A £100,000 inheritance was Cathi Harrison’s gateway into financial planning. Not that she got to do any of the inheriting, mind you.

At 22 years old, Cathi had just completed a degree in English and business at Teesside University, and didn’t know what she wanted to do for her career. When a friend of a friend came into money, they mentioned going to see a financial adviser about what to do with their new-found wealth. A whole new world opened up for Cathi, who was intrigued about what that adviser would do and how they would go about it. For someone who’d never heard of Isas, her interest was piqued.

As luck (or fate) would have it, at the same time a job opened up for an administrator at a local advice firm. Cathi joined Pace Financial Solutions with a view to becoming an adviser, but after completing her diploma and starting on the advanced diploma, she realised her heart lay elsewhere – in paraplanning.

The creation of Para-Sols

Cathi worked at Pace for around three years, and was at the business when it was being bought out by Pearson Jones, then owned by Skipton Building Society. Pearson Jones went on to be acquired by Standard Life in 2015, the first business to become part of the company’s national advice firm 1825.

Acquisitions tend to involve a lot of change, and that was true of Pace and Pearson Jones. The move to standard processes and a centralised investment proposition unsettled a lot of staff. Cathi says the environment became different and she stopped enjoying her role as much as she had.

It drove her to seek out a new role at a different kind of firm, and she moved to Harrogate-based Brook-Dobson Brear. It was a revelation for Cathi, coming from a firm geared around sales and targets to one focused on financial planning, where they used cashflow modelling, platforms and passive strategies.

As rewarding as the experience was, the daily commute between Darlington where Cathi lived and Harrogate where she worked ultimately proved too much.

She says: “I’d started to call around firms closer to home to see if they needed a paraplanner. A few said they’d love to but couldn’t afford to hire someone, but they could do with some ad hoc support. The seed was planted for me then, I started to think: ‘What if I just did that? What if I worked for a few local firms? Perhaps I could work from home, with lots of time off and holidays’.” She laughs. “The naivety of how I started Para-Sols.”

“There was no logic to it, but I just kept thinking: ‘I really want to do this. I just want it to work.’ Invoicing that initial small amount was enough to get me through. From one referral, it started to snowball quite quickly from there.”

Conversation turns to the TV show Friends where Rachel, who works as a waitress, is persuaded she needs “the fear”, that is, to quit her job to find the motivation to get the job she really wants. Cathi says there is some truth to that.

“Given I was working 9am til 5.30pm, plus two hours travelling, there wasn’t the time to set up a business while doing my job. So I just had to quit. It was a huge leap, and in hindsight it was absolutely bonkers. I wasn’t prepared at all, I had a mortgage to pay and no one else to rely on.”

She admits 2009 was in some ways a tough time to set up a business. Cathi had seen first-hand how the market had turned, having bought her flat in 2007 and two months later finding herself in negative equity. But in a strange way the financial crisis also worked in her favour, because advice firms who were themselves recovering from the crash were more open to the flexible style of paraplanning support Cathi was offering.

She says it was ‘the fear’ that pushed her to do the thing she hated, which was sales. She went through the FCA register calling firms in the North-east, asking if they needed paraplanning support. Para-Sols, a brand derived from ‘paraplanning solutions’, was slow to get off the ground. Sometimes she was met with resistance; when she would explain how she could help advisers with research and report writing, she was told in no uncertain terms advisers could do that themselves.

The situation got pretty desperate, with Cathi picking up waitressing and work in a friend’s beauty salon to make ends meet. She remembers her mum pleading with her to go and get a job.

“There was no logic to it, but I just kept thinking: ‘I really want to do this. I just want it to work.’ But from one of the phone calls I made, they spoke to another adviser over in Cheshire, and she got in touch with me to ask for support. She’s still a client now, though she does remind me that my prices have gone up a lot since when I first came on board. Invoicing that initial small amount was enough to get me through, and to tell myself I could do this. She referred me to someone else, and then it started to snowball quite quickly from there.”

Growing pains

From those humble beginnings almost nine years ago, Para-Sols now has a 20-strong team and provides paraplanning support to around 110 advice firms.

Like many advice firms, Cathi struggled with recruitment in the early years. She says it was hard to find the balance between getting more team members in and trained up, attracting more client firms and maintaining the quality of service.

Recruitment was a process of trial and error. Cathi says on paper an individual would be right, but even those with experience found the reality of paraplanning as part of an outsourced firm was very different to paraplanning in-house.

“We probably didn’t train them in quite the right way, expecting them to hit the ground running. That didn’t work, as they needed to be retrained in the way we and our clients work, and in the ability to work with a lot of different firms. I thought if we’re going to train them anyway, why don’t we bring someone new in?”

Para-Sols started by hiring an apprentice, which evolved into a graduate role. He is still with the company now, staying on through various office moves which took him from London to Newcastle.

There followed a cycle of taking on graduate entrants over the next couple of years, with some staying on and some not working out.

Screen shot from thegradscheme.co.uk

“We realised taking on one new person a year on average wasn’t going to be enough to manage the growth. The thinking was we’d run three grad schemes a year, and we’ll take on however many of them we think have potential. The proviso was it would be a three-month paid internship with no guaranteed role, but it would give applicants an opportunity to show they could do it.”

Para-Sols has since linked up with local universities, and has begun to widen that to those who may have grown up in the North-east, studied elsewhere, and now want to settle closer to family. It posts vacancies on the Chartered Insurance Institute’s Discover Risk website, as well as job sites like Indeed and local job sites.

But the jewel in its recruitment crown is The Grad Scheme which launched last year. It is a separate recruitment brand with its own website, thegradscheme.co.uk, and its own Twitter account.

“We were amazed the domain was available. It now comes up any time someone is searching for graduate roles. With one brand and one website, we can recruit for any role we want in the business.

“It’s worded for young people with its own marketing message of ‘capes, not suits’, so we set out that we want superheroes rather than corporate types. That draws younger people in, then we explain financial planning, then paraplanning. We tend to get 30 to 50 applicants at a time, and then we shortlist it down to 10 or 12. They then come in for an assessment day.”

She says not many applicants have heard of paraplanning at the start of the process, but they quickly grasp it as being the role between the adviser and the client.

The Grad Scheme has enabled Cathi to scale up for growth and build the necessary team. She wishes she had figured it out earlier – she estimates if that had been the case, the business would be five times the size it is now.

Changing the relationship

Not content with two brands under her belt, in November Cathi set up a third business. Apricity offers compliance support to advisers and was launched at the Personal Finance Society Festival of Financial Planning in Birmingham.

The idea for a compliance business was born out of adviser research and roundtables with compliance consultants and former FCA technical specialist Rory Percival.

Cathi says one of the major themes was that the relationship between compliance and advisers, whether in-house or external, often stemmed from a negative starting point.

“Compliance is a dirty word, and there’s a stigma attached to it. There’s a sense among advisers that compliance is trying to stop them from doing their jobs. As paraplanners you can get stuck in the middle. It got me thinking – everyone’s on the same page here. We’re all trying to give good advice, and in a compliant way. It shouldn’t be a negative relationship.

“It’s a huge challenge to try and change that perception. Partly this is advisers assuming compliance will be negative, and partly it’s down to the way some compliance providers give feedback that is dry and not very supportive. We decided to launch a business that would aim to change the entire perception of compliance.”

Respect and success

Increasing diversity in the advice profession is a subject close to Cathi’s heart, both in terms of attracting more women into the sector as well as younger people. She says when she first started out she came across male advisers who wouldn’t speak to her until she told them she was a chartered financial planner.

As Para-Sols has grown, Cathi has attracted a lot of publicity and often finds herself discussing the question of diversity in financial services.

“Sometimes I cringe for always being the one to put this out there, but we have to keep pushing this because people have to command the same amount of respect regardless of their age or their gender.”

She argues firms that challenge the public perception of advisers will see their business evolve as a result.

At a glance: Para-Sols

Company launched: 2009

Number of clients: Around 110 firms

Number of staff: 20

In a nutshell: “My burning ambition across both Para-Sols and Apricity is to redesign how we approach some things across the profession. Para-Sols is about offering advisers and planners an outsourced paraplanning solution so they can focus their efforts elsewhere. Apricity is all about turning the current compliance regime on its head - offering an online framework which gets advisers on the right track from the outset and above all else, makes their compliance experience positive, helpful and even enjoyable.”

“There was a programme on the other day about a rogue financial adviser, and the guy playing him was in his fifties with grey hair. That is the default assumption of the general public.

“It’s a good thing to bring in younger people, people who can offer different ideas and have a different way of working. It’s challenging, because you’re used to a certain way of doing things, but if you can adapt to them it means you’re adapting to what the world is doing as well.”

Reflecting on her career and business overall, Cathi is proud she decided to strike out on her own.

“I just knew I wanted to work for myself and I knew I was a good paraplanner, and logically I didn’t see why those two things couldn’t come together. You’ve got to be prepared to get your head down and work 100 hours a week for as long as it takes to get going. It’s often the point that a lot of people give up, because they think ‘this is crazy, this isn’t working’. I can see that and I did get very close to that point.

“But they say if you can get to the other side of that, you find you can persevere and power through. For me it absolutely helped there was that rise of paraplanning, and more advisers understanding the role. I certainly don’t think I’ve created all the luck myself, but a mix of that trend and being prepared to sacrifice what you need to – that’s what has worked for me.”

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