Adviser profile: Simon Bullock of Mulberry Bow

Simon Bullock's CV

2015–present: Mulberry Bow, partner

2009–2015: Barclays Wealth, director/head of wealth planning

2008–2009: Truestone Asset Management, client director

2007–2008: Conforto Financial Management, investment director

2006–2007: Schroders, regional sales manager

2003–2005: Target Consulting, senior adviser

1997–2003: (AWD) Chase de Vere, senior account manager

A chance encounter

A chance encounter on holiday in Japan was the final piece in the puzzle for Simon Bullock, partner at London-based Mulberry Bow.

Bullock was in the Far East in 2014 when he saw a pagoda. ‘There was a guy in there who must have been around 105 years old,’ he tells me in his London office. ‘He was fashioning a bow out of mulberry wood.’

‘Just watching the commitment that chap had to his craft was really humbling and impressive,’ Bullock says.

The experience inspired the business’s name, and our photo shoot: yin and yang. In Taoism, a philosophy from China, yin and yang describes complementary forces that interact to form a dynamic force.

‘A good financial planning firm has a yin and a yang to it,’ he says. ‘It has two sides to it. It’s the customer care, the service, caring about your clients and really getting to know them: that is the mulberry. But clients also expect a certain level of execution and delivery, which is the bow.

‘For us, it is about finding the balance between the two. Clients don’t want to feel like a number. They want their financial advisers to really know and care about their financial wellbeing,’ says Bullock.

‘But they also want a level of sophistication and technical know-how, so they have peace of mind they are getting the right advice.’

A helping hand

Set up by Bullock in 2015, Mulberry Bow is now a profitable business. It has 60 clients, £500,000 in recurring revenues and £50 million in funds under advice.

The firm was born out of a relationship with accountancy Wilson Wright, with which it still shares an office.

Prior to 2015, Bullock was a wealth adviser at Barclays Wealth, where he headed the private bank’s financial planning arm. Owing to the complexity of his client’s tax affairs, Bullock increasingly found himself referring case work to accountancy firms.

The big accountancy firms were not cutting the mustard, however. This led Bullock back to his old friend Craig Nicholson, tax partner at Wilson Wright.

Meanwhile, Wilson Wright felt its clients were not receiving the financial planning they really needed. Many were former business owners who needed advice on their wealth. The opportunity arose for Bullock to go independent and work alongside his old friend. 

Wilson Wright provided office space at commercial rates and a loan of £70,000 to ensure the business found its feet. Bullock describes this support as ‘unequivocal’.

‘I wouldn’t say there was a blank cheque. But there was an unequivocal support to make sure the business was built on firm foundations,’ he says. Mulberry Bow paid the money back within 14 months.

‘I worked solo for the first eight months just to get some traction and get the first five or 10 clients,’ Bullock says. ‘I had a very good outsourcing person who was a chartered financial planner. They were able to provide paraplanning support.’

The addition of practice manager and compliance officer Jessica Tivey in December 2015 was when it all came together, Bullock says. Since then he has not looked back.

Finance feminist

Mulberry Bow now has three partners. Bullock is one, and he is joined by Lee Davy-Martin (pictured rear centre) of Wilson Wright, who represents the accountancy firm’s interests to Bullock.

The other is Gosia Rosa (pictured far left), who joined the firm this year to manage human resources and communications initiatives.

Bullock is a chartered financial planner along with colleague Andrew Toll (pictured far right), and they hope Tivey (pictured third from left) will become chartered within the next year. The practice has a rule that it will never take on more than 50 clients per chartered financial planner. So Bullock sees adding chartered financial planners to its roster as the key to growing the business’s capabilities.

Once that is in place, Bullock hopes Tivey will take the lead on a new proposition aimed specifically at women. That would help guide successful professional women through key points in their lives, such as substantial pay rises, the sale of businesses, or even divorce.

Bullock says he would be happy to advise women himself. But he wants to offer female clients a female adviser, if that is their preference. Does Bullock see himself as a feminist?

‘I don’t go down the pub and say: “Hi, my name is Simon, I’m a feminist,”. But if someone suggested I was a feminist, it wouldn’t worry me.

‘A feminist is someone who believes in equality of opportunity for women, and believes in living that, not just saying it. So in that sense I am a feminist.’

The other major project Bullock is working on is in the environmental, social and governance (ESG) space, which he believes is becoming more important than just ‘ethical’ investing that uses positive and negative screening.

‘I think the debate seems to have moved on to be more about overall social effect,’ he says. ‘I’m not saying clients aren’t interested in ethical any more. But I’m finding myself having fewer conversations about ethical investing and philanthropy, and more conversations about sustainable investing and social impact investing.’

One of Bullock’s favourite funds is the Foresight UK Infrastructure fund, which he says ‘adds something a little bit different. Our clients are finding diversification away from equities and yield particularly challenging. This fund is a potential solution to both.’ However, the fund is only a few months old.

‘Although it hasn’t been around long, it holds established funds such as Greencoat UK Wind and HICL Infrastructure.’

The firm is aiming to achieve chartered status with the Chartered Insurance Institute as soon as possible, but that process can only begin now as it only recently passed its third anniversary. Bullock is also in conversation with a potential recruit: a young financial planner at a St James’s Place firm, who is approaching chartered status.

On the client's side

One of the things that marks Bullock out as unique to me is his relatively satisfied attitude to regulation, which he believes is ‘very well intentioned’. However, he says the profession could do a lot more to promote fee transparency.

‘I’ve met a number of clients who have been advised by other quite large national financial planning firms. They’re not stupid people, but they were given a report so long and complex, even I struggled to see the wood for the trees,’ he says. ‘I just think that’s unacceptable.’

Bullock is certain the ‘big firms’ do good work for clients, but he says it is very difficult to be truly sat ‘on the client’s side of the table’ when working inside a large corporate structure.

‘If you work for a big high street bank like Barclays or Coutts or HSBC, however good an adviser you are or client-centric you are in your thinking, it’s very difficult to sit on the client’s side of the table. There’s always the sense you are there to represent the bank, which, of course, you are.’

Bullock feels similarly about restricted advice firms. ‘The feedback from potential clients we spoke to before we took the leap was this: a client with more than £1 million to invest often feels they are choosing between a national financial advice firm or the private banking arm of a high street bank.

‘Here they may feel they are getting restricted financial planning advice and are treated like a number. Whereas they feel a small IFA may have good intentions, but lacks the expertise to deal with a client of their wealth profile,’ he says.

Long game

It has not all been plain sailing. Although Bullock says he never really had a sleepless night in the process of setting up the business, he did have a ‘what have I done?’ moment around six months into the project.

‘You just doubt yourself a little bit,’ he says. ‘I left a job where I was very well treated, where I wasn’t allowed to see a client unless they had £20 million of investable assets.

‘To leave and start something from scratch, there is that moment for anyone who starts something new.’

Bullock has no regrets, but had to adapt to a completely different salary. He now pays himself via a partnership draw of £75,000 per year. However, as a partner he is also entitled to a profit share on top.

He is now completely comfortable, but reflects on a substantial pay cut from his time at Barclays.

‘It was a big pay cut when I went from Barclays to this,’ he says. ‘It was a pay cut of about two-thirds at the time.

‘My total drawing and profit share in year one versus what I was on at Barclays was around 30% of what I was used to earning at Barclays.’

After all that effort (and his views about restricted advice models), will Bullock ever sell? ‘I’m in no mad rush for that money. It’s a long-term perspective,’ he says.


The fee bit...

Mulberry Bow recently ended its one-off transactional work. New clients must commit to the firm for a minimum of four quarters. Prospective clients can expect two initial meetings to flesh out suitability, both of which are free. The team then carries out a ‘Swot’ analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats).

‘We think it takes two meetings for both sides to really understand whether the fit is right,’ says Bullock. Thereafter, the firm runs two fee structures depending on the client’s circumstances.

For clients introduced by an accountant, solicitor or existing client where financial planning and an investment proposition are needed, the firm charges for financial planning and implementation at 1%, which is paid in four quarterly instalments of 0.25%. ‘Financial planning is a process, not an event, therefore we want clients to experience that process,’ says Bullock. The ongoing fee is also 1% but falls to 0.75% once the client passes £3 million. Clients can pay monthly or instruct their investment manager to pay the firm quarterly for this part of the fee also.

For clients introduced to the firm by an investment manager or a private bank who only need financial planning, the firm charges a set fee collected quarterly based on complexity, time and the amount of business risk involved. Typically, that could be between £5,000 and £20,000 per year and most clients nominate one of their investment portfolios as the automatic payment source.

The firm’s minimum fee is £5,000 a year. However, Bullock would consider doing so-called ‘incubator’ work for clients who have specific but limited needs in the present, but for whom more sophisticated advice may be needed in the future. In those scenarios, the business will waive its minimum fee.

The investment bit...

Mulberry Bow outsources all of its investment work to discretionary fund managers.

‘We’ve never seen it done well where someone is an expert in strategic financial planning and day to day investment management,’ says Bullock.

For clients with between £500,000 and £5 million to invest, Mulberry Bow uses Fusion Wealth, Investec, Rathbones, Dimensional, Seven Investment Management and Bordier.

For clients with between £2 million and £10 million, Mulberry Bow uses Brown Advisory. And for anyone with more than £10 million, the business uses JP Morgan and Saranac.

Mulberry Bow mainly uses a mix of passive and active funds. Bullock says he lives by five rules of investing:

1. Work out how much capital can be committed in the long term.

2. Diversify.

3. Rebalance consistently.

4. Manage tax liabilities.

5. Manage costs.

Bullock says advisers’ should use these rules as their starting point, rather than deciding they prefer active or passive management first and working from there. ‘It is easy for advisers and clients to get hung up on actives and passives and so on,’ he says.

‘Actually, it’s just about really good advice that helps you implement those five golden rules. You can implement those rules and be 100% active or 100% passive or a bit in-between.

‘It’s the implementation of those rules that will set you fair.’

The technology bit...

Mulberry Bow uses the above technology to support its proposition. 

You can check out the firm's podcasts here.

And finally...

Mulberry Bow said that its 12-month business goal is to obtain chartered firm status.