In this special interview - part of International Investment's 'The lockdown interviews' series John Simmonds, CEO of Blevins Franks Financial Management speaks to Gary Robinson about the challenges of having offices in multiple jurisdictions and how he has had to assess different levels of lockdown rules.
GR: How has covid-19 lockdown affected how you work generally?
JS: As a company we were well-prepared for the disruption to normal life that the lockdown brought about. Not because we had a crystal ball and predicted covid-19, but simply because over recent years we have put a lot of effort into developing a very robust and flexible Business Contingency Plan and focused internally on secure operations and communications in order to cater for any potentially disruptive event occurring that would impact our normal way of operating.
"The knock-on effects of the pandemic has brought may well bring further consolidation in the advice arena, and I think it is likely that only strongly capitalised businesses will be in a position to provide a full service to clients going forward" - John Simmonds, CEO, Blevins Franks
Our priority at Blevins Franks is the welfare, health and well-being of our staff and clients across Europe and the UK and that has remained at the forefront of our minds and actions throughout this period.
Our advisors have developed close relationships with our clients over a number of years and in many cases our clients see us as friends not just advisers - I think this has helped particularly as we have proactively reached out to them remotely throughout the lockdown.
GR: Describe where have you been working during lockdown and how are you coping with more remote working, i.e. the work/life balance?
JS: I have been working from my home in Cambridgeshire. Normally I would spend some of my time in our London office and some travelling to our other offices around Europe and obviously that has not been possible during lockdown.
The use of video calls and video conferencing - as well as just picking up the phone - has meant that like my colleagues I have been able to keep in contact with our teams and clients throughout.
There is nothing like face-to-face contact in the same place as the other person, but we have used technology to good effect and that has worked well for me.
In terms of work/ life balance I have always felt that family and friends are important, paired with a strong work ethic, and with or without lockdown that continues to be my view, but I also have been enjoying my solo bike rides.
I always like cycling - the exercise and being close to nature is great but it also gives me time to think without distractions. The fact that it was my daily exercise during lockdown just meant it became part of my daily routine.
But as restrictions have started to ease in the UK over the last week or two I was able to enjoy my first ‘post-lockdown' game of golf for some time. A bit rusty, but still great to be able to get out there and play again.
One beneficiary of my efforts to hit the right work/ life balance during lockdown, though, has been my local wine merchant, who I have kept busy with his fine wine delivery service.
GR: What are the biggest challenges a) for the industry and b) advisers?
JS: The challenges for the industry and advisers dovetail but I see them very much as opportunities. Clearly, we have seen volatile investment markets at times this year which can be a challenge for clients and advisors. And although we have seen some recovery there may be some further volatility to come in response to emerging news over coming months.
The economic consequences brought on by the pandemic will be different from previous international crises but where advisers and clients have been through times such as Black Monday in 1987 and the credit crisis in 2008 they may be better prepared to expect and accept that volatility with a longer term focus in mind, whereas those newer to investment markets may find it more difficult.
It is, though, an opportunity to talk to clients about the fundamentals of investments and managing risk, the benefits of diversification and the importance of matching the right portfolio to their individual risk appetite.
One positive outcome of lockdown is that we and our clients have now been able to bench test remote communications as a key element in our tool kit and going forward even when things return to normal, I am sure things like video meetings and the like will be used more.
This will particularly be the case where clients live in remoter areas such as in some rural parts of France. And I'm sure many businesses will review the numbers of people they need to work in offices rather than remotely.
But video and phone will still not replace the value of sitting in the same room as somebody and talking in detail about their situation, and I think that that is something that clients value and miss and will want to return to as it becomes safe to do so.
GR: How has Blevins Franks Financial Management changed how it deals with and supports brokers and advisers internationally?
We have our own team of Blevins Franks advisors, so the communication routes are direct and secure which works well for us. We can't fly yet, but we can keep close to each other and our clients while observing government guidelines.
My mantra in times of crisis or change is always that communication is key. We have continually focused on communications - both internally to our teams of advisers and staff and externally to our clients and potential clients - throughout this period, using different ways of keeping people informed and engaged.
Feedback both internally and externally has been very positive.
As the easing of restrictions has emerged in different markets in recent weeks we have been able to reopen a number of our offices in line with local guidance and are holding client meetings - albeit observing social distancing and hygiene standards - and our clients have welcomed this opportunity to meet when they are ready to do so.
GR: How important has technology been during lockdown?
JS: I've touched on it already, but it has been key on two levels. Firstly, in terms of regular and varied communications as I've expanded on in relation to clients and our Partners, advisors and staff. Secondly, in terms of remote working because we have focused in recent years on our operational side and being able to operate in a secure way remotely has meant that we have been able to operate pretty much as normal throughout this period.
All our staff and advisors have been working successfully from home throughout and I think this, and our visibility, has given our clients a lot of confidence and comfort.
If this had happened 20 or 30 years ago when technology wasn't as advanced in terms of options and flexibility, I'm sure we would have coped using telephone and other means to a degree, but modern technology and communications have definitely helped us and our clients during lockdown.
GR: What lasting impact will covid-19 have in international advice market?
JS: I think one outcome will be that the companies who come out of this strongly will be those who are well-capitalised, have good corporate governance and infrastructures and have strategic holistic advice models in place for clients. The increasing regulatory oversight and other changes such as the implications of Brexit were already putting increasing pressure on some firms in the international advice market well before the spread of Coronavirus.
But the additional burden that the knock-on effects of the pandemic has brought may well bring further consolidation in the advice arena, and I think it is likely that only strongly capitalised businesses will be in a position to provide a full service to clients going forward. We are in good shape in those respects, but I think it will hit others hard.
In terms of advising clients, as I said earlier, there is no substitute for sitting face to face in the same place as a client - they prefer that and I am sure will continue to do so, and we find it provides a richer way of understanding the client and what is important to them and their family.
That won't change as at the end of the day we are social animals and even body language doesn't transmit fully on a screen. Nonetheless, what we all know from this experience is that remote communications will become a greater part of our way of operating and a useful and tested option to use more than until now.
That is a change for the good in terms of flexibility, but for clients who need expert cross-jurisdictional advice such as we provide, I think they will look forward to the opportunity to meet safely as we emerge from this situation.