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The importance of attracting and nurturing talent, according to Smith & Williamson

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Our Managing Consultant, Ashlea Walton speaks to Simth& Williamson's Director, Peter Maher about attracting and nurturing talent.

How does the UK’s 8th largest accountancy firm survive in such a competitive market which has been impacted by political and economic events as well as technology in recent years?

Smith & Williamson is a leading, independently owned Financial and Professional Services group with more than 130 years of experience. They employ over 1,600 people across 13 offices throughout the UK, Ireland and Jersey.

I took the time to sit with Smith & Williamson’s Director and National Head of Financial Services, Peter Maher, to find out how they differentiate themselves from other firms when attracting new talent, as well as how they nurture and develop their existing employees.

Firstly, how would you describe the Smith & Williamson brand?

Traditional, with a twist to towards the contemporary. Low key, private and in the interests of our clients - private clients don’t want our name emblazoned on the side of bus stops. From the corporate perspective of the business, we want a bigger branding so we are looking to invest time and money this year on raising our corporate profile.

Tell us more about your culture?

Within the Financial Services market, I often say to people that we work on the basis that if we all had £20million sitting in the bank, we probably wouldn’t work. However, as we don’t, we want to make S&W the best place be. Our employees’ objectives are to achieve or exceed their budget, to treat our clients fairly and not to prejudice the name of the firm. If people achieve these objectives, then everyone will be happy.

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What makes your employer branding unique and why it is so important?
I’ve worked here for 17 years, bringing a team of 22 with me and I would absolutely say it’s the best place I’ve worked. However, like every employer, it can be a frustrating place at times. I think employees see it as a sound, stable and long-term career move. Yet there is a danger that it can also be mistaken for an easy place to work and one can become too comfortable and complacent. We’re looking to change this view as nobody is getting a free ride in this day and age.

What would you say your ‘pull’ for candidates is?
Our main ‘pull’ is that employees can aspire to buy equity in the business. We are a close company and much of the equity is owned by retired partners. We are now looking to move the equity from the retired partners to the working partner group by an annual redistribution.

What is the value in placing an emphasis on ‘cultural fit’ for you and the candidates?
It’s critical because they will not stay if they are a bad fit. We have a unique culture; whilst we are not an aggressive ‘sales, sales, sales’ firm, we are not a soft touch either. Everyone who works within Financial Services will be acutely aware of how our business line is performing month on month. Our employees are stakeholders in the business and are acutely aware of their roles and responsibilities.

What training and career progression do you offer to your employees and how does this differ from other companies in the market?
We offer a talent programme to staff from manager level and above. This is a bespoke programme that is tailored according to their personal career goals; therefore it focuses on the individual rather than the business. Theoretically, when we’ve got everyone to where they believe they can get to, then we bring the next phase of talent through.

How is it different? I’m not sure that it is. Other companies do have talent programmes but the question is, do they make their staff believe that it’s their programme. If an individual has achieved what they set out to achieve, then there should be gold at each end of the rainbow.

Where do people rank in your order of priorities?
Number 1.

What are your levels of attrition like?
Our staff attrition for those we don’t want to leave is incredibly low – it would be circa 2%.

What do you think needs to be done to combat the “war for talent” across the Financial Services industry?
Knowing what I know, would I come into this industry in 10 years’ time? Yes, I would. When all the old mindsets (including mine) have gone and we’re only left with those who know it for what it is now rather than for what it was, it will be a respected profession in which to work.

The industry still has issues. Treating customers fairly is a given but I am not sure that advice is reaching all of the people it should. There are certainly fewer people getting advice now than say 10 years ago.  Yes it costs money, yes commissions may have been too high but there are people who need advice that cannot afford it. I’m £350 per hour so how is a guy who wants to invest £100 into a pension going to afford my advice?  The answer is he’s not.

What does a good recruitment agency relationship look like?
Well, I don’t deal with many agencies however I was speaking to a client earlier about IDEX and I told them that you personally represent your company and clients very well. My main reason for using IDEX is that when I ask for a particular type of candidate, you send me exactly what I am looking for or you don’t send me anyone. Other agencies I have used have sent me loads of CVs with some spurious reason as to why they may want to work for the company and why I may be interested.

Have you got any recruitment successes that you can share? What worked well?
There are two in particular (no names obviously).  They are the perfect example because they work well together and are successful. They came in, listened to what we had to offer, realised it was right for their career and therefore they bought it and they are now flourishing with along termcareer.  This reverts to my earlier point regarding cultural fit.

How many stages per candidate before hiring?
For senior candidates, probably four. With IDEX I tend to select three candidates to meet with and one of them might be right. I don’t interview junior candidates as this is left directly to hiring managers within the business however for this level, I would suggest two meetings.

What are your plans for 2017/18?
Over the past three years, we have increased our headcount by 22% and we plan to recruit more this year, taking on a couple of top class advisers with client banks, ideally at Director/Partner level. Whilst we have some good quality big hitters, they are all within 5 years of retirement so I need to get a succession plan in place. We are also looking to recruit teams in our key focus areas in the South and the Midlands.

What do you need to have in place to ensure you achieve those plans?
The right management team, having said that culture is as important. We can be a little fractious as we’re all long in the tooth and have our own ideas. Whilst I might be the ultimate arbiter, it’s better to bring people with you than battering them into submission.

What implications do you personally face if you don’t recruit the right people?
I have to report to the Board to explain why I haven’t achieved budget and why I have failed in my recruitment. I’m responsible for strategy and if I have said “I am going to grow revenue by 50% in the next 5 years”, in order to do this I need to recruit successfully. Most of my people are working at 90% capacity, 90% of the time so my job is to recruit the right people and integrate them. If I don’t do this, I don’t hit budget and my fellow Board Members will not be very happy with me.

What advice would you give to someone looking to develop a career in Financial Services?
Be patient, go slowly and if you want a career in the industry, I would absolutely say come to Smith & Williamson. We will invest in you and you will watch the best Practitioners in the industry.  That’s why we have difficulty recruiting because the standard set is sensational. Again, that’s not to blow our own trumpet; it’s just the way it is. 

Are you looking to grow your business in 2017 and beyond? Then please get in touch with me directly for a confidential conversation on how IDEX can support you.