Emma Ames began working in administration at the age of 16. Little did she know her organisational skills would become the driving force behind a leading IFA practice that now has £300 million in assets under advice, writes Leanne Dooley.
Ames is director and chartered financial planner at Exeter-based Cathedral Financial Management. When she joined the firm in 2000, there were only two advisers with small client banks. Fast-forward 17 years and Cathedral boasts a seven-strong force of financial planners, servicing a client bank of 950.
‘We’ve been around for a long time, so people approach us,’ says Ames, as she begins to discuss how the firm has scaled up through acquisitions. Cathedral has made three, but Ames says they were not a walk in the park.
Cathedral acquired Sidmouth-based firm Derek Parry in 2005 and Plymouth-based DMA Financial Planning in 2016. Cathedral took over the staff, clients and property of both firms, with retiring directors staying on temporarily to ensure a smooth transition.
‘It is positive to have the original principal stay on and do a client handover,’ she says. ‘What didn’t work was incorporating staff and principals who are used to doing things a certain way.’
Despite initial cultural differences, Cathedral is reaping the rewards of its new additions. The Derek Parry team has joined the existing Cathedral team in Exeter, while the DMA team continues to service clients in Plymouth.
With all this change, I ask Ames how she keeps things in check. The answer: team cohesion and streamlined processes. Ames tells me the strength of co-director Tim Ames, her
ex-husband, is due diligence and closing the acquisition deals.
Her focus is on running a tight ship in the office, with the help of Neil Gore, who is also a director and chartered financial planner.
‘I am exceptionally efficient: my bugbear is anybody wasting time. That’s probably the fourth time I’ve said that today,’ says Ames, and I notice her glass-walled office lets her keep an eye on the team.
Ames’ urge to stay in control meant she did not have a paraplanner for many years. ‘I felt when I read paraplanners’ reports the personalisation had gone and it was all templates,’ she says.
‘My meeting notes are so personable you could almost be sat in the room. My paraplanners are good at incorporating that into reports.’
Another string to Cathedral’s bow is its discretionary portfolio management service. This has been running since 2006 and holds £280 million of the firm’s £300 million in assets.
‘[When we applied for permissions] we had 800 clients, and being able to act quickly in difficult market conditions was becoming more onerous,’ says Ames. ‘We didn’t think we were giving our best service when clients had to wait for us to write with advice.’
Cathedral brought in the expertise of Matthew Clark, now director of Exeter-based Seabrook Clark, to put the structure together. Meanwhile, Tim Ames carried out due diligence and selected the platform, Seven Investment Management.
It took a year to get the system in place, which is now overseen by a research analyst, operations manager and a number of support staff.
‘For a smaller firm of chartered financial planners to offer a discretionary proposition in-house is a unique selling proposition,’ says Ames. ‘Clients being able to walk down the corridor and speak to the investment team and talk about tax, markets, timing and rebalancing, is critical.’
Cathedral’s office is within touching distance of a string of other successful IFA firms, but Ames assures me these are not competition.
Through a combination of the personal touch, a string of successful acquisitions and a streamlined workforce, Cathedral has gone from under-the-radar to slick and esteemed. ‘I hope now for gradual expansion,’ says Ames. ‘I’m not looking to set the world on fire, but every time I say I’m never doing another acquisition, an opportunity arises that I can’t say no to.’