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Advice platform hits a profit and aims for further growth

DAVID Ferguson is the technology geek who found himself in a backward financial industry and decided to invent a new company model.

DAVID FERGUSON: Now 44, he finds his life more balanced and can afford to take the 10-year view as his platform business is going from strength to strength. Picture: Steve Cox
DAVID FERGUSON: Now 44, he finds his life more balanced and can afford to take the 10-year view as his platform business is going from strength to strength. Picture: Steve Cox

Eight years on and his Nucleus 'wrap' platform, owned by the independent financial advisers it serves, is now in profit, has hit £7 billion of assets, and competes strongly with the £16bn platform built and owned by deep-pocketed neighbour Standard Life.

The radical changes which will give people the freedom to invest their own pension pots, the reforms to clean up and professionalise the advice industry, and the rise of platforms which provide one-stop shops for investors to see their assets, suggest the Edinburgh entrepreneur was well ahead of the game - but he knows he has to stay ahead. "My personal frustration when I was in the life industry was I just couldn't believe how the technology available was so pathetic compared to what happened in the rest of our lives," Mr Ferguson says. "Even the banks have been miles ahead - you can get an app on your phone to make inter-account transfers on your bank accounts. But look at what you can do with your 20-year savings plan you bought 15 years ago from xyz insurance company - you get a statement once a year which is probably wrong."

He adds: "We have tried to create a culture where we think about that sort of stuff, and not rest on our laurels."

The platform launched with seven member firms in December 2006 and now has more than 400 users, 75 of them shareholders in the business. Its inflows for the first three months of 2014 totalled £514million, a 38 per cent rise on 2013. Assets being administered were up 30 per cent.

The platform is "comfortably ahead of the challenging targets" the business sets for itself, with more active users than ever choosing Nucleus, the founder says. The Budget's scrapping of restrictions on pension pots, meanwhile, has been both "extraordinarily positive and moderately negative," Mr Ferguson says. "There will be more money invested on platforms and in different asset classes, and for longer. But you might see people take the money and put it in the bank. I don't buy the 'Lamborghini' argument - if someone has got a pension fund... they are not going to spend it on a car or a holiday they can't afford."

But where will they get the "free face-to-face advice" promised by the Chancellor? "It feels like it is going to be a big ask to get anything delivered for next year," Mr Ferguson says. "There is obviously an election going on, and a lot of people are retiring next year and the following year. I can't help thinking they should have defined the solution a bit more tightly - who is going to build it for them or supply it to the market?"

Nucleus has benefited from the reforms which have turned the industry's traditional relationships on their head.

"IFAs now effectively buy funds on behalf of their clients, like institutions but on a small scale." Using platforms which will evolve to offer, as Nucleus already does, products such as life insurance, advisers will increasingly be able to offer clients a holistic financial planning service, he predicts.

"In general, IFAs are moving upmarket a little bit in terms of the average clients they are dealing with, equally we are seeing a lot of emerging innovation in how to create business models to service lower-value clients with less complex affairs. What we are seeing is a classic market in transition."

It is a market which sees small entrepreneurial firms jostling with financial giants who, Mr Ferguson observes, may be more vulnerable than they look. "The margins that used to prevail particularly in the life industry and asset management sector are simply not going to be there in future," he says. Standard Life, Aegon and Legal & General (acquirer of Cofunds) "make far more money on their old business than they ever will on their platform business", Mr Ferguson says, predicting consolidation in the industry. He says Standard has been "the most progressive", while in the consumer space Hargreaves Lansdown has done extraordinarily well, but both will feel a margin squeeze going forward. Aegon, meanwhile, as a late arrival in the market, has the challenge that "there are only so many IFAs in the UK and many have made a commitment to one platform or another".

Could Nucleus be a target? "Conceivably, but at the moment we have got business growing at 30 to 35 per cent a year, which we are pretty happy with."

The founder is refreshingly down to earth in looking back.

"You go through the start-up years and you tend to romanticise how much fun it was. There were lots of fun times, but there were also incredible challenges - everybody at some time should work in a start-up business."

He goes on: "When you start to come into positive cashflow territory it puts a different slant on it. It was a pretty difficult five or six years, we are eight years old this month, 2012 was the first year we turned a small profit and we dramatically increased that (to £1.5m) last year."

Life has mellowed ever so slightly for the 44-year-old, who married French wife Monique four years ago and now has a 21-month-old daughter Nicole. "It is a much more balanced life than I had six or seven years ago, when we got the first 15 people who joined Nucleus into one room."

He goes on: "When you have a limited capital base and you are trying to get into profit, you tend to make some short-term decisions and it may not be in the long-term interests of the business. Once you are actually making money it changes the decision-making process and you start to think about things on a five- to 10-year view rather than what you can afford next week - I remember agonising over buying a paper-shredder. It changes the mindset, but hopefully we will never lose our start-up discipline in terms of getting things done and having a tight rein on costs."

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