As one of the Dubai's biggest players Holborn Assets is firmly commited to the Middle Eastern marketplace despite the ongoing challenges of changing regulation and a number of advisers falling by the wayside.
But most recently - as it adds to its bases across the world - Asia has become an increasingly important hub for the firm. In addition to an office in Malysia, there has been acquisitions across the last couple of years in both Hong Kong and most-recently in April this year with a new outpost in Vietnam's commercial capital of Ho Chi Minh.
The new operation, in the iconic Bitexco Financial Tower, the city's tallest building, which will based in the heart of the financial district, will be headed up by industry veteran Andrew Menzies as country manage.
In this Q&A and video interview (below) International Investment's Gary Robinson meets up with Riyad Adamou, chief commercial officer at Holborn Assets at the company's Dubai headquarters and discusses how global regulation is shaping international financial services, why Asia is increasingly important to the company and what makes one of the industry's best-known companies stand out in a crowded marketplace.
GR: What makes the Asia marketplace important to Holborn?
RA: Asia offers a very diverse mix of clientele and through that comes an array of different requirements and needs most of which are not catered for by the local banking the sector or through the domestic practices.
This creates a big opportunity for companies such as Holborn to fill the void, offering a more familiar service in an unfamiliar territory which clients certainly appreciate. Removing the major Asian hubs the Asian market as a whole is still relatively under-serviced and offers a great opportunity for companies that have the will and the means to invest in operations over the longer term.
GR: In the last couple of years you have recently acquired books in Hong Kong and Vietnam etc. How has this bedded in and do you see this type expansion continuing?
RA: Our global expansion has been well documented over the last few year and Asia was an area we identified during the writing of our last strategic plan.
We have opened 4 offices in Asia in the last 18 months and we are presently looking at two other territories, but our expansion has always been people driven. You can have what looks like a fantastic opportunity on the surface but you have to have the right manager in place along the right people who possess the right knowledge in order to deliver on that opportunity.
In most instances we try to recruit from the region itself or the surrounding regions which greatly mitigates our risk. Each acquisition or new venture follows a set process to ensure we cover all aspects of the business and aids their seamless integration into the wider group. We continue to learn lessons from each new venture and that knowledge is then carried forward to aid the next.
GR: To what extent is HK's current domestic crisis affecting financial services in the region?
RA: It's hard to pin point exactly how deep an impact the current domestic crisis is having on the sector in isolation especially when there is so much happening on a global scale, but as the General Chamber of Commerce mentioned in a statement earlier this week its clear the demonstrations are doing little to improve Hong Kong's reputation as an international financial centre.
Unfortunately with any form of uncertainty comes greater caution so a negative impact on business is inevitable.
With reference to our operations in Hong Kong we have actually been relatively unaffected. Our clients are primarily made up of HNW expatriates whose targets and ambitions have not changed and they remain very much in need of our services. Of course the local issues are something we are vigilant of but we are medium to long-term strategists and when you take that approach you have to accept there will be bumps in the road.
GR: What makes Holborn stand out in Asia?
RA: We are a company that has a deep pool of experience and a diverse workforce which we are able to consistently draw on.
All of our managers in Asia have been living in their jurisdictions for over a decade which means we immediately have a clear understanding of the local market and this puts Holborn at a clear advantage from the first moment we open the doors.
Experience is not something that can be bought and we are glad to have four great managers in place that bring stability and consistency to our operations. It is that local knowledge and experience coupled with Holborns infrastructure and the strength of our overall proposition that makes us stand out amongst our peers.
GR: What sets Holborn apart from other companies. What makes you special?
RA: We are transparent in everything we do - there are no hidden agendas and any new advisers soon learn that there is transparency here than you wouldn't find at any other company - from our basic management information right through to our strategic plans.
We operate a corporate structure but that is underpinned with family values. And as with all good families we stick together and our advisers all pull in the same direction which is fairly unique in what is a very competitive market.
GR: How important is the Middle East market to your business model? And what challenges does that market face?
RA: Hugely important, this where the company started, this is the companies HQ and the nerve centre of Holborn. It is a market we know and a market we understand but it also a market that can change quickly, it is a market that is perhaps more susceptible to change for various reasons than other more established, equivalent territories such as Singapore or HK so we are constantly having to adapt.
It's a market that ebbs and flows but the transient nature of expats means there is constantly new people arriving who have financial planning requirements and the same goes for people leaving, so there is still a huge opportunity here, uncertainty remains one of it's biggest challenges but at the same time it is also creates opportunity.
GR: How will regulatory change affect your business? And how do you plan for such eventualities?
RA: Over the long term positively, but as with any change there is a transitional period, perhaps even a period of pain as you change and grow. The changes have been coming thick and fast over the last few years.
Circular 12 here in the UAE, COBS in the IOM, changes to the pensions market, recent changes out Malta to name but a few. But thankfully we have been planning for this change for quite some time, focusing on our own proposition and vertically integrating where we can, improving our employee and client facing proposition to ensure Holborn's overall proposition remains the strongest in the market, and, we believe it is.
Holborn will be one of the few companies that will benefit from greater regulation, so we welcome it.
GR:How do you see the advisory world, in the Middle East changing across the next few years?
RA: At some point more regulation will come through and you would expect that it would be within the next few years.
When that does occur I think we can expect more consolidation, and we can expect a reduction in adviser numbers leaving a smaller head count of higher quality career advisers. In short it will become a more mature market.
GR: Why would an adviser choose Holborn?
RA: There is a number of different reasons, we can talk about our employee proposition, the strength of our client proposition, the investment we make into our workforce but at the core I think our Ethos and our transparency is really key here. It's a completely different working environment and for many its a refreshing change.
GR: What are the challenges around good quality staff retention? How does Holborn achieve this?
RA: Aside from the usual of course, which is to provide a competitive employee and client facing proposition, you have to provide a platform for personal growth, financial incentives alone are not enough.
We spend considerable sums on the education of our advisers each year but more importantly we try as much as possible to seek out the feedback of our employees, from the seasoned adviser to the paraplanners to those that work in the cafeteria.
We implore our employees to speak up as much as possible and encourage them to come to us with any suggestions for how we and where we can improve. Everyone's opinion is valid and when people feel they can contribute they feel valued.
GR: With many IFAs in ME, Asia and elsewhere converging or books being sold, how important are acquisitions to Holborn?
RA: I think its fairly well know that Holborn has been on a rapid period of expansion over the last two years hiring over 200 people, opening 10 new offices across various new departments and divisions.
But acquisitions are only as good as the people you bring in. It's not the amount of clients, the amount of advisers or the size of the book of business it's very much the people. If the people are not a good fit for Holborn then regardless of how good the deal looks on the surface we would not be interested.
So Holborn's growth, whilst being part of our strategic plan, has actually been fairly organic because we have known many of the people we have brought on board, and we have known them for a number of years.
But, each acquisition is treated on its own merits and has to adhere to strict criteria before we would even consider it. All is can say is we turn down far more people than we recruit and we have recruited a lot as you know.
GR: What are your key product areas for 2019 and beyond?
RA: Not to objectify people but our key product is and always will be our advisers and our workforce in general, so we will continue to focus on them as we always have.
But when it comes to our client facing proposition, which I assume is what you are referring to, we have expanded into other areas, for instance we have recently launched a new end to end property division as a further value add. But our main focus is on refining our existing proposition as much as possible. We want to create an attractive, clear and efficient proposition that allows us to easily scale. And, of course, with efficiency comes cost savings, and that's cost savings that can be handed down to our clients and future clients as well.
GR: How does Holborn help new recruits settle into new roles, particularly those moving from one country to another?
RA: This may come as a surprise but we are not a company that recruits a great deal of new advisers to the industry. We are a company that promotes from within, but we mainly attract existing, seasoned advisers that are already in the region.
If our competitors recruit 10 new people we would prefer to recruit 1 experienced adviser, but we would still allocate the same amount of time and resource to ensure the success of that individual. It's a different model but most of the work is actually done during our recruitment process so an adviser joining Holborn knows exactly what to expect the moment she or he comes through the door.
Then it is more a case of getting to know systems and processes and we have a very some really fantastic staff on board who assist with that.