Perceptive Planning director Shannon Currie has made a pledge to be less invisible this year.
Granted, it is perhaps easier to stay out of the limelight when your husband is Phil Billingham. But with Perceptive celebrating its 10-year anniversary this week, now seems as good a time as any for Shannon to take centre stage, albeit with tentative steps.
Her story marks a road less travelled, from South Africa to Essex and beyond. In Perceptive, Shannon has built a solid financial planning practice geared around long-term relationships across families, not just individual clients.
The business has moved and grown from a table in their conservatory (which still has pride of place in their client meeting room) to a converted chapel and finally to The Old Buttery, the former dairy farm from which they now operate.
Shannon and Phil have also found time to set up another business, World Citizens, which caters to clients whose lives and assets are spread across more than one country.
All this, plus time inside other financial planning firms as a practice management and business consultant, has lent Shannon a rare perspective into how the advice profession has evolved and how it continues to do so.
An RDR-ready apprenticeship
Shannon moved with her family from Zimbabwe to South Africa when she was 12 years old, a move fuelled by her father’s desire to give his children a better education. By her early 20s she was backpacking round the world.
A visit to family in Northern Ireland led to travelling around the UK, and to her being on the lookout for a temp job to fund her next round of travelling.
Perhaps somewhat inexplicably, she ended up in Chelmsford in Essex, as a temporary motor insurance clerk. Shannon laughs when she recalls some of her early client conversations.
She says: “I remember having a very circular conversation with a gentleman from Ware in Hertfordshire, and me going: ‘Where are you phoning from?’ and ‘Ware’ being the reply, then me repeating the question, him repeating his reply, and so it went!”
"We worked on a fee basis. That was almost unheard of at that point, but that was the only way I knew how to do things. I was extremely lucky that that was my apprenticeship. It has stood me in good stead ever since."
Shannon moved over to the investment side of the business after volunteering for some extra project work and showing a flair for her attention to detail. (This eagle-eyed focus later went on to serve Shannon well as an expert witness in advice cases, including one high profile case with the Serious Fraud Office.)
Eventually the investment arm broke away from the parent group to become Kearsley Investment Management, and Shannon moved as part of the carve-out.
“This was back in 1993/94, and we worked on a fee basis. That was almost unheard of at that point, but that was the only way I knew how to do things. Nowadays that’s called being an RDR business, but I was extremely lucky that that was my apprenticeship. It has stood me in good stead ever since.”
Shannon became a director within three years of joining the standalone business. Thanks to a forward-thinking boss, Fred Homer, he saw to it that Shannon got qualified to a high standard, putting her through the Investment Management Certificate needed for discretionary management.
The business was later bought out by BDO Stoy Hayward. By the time Shannon left 11 years later, she was responsible for overseeing £250m in discretionary assets. She decided to move on in search of a new and different challenge.
Life as a consultant
Shannon met Phil on a supervisors’ course, meeting both her business and life partner in one fell swoop. Phil had lived and grown up in South Africa for a time, so the pair got to chatting. The rest, as they say, is history…
The meeting was good timing for Shannon professionally too, and she joined Phil in his consultancy, then branded as Perception. She found she relished consultancy life, gaining an invaluable insight into different business practices.
“The consultancy side of things was quite amazing. Life until then had been about the one firm I’d worked with. Then you go into the wide world, and find that everybody does things differently. You start to realise while there’s lots of things you wouldn’t do, there’s also lots of best practice you can incorporate into your own business. It opened my eyes.”
But for all the benefits of working as a consultant, there were also some drawbacks.
Shannon found herself slipping into her old habits of advising clients and doing financial planning work on behalf of the principals. A conflict began to emerge between wanting to be a good but short-term consultant, and Shannon’s desire to develop long-term relationships.
“Eventually you end up wanting to take over the world and to do things a certain way, and that’s not good for their business. There are also cases where you’re being paid by someone who isn’t paying attention to what you’re saying, so you need to recognise where you’ve stopped adding value for that person."
Following the death of a family member at a young age, Shannon was standing at the graveside when she started to question what she was doing and why. While she loved her work, she was conscious of trying to recreate businesses according to a set structure. She calls this her “moment of clarity” – she realised what she really wanted was to go back to working with clients.
This could have been a difficult transition to navigate but Shannon and Phil sat down and worked out their next moves.
Perception was sold into Threesixty in 2009, with Phil taking on a national role. Shannon then set up Perceptive to focus on financial planning.
Reflecting on her time as a consultant, Shannon says she noted a wariness pre-RDR among some firms around fees and value which thankfully has since changed.
“Time isn’t necessarily the hour I spend in your presence, it’s the 20-years plus of experience, all adding up to that one moment. There is a value to that professionalism.”
World records and World Citizens
Working together at Perceptive over the last decade has served Shannon and Phil well. Shannon says they are lucky in that they thoroughly enjoy working together, regardless of what form the business takes.
Shannon sparkles as she talks about the firm’s clients, and is proud that one client interaction can, over time, evolve to span generations of the same family. “It’s the ultimate compliment for someone to say, ‘I would trust you to advise my loved ones.’”
World Citizens emerged out of the fact there were a number of Perceptive clients who had assets in the UK but also assets around the world.
“Both Phil and I have separately worked, lived and paid tax in different continents, and you do start to think of things from a slightly different perspective.
“It came from the idea that just because you live here now, that doesn’t mean you may never go back to your home country.
"What do you do when inheritances come your way? Or if you came over here to work, have made a great life for yourself but want to return ‘home’? Are you in the country where you want to bring your children up? Should all your assets be in one place? It’s all those kinds of questions that people think about.”
The brand was created in October 2017, and went from idea stage to a live brand with business cards and a website within just 10 days.
So far World Citizens has been run as an internal brand of Perceptive to prove the business case, but Shannon and Phil have now begun the process of setting it up a separate regulated entity as they can see there is demand.
World Citizens differs from Perceptive in that, given the international dimension, it makes sense to work in conjunction with another planner in the local area. They tend to work with other certified financial planners, which is a good “hygiene factor” and means there is a common language between them.
The firm is also picking up clients from UK advisers, from those who would rather not deal with clients with overseas interests.
Keen travellers themselves, Shannon and Phil embarked on a journey of an altogether different kind in June 2014.
With a world record in their sights, Phil, Shannon and two of their friends, Duncan Mackenzie and Gerry Mulligan, piled into a Vauxhall Insignia and set about driving to 18 countries in 24 hours.
Not only did they manage to set the record (one they still hold today), but they raised around £15,000 between them in support of three charities: the Stroke Association in Wales, the Tom Bowdidge Youth Cancer Foundation, and the Elsie Normington Foundation, a hospice in Inverness.
Memorable moments included the car screaming up to a train station in Liechtenstein at 1am, in order to get a photo of crossing into a country without a formal border – and interrupting an amorous couple on a bench in the process.
They also ended up inadvertently trying to bypass customs at the Serbian border. After getting their passports back from an armed border guard, Phil got ready to accelerate away, not realising they needed to stop at the customs checkpoint less than 100m away.
“All of a sudden there were more border guards around us, guns everywhere, and people shouting. We braked immediately and put our hands up to surrender!”
Thanks to a pre-prepared translation sheet explaining the record attempt, and a kind border guard who was in charge, they managed to dash across the border in time.
“The head border guard pointed to the paper and in broken English said: ‘This? Now?’ She immediately stopped her colleagues who were emptying the car to search it, before yelling at us to: ‘Go, go, go!’ We’ll always be eternally grateful to her.”
Ageing, and the ‘wall of cash’
Back in the world of financial planning, there are different challenges to contend with.
Shannon points to the hardening professional indemnity insurance market, and how the system interacts with the Financial Services Compensation Scheme.
She says the broken model is a struggle. Shannon and Phil whisteblew in the cases of both Keydata and Arch cru, but to no avail. Shannon says that experience, together with what she’s seen as an expert witness, makes her cynical on behalf of her clients.
On the positive side, Shannon is encouraged by how the profession is beginning to demonstrate a proper career path for new entrants. She also has a keen interest in how society treats our ageing population, and planners’ role within that.
At a glance: Perceptive Planning
Company launched : 2009
Number of clients: 75 family groups, generally made up of couples, trusts and clients’ adult children and grandchildren
Number of staff: Seven
In a nutshell: Essentially we want Perceptive to be seen as a ‘safe pair of hands’. This is the ethos for us internally, and the aspect that resonates most with our clients, whether they come to us for the preservation of family wealth or to ensure they have a successful, happy retirement.
“For too long, ageing has been associated as a being a negative thing. But a lot of us don’t hit our stride until we’re older. We’re sold this idea that youth is best, and of course, youth is great. But boy, is it fun growing older too.
“There is a dignity that our clients deserve as they grow older. We have really interesting clients in their 80s and 90s, who are still sucking the full joy out of life. So I’m looking forward to us portraying, and treating, our older population more kindly.”
She says increasingly she is being asked by clients to help manage the transition of wealth to the next generation.
“Often parents will ask us to work with their children, to help them with the type of questions they need to be asking about money, and to demonstrate how a financial services relationship works. Otherwise when that ‘wall of money’ comes their way, it's often too overwhelming, and there can be feelings of guilt associated with it.”
Shannon is a firm believer that planners shouldn’t lose sight of the real difference they are making to clients’ lives.
For her, this is demonstrated in a gift of family wealth that allowed a daughter to buy wardrobes for her kids so they could hang up their school uniforms. Or in being the first person a client phoned, distraught and not knowing what to do next, when his wife passed away unexpectedly.
Ultimately, Shannon simply wants to continue making a difference for clients, nothing more, nothing less. Despite two successful businesses, including one with an international focus, there are no grand plans for world domination, and that suits her just fine.
“I would like a business that enables me to keep doing what I love for as long as I possibly can. It’s reassuring for me to be able to say to clients: ‘I will be here’.”