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Andy Bell: PE ownership ‘difficult route to justify’ to advisers

Andy Bell: PE ownership ‘difficult route to justify’ to advisers
Andy Bell [Photo/Jon Super]

Private equity ownership in the advised platform market is a tricky route to justify to advisers and their clients, according to Andy Bell.

The founder and chief executive of online investment platform service AJ Bell, said he has no plans to follow the likes of Nucleus and Novia, which are now owned by HPS and Anacap respectively.

“I look at the advised space, which is where the rest of private equity is focused [alongside the direct-to-consumer (D2C) market] and I've looked at lots of those deals and I just find it very difficult to justify going down that route,” Bell said in a HomeGames session hosted by the Lang Cat today (April 6).

“We're not thinking like private equity. We see some of the challenges when you say to advisers ‘look, you've got these two platforms, these two IT systems, these two charging structures, these two cultures, we're just going to smash them together, and then it's going to be fine’.

“I don't have any particular views on private equity in the sense of are they a good owner or a bad owner. But if you believe the stability of ownership is important, then clearly it would be a negative.”

Last week, Nucleus was sold to a new private equity firm, changing hands from Epiris to HPS. Advisers have since raised concerns over the quick change of hands, with Nucleus only being bought by private equity-backed James Hay less than a year earlier.

Nucleus’ chief executive Richard Rowney has since said fears advisers have around the private equity ownership of the platform are based on “a bit of ignorance”, adding that “all businesses are owned by someone”.

Rowney reckoned the change in ownership and consequent cash injection will only help Nucleus further improve its service levels, countering adviser fears that such scale could translate to a potential dip in service levels and that the owners will prioritise margins above all else.

Bell agreed with advisers, in that private equity owners’ main priority is naturally making a bigger profit. “Those guys [private equity firms] are in there to make money,” he said. “And if they do their job right, they will make money, there's no doubt about it.”

The platform boss also highlighted how the margins of advised platforms are not “quite as high as often as perceived” by outsiders looking in.

“There’s a lot of grunt work which goes on in platforms. The bigger you get, you start dealing with cash regulation, cybersecurity, all of these things don't just look after themselves…It's a tough industry.”

AJ Bell’s assets under management sit at £70bn. For the year to September 30, 2021, AJ Bell’s net inflows for its advised business climbed 36 per cent to £3.8bn, and its advised customer base increased by 17 per cent to 126,920.