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How one licensee has been pushed to find new boundaries amid COVID-19 disruption

Marcus O’Sullivan, Affinia

They say you should never let a good crisis go to waste, and the COVID-19 pandemic has handed financial advisers and licensees an opportunity to rethink how they interact with advisers, as well as supporting advisers to interact with clients. 

Marcus O’Sullivan, head of Affinia, says the past six months has been “a perfect opportunity for us to rethink the way we work, not only as a licensee, but as a financial planner – being able to service your clients and understand their changing needs in this COVID environment”.

Affinia’s support for its advisers saw it named the CoreData 2020 Institutionally Affiliated Licensee of the Year, and O’Sullivan himself named as co-winner of the 2020 Licensee Leadership Award. 

The awards reflect advisers’ own views of their licensee, its support for them as advisers and as business owners, and how effectively the licensee empowers them to deliver high-quality advice to clients and to run great advice practices.

“Sometimes you don’t push the boundaries
when you’re not forced to push the boundaries.”

Marcus O’Sullivan, Affinia

O’Sullivan says Affinia, like all licensees, has been prompted to try new ways of interacting with its advisers.

“Sometimes you don’t push the boundaries when you’re not forced to push the boundaries,” O’Sullivan says.

“I think what this has done is allow us to really push the boundaries and see how innovative we can get while still maintaining productivity and, more importantly, still maintaining the best client experience we can offer – not only for our advisers, but for our advisers’ clients as well.”

Inconceivable six months ago

O’Sullivan says six months ago it was inconceivable a licensee would be doing regular check-ins with advisers by video conference and other platforms.

“To be honest I would have asked you what MS Teams was,” he says.

“So from that perspective we’ve been able to exploit different platforms to be able to keep our lines of communication open and, importantly, to still meet our obligations as a licensee. Particularly around CPD I think that’s really, really important. We’re looking at all sorts of different options for virtual PD days coming up to the end of the year.”

O’Sullivan says another reason for Affinia’s effectiveness as a licensee has been holding adviser numbers at around the current 200 or so. He describes that as pretty much its sweet spot.

“The bigger you get the less community you have,” he says.

“To be honest, I’d have asked you what MS Teams was.”

Marcus O’Sullivan, Affinia

“One of the huge strengths of Affinia is its community. It’s a fantastic community of professional advisers, and we’re able to service them based on our current resources. If we grow any bigger then our demand on resources is greater, our service delivery won’t be what it is at the moment, and you’ll lose a bit of the community feel.”

O’Sullivan says it is part of a licensee’s obligations to its advisers and other stakeholders to ensure it has adequate resources to not only support advisers, but also to work with regulators as needed. Not all licensees in the mid-tier space (around 100 to 500 advisers) occupied by Affinia necessarily have those resources.

“As compliance and regulatory frameworks become more complex, making sure you’ve got the right resources and the right number of resources to support the adviser network – that will be the challenge,” O’Sullivan says.

“A lot of mid-tier licensees have not been under that scrutiny before and working with the regulator is another obligation in its own right for a licensee.”

Personal contacts and relationships

O’Sullivan says an important aspect of Affinia’s culture is that its advisers within the network know each other, and that its staff have good personal relationships with its advisers. 

“It’s been a tough road, the last couple of years, and we’ve still got a pretty bumpy 18 months to two years ahead of us,” he says.

“Our strength to get through this together is 100 per cent based on the strength of our community.”

O’Sullivan says some of the changes to how Affinia operates as a licensee dictated by the COVID-19 pandemic will probably become a permanent part of how it operates in future, regardless of how closely to “normal” life ever returns.

“Our strength to get through this together
is 100 per cent based on the strength of our community.”

Marcus O’Sullivan, Affinia

“Where we can return  to face-to-face and multiple people gathering and doing those PD days and conferences, they’re still really super-important, but our frequency of communication to our network via digital means is definitely something we’ll take forward,” he says.

O’Sullivan says a focus of the licensee in the past 12 months has been preparing its advisers to complete the Financial Adviser Standards and Ethic Authority’s exam. O’Sullivan and his fellow Affinia executives have sat (and passed) the exam, as a demonstration of empathy and solidarity with their advisers.

“That’s got nothing to do with COVID, that’s just the environment we’re in,” he says.

“Our advisers want to see us lead in respect of trying to understand the code of ethics, trying to understand what new legislation means to them practically, and how do we support them to be able to work within the framework we’re being asked to work within.”

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