Adviser profile: Diane Weitz of Ashlea Financial Planning

Diane Weitz has resisted overtures from consolidators as she seeks to make Ashlea Financial Planning a fully chartered and accredited firm.

Diane Weitz's CV:

  • 2005–present: Ashlea Financial Planning, director
  • 2004–2005: Hazlewoods, financial consultant
  • 2002–2004: Barnett Waddingham, financial adviser
  • 1994–2002: Stirling Associates, financial adviser
  • 1989–1994: Various roles at different companies
  • 1986–1989: Hill Samuel, executive

Professional memeberships and qualifications:

  • Chartered Wealth Manager (CFP)
  • Chartered Financial Planner
  • Investment Management Certificate
  • Step Affiliate
  • Solla Accredited

Diane Weitz's CV:

  • 2005–present: Ashlea Financial Planning, director
  • 2004–2005: Hazlewoods, financial consultant
  • 2002–2004: Barnett Waddingham, financial adviser
  • 1994–2002: Stirling Associates, financial adviser
  • 1989–1994: Various roles at different companies
  • 1986–1989: Hill Samuel, executive

Professional memeberships and qualifications:

  • Chartered Wealth Manager (CFP)
  • Chartered Financial Planner
  • Investment Management Certificate
  • Step Affiliate
  • Solla Accredited

Diane Weitz thought becoming a financial adviser meant being a hard-nosed salesperson until she saw a music teacher and family friend, George Howarth, make his way into the profession. He debunked the salesman stereotype, laying a path for Weitz to try her hand at something new. Since then she has enjoyed a long career, in which she could march to her own tune.

Founder and director of Cheltenham-based Ashlea Financial Planning, Weitz says the only time she has not been self-employed was when she worked as a teacher, before starting a family.

The four Weitz children were always going to be musical, with Weitz playing flute and her husband, Paul, coming from a family that lived and breathed music. His grandfather was an organist and composer and his mother was a violinist who went to the Royal Academy. The baby grand Bechstein in this photoshoot is rumoured to have belonged to famous British pianist Myra Hess.

Weitz and Paul share their passion for music with friends too, regularly attending concerts to wind down and socialise.

She reminisces about the fun music brought to her house, with the three boys rehearsing for competitions in which their performance involved them all playing the same piano at the same time.

Finding herself

After a nine-year career break from teaching to raise her four children, Weitz felt she was losing her identity. Starting afresh in financial advice was a way to find herself again while retaining freedom and flexibility.

‘I got to the stage where you kind of lose your personality a bit: you are somebody’s wife, somebody’s mother. It was an opportunity to do something for me and I enjoyed it,’ she says.

She was told becoming a self-employed financial adviser with no client bank and no funding was irresponsible. But she says it did not hold her back.

‘I wanted to make up my own mind about things. I don’t fit well in an employed environment.’

Now Weitz has a firm with more than £72 million in funds under advice and seven staff. She is weighing up strategies for expanding the business while retaining its local feel and personal service.

Weitz grimaces saying the word ‘commoditise’. She acknowledges it will likely form some part of scaling up, for example, on the investment side. But she is still put off by the idea of Ashlea falling into the hands of one of the national consolidators that have approached her to buy the firm.

‘“We have this big national team that would like to buy your company”, they say. No! I don’t want to go to a big national team,’ she says.

‘There’s still going to be a place for the small, local company that provides a very personal service. But as soon as you get into the scale of some of these companies, by their very nature it becomes a more commoditised service.’

 

Start-up costs

One option Weitz is considering is an employee ownership trust like the one Bristol-based Ovation Finance has set up for its staff. She says, among many other considerations, she should be compensated for the risk of starting the company.

‘I have never been particularly money-oriented but I do want to benefit from the fact I started the company up,’ she explains. ‘There needs to be some compensation for the risk involved in that.’

Weitz is not having to work through the expansion strategies alone however. After winning the Chartered Institute for Securities & Investment’s David Norton building excellence award last year, along with the financial reward that came with it, Ashlea has invested in a business development course with consultancy FP Advance, run by Brett Davidson.

‘I am hoping Brett’s course will clarify the issues around succession and expansion,’ says Weitz.

‘We have already adopted some of the things he has suggested in other areas to good effect. In particular, putting into practice the “level 10 meeting”, which is held every week at the same time, with the same agenda on which you can add issues with a view to solving them, has been useful,’ she says.

‘We have found this very helpful in focusing the business and getting over some of the problems. Before that I think [office manager] Sue Wall felt the whole world was on her shoulders.’

Timing troubles

The advice from Davidson came just at the right time. Weitz says Ashlea has come through a difficult few months, with regulatory changes coming in at the same moment as other changes to the business.

‘It was the worst possible time. We had a change of compliance firm, a change of back-office system, Mifid II and the general data protection regulation all in the first quarter of the year. It was quite... well, it’s surprising Sue is still here,’ reflects Weitz.

After realising Ashlea was not an ideal candidate for professional body Sifa because the firm was never going to build huge relationships with solicitors, it outsourced its compliance function to TCC Group.

‘TCC London sacked us eventually,’ says Weitz. ‘It was dealing with much bigger companies and we were getting to the stage where we did not need the quarterly compliance meeting as it preferred, in order to keep its fees up.’

On Davidson’s recommendation, Ashlea is now using Mark Dennison at The Compliance Department.

Under Mifid II, Ashlea has set up new processes for communicating information around products and fees to clients. Weitz says the challenge has been getting the work to flow properly. 

On top of that, the firm is moving back-office systems from Intelligent Office, which Weitz says was usefully web-based but ultimately designed for bigger companies, to a system from Focus Solutions which is based nearby in Leamington Spa.

The switch has not been without its difficulties and the firm continues to use Intelligent Office while the wrinkles are ironed out.

Strength in numbers

Weitz sings the praises of her support staff, who worked extremely hard to get through the barrage of administrative challenges this year. She also counts her blessings for having been so fortunate finding such an excellent team.

She describes how Nik Marsh joined the firm in 2014 after 15 years at Goldman Sachs and how he had studied for almost all his exams independently before starting at Ashlea as an IFA.

‘It was just the pensions exam he did when he joined me,’ she says. ‘But he is an exam freak, he likes doing them.’

Like Weitz, Marsh started from scratch with his client bank. Weitz says when he joined, she was not ready to give up any of her own clients. Now he has a decent-sized group of clients that is steadily growing through referrals. The only referrals Weitz takes on are those with issues around funding later life care as she is accredited with the Society of Later Life Advisers (Solla).

In the small office attached to Weitz’s house she works alongside her daughter, Eleanor Clark, who is a paraplanner and trainee financial adviser; financial planning associate, Lauren Owen, who joined as an apprentice in 2013; and Diane’s husband, Paul, who is company secretary and finance director. Ashlea also recently hired office assistant, Clara Hambling, through a recruitment company only six weeks after starting the search for someone to fill the role. 

The aim is they will all be working at a chartered and accredited firm by the end of the year. The planners have all the necessary qualifications and it is only a question of getting the paperwork in order.

The fee bit

Weitz is a firm believer in cashflow analysis and says the firm is very much organised around the service. She brushes off the criticism some have that cashflow plans start using a snapshot of clients’ goals and circumstances.

‘The whole point is you do it for one year and then go back to it every year,’ says Weitz. ‘The cashflow and the assumptions are going to change as people’s circumstances change.’

The fee agreement is given to the client after their initial discovery meeting, which is done at Ashlea’s expense, and states how much they will be charged for the first cashflow analysis and any other work due to be carried out. The work might include a review of attitude to risk and capacity for loss, estate planning recommendations and an income tax analysis.

The fixed fee will be between £750 and £1,500. Future cashflow analysis sessions will be covered by the 1% ongoing fee.

This initial planning fee is based on an hourly rate for a chartered financial planner of £250 per hour, adviser support at £150 per hour and administration at £75 per hour, all of which are detailed in the client agreement.

The client agreement also explains the implementation fee is charged at 2% for the first £500,000 of the client’s investment, 1% for the amount between £500,000 and £1 million and 0.5% for anything over £1 million.

 

The investment bit

Weitz entered financial services through a stock-picking competition in The Times newspaper many years ago and has never lost her interest in investments.

She and Marsh, who is a chartered financial analyst, form the investment committee at Ashlea and construct the firm’s portfolios. Weitz knows the process may need to become more robust. But she is keen to steer clear of models, partly because she thinks doing so makes the investment strategy an afterthought in the planning process.

She is also wary of moving from manual to automatic rebalancing, which she thinks confuses clients.

‘It may be useful for firms with the same structure of funds for all clients or if it uses multi-asset funds, but my clients can be confused if they get a statement about buying into and selling out of things,’ she says. ‘They want to know the reasons. Because we see them every year, it is possible to do the rebalancing manually.’

Although each portfolio is bespoke, Weitz says there are common features between groups of clients’ investments. Yet Weitz and Marsh differ somewhat in their investment preferences, such as her enthusiasm for investment trusts.

‘I quite like using investment trusts, I have used them since 2009,’ says Weitz. ‘They often have quite low annual management charges, which means it’s possible to bring charges down but still use active management.

‘I tend to use investment trusts with quite a long track record, like Baillie Gifford’s Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust, which is for higher-risk people. Also Finsbury Growth & Income Trust, run by Lindsell Train, has been brilliant in generating income. [Citywire AA-rated] fund manager Nick Train has a well-proven track record from years back.

‘We do use passive funds but Nik is probably keener on them than I am.’

Asset allocation is done in house. Weitz says fixed interest is a bit of a worry at the moment because it is not performing as well as it has in the past.

‘We tend to use strategic bonds because they have more flexibility about where they go,’ says Weitz. ‘And we are using some global fixed interest funds as well, because again, they have a bit of a wider area.

‘One that has done quite well for us is TwentyFour Dynamic Bond. It has good expertise in the company from years of fixed interest so it is well positioned to get some good results from the current market situation.’

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