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  • Writer's pictureInvestment Synergy Team

St James’s Place bullied and belittled me, but I was right all along

For seven years our Chief Money Reporter pursued the wealth manager over claims of poor service and excessive charges. Now it is paying nearly half a billion in compensation.

Ali Hussain, Chief Money Reporter - March 3 2024, The Sunday Times


It all started with a letter from a reader who wanted to know exactly how much he was being charged by St James’s Place, Britain’s largest wealth manager.

Arnold Rosen, a retired solicitor from Kensington, west London, then 76, could not work out what he had paid the company for looking after his pension. Despite repeated attempts, he could not get a straight answer from his SJP adviser. “Why is it so difficult to read what six years’ worth of investment has cost me?” he said. “It is too opaque — it should not be rocket science.”

 

This started my seven-year investigation into the FTSE 100 company that last week announced it was setting aside £426 million to compensate customers who for years paid for advice they never received. 

It has not been easy. I have faced legal threats, condescension from SJP executives, and criticism from other firms that suggested I was asking the wrong questions. I also faced online mockery from advisers that bordered on abuse, and the spreading of false rumours about my intentions. 

But for me, it was just a matter of doing my job.


SJP portrays itself as an exclusive club. The advisers would form friendships with their clients, taking them to sporting events or to dinner. They are the sort of people who, silver-tongued, are often able to talk about having gone to the same private school as their client’s children, and charm a wealthy widow who says she does not understand investment. Their advisers were famous for their SJP-branded cufflinks, handed out for being good sellers. 

In the 30 or so articles I have written about the company since Rosen got in touch, almost all were prompted by SJP customers who could not understand what they were being charged, why returns were so poor, and why they could not get hold of their advisers when needed. 

 

SJP was meant to be providing a premier service for its premier fees, but it was falling short. “The charges were never made clear to me,” said one reader. “The way it deals with people is awful. At no stage did we know what payments or commissions were being made.” 

Another, frustrated about the lack of contact with her adviser, said: “I must have emailed him a dozen times, but often I was told he was on holiday. At one point I said I would drive 200 miles so it was easier to meet, but again he was on holiday. Why was I paying an adviser I couldn’t get hold of?”

They also wanted to know why SJP seemed to run rings around the rules set by the City regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), meant to ensure that customers were treated fairly.

We worked out that Rosen had lost about a quarter of his profits while with SJP. I described the firm’s charges as a “rip-off” in my first article, published in The Sunday Times in January 2017.

This prompted SJP to issue a nine-page legal threat from the law firm Schillings, which demanded we take down the article from the website immediately, apologise, and never write another piece connecting SJP to the allegations we made. 

The Sunday Times refused. Instead, we continued to write stories. Every time I asked a question, SJP would respond with an air of loftiness. It was as if a company with hundreds of thousands of well-heeled customers could never do anything wrong. 

But someone was paying for it all — and customers were increasingly questioning what value they were getting.

The company kept insisting that 99 per cent of clients were happy, but this was not the picture painted by the people who contacted me. So I kept asking questions.

I wanted to know why the firm did not publish its charges online (it does now). Why does it apply an exit penalty of up to 6 per cent of the value of a portfolio if a client wanted to transfer their pension to a rival, even though other companies had scrapped such charges or capped it at 1 per cent, as required by the FCA? SJP argued that it does not charge an exit penalty but an “early withdrawal charge”. It seemed like semantics and I was surprised the FCA allowed it.

After our refusal to cave in to its legal threat, SJP invited me to meet David Bellamy, the then chief executive. I sat in a room with him and David Lamb, the chief investment officer, as well as its press officer. They answered my questions, but it also felt as if I was being interrogated. 

A few days later an anonymous source handed me a document that revealed exactly how SJP advisers are paid. The details were astonishing.

 

The advisers, who are called partners and run their own businesses, can only sell SJP products. They have strict targets for how much money they must draw from customers each year. And a Nectar point-style system was in place, with more points given for every pound brought in.

Advisers with the most points received luxury trips abroad as well as the infamous cufflinks. Those who failed to generate enough funds risked losing their life insurance and quality of life.

Such an arrangement could lead to conflicts of interest in my view, but this was dismissed. SJP has always maintained that the amount advisers draw from customers is just one measure determining their remuneration. Customer service was also a big factor.

 

But service was falling short. Some customers did not have a review for years, despite paying for the service, or found it difficult to contact their adviser. Those who wanted to switch to another firm worried about the exit penalty. They felt trapped.

Things got worse for SJP when the FCA introduced rules on companies to justify their fees. SJP was forced to admit that most of its products were underperforming compared with those of rivals’, specifically due to high charges.

In 2019, another ex-SJP adviser provided details about the luxury cruises I had read about in the perks document handed to me two years before. The publication of this article prompted the company to hold crisis talks. A secret recording was handed to The Sunday Times. 

In the meeting, the former managing director, Ian Gascoigne, addressed his audience: “In effect, the question is why should the charges on my pension pay for your holiday? 

“Let’s put our hands up: we should have addressed [this] several years ago.” 

He also admitted that the FCA had raised concerns about SJP’s pension early withdrawal charge and that the watchdog would like the company to drop it.

 

In public, however, SJP advisers were still dismissing our reports. In June 2020, one reader shared an email from an adviser saying my reports were part of a “personal vendetta” due to a relative of mine having a complaint against SJP, which is untrue. None of my family have, or ever have had, any money with the company. 

When asked about it, the firm said: “These are not views held by SJP and we will be speaking with the partner.”

The company again wanted me to meet its executives. This time it was Gascoigne and the chief executive, Andrew Croft. They tried to explain why they had got it all wrong about their charges and culture. SJP said it would overhaul its pay and perks system. Goodbye to the cufflinks. 

Increased regulation piled on further pressure. Its share price started to fall around December 2021, when the FCA announced rules that required firms to ensure “good outcomes” for clients. The business, worth £9.4 billion at its peak, is now valued at £2.8 billion.

Last October, SJP finally announced plans to ditch its early withdrawal charge (but not until next year). It will also separate out its advice, platform and investment charges, allowing for easier comparison with rivals. It said the changes were its biggest reforms in its 30-year history.

This was the first significant victory for The Sunday Times and I felt vindicated.

But more was to come, and last week’s revelation that the company would set aside hundreds of millions of pounds to pay customers who had not received the service they expected was another victory. 

In its annual report, SJP said the compensation fund was “a disappointing outcome for everyone”, but added that it knows its clients “really value what we offer them, and we take comfort from outstanding client retention and advocacy”.

It also said it had already switched off the automatic charges for 2 per cent of its clients (about 19,000 people) “where there was a lack of evidence that an ongoing advice service was being provided”. 

 

It seemed the SJP customers I spoke to were right, and it was wrong.

When I tried to contact Rosen to thank him for starting me on this course of investigation, someone else picked up.

Sadly, he had died. I just hope I would have made him, and other readers who have encouraged me, proud.


Investment Synergy - Amongst all the inherent issues that have rightly been bought to task here - the saying "smoke and mirrors" becomes clearer !








 

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