Essex: Meet the money planners of Unizone

Neil Donnelly of Unizone

Neil Donnelly of Unizone

IN the space of three months, Neil Donnelly found himself with a new house, a new baby and a new business. The founder and managing director of independent financial advisers Unizone at Coggeshall admits it was “a challenging time”, but he has no regrets. SARAH CHAMBERS reports

“Is there a right time to do these things? Life doesn’t work like that. It was an opportunity,” he explains.

At the age of 35, the financial expert opted to take the plunge and start his own business after deciding he could do things better. Last year, he celebrated the business’s 10th anniversary.

The economy, during that time, has certainly taken a few knocks, but the business is growing and thriving - the result, he believes, of staying true to clients and ensuring the firm adheres to best industry practice.

“My background was an economics degree from Leicester University. I’m from Braintree and went to Natwest lending banking and worked in London as a financial consultant,” he explains.

Neil was previously was a shareholder in another Independent Financial Advisers (IFA) business based in Essex, but he was ambitious.

“There was this perception of maybe you will be able to do things better yourself and to drive your own project really,” he says. “There was also a perception of opportunities at the previous practice.”

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Being your own boss presents its own set of problems, but Neil has embraced the challenges, and bought up other businesses to become one of the biggest independent financial advisers in the south east.

Neil knows that as his own boss, if things goes badly, he absorbs the bad side, but it has allowed him to develop the business in the direction he wanted it to do.

“It’s control and destiny and those sort of cliches,” he says.

Starting out in offices in Black Notley in 2002, he was joined by operations manager Mark Copsey. A year later, director Paul Southgate came on board. By 2004 the workforce had built up to about 12. The offices moved and the business underwent its first acquisition expansion with the purchase of Martin Financial Management.

“We had a converted barn 900sq ft over two floors and that enabled us to grow and we stayed there until 2004,” he explains.

“The business went better than we envisaged and we filled all the 900sq ft and the opportunity arose for us to purchase another business, Martin Financial Management based in Billericay. The business owner was Derek Martin who’s still with the company. He’s in his seventies. It was quite a progressive move from him because he wanted like-minded individuals and wanted a structure that was progressive.”

Unizone was very IT orientated, and was able to move the newly acquired business forward through better use of technology.

Investment director Paul Davey came on board in 2005, and in 2006 Andy Frettingham also joined the board.

Between 2004 and 2007, the workforce doubled, and in 2007 it moved to its present home at Priors Hall, Coggeshall.

“The rationale for moving here was when we purchased it we bought another business James and Lindsay (Life & Pensions) Ltd in Colchester from a man called Len Nieuwenhuis. He again is still with us. The non life and pensions business continues to trade separately,” he explains.

It went on to purchase a third practice, H & L Financial Services in 2008, which was owned by the late Tim Lake.

The next year it took on its compliance director, Richard Kerr.

All of the acquisitions, to use a somewhat hackneyed term, have been organic, and have brought in people already running similar concerns.

“The principals are typically people we have known for a period of time and are well respected and built up clients over a number of years so we have been able to continue those relationships,” says Neil.

Unizone, which employs about 35 staff, has proved a recession-defying business and is keen to support other businesses in the region.

“The last 10 years have been very satisfying and I have enjoyed watching Unizone grow to what it is today. A lot has changed in the industry during our 10 years in business and the team here has embraced the continual challenge of adapting to changing client needs,” says Neil.

“We have always been completely focused on helping clients meet their aspirations through building long term relationships based on trust. This is what we believe has been the key to our success over the past decade.”

The company, which currently manages assets of more than £400million, aims to provide a bespoke and personal service to its clients, both individuals and companies, and help them plan and achieve their financial aspirations.

“A lot has changed in the industry during our 10 years in business and the team here has embraced the continual challenge of adapting to changing client needs.”

Over the past decade, the company has built up a number of specialisms, including investment planning and portfolio management, retirement planning, tax and estate planning, succession planning, employee benefits, mortgages and equity release, long term care and life and income protection. Of its customers, 85% are private individuals and the rest are corporate.

Neil, along with Andrew Frettingham, Paul Southgate and Paul Davey are the four shareholders in the business.

For Neil, it has been satisfying to build up a business which fulfils his vision of offering “holistic” financial planning.

“You come to us with any area of financial planning, we can assist.”

The business has built up via professional connections and customer referrals, explains Andy Frettingham.

“We do a lot of pension and divorce work,” he explains. “Our corporate client would be probably up to about 500 employees but literally from one man bands through to those larger companies. Our clientele are generally national from Cornwall to Scotland.”

The bleak economic outlook over the last few years is not something that has fazed them, says Neil. After all, financial planning is about managing money through the good times and the bad.

“We started on the down. The markets were fairly flat. The view at the time was it was probably a good time to start. We have had an up and a really big down. 2008 was obviously a cataclysm for everybody,” he says of the general economic picture.

“You are always getting new blood into the business in terms of new introductions which hopefully highlights we are doing something right.”

It’s important, Andy explains, to sit with clients and understand their needs and their attitude and tolerance to risk.

“It’s investment growth. It’s security against unfortunate events, reducing tax - there are a number of areas people want help on, of which investments is one. We have sophisticated investment propositions which can cater for a raft of requirements,” he says.

“It’s very clear what you get and what you pay for.”

They are not bullish - they see problems with unemployment and general economic pressures which will continue for some time, but stock markets are slightly different, they point out.

“There are opportunities for our clients, but generally challenging times for the man on the street and for businesses. Nobody has seen this before so it’s very difficult to predict with any accuracy,” says Neil.

“This is the strange thing about our industry. Sometimes the worse the position gets, the more business we get because people need help.”

When prices of properties or shares fall quite low people get nervous, when they are on the rise, they are reassured, he says.

“People buy at the wrong times. Emotion really,” he says.

Andy adds: “It’s never easy talking to someone about their money falling in value.”

However, while banks have become very transactional and under great pressure to sell products, demand for services such as theirs is on the increase, he says.

“We have got £400m under management. People are disillusioned generally with a lot of the banks. They never see the same person more than twice and we are sufficiently big enough to give that reassurance. We are not a one-man band. The size of the practice combined with a genuine service proposition is why we get clients,” says Neil.

“The banks are struggling that’s why the demand for our services is increasing.”

He adds: “It’s a bit cheesy, but the analogy is picking your financial service is like picking your friends.”

In terms of the success of the business, turnover now is in excess of £3million, compared to around £2/300,000 when the business started, and Neil is proud of what the business has achieved. It has seen significant growth over the past few years.

“I don’t think you ever get where you want to because your goals move,” he says.