Firing line: Phil Smith

Hornbuckle, the self-invested personal pensions provider, is not very popular with financial advisers.

Its administration is considered at best to be ‘average’ and its management of clients’ affairs could be improved.

However, Phil Smith, chief executive of the company, and its newly renamed holding business, Embark Group, claims it is all going in the right direction.

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Mr Smith said: “In the old world, you would have one person who would be the administrator, and all the contact would be with him. But for someone to understand pension law, taxation, trust law and have knowledge of investments and pension schemes, is a hell of an ask.

“I don’t think there are many pension administrators who could say they have that ability.”

Since Mr Smith took over, four pension administration centres were reduced to two, and instead of a single person being allocated to a case the whole way through its cycle, there will be a range of specialists looking at different parts of it along the way.

“More people are touching your scheme than would have been in the old world. That means change.”

The change was not all plain sailing, however. “We did have teething troubles in late 2013/2014, but you need a strong group of people that gives a proper platform of growth, which is what the regulator expects me to do.”

Mr Smith has been in charge since 2013 after he and another investor bought a controlling stake in Hornbuckle Mitchell Group in April.

The plan is to build a financial services business, inspired by the changing demographics of retirement and long-term savings. Mr Smith, a former company man – previously managing director of Barclays Wealth – left the corporate world wanting to do something entrepreneurial.

He bought into Hornbuckle Mitchell Group with Richard Wohanka, a former fund management executive who is now chairman, with their own money (Mr Smith has a 10 per cent stake and Mr Wohanka has just over 50 per cent).

The name of the group changed from Hornbuckle Mitchell to Embark Group earlier this year, and Mr Smith plans to expand into other financial services businesses.

Hornbuckle, which is now a subsidiary of Embark Group, was the first stop.

Mr Smith said: “Hornbuckle was the acquisition to give us a starting position, which is in the IFA distribution channel. In 2012, there were an awful lot of Sipp and Ssas [small self-administered scheme] companies up for sale.

“Hornbuckle Mitchell had scale – just over £4bn under administration – the right demographic, of high net-worth, rather than mass retail and specialist technical skills, to deal with complex assets.”

His vision, he claims, is long term, and the demographics of savings and investments are changing. Mr Smith explained: “People need to save for retirement, given extended longevity, and they are increasingly more self aware to transact individually, and with the ongoing digitisation of the world, that will play a large part with how pension providers and wrapper providers change.