Golf, football, arts societies and talk radio – all these and more have been used by financial advisers, private banks and wealth managers recently, in their efforts to penetrate the lucrative expat market for financial services.
But for many industry practitioners – particularly as the industry becomes more regulated and professional – there is growing uncertainty about whether such marketing techniques work, in the establishment of a viable international client base.
And even if they do, is it in keeping with the image one is hoping to project?
What’s more, as news of problems some expats have had with poorly-advised investments, many advisers and wealth managers also wonder how, if at all, it is possible to distinguish themselves from the “spank shop” operators in their local marketplace – most of whom are trying to look as trustworthy as possible themselves.
Certainly the expat market is big business for financial advisers and wealth managers. The Association of Professional Financial Advisers, a UK trade body, says that a third of member advisers surveyed in 2014 reported having clients who had lived or spent time abroad.
Typical of the industry is AES International, which launched in 2004, out of a base in London; it has since opened eight international offices, according to founder Sam Instone, and today looks after more than 10,600 private clients.
In just five years, AES’s Middle East client roster has grown from nothing to around 3,000 names, Instone adds.
Nigel Green’s deVere Group has also seen exponential growth over the 14 years since he founded it, in Hong Kong, shortly after that former British colony was handed over to the Chinese in 1997. It now has some 80,000 clients, 90% of whom live outside of the UK, and around US$10bn under management, CEO Green says.
With cold-calling frowned upon by many in the industry and even banned in some countries, referrals remain a significant source of new business for IFAs, wealth managers and bank advisers in the international space. Some say it’s their No. 1 source of new clients.
Even for a company as large as deVere – which claims to be the world’s largest independent advisory firm – referrals are key. That’s because they’re “powerful”, Green says.
“It means we’re doing a good job for our existing clients and exceeding their expectations, so they are happy to recommend us to their friends, family and colleagues,” he explains.
For John Westwood, group managing director of Gibraltar-based Blacktower Financial Management, referrals have been his company’s main route into the international market since it was founded 30 years ago.
“We had clients [in the Algarve region of Spain], and via referrals from them, we were able to extend ourselves further in that market,” he says.
Eventually the company decided to open offices there as well – offices being a form of advertising in themselves, if an expensive one – and the company now has “a physical presence in the Algarve, together with a broad spread advertising campaign”, Westwood adds.
Advertising – such as in English-language, expat focussed newspapers, magazines, news websites and social media outlets – as well as attending conferences and holding seminars are among the main ways many expat advisory firms and wealth managers promote their brands (and even the fact of their existence) to potential clients in the international space.
Among the ways AES International builds brand awareness is through sponsoring corporate sports teams, such as the ruby team shown in the photograph above, according to CEO Instone. The team’s jerseys carry the AES logo, much like the jerseys of professional team members feature the logos of such major companies as Samsung, Emirates, Aon, Chevrolet and Toyota.
Jason Porter, business development director at the London-based international advisory firm Blevins Franks, says hosting events about changes to regimes in the countries in which it operates – such as Spain, France and Portugal – helps to keep existing clients abreast of marketplace developments, while also giving the company a chance to introduce itself and its services to potential customers.
Ninety percent of Blevins Franks’s customer base lives abroad, and the remaining 10% consists mainly of people who have returned to the UK after living overseas, according to Porter.
The firm regularly holds seminars for 100 to 150 people, although Porter says crowds of 35 to 50 were the most ideal size-wise for networking and for booking private meetings to take place at a later date. He estimates that as many as 25% to 35% of the attendees at such events may sign up with the firm.
Influence of social media
Blacktower’s Westwood, though, says he has seen a “tremendous change” in the way Blacktower originates custom, following the rise of social media over the past few years.
While firms like his could count on a good turnout at their seminars 15 years ago, nowadays, “we are very conscious that our social media profile has to be correct, and we spend a lot of energy and money on that these days”, he notes.
Paul Beard, executive chairman of the Chester, England-based, expat-focussed Alexander Beard advisory group, shares Westwood’s belief in the importance of social media today.
He says Alexander Beard’s social media strategy includes a YouTube channel – through which it provides guides to such topics as pensions changes and the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act – has played a major role in acquiring new business in the US especially.
In 2013, the company launched AMVE$T, a special kind of self-invested personal pension (SIPP) for Brits who are moving or have moved permanently to the US. Unlike traditional SIPPs, AMVE$T is designed to invest in dollar-denominated funds, and these US-based clients are able to work with one of Alexander Beard’s San Francisco-based, US-regulated investment advisers.
In the past 12 months alone, Paul Beard estimates, Alexander Beard’s social media marketing has driven some US$5m worth of funds under investment into the company’s AMVE$T business.
At Blevins Franks, the radio airwaves are a tried and true avenue of reaching out to expat clients, according to Porter, who says the firm’s advisers in France, Spain and Cyprus accept interviews to talk about such issues as tax and financial planning.
Such sessions tend to centre on certain topics over and over again, Porter explains, such as “pensions and health, because that becomes an issue for people who move abroad – suddenly they’re abroad, and they don’t understand the system and how it works overseas”.
“That picks up a huge number of clients, because you are hitting the right community… and once they’ve heard us, they start noticing the fact we have ads [in the market as well].”
One point many heads of expat-focused wealth management businesses emphasise is the importance of embedding a firm into the community it serves. For this reason, the sponsorship of sports tournaments, local school events and charities is a much-used way such firms seek to raise their profiles.
Blacktower’s sponsorships have included AEDA in Portugal – AEDA is an organisation that enables individuals with disabilities to benefit from horse riding therapy – the Cyder Cup golf tournament in Tenerife, and the Tenerife International Soccer Masters Tournament.
DeVere’s Green says his advisers attend and host such social events as invitation-only golf tournaments, polo matches and family days.
At Blevins Franks, the good causes being lent a helping hand as part of the company’s softly-softly image-building campaign include the National Association of Decorative & Fine Arts Societies, an arts charity that has some 375 societies throughout the UK, Europe and New Zealand. Blevins Franks sees the organisation as a good fit, owing to its “mature”, affluent and heavily expat membership, and has supported its growth internationally through sponsorship.
Fine arts enthusiasts get experts flown in for events in their adopted countries, while Blevins Franks benefits from opportunities to speak with members afterwards.
“They appreciate us because we introduce new members to them,” Porter explains. “We might [also] provide some financial assistance, in terms of paying for lectures [and] putting on events.”
Globaleye, the Dubai-based advisory group, also uses money-raising campaigns for good causes as a way of building brand awareness, having some fun, and making the world a better place, according to chief executive Tim Searle. One such project has involved helping to fund the building of a school in Malawi, Africa, with money raised through such schemes as getting companies to sponsor a two-seater company racecar, pictured, that company executives use to compete in Middle East racing events, as well as to entertain clients by taking them out for a spin.
Keeping the client
Once you’ve got a prospective client into your office, the focus shifts, and the question becomes how you keep him or her, not just for however long it takes to explain one’s approach, but, ideally, for good.
For Westwood, first impressions are crucial. “When somebody comes to visit you, or you visit them at their home, the actual presentation that the adviser makes – [his or her] appearance and professionalism – is absolutely key, and vital in converting enquiries into clients,” he says.
“If you’re going into a particular market, it is vital you are seen to have a proper, credible, regulated presence within that market, and that often entails opening an office in the local community,” he continues.
“The second thing is correctly-qualified staff, who understand local taxation; and then ensuring that your product offering meets the compliance standards of the country in which you’re working.”
Porter highlights the importance of offering a full service to expats.
Blevins Franks, he says, offers advice “from every angle”, adding that “most clients can go out and get advice from a UK perspective or a Spanish perspective, but often they don’t have that from a tax and financial planning point of view, and a UK and Spanish point of view”.
DeVere’s Green argues that financial advisers and wealth managers looking to expand internationally should work within an organisation that is regulated by the appropriate authorities wherever they operate; is well-established in its local market; and which has partnerships with a range of major financial institutions, in order to secure as broad a choice of products as possible for its clients.
“These are some of the key qualities that clients look for in an IFA in the international space,” he adds.
“So if you cover all these bases, it’s the best way to grow your business.”