Neil Martin talks to IFA Ian Coley


One of the pleasures of working on IFA Magazine is the number of really interesting people you get to meet along the way. But it’s been a while since we’ve met anyone quite so personable and engaging as Ian Coley, joint managing partner at Godalming-based Medical Investment & Advisory Services LLP (MIS). A man with 40 years of conviction about the ethics and the daily practice of an independent business – and about what needs to happen now if we’re going to keep the reform process on track.


But then, MIS has been preparing for RDR for all of those 40 years ago, if you see what we mean. Through all the years when commission-led sales dominated the market’s thinking, Ian was telling anyone who’d listen that it was all about building your business on the primacy of providing advice.

Okay, he admits that this has been made easier by the fact that the firm’s customer base predominantly consists of medical professionals – mainly doctors and surgeons – who are attracted to the firm’s willingness to build a long term relationships with its clients. It’s a niche that has served MIS well.

“We think we operate in the ideal optimum manner,” says Ian, “the way all financial advisory firms should operate. Okay, I appreciate that not all firms have the same cash model as us, so you could say we aren’t as constrained as most firms, perhaps, when it comes to having to make commercial decisions. And it does mean that we can afford to adopt some reasonably high moral ground in terms of our approach. That in part is luck, but it’s also in part because the firm was set up in the right way about 40 years ago.”


Doctor, Doctor

MIS can trace its history back to 1974, when two young independent financial advisers spotted an opportunity to provide medical staff, especially junior doctors and housemen, with sound financial advice. Junior doctors are notoriously short of time, so having a trusted adviser who could be relied on to watch the finances was a major bonus.

The firm has grown into a major advisory business which has an enviable client list. The firm does not tout for business, but mostly relies on word of mouth recommendations between medical staff and contacts with a number of professional firms.

For Ian’s sake, it’s perhaps just as well that the firm does not employ hard sell tactics. By his own admission, his first job as a life assurance salesman did not turn out well. He confessed: “I started off by being attracted by a tacky advert in the Evening Standard which basically told me I could be rich in a very short space of time by selling people life assurance products. I quickly discovered that I couldn’t get people to do something I didn’t think was right, so that was a good lesson, although I went hungry as a result.”


“I lived off Barclaycard curries for six months and then got a proper job with an insurance broker who had a small life assurance business, but they did it reasonably ethically. As a direct salesman, I was very poor indeed – but I say that with immense pride.”

General Diagnosis

So how are things going, post-RDR? Well, Mr Coley had plenty to say on the subject of the regulator.

“I think the FCA is probably doing better than the FSA, but it still remains a bit of a curate’s egg. I think the regulators are trying hard, but they do have a history of shooting themselves in the foot – sometimes in the most unbelievably stupid manner. A number of their former luminaries have managed to come out and say the most incredibly stupid things from time to time, which has completely undermined that which they are trying to achieve in the first place.


“I can see where their focus is now, and why there are focusing in that way, and I think it’s generally the right thing to do – but then, all of a sudden we discover that they haven’t noticed this massive problem that’s been in the background for some time, and it’s staring people in the face, but they don’t do anything about it.”

Now, of course, the FCA is getting properly stuck into the reform process. But how, I asked him, did he see the FCA staff themselves?

A Robust Appraisal

“I think that at the end of the day, like any other organisation, they’ll have a mixture of extremely capable people, steady people, not-that-good people, and actually very poor people working for them. It would be nice if the regulator were staffed by people who were capable of rationalizing all the issues into a cogent argument and making the right decision every time, but they’re not. Instead, as Ben Elton would say, they are full of ordinary people really, who are capable of messing up like anybody else.”


The problem, Ian says, is that you might dare to hope that above all these middling layers of competence there would be someone “who can actually make a decent decision as to whether they perhaps ought to open their collective mouths before they actually say something.

“But instead you tend to find that it was the person at the top who made the faux pas in the first place – before they got helicoptered out to some cushy job with PWC, Barclays and so forth. Only, perhaps, to find that they couldn’t actually cope with the new job, so that they ended up on gardening leave before eventually going on to something a bit less demanding. ”

I can’t possibly imagine who Mr Coley can have been talking about, can you? But, for all his general satisfaction with the regulator, he also believes that it’s up to IFAs to be more vocal with the FCA, and to stand up to some of the decisions which dramatically affect the industry.


So there you are, Ian Coley in a nutshell. A proven career failure when it came to the hard-sell operative, but all the better for that. An IFA who takes pride in the fact that he can’t twist someone’s arm and get them to buy an investment which works for the firm and not the client. If you had to seek a business for surviving as an IFA over the next decade, the approach adopted by MIS could be seen as a good example. Focus on advice and get to know your clients.


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