In the first in a new series of blog posts, our Managing Director, Mark Easby, chats to Active‘s leader and “chief strategist” Karl Pemberton about how investing in their brand has helped him lead the family firm from its humble high street beginnings to the market leader that it is today.
What is your role in the business and how has it changed?
I’d like to say my role is as a ‘strategist’. When the business was a lot smaller I had to do lots of different jobs and muck in where I was needed. Once we had a clear direction of where we wanted to go, what we wanted to achieve and then got on with doing it, we all had clearly defined roles, areas of specialism and responsibilities. That allowed us to concentrate on the things that are a strategic priority, rather than the things that suck you back into the day to day.
Over time my role’s evolved more into strategy, brand and profile. I’m now often pushed forward as the face of the company and ultimately it’s my job to be the public figurehead whether that’s attracting clients, attracting staff or attracting professional referral partners that introduce business to us.
How do you feel about being the face of the ‘Active’ Brand?
I’ve almost accepted that it’s part of my job. I don’t mind doing it, but I don’t always want it to be me. I feel sometimes, when I’m the one that’s featured all the time, people just think it’s me and my ego, and it isn’t. Active genuinely isn’t the ‘Karl Pemberton show’, there’s a massive team behind us here. A lot of the publicity we’ve got over the last few years is quite new to us and, in a way, I can’t ask someone else in the business to do something if I’m not prepared to do it myself.
“You’ve got to lead by example, do it and prove that it works then hopefully it’ll motivate and encourage others within the team to also put themselves out there.”
Even the recent ‘Employer of the Year Award’ is focused around the team and our business culture and it’s really important the profile reflects that.
It is important for me to be active in the Teesside and North East community as it does turn into a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more you speak up and get involved, the more that you get asked to do more, such as commenting on articles and interviews. This really helps build my profile and in turn the profile, reputation and authority of Active.
It’s also why I keep changing my look so hopefully people don’t get bored. I’ll have a big ginger beard and thick glasses next!
Where did Active come from and what’s the businesses background?
Active was born out of the company my fathers previously worked for that ceased trading. The team who ran that business decided they didn’t want to be in financial services anymore. Dad had worked with them for 14 years and he had a lot of longstanding clients.
Active was born in 2000 when my dad formed his own company to carry on looking after those clients. I think the name came from the good old ‘think of something beginning with A’ so we would be at the start of the phone book.
“To be honest I’m surprised we’re not called Aardvark Financial.”
Probably through good fortune rather than good planning, the name Active 18 years later is very pertinent to what we do and the way we manage people’s money and affairs. So ‘active financial management’ didn’t necessarily exist as a phrase or concept 18 years ago, but it very much does now.
When did you join Active’s journey?
I joined in 2007 and Active was based on Guisborough high street at the time. We were very much a small local business looking after small Teesside based clients, the normal man on the street. I assisted the firm whilst employed with Yorkshire Bank when my father was really poorly in late 2004, before joining officially in 2007 following a brief spell with RBS.
It was clear at the time that the business was basically him. Without him it struggled to operate, not because anything was wrong, simply because the clients were very reliant upon him. They loved him and the service he gave them that much that when he wasn’t there all of the clients put things on hold saying ‘we’ll just wait for Glyn to come back’. But of course, as a business, you still need the income coming in to keep the firm running.
Something needed to change so we could make the business sustainable without it being reliant on one person. Thankfully, my Dad recovered and we began building Active into a more substantial, resilient and strategic business. You’ve got to make the business as bulletproof as possible and going through that journey as a family proved that it needed to change.
The family values have always been at the heart of the business, how difficult has it been to protect the culture as the business has grown?
In one sense I would say it’s been easy because it’s so important to us. We’ve always known it has to be protected, developed and be encouraged. It’s difficult as we grow, the more people you have the harder it is to maintain a culture but having an inclusive approach to defining and communicating our brand internally has really helped with this.
It’s important our values and culture influence our recruitment process and approach so we find people we know are going to fit.
How important is your brand to supporting your culture, vision and values?
It’s crucial for any business to know what makes it tick, what makes it special and to remain authentic. It isn’t always just the generic business things like sales, profit, turnover and efficiencies. It’s our culture, our people, how much they enjoy coming to work, how much they feel valued when they are at work and how do we reward people.
I believe focusing purely on the results is where a lot of our former employers have gone wrong. It ultimately means some really good people leave the big banking institutions and have come to work for us, because all they focus on are the results in the end and they don’t really care about the people. We want our team, and the people around the business, to live and breathe the Active brand and be brand ambassadors for us.
“Having a clear, strong and authentic brand is hugely important, although we’ve only realised that over the last four or five years.”
Naively, I would have said five years ago that it wasn’t that important. Having been through the branding process, and a lot of leadership and growth training, I’ve learnt it’s paramount. Unless the team really know our vision for the business, and understand our values and our character, how can you expect them to represent our brand properly?
Does everyone understood the importance and value of investing in your brand?
When Dad ran the business he ‘was’ the brand in most customer’s eyes. We recognised going forward that this had to change. I think when we began talking about investing in Brand, we needed to understand what ‘brand’ meant and realised it went much deeper than a logo and colour scheme.
Everyone running a business will agree that ultimately you are learning on a day to day basis, and we’ve learnt a lot about the power of branding. When we looked at the brand development project 5 years ago I don’t think any of the directors around the table had run a business previously, certainly not a business that was growing at the rate Active was.
“We thought it’s about your logo, how we look, colour scheme and cosmetics but we were wrong, it’s much deeper than that.”
We realised, with your support, it’s much deeper and encompasses our story, our vision, values and culture. We also understand it’s about ensuring it’s embraced across the business and communicated consistently.”
How important is it that the brand evolves as the business grows?
We progressed significantly five years ago, we’d become quite a substantial firm although our brand gave the reflection that we were still quite small and local. We’d outgrown our brand and needed to up our game in a big way. I think our brand always has to reflect who we are and constantly support the direction that we’re moving in.
The brand REDISCOVER process that we’re going through now is really important. It’s been 4 years since the last brand was launched and we’re always looking to evolve. As the business grows and our market place and competition develop, we need to stay ahead.
I get a kick out of getting better and improving, and I look at every aspect of the business for that. I don’t see any point in running a business to standstill. There are always margins to improve here and there. If you look at F1 they talk about the 1 percents. The margins in F1 are so tiny so if they can do something that squeezes an extra 0.1% per lap it could be the difference between winning or coming fifth.
I want Active to be the best firm of financial advisors in the area and the best versions of ourselves that we can be. As our competition naturally catches up or does things that are similar to us, we have that burning desire to keep our foot on the gas and keep improving. Ultimately that’s what gives us a competitive advantage.”
How do you measure return on investment on the brand project and what metrics do you use?
The key for us is increasing average client spend and attracting the right type of clients. If we increase both our business grows.
We’re focusing on quality rather than quantity. Although the down side of a business that’s got a history dating back to 1986 means you have thousands of clients in our CRM that we could potentially have to service. The financial world has changed so much over the last 30 years. Previously clients didn’t directly pay for that advice, whereas now they do and they have done since January 2013.
“Ultimately our average client value is up, and we’re attracting more higher value clients. A big part of that is down to our brand.”
Defining a much stronger brand has helped us reinforce our relationship with the clients that are growing with us, as well as attracting more of the right type of client that drives our growth. Our brand story and clearly defined messaging plays a critical role in attracting those clients that appreciate and value our service and understand the value we add.
What’s the best thing about your job and has that changed over time?
I love seeing an idea come to fruition, and seeing the results from ideas no matter whether it’s mine or one from the team. It gives me reassurance, it gives me confidence, and allows us to go out and do more which ultimately benefits our clients and our business.
If we do well we can invest more in the team in terms of rewards, and it allows to protect and develop the culture we’re so proud of.
What are you most proud of and why?
Firstly, winning the ‘Employer of the Year’ Award recently for the FSB (Federation of Small Businesses). It was really humbling and very nice to be recognised by an external body for doing the right thing. It makes it feel nice, it makes it feel worthwhile. We don’t necessarily always get the comfort of knowing what we’re doing is working, but to be recognised as being exceptional and doing something great for the team is actually really rewarding. It’s encouraging and drives us to keep doing what we’re doing.
Secondly, to become a Chartered Director with the Institute of Directors last year was a really a proud moment.
“I wouldn’t class myself as the world’s greatest academic, but I have always had that drive to develop myself and improve.”
I’m actually really proud of myself because I never thought I would ever be qualified to that level, and probably if you ask some of my former teachers they probably would never have thought that either!
What does the future hold for you and for Active?
There’s still that continuous desire to improve and get better at what we do. Better doesn’t necessarily mean bigger. We’ll always be thinking creatively and having ideas that can improve what we do, the service we deliver, and how we’re perceived in the industry. We’ll continue to evolve and grow so we maintain a pole position within our industry in the area.
“We live in a fast changing world now so unless you’re prepared to move and evolve at a fast pace you can quite easily get left behind. That’s one thing Active will never do.”
We’ll also be continuing our investment and commitment to personal development, it’s a key part of our values across the whole team from the Chairman to our apprentices. It’s a point of difference, and why someone will choose us over and above another financial planner. That desire to improve and want to better ultimately helps us drive business growth.