2002 – the year that Graeme Clark, Head of Private Clients joined Courtiers saw the FTSE 100 record its worst ever fall in a year (up to that point) of 24%, while crude oil prices climbed by 50%. Tax receipts as a proportion of GDP were 26.9% compared to 30.4% in 2021/22.
While some of the issues are familiar and some such as the highest inflation rate for 40 years are fresh challenges, Graeme’s enthusiasm to help Courtiers clients navigate their way through the ups and downs of the economy and associated investment cycles and find a way through the labyrinth of constantly shifting rules and regulations, remains as strong as ever. 20 years may have passed, but Graeme says he is “ready to go again” to help clients achieve their objectives.
Although he admits that initially he “almost fell into” his career in financial services, since the day he joined Courtiers from a mortgage IFA in 2002, having previously worked for NatWest and Prudential, Graeme’s career has progressed seemingly in lockstep with the development of the company.
During this time, Courtiers has grown from one office providing financial advice in Henley-on-Thames to a company with six offices across England, with its own suite of investment funds valued at more than £1bn. The size of the Adviser Team that Graeme heads up has increased to 24.
Starting as Technical Assistant to Jamie Shepperd, Graeme quickly progressed, taking up his position of Head of Private Clients in 2008. As he reflects on his 20 years at Courtiers, Graeme admits he was “fortunate” that after Gary Reynolds took up the position of CIO in 2004 and Jamie Shepperd became CEO, he was able to take over many of their clients. The launch of Courtiers’ own funds in 2007 also gave the company and his own career a significant shot in the arm.
On a personal level, Graeme has gained pretty much all the qualifications it is possible to achieve as a financial adviser, including the gold standard Chartered status. Though “quite pleased” with how his career has progressed, Graeme continues to look ahead with enthusiasm to the next chapter, his drive and ambition remaining as Courtiers’ own – undimmed.
At a time when working for one company for 20 years is unusual, the obvious question is what’s kept him at Courtiers for this length of time? “I love the clients. That’s a big reason I do the job,” he says. Graeme says he has known many of those clients for nearly 20 years. “When you’ve done a good job for the client and you’ve seen them reach their goal or objective, whether it’s planning for retirement, or helping their kids get on the property ladder that’s what gives me most satisfaction about my job.” Over time those relationships have developed and matured, and trust engendered. In addition to pensions, investment and the like, clients even ask him whether they should get car finance or buy the car outright.
After a period when his role as Head of Private Clients meant “spinning a few plates at the same time”, something he admits “was a bit of a struggle”, Graeme says the way the team is now structured means he can focus more of his attention on client work. “That’s what I do enjoy doing and am best at, so why not play to my strengths?”
Another huge factor that has kept Graeme at Courtiers is his team, evidently his pride and joy. Nurturing and developing younger members of the team is a particular passion. “I really enjoy bringing trainees through – seeing them develop and giving them enough breathing space to find their own way in their career. They get more socially confident and more knowledgeable.”
Finally, there’s the loyalty and support of CEO Jamie Shepperd and CIO Gary Reynolds. “When push comes to shove, they’ve always backed me as well.”
While working at Courtiers has brought Graeme great satisfaction, he admits it hasn’t always been easy. “There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears gone into those 20 years.” External factors that caused major disruption in the markets have been particularly challenging.
The dotcom bubble of 2000 resulted in three years of falling markets. More recently, Brexit and the pandemic had a major impact on markets. Although both precipitated “big sharp drops” in the markets, Graeme reckons they weren’t on a par with the great financial crisis of 2008. “That was an unusual time”, says Graeme in that all asset classes were in freefall together. “Armageddon was being factored in and the complete meltdown of capitalism and the economic system.” He recalls the emotional toll “of driving in to work every day and seeing the markets come off”. That said, through a mixture of clients drawing on their cash reserves and reassurance provided by Advisers that it wasn’t just their portfolio but a systemic problem, “clients knew they could continue to live their day-to-day lives.”
Graeme accepts market volatility is a concern, especially for clients who are retired or close to retirement and not in a position to build up their wealth again. That’s where planning and regular reviews prove invaluable, he says so that clients aren’t forced to access their funds at these particularly vulnerable times. That said, volatility can also be a buying opportunity, while managing risk is part of the Investment Team’s remit.
Asked to distil everything he has learned over his 20 years of advising Courtiers clients into one short sharp message, Graeme responds, “Think of your goals and what you need for each of those goals.” Then it’s about each client working with their Adviser. “We are seeing what the client has, where they want to get to. And then it’s about what they need to do to get there. Is it taking more investment risk, or putting more into their pension pot, or another option all together, to get them where they need to be?”
In the deaccumulation stage when clients are drawing on their assets, Graeme says the focus switches to more cash flow income structure planning, to provide income in the most tax efficient way. This includes planning for care, as well as leaving a legacy to heirs. Communication with your Adviser is key. “If we can get a better understanding of what clients want, this can help them achieve better outcomes.”
Graeme is not big on regrets, preferring to look ahead, but is there anything he knows now that he wished he had known when he started at Courtiers all those years ago? “I wish I‘d known how serious big downturns could be in the market and how human beings would react,” he says. “You do what you do in the heat of the moment, and every situation is different, but I probably could have been a bit better prepared for that.”
Although he looks back with great fondness at those early days at Courtiers, he welcomes the change to a more professional, younger and more dynamic industry. Yes, it’s more process driven but that’s “understandable as a company grows”. As for more and more regulation and red tape, he believes these are inevitable.
With his long experience of an industry that not so long ago was noted for “reams and reams of paper” and clients having to sign endless forms, what changes can Courtiers clients expect to see in the way that financial advice is delivered to them? “More digital and less paper” he responds, although he hastens to add “only to facilitate business and transactions” with face-to-face advice remaining at the core of the client experience. “We don’t want to ever lose that personal side of things, otherwise we become just another firm”.
In addition to further developing his beloved Adviser Team by bringing on more trainees, he is also keen to extend the scope of intergenerational planning to provide that important continuity of service for Courtiers clients and their families.
Although “quite pleased with what he has achieved thus far” after 20 years at Courtiers Graeme has lost none of his hunger. He likens his situation to that of a football manager whose team has just won a trophy. Although enjoying the moment, far from being satisfied the manager is already looking ahead to next season, asking his players, “right where’s your hunger for next season? That’s what drives me year on year. That’s gone…let’s go again.”
Does that mean another 20 years with Courtiers? “Yeah, hopefully, yeah.”