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October 1, 2020
clock 8 MIN READ

The wealth management business at WH Ireland has been through significant transformation in the last 18 months.

Best described as ‘change under pressure’, former Executive Director and Head of Wealth Management Stephen Ford and Head of Strategy and Change, Tony Hanlon were appointed to take on the challenge of reforming the business from traditional stockbroker to forward-thinking wealth manager.

Describing the situation as ‘inheriting a business with multiple challenges’, Stephen and Tony have scrutinised and challenged every part of the business, including suppliers and partners, to initiate change that delivered immediate cost savings and long-term benefits.

For SEI, selected as a partner 3 years prior to their appointments, this meant a rapid shift in remit as the firm pivoted to supporting WH Ireland to deliver change at pace. From saving WH Ireland hundreds of thousands of pounds by stepping in to help replace a legacy trading platform agreement within an incredibly tight timeframe, to creating and implementing a repricing model that has reframed ways of doing business for the future, the partnership has been put under pressure and delivered the required change.

Client perspectives

“You’d never choose to do change like this,” says Stephen Ford, former Executive Director and Head of Wealth Management at WH Ireland. “We inherited a business with multiple challenges and have had to make many decisions at pace. The first 18 months have been about delivering cost savings and we’ve done what we had to in order to survive.”

When asked about the changes made in that timeframe, the list is so lengthy that it takes Stephen and his Head of Strategy and Change, Tony Hanlon, a moment to identify the top milestones. They are both quick to recognise that while the situation hasn’t been ideal, the pressure has delivered the decision making and action that was needed. Earlier in 2020, the business reported a return to profit following a sustained period of loss-making, but further change is still afoot to transform the business into Stephen and Tony’s vision of a modern wealth manager.

In their partnership with SEI, the road to successful delivery has not been without challenges, “When I inherited the SEI relationship it was far from ideal,” says Tony, “I’d describe it as servant-master and that isn’t how they are set up to excel nor how we think about our partners. We quickly shifted into a far more functional and balanced relationship through frank and honest conversations—we were clear with what we wanted and they were clear back. They provided both constructive challenge and real expertise and it is the blend of both that made the difference for us.”

“We inherited a business with multiple challenges and have had to make many decisions at pace"

Stephen Ford
former Executive Director and Head of Wealth Management, WH Ireland

This is a dynamic that is echoed by SEI. “With Stephen and Tony coming on board, the change in our partnership was transformational for us overnight,” says Anita Juneja, Head of Relationship Management and Client Service, at SEI. “We had business leaders who knew what they were looking for and wanted to hear back from us how we could help. We had been appointed in June 2016 to help WH Ireland build a scalable platform for its wealth management business which laid the foundation for change, however the leadership transition in 2019 was the rocket fuel needed to put that change into action. We quickly shifted from a longer-term implementation program to a very focused set of immediate needs and priorities to deliver on both sides.”

Anita said: “There was a lot of challenging going on from both sides. If we felt something didn’t sit right, we challenged it. Ultimately we sprinted to get the projects done. There was no other way to do that than as a collaboration—we had to rise to the occasion on both sides.”

The watershed moment in the relationship is pinpointed by Stephen as the decision on WH Ireland’s side to not renew an annual agreement with a trading platform that was aggressively increasing costs thinking they had no choice but to stay with them. Instead they explored how SEI could help. “This is the defining example of why smaller companies can benefit from partnering with a bigger one,” says Stephen. “It was a make or break financial year decision, we couldn’t have implemented it in any other way if we hadn’t already had the trusted relationship with SEI.”

Together, the WH Ireland and SEI teams had to replace the existing trading system in just 12 weeks, but by finding a solution through SEI and the new provider, they ultimately saved their business hundreds of thousands of pounds. While the back-up plan was ‘manual plotting sheets’ and the risk of a potentially huge cost burden, the team delivered together on time.

According to Anita, “We got a really clear articulation of what Stephen and Tony wanted to get done - this was all about understanding the client need. We came to the table, we brought in our executive team in the UK and US, and we sat up, listened, understood and got the right results.”

The SEI team has gone on to deliver many other change programs—small and large—from a repricing program that replaced existing manual local processes to create a centralised scalable solution, to working closely with WH Ireland to deliver remote solutions during the global pandemic.

When asked about the value of the partnership, Stephen summarises: “There is a myth in our industry that by replatforming all your problems go away. As business leaders we have to solve our own problems. But partners like SEI are the enablers to drive positive, proactive change."

“When I think about working with SEI, I compare it to what would have happened if we’d insourced. What would have happened if we’d taken this on ourselves? I feel very fortunate to have outsourced in this period, to have got that risk out of our business - to be collaborating and partnering to ensure that we succeed.

“When I think about the global pandemic, that’s when I realise the importance of having a larger partner to lean on. Imagine if our operations centre had gone down with COVID-19—knowing that we are working with an organisation that follows the sun, with people around the world, that’s why we do this.”

"As business leaders we have to solve our own problems. But partners like SEI are the enablers to drive positive, proactive change."

Stephen Ford
FORMER EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AND HEAD OF WEALTH MANAGEMENT, WH IRELAND

Change in action

One of the key projects delivered through the WH Ireland / SEI partnership has been the creation and implementation of a standardised repricing model across the business. WH Ireland’s new leadership team realised early on that there were many different models being used across the business, creating both inconsistencies at a local level and a lack of transparency and ability to forecast centrally.

“We had to move at speed on repricing, but having done it at other organisations, both the client and operational fall out was lower than expected given the pace with which we implemented our new rate cards,” says Stephen Ford, Former Executive Director and Head of Wealth Management at WH Ireland.

“We repriced most of the business,” says Tony Hanlon, Head of Strategy and Change at WH Ireland, “Looking at three different services—discretionary, advisory and execution-only. We went down to five pricing models. We worked through aligning our periodic fees so we had a consistent model across the business. We looked at how we collect the fees. What SEI did brilliantly was work through not those headline changes but the fourth or fifth level of detail, using their expertise to help us get it right.

“We had eight to 10 different projects running just to support the repricing Magnifing Glass changes. We upgraded in places and I initiated what I call my ‘30 small changes’ project’ which has driven fundamental change through our business”.

According to the SEI team, the success came from collaboration and education on both sides. Anita Juneja, Head of Relationship Management and Client Service, at SEI says: “The team has been brilliant in educating us on their business, their processes, their ops teams so we can provide best solutions”.

The ultimate outcome has been the value of the intelligence the repricing gives to the business: “Being able to forecast revenues and quarterly figures because we’ve built the right systems and processes is instrumental to the future success of this business,” concludes Stephen.

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