Original thinking

The last surviving director of the five firms that formed Origen is building a business ready for the retail distribution review. Helen Monks asks Stephen Greenstreet where he is taking the firm

Results show the 45 year old from Canterbury, Kent to be a methodical, organised manager, with an attention to detail. The words most used in his peers’ assessments of him include ‘loyal’ and ‘unflappable’, tags anyone who has dealt with Greenstreet would not care to argue with.

In a career that began in 1979, Greenstreet has only ever had three employers and today is the sole surviving director of an operation that has seen the transition of five successful advisory businesses – Advisory & Brokerage Services, Aurora Financial Group, Elliott Bayley, Momentum Financial Services and Wentworth Rose – into the single Origen brand under parent Aegon.

In April, the business was finally able to draw a line under its old legacy systems and work as one ‘Origen’ with a single, bespoke back office system, Orcid.

Dovetailing with developments such as this, Greenstreet is also leading the continued development of the firm’s common sales process, or, to put it another way, the bible according to Origen: “It covers everything from how to deal with an initial enquiry through to post-sales to ensure we are doing everything in an efficient and consistent way,” says Greenstreet.

The calm and organised style which seems to characterise Greenstreet’s approach means getting Origen’s internal affairs in today’s unified order while simultaneously competing in an ever-changing financial services environment does not appear to have rattled him. He says that through the transitional periods it’s been a simple case of “business as usual”.

Working towards a single shared Origen rule book is perhaps central to this confidence, providing the backbone to everything Origen’s business does. It is designed to be a flexible toolbook, with the aim of building in responsiveness to regulatory changes, such as the outcome from the retail distribution review yet, all the while maintaining Origen’s brand values which Greenstreet says centre on being switched-on, dedicated and accountable.

Greenstreet feels the transition from five businesses to one is now wholly complete: “At our annual sales conference in September it was clear we are one business now going forward, doing business in one single way. We are no longer referring to legacy names or systems.”

It was at the same sales conference that Greenstreet stressed his firm’s commitment to remaining independent and stated there is still a place for both commission and fees in the post-retail distribution review world.

Launched in June of last year in response to what the FSA described as recurrent problems in the market for the distribution of retail investment products, the RDR could have wide-reaching implications for delivery of advice, remuneration, qualifications and the fundamental business models of advisory firms.

Depending on the outcome of the review, which closes at the end of this year, there will be further consultation on what it may all mean for firms.

At September’s sales conference, Greenstreet told advisers: “Our annuity service falls under primary advice, our general financial planning not surprisingly falls under the general banner. Origen’s bespoke advice for high net worth and company executives would be provided within the professional financial planner section.”

Today, he remains equally unruffled: “I don’t think it’s hard. We were putting together our strategy map for the business in February as the RDR consultation came out and it fits very neatly. We’re not overly concerned with the review and there’s also a long way to go with it yet.”

This calm style of leadership persisting throughout what could be a period of dramatic change in financial services is in contrast to the reactions of many other firms to the consultation, with many eyes firmly fixed on the potential disruption and turmoil which the review could soon introduce.

As it goes, Greenstreet vision stretches some way beyond the RDR, with a keen focus on the National Pension Saving Scheme. “Origen needs to be proactive. We decided strategically to get ahead of the game and steal a march with NPSS as a new business opportunity,” says Greenstreet.

Generally speaking, Origen views the NPSS as a positive thing, though it will pose significant challenges to employers who may wish to use their existing schemes as tools to both recruit and retention staff. The firm argues there is a pressing need for employers to appreciate that most defined contribution schemes up and running today will need still some attention in order to become ‘exempt’ from NPSS; they won’t, for example, automatically fall into an exempt status just because the employer contributes, as some employers might assume.

Origen is urging companies to start reviewing their position on Personal Accounts soon, suggesting employers should be aware that NPSS-exempt schemes could face an image problem as it is likely the charges under NPSS will be lower than most existing SME schemes, potentially making Personal Accounts appear disproportionately attractive to employees.

Greenstreet believes there is a strong case for employers taking advice on Personal Accounts now as the stakeholder experience taught employers that if they took action pre-legislation they had a better chance of achieving good buy-in from employees.

A workplace pension offering will look much more enticing to employees where their employer put it in place because they could, rather than because they had to and Greenstreet says Personal Accounts is appearing firmly on the radar of an increasing number of companies: “We recently had an NPSS event, where 200 employers attended – none of them clients.”

Greenstreet says Origen are so far the only major player making serious moves into this new section of the market for workplace pensions advice.

In addition to its SME business, service to individuals and its Professional Connections service – a scheme for lawyers and accountants providing them with financial update bulletins, access to seminars and senior account managers – Origen has some big fish on its books too. Current major corporate clients include the likes of Standard Chartered Bank and GlaxoSmithKline.

Greenstreet says Origen’s national profile is part of the reason why it continues to win business with larger corporates of 3,000 employees or more. “It helps being a national IFA, with offices from Kent to Scotland and clients know we can call upon that national resource where required.”

One key service Origen offers major corporates is its communication and counselling service to employees, which it says, are key to ensuring employees understand the benefits and options open to them.

This side of Origen’s service to large companies also recognises what it understands as the importance of educating employees to plan effectively throughout their career. Ongoing communication channels available to employers hoping to reach out to employees can include financial awareness seminars, as well as remote services such as employee helplines, or online tools, depending on the client’s objectives.

Despite all his other responsibilities as MD, Greenstreet says he still retains a number of important clients: “I won’t let go of these – it keeps you in touch with reality and maintains your credibility with colleagues.”

While Greenstreet occasionally regrets that he “never had the balls to start his own business”, leading what has been achieved in the building a unified Origen ranks highly among his proudest achievements in a career that began at the Pru, at its head office a few hundred yards from Origen’s office in London’s Chancery Lane where he spends much of his working life. When he’s not there, Greenstreet spends time visiting Origen’s branches and profit centres nationwide: “I’m currently in the throes of a national tour and I’m aiming to be a bit more visible.”

For wife Michelle and their four children aged between four and 18, the Chelsea fan admits he probably spends rather too much time either at work or thinking about it.

While Greenstreet enjoys playing golf with his older sons and spending time as much time as possible at the family’s villa in Portugal, it seems he can sometimes struggle to switch off from work: “We have rules, but my wife does sometimes threaten to stamp on my Blackberry,” he admits.

This notably thorough and considered approach seems to apply to all kinds of professional matters: after the interview is over, he later sends an email noting that, unlike other Corporate Adviser profiles subjects, he was not asked about the animals in his life.

For the record, the Greenstreets have two Cairn terriers, Misty and Monty, but perhaps more revealing, is Stephen Greenstreet says his favourite animal is the puma, a rarely seen beast, apparently comfortable tackling prey seven times its weight.

Greenstreet says he hopes to be more observable in the coming year, but one imagines he will continue to lead Origen’s hunt for new business opportunities employing the same unshowy, calm and calculated approach that seems to have served the business well to date

Biography – Stephen Greenstreet

Current title Managing director, Origen Financial Services
Age 45
Lives Canterbury, Kent with wife Michelle and their four children
In his own words
“If you are open and honest, you never stop learning.”

Career history
June 2006: Appointed to managing director at Origen
March 2004: One of the founding directors of Origen, appointed as client services director.
July 2000-Feb 2004: Managing director of Aurora which was subsequently acquired by Aegon.
May 1980-June 2000: Continuous service: H Clarkson,
Clarkson Puckle, Bain Clarkson, Bain Hogg, Hogg Robinson and, finally, Towry Law. Included stint as board director from 1994 which continued until his departure for Aurora.

Worked in corporate pensions at Prudential’s London head office.

Preparing for the RDR’s new professional standards

“We always knew what was wanted was better qualifications and we’re in a better position than most firms…”
Stephen Greenstreet

“We always knew what was wanted was better qualifications and we’re in a better position than most,” says Greenstreet on the issue of the likely demand for enhanced qualifications on the back of the RDR outcome.

Origen is developing its own academy, building on the other supporting structures in place that help it continue to progress sales support and paraplanners into consultant roles.

Origen says it is now turning its attention to attracting graduates and new blood into the business.

Greenstreet says qualifications are a major issue, especially for some older advisers and wonders if new requirements being debated under the RDR might be too much for established advisers: “Will it be a step too far? Will advisers aged 54 plus want to be doing more exams?” asks Greenstreet.

Origen says has had a culture of raising professional standards and supporting staff with the ongoing development of the academy, its new appraisal framework and giving staff leave to study and financial incentives to achieve better qualifications the latest extension of this focus.

“Ultimately, we will have to determine how the RDR progresses in terms of ‘grandfathering’ and the qualification criteria linked to the eventual categories of adviser. Meanwhile, we are educating our staff on the RDR implications and encouraging them to raise further their qualifications where appropriate.”

In the RDR discussion paper, the term ‘professional financial planner’ is used to describe a wide range of advisers who offer financial advice services – including financial advice firms, investment management firms, high street banks and others – and who operate to the highest professional standards.

The paper also proposes a new form of advice, ‘primary advice’, to serve those consumers who may not be able to access full financial advice.