Susie Foottit left school at 15 years old without any qualifications. She has come a long way since then.
From a standing start of around 20 clients, she has risen to become both a director and shareholder at Helm Godfrey, and in August will celebrate 40 years working in the financial services industry.
During that time she has worked tirelessly to bring increasing numbers of new entrants into the advice profession, and has gone above and beyond (and high and low) to support the work of the Teenage Cancer Trust. Her achievements culminated in being named role model of the year at the inaugural Women in Investment awards, an accolade Susie describes as being the highlight of her career.
She spoke to Illuminate about how her career has evolved, and how she still loves her job 40 years on.
The road to Helm Godfrey
Susie’s early career saw her working in advertising sales in the local newspaper the Surrey Advertiser, and in the back office of insurance company Guardian Royal Exchange, which eventually became part of Axa.
A housemate introduced her to working in London as a financial adviser, though Susie is the first to admit those early days selling life insurance and regular savings plans is a world away from the service-led advice of today. She found talking to people and being inquisitive came naturally to her, and she seemed to be good at the role – this is borne out by the fact she still counts some of those initial 20 clients among her clients today.
After doing this for about 18 months or so, Susie and two of her colleagues decided to go it alone. As she puts it: “I was 23, so clearly I thought I knew it all at that point!” Wanting to break away from the “sale-sy” culture of the direct sales firm they were working for, the trio set up their own business called Lambourn Buckingham in 1981. After one of the founding partners left to emigrate to Australia, Susie and her female business partner were left to their own devices.
Susie says: “When I come to think about it, we really were trailblazers, as we were among the first female financial advisers in the City in 1980s and 90s. We could have made a really big deal out of that, but actually I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to be successful, and not just because I was a woman in the City. I wanted to be on equal terms with everybody else.”
"For our old business, it was like we had evolved on the Galapagos Islands. We were so busy running the business, we didn’t really meet anyone from other firms. It was quite refreshing when we came to Helm Godfrey to see how they did things."
Susie was undeterred by the qualification requirements of being an adviser - if anything, she relished the opportunity to study and learn. She describes how her business partner, a former teacher, used to point out the areas that didn’t require so much study as they were unlikely to come up in the exams. But Susie’s feeling was: “If I’m going to study this, I’m going to learn it properly…”
Fast forward 20 years (!) and Lambourn Buckingham had grown to become a successful, niche business. The regulatory burden led the firm to look at joining a bigger advice business, which is where Helm Godfrey came in.
“For our old business, it was like we had evolved on the Galapagos Islands. We were so busy running the business, we didn’t really meet anyone from other firms. We didn’t know how the rest of the industry behaved, or how they did business. It was quite refreshing when we came to Helm Godfrey to work with other people and see how they did things. It was also a good way of being able to measure ourselves.”
Susie says the partnership with Helm Godfrey “felt right”, with mutual benefits for both sides. At the time Helm Godfrey was based in North London and wanting a City presence, and Lambourn Buckingham wanted the support being part of a larger firm could offer. The personalities involved also proved to be a good fit, and Susie is full of praise for founding director Bruce Wilson and chairman Danby Bloch.
“We’ve been really lucky at Helm Godfrey to be working with people with such big brains at the top of it. Danby and Bruce are really forward thinking, extremely bright and creative, and visionary, I would say.
“Often where they had the ideas, it was a question of how to put them into practice, and I was able to help with that. I could see there was a huge amount of potential when our firms came together, and the growth that came afterwards kind of felt natural.”
‘Don’t listen to any BS’
When Susie won the role model of the year award in November, she wasn’t expecting it – having seen the shortlist, she didn’t fancy her chances. She was also shortlisted in the investment woman of the year category for small to medium firms.
She was nominated by Helm Godfrey operations manager Pat Dance, then had to put in a written submission including testimonials.
“I became pregnant with my son six months after starting Lambourn Buckingham. While it was hard, I still managed to work, bring up two children, do all my qualifications. I don’t listen to any BS from other people who tell me reasons why they can’t be successful.”
Her work in helping to set up a women’s networking group fed into her winning submission, as did her role as vice chair of the Teenage Cancer Trust.
She came into contact with the charity through founder member and former chairman Dr Adrian Whiteson and his wife Myrna, who were Susie’s clients.
“I knew them socially, and we used to go walking on Hampstead Heath at the weekend. He was always telling me about the charity and the work they did.”
Susie started fundraising for them, kicking off with some impressive trekking.
“The first one was the High Atlas Mountains, which was amazing. Then I did Cotopaxi in Ecuador, the West Highland Way, and a horse trek in Patagonia.”
This led to Susie being asked to come on board as a trustee, and help out on the financial side. She was made vice chair, and saw the impact of the huge amounts of money raised by Stephen Sutton, who was diagnosed with terminal bowel cancer aged 15. Stephen drew up a ‘bucket list’ of things he wanted to achieve before he died, which went viral. Among his achievements were completing a skydive and playing drums in front of 90,000 people. He died aged 19 in 2014, having raised over £3.2m for Teenage Cancer Trust. His Just Giving page shows the total raised now stands at over £5.1m.
Susie says her role at the charity was very satisfying, though admits it was also a lot of hard work. Having been there for 12 years, three years ago she decided to step down as vice chair, though remains involved in the charity’s work. Her daughter ran the London marathon for Teenage Cancer trust this year, and her son plans to do the same next year.
“This was a charity that started out from a kitchen table, and went on to become a major player. Our annual concert at the Royal Albert Hall is now a major fixture in both the charity and the music worlds. Being involved also keeps things in perspective. We did so much good. It’s been a really good thing and a great part of my life.”
Regulation, and pension scare stories
Like many advisers, Susie worries about the unintended consequences of regulation and what it will do to client service.
“My feeling is there’s too much regulation, the pendulum has swung too much now, especially with Mifid II. It’s just not helpful.”
She particularly laments the quarterly reporting requirement brought in under Mifid II for discretionary fund managers.
“This makes clients feel advice is a short-term exercise, when it’s not. While I understand that’s it sensible for a client to review and understand what’s happening with their money, it’s got to the point where it’s all a bit extreme.
At a glance: Helm Godfrey
Company launched: September 1990
Number of clients: In excess of 20,000
Number of staff: 85
In a nutshell: “At Helm Godfrey, we take a modern approach that prioritises quality, service and simplicity above all else.
“What’s happened is you’re spending so much time now on all the additional reporting requirements, you actually have less time to spend with your clients. So where is the impact going to be?
"Firstly, potentially worse client servicing, and secondly, additional costs for the client. I don’t know that Mifid II has really achieved its aims of greater transparency, given it was put in place by people who are not actually involved in giving advice.”
Susie says communicating the benefits of financial planning can be difficult against the backdrop of “scare stories” perpetuated in the national media. She describes it as an “uphill battle”, fighting against the widespread notion that pensions equals misselling. She is hopeful of the opportunity to spread a positive message through the rise of workplace advice, but remains concerns about the little provision being made by the self-employed.
On the positive aspects of advice, Susie is a passionate advocate of the power of mentoring in order to develop and train new recruits so that they are well placed to give good advice.
“You need to be able to show up and coming advisers that the advice you’re giving is only a means to an end, of getting to the goals the client wants to achieve. It’s vital that you’re able to understand your client to find out where they want to go.”
Reflecting on how far she’s come, Susie says: “When I look back, coming from the starting point I had, I’ve done incredibly well. It’s been fantastic. I’m at my peak, and I’m loving it.”