Darling, we’re going.”

    Lisa: “Where? You're not home yet.”

    Brian: “Italy.”

    Lisa: “Oh. When?”

    Brian: “Now, or as soon as possible.”

    This was at the beginning of 2018. By April of that year, they’d gone out to look at schools and by June, they’d found an apartment.

    And so it was that on 25 July 2018 Brian and Lisa picked up Maddi and their son Archie from primary school, the car packed, and with the kids still in their school uniforms, the family left England and drove to Italy.

    “I'm a big believer in that you're better to have an 80 per cent plan that's been violently executed today, than you are waiting for that 100 per cent plan to come together tomorrow.”

    Seizing the day, and lockdown life 

    In normal times before the virus, Brian made it back to the UK once a month.

    Being regularly away from his family for his UK trips is “not particularly nice”, but he stays with his parents when he’s here, giving him quality time with them he wouldn’t ordinarily have had.

    He’s also had to discover a whole new level of patience to cope with the complexity of Italian bureaucracy.

    Clients were very supportive of the move, telling Brian simply to enjoy his new life.

    They’ve all stayed with Jones Hill, which is probably testament to both how the transition was handled and to the hard work of the team in Bradford on Avon.

    “The clients are not the challenge - the challenge is leading a team from a thousand miles away. Not because the team are difficult to manage at all, they're very autonomous, but I'm not there on site with them regularly.”

    Jones Hill operates on a four-day week, meaning Brian flies in monthly on a Tuesday, sees them Wednesday, Thursday and Monday, and then he’s back to Lombardy.

    The coronavirus has meant he last saw them in January, and is hoping to see them again next month.

    “That's at least a five-month gap. which is huge. So all credit to them, they've done a tremendous job.”

    The move to home working went smoothly, thanks to some timely business continuity planning at the end of last year.

    The team were already well-versed in the use of Teams, Zoom and WhatsApp, and having a slick VOIP phone system helped as well.

    The personal impact of the lockdown has been inescapable, given where Brian and the family are. They’re pretty sure that Lisa had the virus, (thankfully, now since recovered) which meant the family probably had it to some degree as well.

    Italy is now beginning to ease its strict lockdown measures, which included carrying a certificate when individuals went out, and people only allowed to visit local supermarkets and pharmacies. 

    Exercise was also limited to no more than 200 metres from their home. Those who didn’t comply faced a €200 fine and potentially a criminal record.

    “It's been very harsh and, you know, it’s had to be. The impact on myself, thankfully, has been minimal. But the impact on the Italian economy is drastic. Absolutely drastic.

    “In the UK people can get furloughed and get loans worth thousands of pounds, but in Italy you get a total of £600, that's it. So there's going be a lot of places going to the wall unfortunately. It's going to be a challenge.”

    But Brian says despite it all, he’s committed to life in Italy.

    During the lockdown his social life has been understandably reduced to ‘Zoom aperitivi’.

    He says the past few months have given him a new appreciation for family and friends, including those who baked and made dinner while Lisa was ill, and those who delivered handmade face masks.

    So what’s his advice for other planners thinking about making a similar move?

    “My advice would be if there's something you're constantly thinking about and that excites you, then find a way to do it, but always leave yourself a back-up plan in case things don't work out.

    “When we moved out here we rented, and we're still renting now. We're looking at probably doing a self-build later this year. But we'll still be renting throughout. So if push did come to shove, we could have literally just finished up and gone back to England.

    "If you're constantly thinking about, it's on your mind, it's the stuff you search for on the internet and you want to do it, then just do it. But make sure you do what you do for your own clients in having that back-up plan."

    The depth of client relationships

    What’s clear from talking with Brian, and from hearing it first-hand through client videos on the Jones Hill website, is the high regard the clients have for Brian, and vice versa.

    He suggests this is likely to be the case for many financial planners: your clients are the people you want to have a cup of tea or a glass of wine with.

    At a glance: Jones Hill

    Number of clients: 134 active clients

    Number of staff: Four (One adviser, one paraplanner, one trainee adviser, one office manager/client coordinator)

    In a nutshell: Jones Hill is for people who want expert, independent and unbiased fixed fee advice

    “They’re great… they have such interesting and full lives. Looking back, I've met a lot of wonderful people, clients and colleagues who have helped me on my journey.

    “I would like to think we've brought some joy and comfort to our clients' lives in helping them and the importance we’ve placed in being their trusted adviser.”

    He gives a heart-breaking example to drive the point home.

    Brian and Lisa very sadly lost identical twin girls at 22 week in April 2008. Every month the family would go and visit the graveside, but obviously this year, they weren’t able to do that.

    So, unbeknownst to Brian, one of his clients went and put fresh flowers down for them.

    “They sent me a picture and just said: 'I know you haven't been able to get back, so I've gone to see the girls for you.'

    “It's the relationships we have that are super important. That's what I'll take away I think. Qualifications and letters after your name are fine, but what I'll take away are the many extraordinary relationships.”

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