Tony Gilham, managing director of Gilham Financial Management, gives ifa’s Rachael Micallef some sage advice based on his 40 years at the cutting edge of the industry
TONY GILHAM wasn’t in the office on the day that marked his 40th anniversary in the financial services business.
On what was his longest-ever holiday, Mr Gilham and his wife spent the milestone drinking champagne in the tiny town of Bamburg, near the Danube, in Germany.
“I was on a six-week holiday with my wife, travelling through Italy, Austria, Germany, Holland and France,” Mr Gilham says. “It was a great way to celebrate 40 years; we had a lot of fun.”
It was also one of the few occasions on which Mr Gilham spent time away from the office, after a dedicated 40 years of service that started when he was a mere “kid” in his early twenties. He hit the anniversary in July but, by his own admission, it took a few turns down the wrong path for him to get there.
“I started doing a course at Melbourne University doing a science degree, when I was at kid at 18,” Mr Gilham says.
“I battled my way through that for a couple of years but I was immature and didn’t have my heart in it and, you know, as time progressed, it wasn’t my caper obviously.
“I’m very good with figures and maths, but I battled away at Melbourne University for a couple of years and just gave up. I just thought, ‘Nope, not for me’.”
After ‘floating’ for a few months, Mr Gilham decided to “get a real job” and landed a position with what was then the Bank of NSW – subsequently Westpac – for a year and then with insurance company Legal & General.
After a year there, Mr Gilham started “to find himself in financial services”, eventually receiving a cadetship with National Mutual and studying at Swinburne University at the same time.
But, always an independent, Mr Gilham knew that once again, the fit wasn’t right.
“It was incredibly bureaucratic and it just didn’t suit me,” he says.
“By this time I understood what the business was about, and being an ambitious sort of person I thought, this is something that I could do: join as a life insurance agent.”
Being young and relatively inexperienced, it took some freely acknowledged “arm twisting”, but Mr Gilham eventually started out as a self-employed sole agent with Legal & General.
From there, his business evolved – as did the industry – with Mr Gilham moving on to what was called a multi-agent writing business and then eventually renting his own office in Melbourne, the city in which Gilham Financial Management is still located today.
CUTTING EDGE OF THE INDUSTRY
Financial services in the 1970s and 1980s might have been only a shadow of what the sector was to become, but Mr Gilham saw its potential. When changes to superannuation and rollovers in 1983 led to the industry’s taking off, he enrolled in the first financial planning training class of Financial Wisdom.
“My business has been continuous for 40 years; it’s just continued to evolve,” he says. “I latched onto financial planning and I thought, ‘this is the way of the future, there is going to be a big surge in the need for good financial planning’.”
That thinking saw Mr Gilham move into the self-managed super fund (SMSF) industry early on, setting up his first SMSF 17 years ago.
“My second SMSF, in 1996 or very early 1997, was an existing client of mine who had superannuation in a public office superannuation fund and… he had the opportunity to participate in the management buyout of their company,” Mr Gilham recalls.
The client was in his 40s and had the usual commitments to take into consideration: a mortgage and a family to provide for.
The client asked if he could take the money out of his superannuation, and Mr Gilham suggested he set up an SMSF and buy the shares in the new entity through it.
“I could start to see specific benefits to SMSFs, such as the ability to buy a specific asset that you can’t buy with a public offer fund, and more people wanting to have some control over their investments,” Mr Gilham says.
“If I said to someone in 1996 you should have an SMSF, they would scratch their head and think, ‘what are you talking about?’ But I think after the first 12 months we might have had, say, four SMSFs and after the first 24 months we might have had 15 or something.”
Having followed his gut feeling that SMSFs were the way of the future, Mr Gilham’s business is now based predominantly on self-managed clients.
One surging trend he hasn’t followed, however, is the move toward vertical integration; Mr Gilham’s business is staunchly independent, a situation he has no intention of changing.
“I think consumers are now starting to wake up to the fact that the ownership of the financial advice industry is being heavily concentrated among firstly the banks and then the major institutions,” Mr Gilham says.
“We’re fiercely independent and have absolutely no affiliation with anyone that requires us to do any volume of business.”
Not only is Mr Gilham’s business hitting the 40-year milestone, some of his clients are following suit.
“Our 40th anniversary was on the 16th of July and now my longest standing client is coming up to his 40th anniversary [this month]. So I picked up this kid when I was a kid back in 1973… and now he has an SMSF with us with a reasonably decent amount in it and on the doorstep to retirement.
“Some of our longstanding clients would remember that our service offering 40 years ago was pretty basic – as was the world of finance in those days – but now our services are vastly different.”
Mr Gilham’s successful retention of clients over the long term is something he credits to the personal relationships he has built up over the years. In celebrating the business’ 40th, he is inviting some of his oldest clients to an anniversary dinner and to other activities.
“[Our client relationships] have been good personal relationships over a long period of time,” he says. “As the clients evolved with the complexity of their finances, we’ve evolved as well and we’ve been able to handle that sort of thing.”
With four decades of professional experience under his belt, Mr Gilham not surprisingly has some advice, both to his 21 year-old self and to all young people looking to make a start in financial services.
“I was a ferocious student when I got into the industry – I would have studied continuously for 20 years at least, maybe even 25,” he says.
“So I would say to a young person starting out: it’s good to learn as much as you can. Learn as much as you can as quickly as you can, so you can be seen as competent in the eyes of a prospective client.”
Now, Mr Gilham is following his own plan: to slow down the pace. And that means the six-week holiday in Europe might just be the first of many.
“I had always had it in mind to start to go part time from age 60, and to slowly wind down,” he says. “I did that from the first of July 2012, just over 12 months ago. Effectively I’m working 50 per cent of the time, so I’m still seeing clients, I’m still actively involved, but not every day.
“It means more holidays and a little bit more time off.” «
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