When clients talk to Miles Plumb about the ups and downs of managing a business, he knows exactly where they’re coming from. Not only has he been a financial adviser to the rich and famous for nearly 20 years, he used to run his own fruit and vegetable company.
“I started working when I was 13 – as you could do in those days – and my first job was at a local fruit and veg shop, which I loved,” remembers 50-year-old Miles, who grew up in Solihull and still lives there.
“It was really exciting, hard work and quite unlike anything I’d experienced previously. “I went to work for Barclays Bank after leaving school, but I always felt that I wanted to have my own fruit and veg business. So at the age of 23 I decided that before I had a mortgage, I’d do it.”
Miles bought a run-down business in Knowle, along with an old, battered van, and over the next seven years transformed it into a thriving retail, wholesale and import company.
“It was built up through reputation, because we sold top-quality produce and provided good service. I picked up contracts from Birmingham City Council, hotel chains and restaurants and at its height had 15 people working for me.”
The long hours – 3.30am until 7pm, six days a week – eventually took their toll, though, and in 1993, Miles sold the business for a handsome profit. The experience stood him in good stead, because these days, as a director and wealth manager with Coutts Birmingham, the majority of his clients are entrepreneurs.
“Because of my experience, I do understand what clients are going through – the difficulties of getting finance, paying people, cash flow and the excitement of selling the business on. It also taught me a lot about looking after clients and resolving things when they go wrong.”
Miles was “clearly not a serial entrepreneur”, because after selling his business, he returned to employment, joining Lloyds Bank for a year before moving to the Bank of Scotland. “I recognised that if I wanted to get on, I needed to work hard. So I was determined to become as well-qualified as possible.”
And that is precisely what he did, becoming one of the first fellows of the Personal Finance Society, as well as a chartered financial planner and a member of the Chartered Institute of Securities and Investment (CISI).
Coutts wealth managers are expected to be CISI-qualified to level six. So how wealthy – exactly – does someone need to be for Miles and his team to take them on as a client?
“Typically, you’re looking at clients having about £1m of investable assets from day one,” he says.
“We want to ensure we offer excellent service by highly-qualified individuals, and if you have too many clients, you can’t do that, so that is why we are selective.” Its charges aren’t especially high, however.
“People’s perception is that Coutts is expensive, but that’s not the case. We are very competitive, certainly when it comes to wealth management and private banking.”
What clients pay for is also more transparent since new rules from the Financial Services Authority (FSA) came into effect on January 1. Known as the Retail Distribution Review (RDR), the aim is to raise professional standards in the industry, introduce greater clarity between the different types of service available and make the cost of advice very clear.
“Our clients are very open to it; they see the benefits and are happy to engage with us on this basis.”
The recession and banking crisis have made for turbulent times – but Miles says Coutts and its clients are coming out the other side of both tunnels.
“In 2008 and 2009, people were jittery and there was a degree of panic. It’s easy to say in hindsight, but if you look back, the people who lost out were those who lost their nerve. Where we did well was to maintain communications with our clients. We had the difficult conversations and the tricky, face-to-face meetings.
Obviously things were changing very quickly, but the vast majority of our clients held their nerve and were right to do so: their investments started to recover.” As a result, says Miles, people are much more aware and better informed – and expect more of the people who are looking after their money.
“We have to be more on the ball than ever before. The last few years have been challenging, but I can see that, to a degree, the optimism has returned. We’ve had more work come in this year than in the last two years put together.
“There is definitely more going on now: there are quite a lot of mergers and acquisitions taking place, sales of businesses and private equity companies taking over businesses and turning them around. So I think the West Midlands region is definitely on the up. The mood generally is positive.”
Miles doesn’t believe Coutts’ reputation has suffered as a result of the banking crisis.
“I don’t think clients have lost confidence in us. I think they know we are run on the same old-fashioned principles on which we were founded and that we are run conservatively. So any loss of confidence bounced back quickly.”
Any residual jitteriness as a result of the last few years is the reason a large part of Coutts’ discussions with clients centres on their appetite for risk.
“We spend a lot of time talking about their ability to tie up money for a period of time. A good thing about what happened in 2008 is that we can talk to clients about how they felt then and that provides something of a benchmark for the future.
"Our risk conversations are much more detailed than they were before, to ensure that if things don’t go too well in the short-term, they don’t panic.
“Sometimes clients are very keen to invest because the markets are moving in the right direction, but we will rein them in if we think it’s not the right time for them; for example, if they’ve just sold a business. Recently this happened and I was proved right in dissuading a client from investing, because he subsequently decided there was something else he wanted to do with his money.
“This client described me as a psychologist, because there’s an emotional side to what we do. We spend a lot of time trying to understand what makes people tick. And this demonstrates that we’re not just out there to invest money regardless of what’s right for an individual client.”
Bankers and financial advisers in general – and Coutts bank in particular – are sometimes perceived as being a bit, well, stuffy. Miles is anything but.
He’s open and friendly with an infectious sense of humour and after an hour in his company you feel as if you’ve known him a long while. No wonder he is able to forge long-lasting relationships with his clients.
“My ideal client is interested in what they do; they value the relationship they have with you, they value the advice they get and value your opinion as an individual. People often want to know if my views are the same as Coutts’, and sometimes they’re different, perhaps because of what’s going on in the local economy. Coutts is happy for us to have our own opinions.”
In terms of investment advice, Coutts advocates diversification and provides an investment-focused blog – https://blog.coutts. com – to help guide clients through the changing financial landscape.
“Our investment advice will include bond holdings, commodities, including gold, and there will be some property and hedge fund exposure too,” explains Miles, who stresses that Coutts isn’t about speculative investment.
“Our approach is conservative. We are looking to build up long-term investments; we are not the place to come if you’re looking to make a fast buck, and we will turn down would-be clients who want to do that. Our reputation is important – we’d rather not take someone on than mess it up.”
Does coming face-to-face with great wealth on a daily basis make Miles envious at times? Not at all, he says.
“I would say that money provides a degree of security that you don’t have if you don’t have a lot of money. It also provides opportunities. But from a personal point of view, I think you can be very happy without being wealthy. And, of course, it depends on your expectations.
"I come out of clients’ houses sometimes and see Bentleys and Ferraris parked on the drive, while I climb into my Audi. But I love my Audi – and I remember the time I drove an old van.
“I like my clients for who they are as people; not because they have money. And while I quite like dipping my toe into their world, I am happy to go back to mine.”