Q. What was your childhood like? Tell me about your family
A. Fine. My dad was a coal miner and my mother a garment worker. All my holidays in the 60s and 70s were spent in caravans at Hornsea on the East Yorkshire coast until I was 13, when we went to Innsbruck on a Wallace Arnold coach tour. I went to the local state schools where I’ve sent my own kids. We weren’t rich but we weren’t poor either. I’m not spinning this as some heroic rags-to-riches story because that would not be true. My dad earned an okay wage by working a lot of overtime and he had a window cleaning round on the side. He cleaned pensioners’ windows for free though; he was a generous guy. My parents are both dead now. Coal dust killed my dad aged 72 in 1993 and my mother was knocked down by the proverbial bus aged 82 in 2007 in the middle of my compliance visit. Linda’s parents are in their 70s. Her dad Claude’s a great character. He’s French and served as a paratrooper. He migrated here to marry Linda’s mother in the 1960s after meeting her on a school exchange, and got a job here in the local power station. We have three kids; Dominique born in 1995 who’s now a teacher, Madeleine born in 2001 who’s a nursery nurse, and Edward born in 2006 who spends every spare minute practising his music, mainly playing guitar. Pets-wise I’ve had rescue dogs all my life. In 2008 we got our first rescue husky, Rosa, and then Czar in 2010. We’ve had cats too in the past but cats and huskies generally don’t peacefully co-exist. Siberian huskies are hard-wired to hunt small furry animals; that’s how they survive in the arctic. We now live in the house where I grew up. We bought the semi next door and did a knock-through after my mother died so Linda could have the kitchen and gym she wanted, and a play room for the kids, and a garage for me and my motorcycles.
Q. How did you get into financial Services?
A. I was 16 years old at sixth-form college at the end of ’79 doing A-Levels in Politics, Economics, History and Law. My plan had been to do two years of A-Levels and then do PPE at university, butI could see the way the economy and jobs market was going. I figured by the time I got out of university good jobs would scarce, so 3 December ’79 I quit college and walked down to the youth employment office. I lined up half a dozen interviews, all in Leeds: The gas and electric boards, the civil service, a printing firm, Hogg Robinson insurance brokers and Hill Samuel Life Assurance Ltd. The gas and electric board and civil service interviews were all the same. I was interviewed by middle-aged guys in cheap suits with soup stains on their ties. Their pitch was: “Keep your nose clean and you’ll retire at 65 with a good pension.” The printing firm was full of even older guys, the machinery was ancient and the windows were too filthy to see through. Next was Hogg Robinson, on Park Row in Leeds. The interviewer was a middle-aged moustache with square-rimmed glasses. For those old enough to remember the 1970s TV sitcom George & Mildred, think of the snobbish, right-wing estate agent Jeffrey Fourmile played by British actor Norman Eshley. The interviewer was a dead ringer for him in both looks and manner. His first question was “Where did you go to school?” At the answer “Brigshaw Comprehensive”. His face contorted with obvious disdain. Second question: “And, ahh, what does your father do for a living?” At this, I’m thinking “What the hell has that got to do with you or the job?” But I answered, politely, “He’s a coal miner.” After that, he couldn’t get me out the door fast enough.
The last interview on my list was Hill Samuel Life Assurance Ltd, then located at Tower House on Merrion Way in Leeds, a 19-storey tower block built in 1965 and now known as Arena Point. Next door was the Cinderella-Rockerfellas nightclub. Hill Samuel was on the 5th floor. The elevator was full of attractive girls and so was the office. Things were looking up. I was interviewed by the chief clerk, Tony Moody, who asked me to come back in the afternoon and be seen by the regional manager John Sayers. I got the job of quotations clerk on £2300 a year. Three years later at age 19 I was running all the admin’ for Hill Samuel across the whole of the northern region covering the Leeds, Manchester and Nottingham offices. Tony and John are still friends of mine to this day. Then in 1985 I was head-hunted by an Independent Financial Adviser firm in Harrogate, Northern Investments. I spent three years there and went through the 1987 crash and the aftermath. Then in 1989 I fancied a change so I spent a couple of years in logistics running the fitting operations of a Leeds furniture firm before returning to financial services working for Knight Williams in 1991. When KW closed in 1995, I went to the DBS network for seven years, then to a small firm in Leeds until 2004 when I founded West Riding.
Q. What made you decide to go it alone?
A. Lots of reasons. For one I’d had enough of bad bosses. DBS was a great place to work when I started there in 1995. Ken Davy and Martin Greenwood were in charge and I had a lot of liking and respect for both of them and still do. Then it went public and suddenly there were a lot more managers doing not a lot. Martin went, then Ken after the takeover by Misys. My own line manager left too, Mike Baugh. He was a decent guy and good at his job. I can’t say the same about his successor. She spent two years trying to make my life a misery so she could replace me with a friend of hers. It ended up as a battle of wills. She thought she was an irresistible force but I was the proverbial immovable object. In the end we were all made redundant in 2002. I decided I wanted to work as an IFA giving advice direct to the general public. At DBS I’d been responsible for vetting and compiling panels of investment products and funds, whitelisting and blacklisting, and for advising other advisers in the member firms. A lot of the time though the people asking my advice didn’t really want the answers I was giving them. Too many just wanted me to rubber-stamp whatever junk they wanted to sell and a lot weren’t that bright. I figured if they could do it, so could I. Then there was the financial and job security motive. When my DBS job ended in 2002 that was my fourth redundancy in 14 years. Every place I worked, I’d given it 110% minimum, never been a clock-watcher, won the ‘employee of the month’ award three times at DBS, never took time off sick. But still, when some clown in London made what he called a ‘strategic decision’ I still got fired along with everyone else anyway.
Q. So, was redundancy from DBS the catalyst?
A. Sort of. From working at DBS’s head office in Huddersfield I went to work as an adviser at a DBS member firm near Leeds. There were four of us in an office that was twenty-feet square if that, the two owners, me and an administrator, Margaret, who I’d worked with before and known since the mid-1980s. It wasn’t the best place to work though and I was made redundant in July 2004, but I’d planned to leave anyway. I’d incorporated West Riding the month before and had found myself an accountant, so redundancy just brought my plans forward. Margaret later worked for us as a temp and we still welcome her at our office annual dinner.
Q. Was it tough launching your own business?
A. It was tough, sure, but luckily Linda was 100% on side, which was vital. She did have reservations though, naturally. We had two daughters back then, an eight-year-old, Dominique, and Madeleine aged two. Edward only came along in 2006. Linda was worried that we’d be clothing them from charity shops. Our capital was around £3000 and my mother loaned me £10,000 to meet the capital adequacy rules. Apart from the previous two-years, all my jobs had been behind the scenes as a technical bod, giving advice to other financial advisers, so I had no clients of my own. Linda asked me where we’d find our clients? My answer was “We’ll run an American firm here in the UK.” She looked at me like I was nuts! The conversation that convinced her went like this:
Neil: “We’ve been to the US a few times, right?”
Linda: “Yes but what’s that got to do with it?”
Neil: “What’s customer service like in the States compared with here?”
Linda: “Better obviously, loads better.”
Neil: “So we’ll run an American-style firm here in the UK. We’ll bust a gut to kill the competition on value-for-money, and we’ll give clients the kind of service they can’t get anyplace else, 24/7, whatever it takes.”
And that was what we did. We bought in term assurance leads from Moneysupermarket and that provided us with a nucleus of clients, plus some followed me from my previous job. Then I worked seven-day weeks for the next few years, usually 14 to 18 hours a day. Originally, we worked from home, me in the front attic at our old house, Linda in the front room downstairs, but planned to get a proper office as soon as possible. In February 2006 we moved into Sagar Street, Castleford, into what had been a barbershop over a sewing-machine shop. I used to tell clients, “We might be upstairs from a sewing machine shop, but we won’t stitch you up!” We bought West Riding House on 1 March 2017 and moved in 1 August 2018 after renovations.
Q. There’s still a public perception that financial advisers are salesmen. How ‘salesy’ are you?
A. Not very. I’ve never had so much as five minutes of sales training in my life, and I’m glad about that. Unless there’s genuinely some massive urgency or another very good reason, we won’t let clients sign up for our services here in the office at the first meeting. We find out what clients need and then send them what we call a ‘Welcome/Engagement Letter’ – a ‘WEL’ in our internal jargon – along with our Client & Fee Agreement Document. The WEL sets out what we can do and what it’ll cost. If they want us to proceed, and they almost invariably do, they sign and return the paperwork. Doing it that way means they get to make an informed decision in the zero-pressure environment of their own home. Let’s face it, British people are generally polite. Most people, if they’ve just spent an hour sitting across the desk from me, will feel obliged to sign on the dotted line if I ask them to. But we don’t want people feeling obliged to sign up. We only want them to do it of their own volition once they’ve had time to think it through and understand what we’re offering them. I always tell new staff that our ‘sales process’, if you can call it that, is based on the ‘Little Bo Peep’ principle: We leave them alone and they come home. Before I set up West Riding, I went to see a guy who wanted me to go work for him. He told me I should be phoning my clients every week to ask them to refer friends and family. No way could I ever do that. I don’t believe in camping on my clients’ doorsteps. We send clients an annual suitability review offer, which asks them to check that our fact-find is up to date and to offer them a face-to-face meeting, plus we send them four newsletters a year with a covering letter reminding them that they can ask for a meeting anytime if they want one, even if it’s not the annual review. We’ll always see clients if they need us. We’re as flexible as it gets in that regard. We don’t ‘hard-sell’ though. I can’t stand it when people try doing it to me. In fact, I’ve never met anyone who likes being sold to, especially being hard sold, so why the hell would we do it to anyone else? We find that the people who come to see us really like the way we do it. The vast majority become clients when they’re ready.
Q. Are you independent or restricted?
A. We’re as independent as it gets. I didn’t set up on my own to be told what to do by a network or some outfit like St James’s Place. I’ve been offered big numbers by consolidators, but I’m not interested in having somebody else tell me how to run my business. I know this sounds paradoxical given the business I’m in, but on a personal level there’s a lot more to life than money. I could retire tomorrow if I wanted. I choose to work for the satisfaction of seeing the results we get for clients and the careers we help our colleagues build. Plus, I just enjoy working with other people, staff and clients.
Q. Why aren’t you listed on the adviser comparison sites?
A. We are, but we refuse to pay the high costs the sites want to be near the top of their listing. If you look, you’ll see that all the advisers coming up for a Castleford search aren’t actually from Castleford, they’ve just paid for a premium listing. We were listed on VouchedFor at its inception, but we discontinued it because potential clients were finding us through our own website but contacting us via VouchedFor, so we were paying upwards of £100 for enquiries we’d have got anyway. We run a low-cost no-waste business to keep fees low. We are one of the lowest-cost full-advice completely independent firms in the business. But we wouldn’t be, if we were shelling out large amounts of money to comparison sites.
Q. So where and how do you advertise if you’re not buying comparison site space?
A. Apart from our website, we very seldom advertise at all. Nearly all our new clients are recommended by existing clients who are happy with the work we’ve done for them, and by other professionals such as solicitors and accountants who are happy with what we’ve done for them personally and for their clients. The accountant I hired in 2004, and his partner, ended up being our best professional connection, sending many of their clients to us once they got a feel for our business and saw first-hand how well we looked after people. A lot of our suppliers become clients, especially when they’ve seen us ‘behind the scenes’ when they’ve been doing work in our office, fixing photocopiers and stuff like that. They see first-hand what we do and they realise that we look after our clients a lot better than their advisers are looking after them, that we really care. Also, we have a policy of paying suppliers the minute a job is done. We don’t believe in keeping them waiting for their money. Typical comments we get are like “I’ve never been paid this fast for a job since I started the business!” But when they’ve done a good job for us, why not? Bad payers are a drag on the whole economy. The amount businesses spend on credit control costs everyone more money in the long run.
Q. Do you have production targets for each month and quarter and year for turnover and profit?
A. No. That probably sounds really bad and I’m sure Peter Jones & Co on Dragons Den probably wouldn’t like that answer. However, ships captains don’t fixate on the patch of sea immediately ahead of them. They aim at their destination port. Sure, they factor in any hazards they know they’re likely to encounter along the way and they plan for unforeseen contingencies, and so do we. I know where we’re heading, I’ve a well-trained and trustworthy crew I can rely on, and West Riding is a very robust ship.
Q. How are your relationships with the insurance and investment houses with whom you deal?
A. Very good. We have a saying: “We want satisfaction, not crucifixion.” In other words, if there’s a problem, we want it sorted. We don’t want somebody’s career ruined or for them to be fired because of an honest mistake. That said, we don’t ask much from providers in terms of support. If it’s data we’re asking for, the underlying investments of a particular fund for example, for due diligence, we expect to get it without a fuss. Sure, we’ll treat it confidentially and sign a non-disclosure agreement if necessary, but we either get the information or we don’t invest, it’s as simple as that. We don’t give providers the run-around though. I’ve seen advisers do that for the sake of their own egos and it’s pathetic, likewise the obnoxious ones. In my previous jobs I’ve had to deal with some thoroughly nasty bullying rude people, so I’ve been on the receiving end. Our culture is that we deal with product providers’ staff politely and pleasantly. You get much better results in your dealings with other people if you treat them decently and with courtesy, and all employees have a right to expect that in their daily work.
Q. Does that go with your own staff as well?
A. Yes, absolutely. We don’t just train people in the technical aspects of the job, we soak them in our culture. Everybody makes mistakes. If somebody cocks something up, I want to know about it pronto. The sooner I know about it, the easier and cheaper it is to fix. I’ve never gone off at anyone for making a mistake they’ve owned up to, but anyone who covered up a mistake or lied about it would not be around here much longer. I can always wait for good news but I insist on hearing bad news immediately.
Q. Are your advisers employed or self-employed?
A. Employed. We want to control the quality of advice we give to ensure it is of the highest quality. It’s harder to do that with self-employed advisers. Many firms have been brought down by self-employed advisers getting up to things the principals of the firm knew nothing about. Everyone here is paid a basic salary and an annual bonus based on the profitability of the firm as a whole. Nobody is paid on sales and there are no sales targets such as got the banks into trouble, with their staff being pressured to sell PPI. Giving good people real job security is a main aim
Q. How did you cope with the transition from commission to fees in 2012?
A. There was no transition to make. We were already a fees-only business from day one. Before the Retail Distribution Review took effect, we just rebated any commission in excess of the fees due. We were probably the first ‘new model adviser’ firm in 2004.
Q. How do you make sure your employees always do the right thing for the client?
A. The buck stops with me. I’m not a control freak but I am very much in charge of the business. It’s not actually an issue though, because our employees are all salaried and there’s no commission involved. I have a simple method of self-checking my own advice which I teach to every adviser I employ. With young clients I ask myself “What would I advise if this was my son or daughter?” For clients around my own age the question becomes “If this was my best friend or his wife, what would I advise them to do?” or “If this was my money I was spending, what would I do?” For more elderly clients the question becomes “If this was my mother or father, what would I advise them?” Any adviser who does that will never knowingly do a client a disservice. We are proud of the advice we give. It’s important to me. Nothing in the business is more important.
Q. Have you ever made an expensive mistake?
A. A couple, but in sixteen years given the amount of business we do, how busy we always are, it’s not surprising. Somebody here once missed a deadline for a guaranteed annuity rate. We realised what had happened and phoned the client and made it right. It cost us five grand, but so what? We’ve deliberately built a financially strong firm so we can fix things like that without it being a major problem for us. The client was very understanding and appreciative. They’re still with us and we have a great relationship. The other one was a tax calculation we got wrong on an offshore bond. That one was my fault. It was a momentary mental aberration and cost us two grand, but again, so what? The important thing was that the client didn’t lose out. We held our hands up and made it right and those clients are still with us too.
Q. Now the business has grown larger, is all the client-facing work handled by others?
A. No, not at all. Obviously, the business is a team effort and everyone here knows what we’re doing for every client, that way things get handled in my absence the same as when I’m here. But I’ll never remove myself from the client-facing role, for a variety of reasons, the main one being that I enjoy dealing with clients, I love problem solving and figuring out neat solutions and seeing the results we get for clients. Plus, it keeps me on top of my game.
Q. So how available are you to clients?
A. Every one of our clients has my home number and my mobile number. Does that answer your question?
Q. What Services do you offer?
A. Most of our work is pensions and investments, especially flexible drawdown work. Auto-enrolment and flexible drawdown have been the best two things that have happened for pension savers in my lifetime. Until George Osborne removed the compulsion to buy an annuity, I never even bothered using my own pension allowance, I used ISAs instead. The annuity business was an insurance companies’ cartel in all but name. Now I stuff my pension fund with the maximum allowable annual contribution every year, my wife likewise. When I draw my benefits, I’ll use flexible drawdown and so will my staff, I’m sure. Nobody in this building would choose to buy an annuity with rates as they are. We also advise on protection products such as life and critical illness cover, income protection, funeral plans, and equity release.
Q. How do you expect investments to perform?
A. At the end of the day, you get what the markets give you. That’s the reality. We do our best for every client but no honest adviser can guarantee performance and we never say to anyone that we’ve done this percentage or that percentage in the past, because it is precisely that – the past. Investments will fall in value from time to time, as well as rise, and past performance is no guarantee of the future as the standard warning goes. We do more than any firm I know to explain risk to clients. Check out our Risk Realities pamphlet. That said though, we have clients who’ve been investing with us since 2004 who’ve brought in their family and friends as clients and who in turn have brought in their family and friends. If we’d not done well for our investors, we would not have a business.
Q. Do you have a minimum ‘size’ of client? I’ve heard of firms who won’t take on anyone with less than £100,000 to invest.
A. No. Among our clientele are many well-known media and sports personalities and leading business people, but we don’t just advise the wealthy. Somebody once described our offering as “a private bank type service for the sort of people who could not normally afford a private bank.” Sure, our wealthiest clients are millionaires, but we are a local firm providing a personal service that is affordable to everyone. Our average client has around £250,000 with us. Investment is not right for everyone though. If somebody has £20,000 in the bank and wants to invest £5000, we will help them. If they only have £5000 though, we would probably not want to invest that for them. We like clients to have a good sized ‘rainy day fund’ for emergencies. I’ve never spent five minutes of my life persuading anyone to invest but I’ve spent hours talking some out of it.
Q. But that’s talking yourself out of business, right? Why would you do that?
A. Because some people can’t cope with volatility. I’ll give you an example. In 2010 I saw a couple, both aged 60. She’d had to retire from a clerical job due to ill health. He wanted to continue working but she wanted him to retire with her. They both had defined benefit pensions but his wasn’t due until his 65th birthday. All their money was on deposit. They’d always been savers, never investors. Bank of England base rate had dropped from its peak of 5.75% in July 2007 to 0.5% when I saw them. She wanted a better return than deposits offered. So, I went through equities, bonds and property, explaining the pros and cons, all the risk factors. She ruled out every asset class as too risky, except cash, the returns on which were insufficient for her. Their best solution, the real one, was to let her husband work to 65 like he wanted. If she’d invested, she’d have fretted every time the FTSE dropped a point. When I left them, she was unhappy, but when the advice sunk in, a week later, we got a really nice appreciative letter from her thanking us for advising them honestly, for understanding what they really needed and for pushing them in the right direction. So okay, we didn’t pick up an £80,000 investment, but we did a good job. That’s why I have to work for myself. Working for somebody else, if I did that, I’d get fired for ‘wasting leads.’ We tell people bluntly, “If we get a 1987-style ‘Black Monday’ crash, a hundred grand today will be worth £70,000 by the end of the week. If you can cope with that and sit still for the recovery, which will come, fine. If you can’t, if you’ll panic out and crystallise the loss, then you can’t cope with the reality of investing money and it’s not for you. We make every client one solid promise, which is 100% true, that we’ll never put any client into a situation where they could lose all their money. None of our clients have been in any of the disasters that have beset the profession. We’ve kept them out of Arch Cru, Arck, Connaught, LCF, the whole lot. I’m the guy who blew the whistle on LCF in November 2015, four years before it crashed.
Q. What do you charge?
A. That’s like asking a builder “How much to build me a house?” He’s going to say “Are we walking a bungalow or a six-bed detached? How many bathrooms? Do you want a garage?” The initial meeting is at our expense. It costs you nothing to talk to us for a fact-find meeting. Once we know what you need and how we can help you, then we’ll send you a precise quote, or at least an estimate with a definite upper limit as to what we’ll charge. If it turns out to be more work than we’ve estimated, that’s our problem. When we’ve given you a firm upper price, we’ll never charge you more. When we’ve sent you a quote you can decide in the peace and quiet of your own home whether you want to go ahead. If you do, fine. If you don’t, fine.
Q. Are your fees negotiable?
A. No. We work out a fair price and we quote and that’s it. We know that we’re hyper-competitive and that our charges are more than fair for the service we provide, so we don’t need to haggle. We could paper the walls of every room on both floors, including the bathrooms and the staircases, with the thank-you letters and testimonials we’ve received over the years. We give value for money and we pride ourselves on it. We leave the haggling to the guys selling rugs in the Baghdad Bazaar. You get what you pay for. You know what the author and social-thinker John Ruskin had to say on the subject?
‘It’s unwise to pay too much. But it’s worse to pay too little. When you pay too much, you lose a little money; that is all. When you pay too little, you sometimes lose everything because the thing you bought was incapable of doing the thing it was bought to do. The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot. It can’t be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder, it is well to add something for the risk you run. And if you do that, you will have enough to pay for something better. There is hardly anything in the world that someone can’t make a little worse and sell a little cheaper and people who consider price alone are this man’s lawful prey.’John Ruskin 1819 – 1900
Sometimes where it’s unclear how much work a job will involve at the outset, we’ll give an estimate. We might say the cost will be between £900 and £1400. If it ends up being less work than we’ve estimated we’ll charge less. If it ends up being a lot more work than we’ve estimated, that’s our problem. There’s no way I’d ever go back to a client asking for more money than we estimated, whatever it cost us. It’s a matter of honour. In any case, anytime you get an estimate wrong and it costs you money, it makes you a lot better at the job next time. Everyone makes mistakes but I draw the line at repeating them.
Q: Do you do anything for the wider community?
A. Sure. We’ve contributed to a bunch of charities over the years. We fund the hanging baskets for Castleford town centre every year and we’re ‘Platinum Sponsors’ of Honley Male Voice choir. We’ve also funded the team strip for a local amateur football club and done a few other things like sponsoring a kid in Malawi through the Chinthowa Development Trust. We don’t shout about it though. We do it because it’s worthwhile and these are things we want to support. I don’t want a big hoo-hah about what we give.
Q. What’s the quickest easiest safest way to double your money?
A. Fold it and put it in your pocket.
Q. Do you recommend investing in Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies?
A. No, I don’t. I’ve written an article about it here. Only criminals need cryptos. I’d rather stick pins in my eyes.
Q. How do you protect clients from fraud?
A. Through caution and due diligence on our part, when we’re selecting investment products, and by making a conscious effort to educate clients themselves about the kind of scams they might face. We’re the only IFA firm that’s a member of the Yorkshire & Humber Fraud Forum. It runs a number of seminars every year and the annual conference is chaired by BBC Radio Four’s Shari Vahl. We get briefings from some of the world’s top experts in law enforcement, cyber security and that kind of thing. Some of the things we’ve learned are enough to make your hair stand on end. When we learn something that might keep our clients safe, we pass the information on to them in a way they can use it. We do all we can, but you have to remember that we do not live with our clients 24/7. Despite our best efforts, one elderly lady client of ours was groomed by some Bitcoin scammers and lost £18,000. They pestered her incessantly by phone and she sent them the money. Now she has BT Call Guardian. We encourage all our clients to use it and to get their family to use it also, especially elderly family members. Another client’s daughter had her mortgage deposit stolen by hackers who got into the email communications she was in with her solicitors. She thought she was transferring the deposit to her law firm but it went into a scammer’s bank account. Just occasionally though the chance comes around to hit back. Our chance came when a gang tried an email impersonation scam. They thought they had us fooled but we’d set up a sting. Bang on schedule a Ugandan woman turned up expecting to pick up thirty grand and was arrested by the cops we had waiting in the back. Here’s the report on it: https://www.unbiased.co.uk/news/financial-adviser/your-front-line-of-defence-against-investment-fraud. The full story is here: I called it our ‘emailspiel’ – email game.
Q. Do you follow current affairs?
A. Intensely. I’ve been interested in politics from a very early age. Plus, in this job it’s essential to know what’s going on in the world if you’re going to look after clients properly. I once had a consultant who wouldn’t watch the news or even read a newspaper apart from the sports page. He reckoned it was so he could maintain a positive mental attitude, but he had no idea what was going on. Clueless. He didn’t last long. I have no party affiliation. Voting the same ticket every time is a mistake. Once a party thinks they own your vote, that it’s guaranteed come what may, they stop trying. Safe seats are the worst thing for our democratic system. The greatest statesman in my lifetime has been Barack Obama. Donald Trump, I used to think was merely a buffoon, but that was a mistake. He’s a lot worse than that. He is a fool and a liar but he is also a truly reckless, evil and dangerous man.
Q. What about entertaining? Do you wine and dine your clients, play golf with them?
No, never. Not because we’re mean but because we want to give every client good and fair value. The reality is that it’s not the firm paying for the entertainment however they spin it, it’s the clients who pay. In every business the clients ultimately pay for everything. If we wined and dined some clients then we’d feel morally obliged to do it for every client. That’s not practical. I’d be the fattest adviser in the country and I’d never get any work done. We also like to keep the relationship one hundred per cent professional. I’ve known clients who’ve been unhappy with their advisers, but who didn’t feel able to express their feelings because their adviser had ingratiated himself to them with lunches and event tickets and what have you. If clients aren’t happy with something – it doesn’t happen a lot but it can happen in any business – we want them to tell us. We want them to feel like they can speak up. Also, it’s simple economics. As far as we know, no other firm gives better value than us. We do all we can to keep the service levels up and the costs down. Not wasting time out of the office and not spending money on unnecessary ‘frills’ is one way in which we keep our costs down. If we keep our costs low, we can keep our fees low. That’s also why we operate out of Castleford, to keep costs low, and why we don’t do daft stuff like giving clients their documentation in fake-leather wallets. As for golf, I don’t play anyway!
Q: What do you do for leisure?
A. I can’t do beach holidays or spend too much time sitting beside a pool. A few days in I get itchy. Then the laptop comes out and I start banging in ideas for the business, so relaxation is good in the sense that it gives me head-space to think. I read a lot. Non-fiction, especially history. I write. I mess around with motorcycles. And I build stuff. I built my wife a shed about ten years ago, ‘Linda’s Lair’. She’s into art and wood-turning. Creative stuff. She’d be great on Blue Peter. Dominique’s school drafts her in as a parent-helper to decorate the classrooms and build displays. All the other parent helpers are the kids’ parents but she’s the teacher’s mum. Anyway, that first shed wasn’t big enough so I built her a bigger one which we’ve called ‘La Cabin Jabin’. Her French maiden name was Jabin. In between times I also built what somebody called a summer-house on stilts, but I call it a treehouse without a tree. I always wanted a treehouse when I was a kid but we didn’t have a tree in our garden. We still don’t and I couldn’t wait for one to grow, so I built a summer-house on stilts. Everybody loves it. The neighbours borrow it for kids’ parties and it doubles as a guest bedroom. It’s become a tradition at our annual office barbecue for the staff to end the night sliding down the fireman’s pole. The kids hang out up there with their friends. I use it for quiet space when I’m writing. Sometimes I just sit and watch the bird life. I’ve hung a bunch of feeders up there and the birds come real close. RSPB is one of our charities. These days we get buzzards and red kites over our place, birds we never saw when I was a kid. And we get entire air-forces of geese flying in and out of St Aidan’s Nature Reserve. If I see a squadron of geese flying over early morning when I’m walking to work down the canal side, my day is made.
Q: What are your plans for the future and when will you retire?
A. I hope I’ll never have to retire. If I’m coming in here when I’m 85 I’ll be delighted. I don’t want to be doing 70 or 80 hours a week when I’m 85, but if I’m coming in three days a week that will suit me fine. This isn’t a faceless organisation that needs to hide behind its corporate image. I don’t hide from my clients. I live in Great Preston and I’m in the Leeds phone book. I refuse to go ex-directory on principle. If something goes wrong it has my name on it. It’s my personal choice; I want my business to be fronted by me. If the CEO of a business does not want to be at the forefront of their business then standards can slip. My business gets 100% of my commitment. Some people think I’m a workaholic. The drivers at the taxi office down the road from our old office used to joke that I was the only guy they know who worked more hours than them. I never knew any honest way to make money that didn’t involve a lot of work, but hard work has never bothered me. My dad was a coal miner who started work at 15 and did 46 years in the pits. My mother was a garment worker most of her life. Both of them went through World War Two. After my dad retired, until his health got too bad, he always said he missed the pit and he’d have gone back tomorrow if he’d had the chance. A couple of weeks after he retired from the pit, he got a job as a groundsman at the local cricket club and then went to the Yorkshire Cricket Club at Headingley and got properly trained up. This was a guy in his 60s with emphysema and pneumoconiosis. He enjoyed work. Maybe it runs in the family. When I was between jobs, when I worked for other people, I’d do anything rather than nothing. I’ve worked bars, been a doorman, worked as a motorcycle despatch rider. I even did a stint as a private investigator doing criminal and commercial work.
Q: And finally, what is the Coat of Arms on your letterhead and what does the motto mean?
A. It’s Castleford’s Arms used by special permission of the local authority in recognition of our contribution to regenerating the town. You can read about it here: https://www.heraldry-wiki.com/heraldrywiki/index.php?title=Castleford. I like the miner’s lamp element, considering that most of my male ancestors in the last 400-odd years were probably miners. The motto means ‘Boldly and Frankly’, which is highly appropriate with our company motto being ‘Honest Advice in Plain English’.
Neil F. Liversidge was Interviewed by Chloe Beresford
© West Riding Personal Financial Solutions Ltd, 2020. Excerpts from this interview may be used under the copyright law exception of ‘fair dealing’ for research and private study, criticism or review, and news reporting.