This week, Hugh sat down for a chat with Noel Lord of Metlife and discussed how Covid-19 has impacted the way he and our team engage with our customers.
To listen to the podcast in full, please click here.
“Noel Lord: Good morning everybody, and welcome to the MetLife podcast series. My name’s Noel Lord, and my guest this morning is the Principal from Centaur Financial Services on the Gold Coast, and the 2018 AFA Adviser of the Year, Hugh Robertson. Hugh, welcome to the podcast.
Hugh Robertson: Very glad to be here.
Noel: Yeah, thank you for taking the time. It’s obviously very challenging times and there’s a lot going on. Tell us a little bit about your background, Hugh, and how you got into this industry.
Hugh: I came in the industry in 2004. I’d studied finance and accounting at university, and I was fortunate enough to get a graduate position with The Commonwealth Bank which was always really highly sought after, because there wasn’t really that pathway to get into financial planning. So it was very, very difficult to get a leg up in a training program as good as that.
So that was the starting [point] in the industry. I always thought I was going to turn into funds management. That was more where my passion lay.
However, probably a year into the role, I really started to see where advisers could add value and put the pieces together for clients that didn’t really speak the language of finance, and thought that it was very overwhelming and would much rather bury their head in the sand than get educated on it.
So that was really the background. Always interested in money, always interested in helping people. So it ended up being inadvertently a perfect fit for me. And that was all the way in 2004, so 16 years ago.
Noel: Wow. And it’s been a journey since then, no doubt.
Hugh: I’ve seen a lot of changes. I think that’s the one thing, if you’re in the financial planning industry, you’ve got to embrace change, because back then there was what was called FSRA – financial services changes happening.
And then you had even then just product changes with annuities and asset test. And so onto the GFC. I’d then gone left The Commonwealth Bank to join Whittaker Macnaught. So just a lot of change in this industry and you’ve really got to lean into it, I think.
Noel: Yeah. And I think the concept here of embracing change, it’s no different from our industry to other industries. There’s always going to be change. Tell me a little bit about your business and what makes Centaur Financial Planning tick.
Hugh: So Centaur came about in 2009, an amalgamation of two accounting practices’ financial planning divisions.
And though the focus was always on having highly qualified people, but also then providing great service.
So if we said there’s one thing in any feedback survey or anything that’s differentiated Centaur, it would be our client care and constantly just talking to clients, listening to them, trying to be proactive.
Like in the recent Coronavirus saga that we’ve been going through, we called every single client to see how they were, not just from the financial perspective, but make sure their families were okay.
Although we couldn’t tell them what was going to happen in the markets. What we could tell them was that we’re here and that we’re going to be there for them. And that’s always carried through. That’s carried through back to when we first started the business, as we were taking over from some advisers who were retiring, letting them know that we’re always here.
And then in terms of the business itself, it’s an holistic advice model. We really focus on the areas where we think that we can be the best at. So, as the old Jack Welch from GE used to say that. Be number one or two in your industry or don’t do it.
So we don’t do accounting. We don’t do estate planning. We outsource that to people who are better at it than us. So that way our clients are getting the best outcome we can get for them using our network.
We sit in the middle of all that for them. And that’s really how Centaur has been able to grow by referral from mostly our own clients, because they value that we do go the extra step. Very little conversation is ever made about portfolios nowadays.
Noel: So what you’re telling me is a very deep personal connection you’ve built with your clients that comes from their wellbeing first, not just their financial wellbeing.
Hugh: Yep. And I think once people understand that you care, it’s that old saying, “They don’t care how much you know until you know how much they care.” And I feel that our conversation has always been about clients’ goals and what they’re wanting to achieve.
And I’ll call it, not to be too corny, but the iceberg principle of they all come in and what’s above the surface for them is only going to be about one eighth of what the issues are.
So it’s our job as professionals to unravel and uncover what those issues are. Something might be, they feel that they’re under-insured, but then we can relate that to estate planning, to inheritance, to paying down debt or what their Super is doing.
So our job as the professionals is to guide them through that journey, even though what their burning issue is may not be the ultimate cause of the problem.
Noel: Yeah. It’s an interesting proposition that you face as an adviser because it’s not just, as you said, about advice, whether it be investment, be insurance, it’s a holistic approach to helping them achieve their goals.
How have you adjusted your business to adapt to the current situation we find ourselves in with the working from home – not only for your clients, but in respect to your staff and any centres of influence you deal with?
Hugh: It’s been really challenging to try and have the head space to run your business and your team.
We converted to remote pretty early on in the piece as we’ve used the software that enables that and everything’s been on the cloud. So effectively, the team wants to take home the dual screens because they prefer that. And that was it.
So we had two weeks of working from home, then the team wanted to actually come back and work together because we do realize there is a synergy. And we’re fortunate, our office is large enough that we can social distance quite easily. And that was number one. The change from the business perspective.
Number two with the centres of influence was keeping them informed so they could look good in front of their clients. So we want to always be the source of truth and the source of knowledge for both our clients and centres of influence.
So, we were there scouring the government web pages for all information and trying to send links, trying to send all the information they could. Not necessarily with the answers, because at first answers didn’t come out.
Just with the information, so they could go to their clients and their clients knew that they could lean on them. Because some of the feedback we got from some prospective clients who have now come on board, was that they weren’t hearing from their accountants or their business associates who they thought they would be able to rely on in a bad time.
And I think any crisis, anything is always a matter of when you assess your best mates, your best mates are there for you when you’re down. I think the top advisers and the top professionals, they made sure that they upped the ante during the down time. Because there wasn’t an answer, but there was a, “let’s be in this together and get through it” so we can get to the other side.
And that’s where early on, we articulated that within our business, our goal was not to be the person saying markets will get better and not to be the person calling when flatten the curve would happen, but to be the person, the advice team that was there. So people would know that the information we gave them would be accurate.
And that’s where we feel you get trust score and you get authenticity score from clients and COIs, centres of influence. And that will carry on now long past this pandemic. And it’s a similar playbook to what we did during the GFC and it worked as well.
Noel: Yeah. There’s some interesting points you raised there, Hugh, in the sense that you sat down with your team initially and said, “Right, what’s our plan going to be? And what do we want to be known for to our clients and centres of influence?”
Going through that and admitting that it was really challenging for your business, highlights the fact that you are experiencing the same thing as your clients.
I just want to step back and go back to 2018 AFA Adviser of the Year. I know how proud a moment that was for you and Joe and the business. How did that change your approach to the business, being the AFA Adviser of the Year?
Hugh: It meant for about six months, I wasn’t in the office very much as you go around the country.
It was brilliant to give us the confidence and the conviction that what we do was well valued.
I think in the past, I’d always, having to use a basketball term as you alluded to, pump fete by all these advisers who seem to be very great when I hadn’t yet met them, and their marketing was first class, and we’ve never really engaged in marketing.
We’ve never really engaged in anything but focusing on our clients. We never want to get distracted. So winning that award was a confirmation of what we were doing was good and there had never been a firm on the Gold Coast, so locally, that had done it. So we never really knew at what level Centaur could play at.
So doing that gave us a great conviction in our approach. It was lovely to hear what the clients had to say and how proud they were of us. And it also tapped into a network of the high-end advisers who we may not have otherwise met. And that was really nice considering it was the first award we ever went for.
I never really believed in going for awards and a mate had actually talked me into going for it and said, “Well, how do you know where you stand? You’ve got three degrees, you’ve got this, you’ve got that. We think you would be good, but how would we know?”
And I thought, that’s actually a really good way of thinking about it. So I had to be willing to put our name forward and fail. And that was the hardest thing for me, because I didn’t want to put my hat in the ring and not succeed. But we were fortunate and there was some really great competition. So it was a great experience. And even the guys that didn’t win, I know that they still had a good experience as well.
Noel: What advice would you give to your advice colleagues around the country that are sitting there looking at the last six months. We’ve had FASEA. We’ve had the LIF reform changes. We’ve had change, change, change, and now we’ve got a pandemic. What advice would you give to you advice colleagues right now?
Hugh: It’s hard. I think part of the issue with our advice community is we haven’t been as collegial as I would like us to be as a profession. And it’s nice to know that others are struggling and that we’re all in it together. And that there is no answer.
We’ve been fortunate to win awards. We still didn’t cash clients out February 23 and go to cash and we didn’t foresee it. We and a lot of other guys I know who have great businesses, we’re all in it together. We didn’t pick this, we didn’t see this coming. But the only thing we can control is our attitude and our approach to it.
So I think in our industry, if you look at the Royal Commission, I see our bad markets. And there was a US-China trade war that happened December 2018. It would be very easy to be overwhelmed.
So I always refer to this as the Rocky mentality, Rocky Balboa, you’ve got to get up one more time than you get knocked down. That right now will differentiate you. Don’t duck the phone calls. Get on the front foot. Call the clients, control the narrative.
We talk about clients wanting to be able to profit from a pandemic rather than cash out and sell. Right now is the time when you double in and you go hard and you make sure you answer every call, return every email, give lots of communication.
And that then positions you as someone who you and I personally would trust that person. I would say, “Okay, they actually care about me”.
Noel: It’s a really good point and I suppose, summarizes your attitude and determines your direction. Right now, really having a positive attitude. And the fact that it’s okay to show a bit of vulnerability to your clients in that you have concerns and you’re dealing with unknowns as well, but that communication point is really, really important.
Hugh: And it’s not meant to be easy. That’s the thing, to be successful, to be good at anything isn’t easy. And this is just a tough time. So I think a lot of people, they’re just overwhelmed and I get that – within in our advice community.
But we just need to start acting more as a team together and really help clients. If we do that because there’s enough clients for every adviser. We don’t need more.
Noel: Yeah. And I think some of the points you’ve raised are very valid, Hugh, in the sense that it has been really challenging, but keeping that deep, personal connection and communication.
But I also made a note while you were chatting there that putting yourself out to be able to be prepared to fail. Failure doesn’t mean the end of the world, it means it’s a learning in your education and you can improve and grow from that.
But it’s a real thought process around showing your clients that you’re in it together, showing your colleagues and centres of influence that you’re there in not only the good times, but tough times as well.
Talk me through, Hugh, where are you focusing your business now over the next 30, 60, 90 days as we charter our way through these murky waters of the pandemic?
Hugh: The major focus right now has been sticking to principles for us. For our retirees, we’re not going to cash out. We’ve got our cash reserves for the next few years. For our accumulators, stick to our dollar cost averaging into the markets.
So focus for the next 30 days, the team. But it’s going to still be on serving our existing clients. Seeing who we can help with JobSeeker. Who we can help with all of those. Maximizing age pension now that markets have gone down, and some Centrelink rules have changed, we can help clients get some age pension.
So things like that where other people are thinking that the clients would be worried about the markets. We’re not thinking about that right now. We do not know if it’s going to be a U-shape, V-shape, W, over the next 30, 60, 90 days. But we can control the controllables.
So we’re getting on the front foot saying, “Right, if you’re going to buy a brand new car, don’t. Caravan, don’t. Wait. Let’s wait now, and work as a team together to get through this”.
In terms of business, we are going to give it a little bit and start having a bit more discussion around insurances with clients. A bit more discussion around lending with clients. Possibly, that might branch off into its own cash flow style of business.
We’ve got an associate adviser right now who would be really good in that space. So growing that. For her, in due course, you’ve already got someone who’s very established in the retiree space. So more business as usual, but available. And what we found, even in the last month is, we’ve had probably the most new clients via Zoom meetings than we had in the last 12 months. So there’s a lot of people that are wanting help still.
Noel: That’s great. And that’s no doubt a testament to your whole structure of the business and that really strong touchpoints with people. If you had your time again, is there anything you’d do differently?
Hugh: Where do I start? Lots of mistakes on the way. Mistakes are part of growth. As we said, you’ve got to miss shots to make shots. So the things that I would probably do different is adopt a dollar based fee for service earlier.
If I was going to focus on social media, I’d focus on one medium, not all. If I was starting out, I would focus on a particular niche and work that niche deep rather than a lot of people try and say that they’re legal professional advisers.
They’re great for accountants, they’re great for doctors. You can’t be. You’ve really got to know the ins and outs. In terms of another investment philosophy point has always been index versus active. I won’t get into that debate, but again, it’s always worth reconsidering every hypothesis that you have right now.
The things I wouldn’t change would be service. I’d still focus on service, but I might be a little bit more picky with which clients I took on earlier on in the piece, because I think when we started, we were probably more order-takers and trying to please people rather than being the financial leaders that I think all advisers should be.
So that would be, if I had my time again, I’d go back and be much more of the leader and not take on those clients that weren’t willing to take advice. Because ultimately, they’re the ones that take up the time and away from you focusing on what you need to focus on.
Noel: Thanks, Hugh. And there’s some great insights in your comments there. And I think to sum them up, the messages that I’m hearing from you for your advice colleagues today is don’t be emotional in your reactions.
And I love that comment, control the controllables. And the thing about your business is, it’s had phenomenal growth and it’s continued to have growth. The one thing that’s remained consistent is your clients know that you’re here for them and so are your colleagues.
And you’re part of the AAN network with Paul Forbes and the team. And that’s a really close knit group of people that are prepared to share ideas and work together. And, no doubt, that experience has helped you grow Centaur as well.
Hugh: That’s the thing. I’m very, very fortunate that I’ve had those people in my life. So that’s Paul Forbes, Troy Theobald, Jeff Thurechet, Marshall Brentnall, Brad Wall, Mark Bentar, and David Myers. The ability to knowledge share when you lose the ego and just say, “Hi, what are you guys doing good? What are you guys doing bad at?”
And it’s more, a matter of acknowledging what people’s flaws are rather than what we succeed at, because a lot of people will succeed on their own passion. So one person might be the investment guru. One person might be the lending guru. One person might be goals-based. But it’s great to be able to see where we’ve all had struggles and say, “Okay, try and get that synergy. How can we make that better?”
I’m very fortunate with the group that we’re in, that we’ve been able to built that. And continue to build that. We’re certainly, none of us are where we say that we could be. So there’s a lot of blue ocean ahead.
Noel: And you’ve got some really talented young people coming through the industry, like Darco in that group as well.
Hugh: Darco, yeah, absolutely. You see these guys or in that office I found out, I see now, I see Jenna Wheeler and Lisa Swain.
I just think I’m lucky I didn’t have to compete against those guys because they’ve got a lot of knowledge and they get to learn off the back of some very experienced people who are willing to help. And that also makes you see that the future of our industry is in good hands.
Noel: Mate, it’s been great to spend some time talking to you today. Really appreciate you taking the time to share your insights. Not only with us here at MetLife, but the broader advice community and just to summarize it, it’s all about the communication. It’s about ensuring your clients know that you’re there for them and not trying to be all things for all people and be prepared to reach out because the concept of are you okay starts with yourself, doesn’t it?
Hugh: Exactly right.
Noel: All right, Hugh. Thanks very much for your time mate, take care and all the best.”
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