A Decade of SJP Academy: Changing the Face of Consulting

When St James’s Place Academy opened its doors 10 years ago, the financial advisory industry was in transition. The retail distribution exam was fast approaching, so advisors were busy taking Level 4 exams or using CPD to fill in their knowledge gaps. Most advisers were middle-aged white men and for some in the upper age bracket with years of practical experience, retirement was more attractive than gaining qualifications they felt they did not need.

Industry commentators have been lamenting the lack of “new blood” for years. Most people simply ‘fall’ into a career in consulting, and fears that the number of advisers would drop significantly after the RDR, as the banks that had provided the training ground withdrew from consulting, did only makes the problem worse. This is also when the lack of advice became a topic of discussion – not only would there be fewer advisors to rotate, but those remaining after the RDR would have to ensure that clients were profitable enough to pay the consulting fees.

The SJP Academy was born in response to all of this. In 2012, most companies chose to hire experienced advisers from other companies rather than spend time and resources training people who might join a competitor.

Those who “flourished” through training programs usually only hired one or two graduates a year. Sesame Bankhall began doing this on a larger scale with its IFA School in 2011 – now the Quilter Financial Adviser School. After a successful pilot the previous year, SJP invested around £2 million in its academy to run three initial cohorts, each comprising 20 students.

At that time, the academy stood out because rather than focusing exclusively on young graduates, it offered second careers a chance to retrain and start their own business within the SJP brand.

“If we talk about how the academy has shaped the industry, we’ve had over 1,000 advisors who have gone through the academy and 844 of them are still active advisors in the SPJ community,” says Andy Payne, director of the academy. “When you compare the academy numbers to the industry numbers, about 3% of the consulting industry has gone through the SJP academy.”

Payne says that from the start, the academy was “agnostic” about applicants’ paper qualifications and more interested in attributes such as drive, resilience and empathy, as these qualities are conducive to building businesses through to relationships with customers. “Going back to its DNA, SJP has always been a relationship-driven proposition,” he says. It’s about building deep and meaningful relationships with customers. Even in the age of TikTok and Instagram, we still know that our customers want personal financial advice – they don’t want IT. »

Since its inception, the academy has helped start 658 new consulting businesses. These operate as partner practices of SJP, which have contributed to the growth of the business. Payne says this has had a dramatic effect in helping to bridge the advice gap in the UK. “As these companies grow, they become employers of new advisers who can then start their own consulting firms. But we are still at the foot of the hills, there is still more to come,” he says.

One of the academy’s goals is to lower the average age of advisers in the industry – estimated at around 57. The average age of those who attend the Academy is 34 and the average age of those with SJP partnerships is 47, but Payne is keen to stress that the academy does not want to exclude anyone by introducing the council now. as a “youth game”.

“It’s not just about people leaving higher education and entering the academy,” he says. “Second Careers bring life experience and a degree of personal resilience, which is what we seek and which is to a large extent a product of experience.”

Conversations about diversity and inclusion within the consulting profession are commonplace today, but were less prominent when the academy started. Among its first graduating classes, which each included 20 students, many had worked in other areas of financial services such as banking. However, some came from very different fields such as professional sports or the armed forces. Others were women wanting a flexible career that they could combine with caring for young children or returning to work after a career break to care for their families.

Although the academy has tried to be flexible to meet the needs of applicants from different backgrounds, it was geographically limited until fairly recently. Before the pandemic, training was delivered face-to-face at four training centers in Edinburgh, London, Manchester and Solihill.

Payne has already spoken to Money Marketing on the company’s post-pandemic shift to a mix of online learning and face-to-face sessions paving the way for an “academy for all”. He acknowledges that some people previously struggled to get to the four SJP training centers – if they had mobility issues or caring responsibilities, for example. These people can now receive training via the internet and closer to home at SJP’s 22 sites across the UK. From the academy’s perspective, removing geographic barriers that can prevent people from pursuing careers in financial advice can help make advice more relevant and representative.

Applications to the academy tend to be split evenly between male and female applicants, but the geographical limitations of the old-style academy have led to application attrition as people realize they cannot not adapt to their personal life. Women make up 26% of academy members over the past 10 years, compared to an industry average of 17%. Of the current intake, 30% are women, but Payne hopes to improve that significantly, as well as generate more interest from other underrepresented groups.

“I want to see more women at the academy, and I want it to be seen as a home for people from diverse backgrounds, including sexuality, people with disabilities, and people from black and ethnic minorities,” says Payne. “We spent a lot of time developing how to do this, so the academy is seen as more relevant – an academy for everyone. Because if people see themselves represented on boards, they become more comfortable and receptive to receiving advice.

Case Study: Growing with Recommendations

Catherine Johnson, director of partner firm SJP CMJ Financial Planning, was one of the first students to attend SJP Academy in 2012. She has a background in hospitality, but after the birth of her son she had to choose between returning to what she had always done or do something she had always wanted to do that more easily corresponded to parenthood.

“Money management has always floated my boat,” she says. “My idea of ​​a good time was reading money magazines and people often asked me about things like bank accounts – but I hadn’t planned on running a business.”

Throughout her hospitality career, Johnson has turned to household names – she has worked in Parliament and Savoy. She liked the SJP brand in part because she knew people who used it and were happy with it, including her parents. But it was the focus on financial planning – as opposed to hitting sales targets – that was really appealing.

Johnson got the RO1 exam under her belt – a prerequisite to join the academy in 2012 – and prepared for the other exams, knowing it would give her a head start. Her education also inspired her to take care of her own finances – understanding the importance of protection when you have a family, for example. But the academy offered more than the technical skills to graduate – there was also training in soft skills.

“Just before we parted ways for Christmas, we had a training session on personality types. We looked at how many different personality types there are and why one thing would interest one person and another thing would interest someone else. .

A decade later, Johnson is a senior partner running her own business. “My business has grown through referrals, but it can be difficult at first because you don’t have customers, so you don’t have a business,” she says. However, thanks to the continued support of the academy, she has been able to build a career that she enjoys.

“If you’re doing your best for your customers, you can’t go wrong,” she says.

Case study: A work/life balance

“It wasn’t like I woke up feeling like I wanted to work in financial services,” says Marta Derpenska, managing director at partner firm SJP Aeon Wealth.

“I have a background in international law – but I was made redundant and my daughter was two at the time. I wanted to start my own business to have the flexibility and freedom to have a work/life balance.

Derpenska knew a partner at SJP, who mentioned the academy to her. “I thought about it and I realized it [being a financial planner] is more about personal relationships and understanding the person in front of you.

Derpenska admits she found the start at the academy “intimidating”, like the first day at school. “I remember the director of the academy asking me why I wanted to join and I said it was the only place I could start a business, with no experience.”

Out of 20 students, there were only two other women in her admission. Derpenska says the academy was not an easy option – students had to work hard. But now, 10 years later, she says she’s exactly where she wanted to be at this point in her career. “I started my own practice, which does lifestyle financial planning. The key for me is understanding and connecting with the people you talk to,” she says.

Derpenska points out that while SJP offers academy partners the support they need, it’s not there to tell them what to do. They must have their own vision of the business they want to create. “My advice for anyone joining the academy is to find your why,” she says. “Step back and understand what you want, how you want to get there, and what customers you have in mind. The support is there, but you have to be outside, network and be active. it is not an easy task [to build your own business]but you will get there.