Success virtually assured

From a one-man band insuring judges\' lives, Sean Breslin has grown Gissings into a multi-million pound business. John Greenwood hears how virtual advisers will be key to the firm\'s future

Six months after splitting his creation in two, Sean Breslin, founder and managing director of Gissings Consultancy Services is focusing on what he is good at.

Having sold off the Gissings Advisory Services [GAS] for and £18m in a management buyout, backed by private equity group Dunedin, Breslin and the firm’s other principle shareholder, Andrew Dawson are looking to the future.

The firm has a new tech-based venture to spearhead its drive for improved service, advice and governance around DC pensions, called Gissings Select, that launches this month, and Breslin, a man with almost four decades experience in the industry sees focusing on pensions as the way forward after the split.

Gissings Consultancy Services, to call the rump business by its full name, has been run as a separate business from GAS for over three years now, and though some in the industry have predicted the potential for conflict over clients when the 12 month non-competition agreement comes to an end, Breslin is comfortable his clients will stay put.

“The majority of clients they have are not similar to ours and there is very little overlap between the two companies. They have a larger proportion of FTSE companies and most of their clients are large global players,” he says, unconcerned about the prospect of a fight over clients. “If we have 50 clients in common I would be surprised. We are actively pitching together at the moment and they are actually referring pension enquiries to us at the moment.

Breslin is unfazed by reports that GAS will stop referring if it were to buy a pensions specialist – its parent Dunedin has and#163;40m to spend on intermediaries and it has expressed a desire to grow by cross-selling across the firm’s client base – and appears to genuinely wish the new venture well, with something akin to a parental desire to see his former charges succeed.

“They are a great bunch of young people – all to a man people we have employed. The chap at the head of the buyout team [Andy Kilbey] came to us as a baby, in his teens, and it is nice to see him and the rest of the group take it further.”

Breslin says the reason for the buy-out was that the GAS business wanted to grow at a more aggressive rate than he was prepared to fund. “They wished to accelerate their desire to grow. I did not have the capital to assist them to do that and they felt that they could do it better with the help of a venture capital company,” he says.

He has a different take to GAS on the cross-selling approach and will be reverting to a focus on core expertise in pensions consultancy rather than filling in the non-pension gaps in the group’s offering created by the demerger. “We have struggled for years with cross marketing of products from one client to another. It never worked.”

For a pensions man he has a bleak view of the overall pensions landscape although sees great potential in the schemes under his firm’s charge.

“The world of pensions has seen consistent change thanks to our political pals, who have created chaos. Pensions have been a political football and have suffered from constant short-term decisions,” says Breslin. “The man in the street has no confidence in pensions. We as pensions advisers are now up there with estate agents in the popularity stakes. There is a huge job to be done to get personal pensions to be respected.”

This downbeat view of the profession and the product he is offering is informed by a rather surprising response to the firm’s own company scheme.

“We have 40 per cent active members in our own scheme at Gissings. It is a non-contributory scheme offered under flex. People can choose to take the money, 8 per cent of salary or match on a one to one basis up to 13 per cent. That adds up to a total pension of 18 per cent yet people still do not want to join – and that is in our industry,” he says.

“The government has destroyed the image of pensions, aided and abetted by the media. They now need to get behind it and build it back up again. All we have got now is lots of people borrowing money to buy property as their pensions,” he says.

He is similarly unconcerned about the effect personal accounts will have on his business. “We believe it will actually grow the amount of assets under advice. The quality of our book of pensions business is enviable. On average our clients are putting in a minimum of 8 per cent. Some are doing much more,” he says. “Most employers are paternalistic. They want to retain quality staff.”

Asked whether he predicts more regulation from The Pension Regulator after it was rebuked by the parliamentary public accounts committee over not being up to speed on DC regulation, he says: “The reason they are up to speed on DB is because they are in DB schemes, very generous ones, with contribution rates of up to 40 per cent. But governance is badly needed. Who is going to look after people in contract-based DC?”

So what innovations does somebody with nearly four decades in the industry see coming to the pensions space in the coming years? “Pensions are not valued by members, particularly those employers spending money on them.

“We have some fantastic pension schemes around the country – the members need to be encouraged to value them. Money has got to be spent on educating members on the value of what they have got, particularly for money purchase, where members will have to start taking active interest.

So how can the industry help more than it is at the moment? “By engaging more with members. We are about to start a new business on 1 June, actively involved in that. This is a new and exciting venture for Gissings. It addresses advice on pensions. When you get to deliver one to one advice it is hugely expensive and most employers balk at the cost.”

“You have to take a virtual approach to one to one advice. The technology to deal with much of the process is there now, for example do you want to join or not, where do you want to invest your money, how much you need to invest? These are issues that all lend themselves to technological solutions,” he says.

“Our concept is very much about developing a virtual adviser so it is available cost effectively, it’s available 24/7, you can talk to it as many times as you like and not rack up huge costs,” he says.

The philosophy of the new project, to be called Gissings Select, is that all that needs to be done from a governance point of view can be best done through technology. Governance is central to the product as is the idea that it is not dealt with by a provider.

The concept is that Gissings Select chooses the platform the scheme is on and the investment options that are available. It also takes responsibility for continually monitoring and reviewing them. It also does member communications.

“It is a sure and certain way for the employer to show that not only have they put their money in to the scheme but they have also made it work in a way that makes sure everything that should be being looked at is being looked at,” he says.

The new service will shy away from doing a full fact find, which is less important where there is an employer contribution in any event, but will focus on attitude to investment risk and approach to retirement. “This will help employees to be helped to maximise what they can get from their pension contributions,” says Breslin.

“We don’t think there is anything out there like it at the present,” he says.

Breslin’s view on the retail distribution review is that while it will not affect the group market directly in the early years, what becomes the norm for the individual market will filter through to the corporate side.

“It looks like the retail distribution review will not formally be extended to the corporate sector but clients aren’t daft. So if the retail sector starts to move in a particular direction, that will knock on to our sector.” Understanding what clients want has served Breslin well since the 1960s, and he doesn’t look ready to stop now. n

all about Sean breslinWent to school in Dundalk, Ireland – boxer Barry McGuigan is a family friend

Career history1968 First job – Friends Provident and Century insurance Company in 1968 aged 19. “I was a clerk in the life and pensions department for nine months.” 1969 Moved to Stenhouse, now Aon

October 1970 Set up Gissings. “I was 23 years old and I had no fears. If you are not bowled when you are 23, Christ help you when you are 53. Gissings was just me at the time. I just wanted clients and I would do anything and everything, organising pensions, annuities, key man insurance.

“I started off insuring the lives of judges in big trials. They are old men and if they die during early trial than the expenses to lawyers can be huge. I made a reputation in key man insurance and ended up getting lots of mortgage business as a result. At that time there were government quotas, rationing of mortgages but I figured out how to get them for people. I first got a deal for a City guy where I got him a mortgage off an insurance company rather than a building society. He got a fixed rate of 6 per cent in 1971.

“In 1974 the oil crisis came along and the interest rate flew up to 18 per cent. This guy was laughing with his 6 per cent mortgage. I had got all his pals the same deal. They all thought the sun shone out of my proverbial.

Then I started getting into business I didn’t understand, so I thought I had better go and employ someone who does, otherwise I will be found out.

“I had been in business two years and I got cocky and bought a Bentley and an E-type Jag. I then got a letter in the post about something called corporation tax with a big bill. The next day I put an advertisement in the Sunday Times and sold both cars on the Monday. That shows you how naive I was.”

The Gissings name

“The Gissings name comes from an old man I knew called Max Gissing. He was the department general manager of Norwich Union at the time. He was a fire and marine man. He came on the phone and asked for advice on a pension when I was at Stenhouse. He took me out for lunch to say thanks. I said I was leaving to set up on my own. I asked if he would like to be my chairman. I put his name first because he was older than me, and we then dropped my name altogether. He was salaried and stayed with me until he was 80. He would always insist on a monthly board meeting followed by a good lunch. He was a Norfolk man and I recently found out there is a village in Norfolk called Gissing.

Career highlight

“Seeing the company and myself last this long. When I was young I thought people who were 35 were close to death. I’m amazed that I am still here, 38 years later.”

Family

“I am married with four children and four grandchildren. They give me a lot of pleasure.”

Hobbies

“I love motor racing, not Formula One, that is boring. I am actively involved. I race in the Nordschleife, in Nuremberg. In the Eiffel mountains in Germany. We race BMWs and Porsche 911s. My son, Sean Paul Breslin, was a champion out there last year.”

“I enjoy eating and drinking and go to the gym 4-5 times a week. I have had the same personal trainer for 20 years now. He is getting old with me.”

Breslin’s interest in Germany and its history led his firm to sponsor research at the University of Sussex that led to the publication of a biography of Kaiser Wilhelm II.