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Buying an advice firm during lockdown

Buying an advice firm during lockdown

For Stephen Ford, head of wealth management at WH Ireland, and his colleagues, the waves of consolidation that have swept through the advice market in recent years mattered less to them than the more immediate task of turning around their business.

The company had accrued losses of £13.5m in the two years to the end of March 2020, but by retiring legacy platforms, and removing other costs totalling more than £7m, and the sale of its Isle of Man business, the listed wealth manager returned to profit in the first quarter of this year.

In an interview with Financial Adviser, Mr Ford says that with the business heading towards profitability, he and his team were able to ponder acquisitions for the first time in years, but the deal that was subsequently done involved paying up to £7.8m for Harpsden Wealth Management, an advice business and discretionary fund house based in Henley.

Mr Ford says the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic meant the deal happened when it would not otherwise have done, and made the experience very different to anything he had experienced before, including during his long stint at rival fund house Brewin Dolphin. 

He says: “Harpsden originally came up for sale in the middle of last year and we looked at it then, but didn’t get the deal, another company did. 

“But then as the pandemic started, the other buyer pulled out and we were able to look at it again, and it came up for auction and we won it.” 

Remote working

Mr Ford says he and his colleagues then had the experience of trying to buy and integrate the business while working remotely. 

He says: “None of us expected to be doing all of the work that goes into an acquisition digitally, but the real challenge is likely to be integrating the companies together while working remotely. 

“We are very conscious that we are all in a people business, and the real challenge will be integrating everyone while working remotely, that is certainly something that is different to anything I have experience of.” 

Mr Ford is one of three executive directors at WH Ireland, and sits on the company’s board. He joined the company in 2019, having previously been head of transformation and then head of wealth management at Brewin Dolphin.

As head of transformation his role was to “modernise” the company, and improve its profitability. He became a full board director of Brewin Dolphin in 2013. 

He later worked as head of sales at City Asset Management.

He acknowledges that WH Ireland is “tiny” in comparison to the biggest wealth management companies in the market, including his old employer, but says that both from a business point of view and an investment management point of view, being slightly smaller, and being listed, has distinct advantages.

He says: “While we are not going to be a consolidator in the advice market, we may do more acquisitions in future. 

“Probably the biggest challenge that comes from buying advice businesses is keeping the people in the firm you acquire happy.”