Berry & Oak co-founders Andrew and Sarah Elson discuss why their approach to financial planning is an award-winning one that puts their clients at the heart of all they do
Financial planning isn’t a once-in-awhile transaction, but an ongoing partnership based on independence and trust.
That’s the belief of Berry & Oak co-founders Andrew and Sarah Elson, winners of several awards at the recent Yorkshire Financial Awards. Their financial planning firm, based in Boston Spa, West Yorkshire, is the result of two banking professionals leaving successful careers at an established brand to become ‘independent’ financial advisers, because the move allowed them to develop and implement their own approach to the practice.
“I decided I wanted to be able to give independent advice and focus on the client rather than be more product-led,” explains Andrew.
“We see ourselves as a financial planning business that looks after clients, which is a big distinction to make. Many people see financial advisers as one-offs to be used at certain points in time, like when they need to purchase life insurance.”
“But with us, the ‘planning’ part is crucial. We ask clients what they want to achieve, in the short, medium and long term, and strive to discover the best way to deliver on those aims. Often there’s a better way than the clients first thought”
Sarah adds: “Our ability to work this way comes from our independence. We’re not tied to a suite of financial products or providers, so we don’t need begin with what we need to sell. It’s like Andrew said, we deal in our clients aims and goals.”
“As a result, we develop strong relationships with our clients. We treat them as part of the Berry & Oak family. We check in with them regularly and make sure their plans are on track, whereas a bank may sell them an investment and the client never hears from them again. We’re very much about building relationships with clients and looking after them and their families, too. With some of our clients, we look after four generations.”
For those looking at their first or next financial adviser, or reviewing a current relationship, Andrew explains what true ‘independence’ looks like in Yorkshire and beyond right now: “More and more advisers are not truly independent like we are anymore.”
“Many of the larger firms are now classified as ‘restricted’, which means they only offer a limited suite of products, chosen due to research and familiarity, but maybe for their own financial reasons.”
Andrew continues: “The advisers and firms that offer truly independent advice like us are becoming fewer. In Yorkshire, this is especially true.”
“The way to get truly independent advice is from smaller boutique firms where clients come before products. It’s more work for us in terms of research into solutions out there and the required due diligence, but that’s the thing, it’s our job and it’s in the clients’ best interests.”
The Berry & Oak approach
The basis for the trust that develops between clients and their financial advisers is what the firm calls the Berry & Oak approach, starting with its in-depth list of professional qualifications and accreditations.
They are both longstanding ‘Chartered Financial Planners’ as recognised by the Chartered Insurance Institute (CII), which regularly checks and reviews knowledge and skills among those awarded to ensure they continue to meet the required standards.
Andrew and Sarah are also internationally recognised ‘Certified Financial Planners’, awarded by the Chartered Institute for Securities and Investments (CISI), as well as ‘Fellows’ of the body, which sets standards of professional excellence and integrity for securities, investment and financial planning.
Each of these accreditations is thoroughly, regularly and independently reviewed.
Berry & Oak as a firm, meanwhile, holds the title of ‘Chartered Financial Planners’ from the CII. Both initially and annually, achieving this title is a stringent process that demands the firm commits to high standards of professional qualification, training and development, a demanding code of ethics, and much more.
Berry & Oak is also an ‘Accredited Financial Planning Firm’, which is awarded by CISI. Andrew says: “There are currently only 63 firms in the UK that hold this accreditation. This demonstrates that financial planning is at the core of what we do, that we’re a proper financial planning firm, not just doing transactional business for clients.”
Those are just two of the firm qualifications and accreditations that convince potential clients from the outset that Berry & Oak means business.
It also holds the internationally recognised ‘ISO 9001’ standard, as well as the ‘SIFA Professional’ accreditation, which means the firm is listed on the SIFA Professional Directory of Financial Advisers. As SIFA Professional is an affiliate partner that works closely with the Law Society of England and Wales, the law and accountancy firms from which Berry & Oak receives client referrals are reassured of its reputation and standing.
This solid foundation enables Berry & Oak to demonstrate “our commitment to being the best we can be” to both new and existing clients, as well as law and accountancy firms making referrals, Andrew says.
He continues: “Our knowledge is top notch. And our accreditations show that we’re putting it into practice. It’s reassuring that we’re about as qualified as you can get.”
At the same time, the Berry & Oak approach puts patience and communication at the forefront of a new or emerging relationship with a client.
Andrew says: “As soon as we have met or are in touch with a client, we don’t rush to invest their money. If it takes us six months, then it takes six months, as long as it’s done right. We’re craftsmen—we’re going to put the work in and clients are going to be pleased with the output when it’s done.”
“It’s important we take it at their pace because clients’ lives are often busy with a lot going on,” Sarah continues. “It’s their money and future in our hands, so if we do it right and slowly, they stick with us for a very long time.”
“From the client’s perspective, moving and choosing a financial adviser can be a very expensive and time-consuming process. It’s really important to us that the client knows all the way through what’s going on and it’s conducted at their pace.”
This means the Berry & Oak approach is a considered one, tailored to the unique needs of each client. And it’s one of illumination, intended to reassure but also progress in an agreeable way.
Take the point of referrals from law and accountancy firms. Most of Berry & Oak’s new business tends to come from referrals from existing clients, and professional connections, so word of mouth from happy customers and local professionals is very important.
Andrew says: “There are a few solicitors and accountants that we work with in the Yorkshire area. They use us because they know we do a good job, because they know we’ll look after their clients.”
“We like to keep them involved in what’s going on. We give them updates about what’s happening next. If the client agrees, we also share details so they can see what’s happening for themselves. That continues over a number of years with long-term clients, too. We work to keep the original referrer in the loop and are keen to refer them back if we identify an issue that needs to be dealt with.”
Sarah says: “That happens quite a lot with clients, like when we need to set up trusts for estate planning. We make that referral back to the solicitor. There are often things that crop up, like power of attorney, that the solicitor can pick up as extra work, or some in depth tax work for an accountant.”
She adds: “We’re also active in the referrals we make, because we know that when clients are left to their own devices, things get in the way, and it often doesn’t get actioned. We prefer to become directly involved and set up appointments, often attending them with the client as well, thereby ensuring that a referral occurs and the business is completed.”
Putting this approach into practice, the two main areas of financial advice for Berry & Oak are retirement and estate planning. The firm typically works with high-net-worth individuals in need of help to plan for significant events such as retirement or keeping wealth in the family.
The firm’s aim here is always to help its clients fulfil their ambitions, whether it’s to safely and confidently retire in a number of years or set aside funds to pass on to relatives, while minimising their inheritance tax bill.
In either case, Berry & Oak focuses on understanding the client’s financial situation and giving them a clear picture of their current wealth. For those considering retirement, for example, the result is definitive timeline for when they can retire and what that retirement looks like, ie, how much they will be able to spend and what sort of lifestyle that will afford them.
Or when a client is planning out their estate, they’ll know exactly what they have, what it might become in the future and the tax implications of this. Berry & Oak then compares this to what it would be if they followed the firm’s recommendations and they can compare the difference.
This point in the process often brings immediate benefits, such as consolidation and easier management, a simplified investment strategy, or even lower costs by utilising tax allowances, already justifying the decision to partner with Berry & Oak.
Andrew says: “We often help clients quickly make savings that justify our fees, well before we get to the more complex planning.”
“Clients really appreciate that we initially pull everything together and give them their net worth,” Sarah says. “They often have no idea about their pensions or investments, even paying for life insurance policies they don’t remember buying and might not even be valid.”
Then, of course, comes the plan for what to do with the client’s current wealth, backed by a confidence in the firm’s ability, knowledge and skills, and its independence.
It’s confidence in the firm, the Berry & Oak approach again, because Andrew and Sarah don’t consider clients to be their own or each other’s, but Berry & Oak’s. Sarah says: “We look after them as a firm. A key part of our approach is always having two people in every meeting.”
“Often, Andrew and I will see clients together, but we’ll also bring in members of the team to sit with them, when appropriate.”
“There are two beneficiaries of this. For clients, they’re getting to know the person who might answer the phone or send them an email. If we know we’re going to be doing some technical research, we’ll get a paraplanner to sit in on the meeting. They’ll understand what the client needs and the client gets to meet them.”
“For the business, it helps our team to develop. Some want train up to their next position, others want to become financial planners and they get to see that by sitting in with Andrew or I, how we conduct the interview.
“Also, if it’s the administrative team, they’re the ones who prepare all of the paperwork and set up the meeting, so they get to see how that’s used.”
“This approach helps the client, the business and the whole team. We also do a lot of client events so the whole team gets to meet them. This is a little bit unique to us because many firms still see it as a waste of resources, by having multiple staff present, but clients appreciate it.”
Career opportunities in financial advice
Berry & Oak currently has a team of eight, shortly to be nine, and is looking to expand, with two to three positions becoming available in the next 12 months.
Interested candidates would be a joining an award-winning firm. Berry & Oak won the Best Employer Award at the Yorkshire Financial Awards in 2019. At the recent 2022 event, the firm and its co-founders cleaned up, winning Director of the Year (Sarah), Financial Adviser Team of the Year and Financial Adviser of the Year (Andrew).
Berry & Oak has ambitions to share this success with its wider team and new members. Andrew says: “Because we are a smaller firm, our people have a real influence over what goes on. If you want to change the process with a good idea, we’re approachable and will put it into action. They can make a real difference in decision making, rather than seeing an idea go through six committees.”
“Also, we’re right at the cutting edge of what’s going on, so they can be involved in client meetings, see what’s going on, learning, rather than the basics of their job description.”
The firm’s recruitment drive has begun with the paraplanner role. Andrew says: “They’re often thinking about becoming an adviser next, so Berry & Oak would be ideal for them to come in and learn about looking after clients. We have a programme that’ll push them to become a good financial planner after a few years. It’ll be slower with us, but they’ll come out of it with lots of experience, having served their apprenticeship, as it were, they will become a craftsman.”
Berry & Oak’s programme for staff training and development is a five-year one, aimed at graduates joining the firm but adjustable if someone with more experience comes onboard, and designed to help them become a ‘Chartered Financial Planner’ according to CII requirements.
In the first 12 months, a graduate takes up a role in the administration team and learns about products and providers, as well as everything they need to know about setting up and preparing for client meetings.
Their next role is that of a paraplanner, which they carry out for two years. It’s more technical and in-depth, but begins at a basic level. At the same time, they do their professional qualifications.
After their third year at Berry & Oak, the firm gives them the option of pursuing a career as a financial adviser. This flexibility enables the person to decide for themselves whether financial advice is for them. Remaining as a paraplanner may be preferable, or becoming an office manager, for example.
If becoming a financial adviser remains their aim, they spend the next two years doing the work and gaining their qualifications. Crucially for Berry & Oak, they get to develop their soft skills.
Sarah says: “A lot of the development we do is around soft skills, so understanding how to talk to clients, how to coach and speak to them about what they want to achieve. Often, they don’t know themselves, so you have to ask the right questions to find the right answers.”
Andrew adds: “It’s also about understanding their answer, being able to interpret and understand what they’ve said. It takes years to really know what the client wants and needs.”
Sarah agrees, continuing: “Yes, these are things you can’t pick up from a textbook. We do a lot of work with clients to help them understand their bank accounts and simplify things. We understand, coming from a banking background, how to teach someone else about standing orders and how to pay bills in a set way. There’s quite a lot to learn. Even just working with solicitors briefly on wills and understanding what a will actually is when looking at one with a client.”
“We felt five years was a good period to try and embed all those things that you need. Anyone can pass their exams and call themselves a financial planner. There’s so much more to doing a really good, comprehensive job and making sure you do everything right for the client.”
She adds: “We look at everything holistically and if we can do it for a client, we will. We go one extra step with the work that we do. If a client wants to change a standing order at the bank, we’ll type the letter for them. They just sign it and we send it off. It’s much about getting used to our very high service and how we’re very client-orientated with what we do.”
Andrew stresses that while this is a five-year programme for graduates, those with experience can join and begin at different points.
“There would be time spent on the way that we do it,” Andrew says. “We are probably a little bit different, by doing things in more detail, being more patient and thorough. And it’s about the clients. It’s almost like we teach customer service rather than financial planning skills.”