Couldn’t have put it better myself

It’s a referral world

Could a professional firm really achieve double-digit organic growth throughout the economic downturn? UK-based First Actuarial is doing it, thanks to its low overheads and fees, oldfashioned concentration on the client and use of LinkedIn and blogs. Neasa MacErlean finds out how it is done.

Henry Tapper, business development director of First Actuarial, is unusually forthright. “We’ve always worried that when consultancies like ours grow they become obsessed with themselves”, he says. “They forget they are there to serve their clients”.

Its only non-actuarial director, Tapper joined the £9.5 million turnover firm last June. Since then, the consultancy (based in Manchester, Basingstoke, Tonbridge, Leeds and Peterborough) has broadened its reach to take in larger clients than in the past and to cover all of the pension market (not just the ‘defined benefit’ sector it had worked in before).

These moves are not that surprising, perhaps. But, in many other ways, the firm is out on a limb. “We don’t go in for pension awards”, says Tapper, calling them “a lot of nonsense”. And he adds: “Submissions cost a fortune and say more about the PR agency than the service provided”. He is not at all surprised that many professional firms are having to cut their fees now. “Their fees are much too high”, he says. “They have corporate overheads which are unsustainable”. First Actuarial does not have “PR agencies and marketing budgets”.

Tapper is admired by the pensions community for his directness and spontaneity. Getting into LinkedIn was almost “accidental” and Tapper was, as he admits, a relatively late adopter. It happened only two years ago, when he was 47, as he began building his database of 2,000 pension contacts and realised what “an incredibly useful tool” LinkedIn was. “There was no plan. One thing led to another”. It led quickly to his creation of a shared interest LinkedIn group, the Pension Play Pen. Tapper’s much-followed blog (now heading towards 20,000 hits) followed in 2009, and Twitter was tacked on in 2010.

The Pension Play Pen and Tapper’s LinkedIn list of contacts belong to Tapper, even if they are very closely linked to the firm. Many of the First Actuarial directors and staff are members of the Play Pen and active within it. Tapper began using LinkedIn to set up lunches. Now there are three lunch groups (in London, Leeds and Manchester). The get-together usually takes the form of 20 or 25 people meeting in a pub, paying £15 each, discussing pensions and going away until the next time. “It’s not corporate hospitality, no-one is sponsoring it”, he explains.

There is also a thriving Play Pen discussion group whose lively threads are often stimulated by Tapper’s entertaining blog. A recent discussion thread tossed around the idea of pensioners being able to get long-time care in low-cost but sunny locations such as the Caribbean. “It’s got to be spontaneous”, says Tapper, talking of the blog which he tends to write at 5 or 6am. “If there’s nothing there, don’t do it”.

About 1,000 people now belong to the Play Pen. “The Pension Play Pen will get so big one day that we will have to do something with it”, says Tapper. “But you mustn’t allow it to become a corporate tool. It’s too early to say what we will do. I’m a keen believer in serendipity”. Tapper is the first to admit that “We don’t really know what we are doing on Twitter”. His Twitter site is really an index for his blog at the moment. But he has ideas and he knows who is handling Twitter well (the Mallowstreet pensions meeting place, for instance). “Mallowstreet are brilliant users of Twitter. They get information out super-quick. That’s where we see Twitter, as a way of getting information into the market in real time”.

But what are the difficulties of handling these developments? I, for instance, was able to find Henry Tapper’s Facebook site which tells you more about his private life. He accepts that social media could be a challenging way of marketing for people who want to keep their personal lives private. But Tapper is not a reserved person (as can be seen from the old-fashioned, bright green receiver attached to his mobile): “I’m unusual in being extremely extrovert and not being worried about the division between private and public”. A great user of Facebook is First Actuarial’s actuarial director Hilary Salt who is also head of the Manchester office. She is in contact this way with many of her clients. “If they know a bit of your hinterland, and you know some of theirs, it tends to lead to stronger relationships”, she says.

And how does Tapper find the time? “It’s using up bits of time that would otherwise be wasted”. A very modern example of a worker, Tapper is often on trains and trams and meets people in pubs or coffee bars or hotels more frequently than in an office. He manages the Pension Play Pen in those moments, and he prefers taking the train to driving so that he can work on the laptop.

While Tapper is developing LinkedIn, his blogs, Twitter and, undoubtedly, other similar ventures in future, First Actuarial is still doing its more traditional forms of marketing. Founded only six years ago, it began with five housing association clients and has now worked up to 250 with whom it works or has regular contact. Important in this development has been First Actuarial’s low overheads (and therefore low fees), its eagerness to meet clients and contacts face to face and its surveys of the sector. “Surveys bring people together”, he says. “People want to know what other people are doing”. He puts the firm’s impressive growth in this sector down to human factors: “They speak to each other. This is a referral world”. Other surveys are planned soon in other sectors.

Hilary Salt is optimistic about the future despite the many challenges facing the bigger actuarial firms. “The economic downturn means that clients are very, very focused on fees and good value, and we are very good at that”, she says. And, more than ever, clients want pragmatic advice, she says.

Despite the fact that Tapper is fascinated by the latest technology, he also stays firmly convinced that nothing beats simple human contact. “We go out and see an awful lot of clients. It’s about creating an environment where you can phone people up and say: ‘You know a little bit about us. Can we come and talk to you?’ and they say yes”. The Pension Play Pen contributes hugely to this. “If people know you as people who enjoy life, they say ‘Of course, we’d like to see you’.”

Professionals who want to work to achieve certainty and stability in their marketplaces could be in for a difficult time. But Tapper is entirely relaxed when discussing the future and its possible effects on the technological channels he is using. “In a year’s time”, he says, “it will almost certainly look totally different to this”.

About henry tapper

Founder of the Pension PlayPen,, partner of Stella, father of Olly . I am the Pension Plowman
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