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02 March, 2021 | by Kean Williams, Executive Director Global Operations, Contemi Solutions

Contemi In Conversation With Neil Blankstone, Senior Director Business Development at Blankstone Sington

Hosted by - Kean Williams, Executive Director Global Operations, Contemi Solutions

Guest- Neil Blankstone, Senior Director Business Development, Blankstone Sington

The second of ‘Contemi in Conversation With’ Series is brought to you remotely, featuring our guest Neil Blankstone, Senior Director Business Development at Blankstone Sington, established in 1989, Blankstone Sington is a leading investment management and brokerage firm in the UK. The Company offers investment advisory, personal and trust taxation, and estate administration services. Blankstone Sington serves private individuals, trustees, charities, and pension funds.

In this edition, Kean Williams, Executive Director Global Operations at Contemi Solutions, interviewed Neil Blankstone, Senior Director Business Development, Blankstone Sington.

Owing to the long-standing working relationship between the two firms, the discussion was a candid exchange of ideas and opinions covering a wide range of topics from surviving and thriving during the pandemic to the UK's economy, impact of the pandemic on the industry to the value the two firms have brought to each other over the years.

During this discussion, you'll learn:

  • How Contemi and Blankstone have forged a mutually beneficial partnership since 1994
  • Blankstone's transformational journey and survival during the pandemic
  • Key offerings and differentiators for Blankstone Sington
  • Revival of UK's economy and impact on Financial Services firms due to COVID-19
  • Wealth management technology trends in 2021
  • Regulations and demand for ESG going forward

Neil highlighted, “The COVID-19 lockdown has accelerated many of the things that probably we could have and should have done a little bit sooner. The move from a more traditional server-based system to the cloud has made such a huge difference, and if anyone else is watching, I would urge you to consider it. You'll save yourself a lot of time and a lot of headaches and allow yourselves to do all sorts of different things that otherwise you really would have struggled. Contemi’s support for Blankstone Sington has been invaluable, we've known each other a very very long time. I would like to think that we have not only developed together, but we will continue to. There is a like-mindedness about the two firms, and I think the key thing there is that the philosophies that underpin both firms are very similar- The customers come first.”

Watch the full interview to learn more!

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Here’s the full text transcript:

Kean Williams: Hi Neil! Nice to see you and good morning, thanks very much for agreeing to do this for us. I would like to sort of get your views on a number of things today, so be as open and honest as you can be, and that will be fantastic. Having followed you on LinkedIn for some time I can see that you have a lot of diverse views and, kind of experiences at the marketplace, it is great to hear from you now. I think probably to introduce our relationship, Blankstone Sington and Contemi has been together since 1994, so a long, long time, unfortunately we are both old enough to remember that time. It is a great relationship for both of us and certainly something that we would like to continue for many years to come. So I'm going to dive straight into the questions, first of all, because it's very topical, how has Blankstone Sington survived and hopefully thrived in these difficult times of pandemic?

Neil Blankstone: Well, firstly, let me say thanks and hi to you Kean. Contemi’s support for Blankstone Sington has been invaluable, as you say we've known each other a very, very long time. I would like to think that we have not only developed together, but we will continue to. Your question is a really prevalent one, because, without yourselves, one has to say that we would have struggled so, the help that you have given us, to essentially transform from an office like everyone else, that has allowed us to work from home. We set up very, very quickly, usually our systems and operations people, particularly Phillip Jarvis and Peter, played a massive part in that, but effectively it's been seamless. For us it was particularly important and also nerve wracking when we first started working from home because unusually for a firm of our size, we do have a back office and therefore you have to trade report and settle. Therefore, that first day, I think there was absolute trepidation, when we did move everything across to work from home, but it's worked seamlessly and not only that it's allowed for pretty rapid progression on a lot of digitalization, but we’ve also improved enormously with you, through our portal system that obviously allows us to contact and speak to clients far better and keep them better informed. So, from our point of view, lockdown has accelerated many of the things that probably we could have and should have done a little bit sooner. I think the other thing is, it's also happened to prove, and I'm sure the FCA are delighted that all our disaster recovery programs effectively work, because those were all previously predicated or moving from one big building to another. Now we have proven we can do it all very, very securely. I don't believe we've had any outages or any issues, with regard to security, which is always one of the biggest things to be concerned about. So yeah, from that point of view, a really positive event has happened over obviously very extremely difficult circumstances.

Kean Williams: That’s great, Thank you. I think from our side, the ease of working with you guys is great. And I think, certainly we saw the same thing in terms of proving out a business continuity planning. We're not regulated by the FCA, but obviously with our clients being it’s pretty much put the same demands on us as well. We saw pretty much no downside in terms of our clients and bear in mind, we host your systems and that was quite a good thing for us and some big trust to achieve.

Neil Blankstone: I was going to say, I think that the move obviously from a more traditional server-based system to the cloud, which, we took a long time to get done and it's not an easy thing to do but the fact that we managed to get that done by July 2019, has made such a difference, and if anyone else is watching, I would urge you to consider it. You'll save yourself a lot of time and a lot of headaches and allow yourselves to do all sorts of different things that otherwise you really would have struggled.

Kean Williams: Yeah, absolutely. I guess moving on to more wider things, there's a lot of pessimism around the economy as a whole, obviously for many reasons, but, it feels to me as though financial services is in a bit of a bubble, and that is something of a perception. How do you see the world and the UK bouncing out of this pandemic?

Neil Blankstone: Yeah, I think, you know, you're absolutely spot on. I feel very sorry for those industries who obviously are entirely dependent on footfall, from people- the hospitality industries, hairdresser, all that sorts of places, they have had a really really difficult times. Financial services is different, at the end of the day, we rely on computers and technologies and what we do is essentially move money around the systems. And as long as that core elements of that system are up and running, then we can continue. Technology has also allowed us to meet people, do these sorts of things and accelerate all that kinds of things. So I've heard a lot of people say they found it really, really difficult, from a business development point of view, for example, but I've never spoken to more people or, you know, made a real determined effort to actually to speak to more people through these mediums and on the phone, because actually that element of social interaction has been really, really important from person point of view, and certainly the recipients have appreciated it. Economically, we are seeing there’s no question that there's a two-way poll about to go on. I think the biggest thing that probably occurred was, that because we had come out of Europe, we were able to make this decision with regards to the vaccine, and therefore being able to accelerate our program which gives us a better opportunity than most domestically. UK wise, as an economy. and markets have said this for a long time where we've been way behind, we offer good value so there's lots to be positive about, the mood music I'm hearing is that for example, private equity houses, venture capitalists, private investors, they have considerable amounts of money that they want to put into UK PLC., if you look at the Mid 250, terms of the market, that is powered up, the 4100 is not representative of the UK but obviously the vast majority of things are done overseas and because sterling has been so weak, that then has translated back into the returns for any overseas investors. We're seeing sterling strengthen, and as much as anything important that's because we know where we're going. Whether we liked it or not, whether we agree with the policies that are being adopted, at least we have a sense of direction, having an ability to go and negotiate trade agreements, and therefore we are open to the world. I think what's also become really apparent for me, anyway, one of the reasons we've struggled, why our numbers are so high in terms of COVID infections, certainly deaths, is because we are a hub. We are the sort of meeting point for East of West, the transition points, so on and so forth. So, Europe is caught up and red tape for me, and all the other reasons people have expressed as to why you wanted to come out in the first place. So, I think UK PLC, economically has a really strong opportunity being the hardest thing is how Mr. Sunak is going to balance the books. We're all sort of waiting here a little bit nervously, ahead of the 3rd of March, and his budget, which of course has been delayed a number of times already. The gut feel on that is that we will get, not that many changes initially, but my personal opinion is that, he will signal, what he intends to do. He is going to allow obviously the economy to be open. He is going to encourage people to get out, spend, invest, and essentially get the engines fired up. And then he's going to introduce the tougher, the tax requirements to pay all that he's had to pay, it's quite remarkable to have watched a Tory chancellor stand up and for want of a better word, give out this money, the furloughs and all the other schemes. That's not Tory polar policy traditionally, but they stepped up to the plate. I think that, what we will see is possibly a bit more of a return to boom-bust type economics, and that's the scary bit, because if you go back a hundred years of what happened post, Spanish flu, we had the roaring twenties, well, by coincidence, we're into another twenties, the economy's doing as well as it can, and it's not even got going. The stock market anticipates events and it's got going, so gut feel says, we will see certainly in the first half of the remainder of this decade, a strong economy and then you really probably got to watch out for the danger signals for obviously potentially inflation, turns around the rest of the world.

Kean Williams: That's pretty much a great insight and it's good to hear someone being as frank and honest as that, to be honest, because it's a difficult subject and we're all a little bit nervous and there was an unknown sort of future. But, I like to hear from people like yourself, at least seeing the positive future for the economy., and you're right we have it in our hands to do so whether that's a UK PLC or just people around the world, we can bounce back if we remain positive and find ways of doing things differently from maybe before. And that leads me on to my next question really, which is, What do you see Blankstone Sington doing as a key differentiator from your competition to get you ahead of the game if you like it though it sounds like you're ahead of the game, maybe in thinking somewhere, but, what would you change ?

Neil Blankstone: To be fair, we're having to come from a long way behind, it has taken us quite some time to get our head around what's actually gone on, in our industry, to be perfectly honest, probably the biggest difficulty has been perception. At the end of the day, when you brand yourself initially as a stockbroker, there is a certain element of aloofness and untouchability that goes with that type and title. Actually, the way that the world works these days, it's probably never been more important for retail private clients to have access to the likes of ourselves. We offer a whole range of services, so we have bespoke investment management services for those who have larger sums to invest, but we then offer a choice for those who have less, it's called a model portfolio, but I prefer to buzz it as bespoke light, because it is only a step down, but it's there for people who don't have as much money to invest. We have some niche services for people who are looking to protect against, for example, inheritance tax should that be an issue that, they need to consider. We also offer traditional advisory services where people kind of literally just come and get some advice, plain, simple, relatively straight advice, and then we also offer the execution side. I think our biggest USP as I alluded to earlier is because we are masters of our own destiny, we actually have full control over the dealing settlement and custody side as well. So we're not beholden to anyone that also then allows us to not only look at the direct market to go and talk to other professionals. And if they want someone who is sort of as an additive to their business who can power their services, then we'd like to think, you know, we have a what they call a ‘can-do’ attitude, in Liverpool. We're very much a can-do firm, so we can do it, we will do it, if we can't do it, we'll put you in the right direction as to someone who can. So we like to work in collaboration and that, I think is probably the biggest USP we've got.

Kean Williams: Thank you. It's good to hear our respective teams are going to be on a call fairly soon to talk about how to move some of your services onto a platform with a direct link from our systems. So, those sorts of initiatives lead me on to my next question really, which is, you've already touched on sort of digitisation and what do you see the technology trends for 2021. Contemi put out recently our 12 trends that we see for wealth management in 2021 but I'm wondering what you see the technology world moving towards?

Neil Blankstone: Yeah, I think what we do know is in the IFA advisor market in particular, they like platforms, and I can understand why it gives them great far greater control, so that ability to look after their client money and then move it relatively easily between systems or at least between fund managers if not necessarily systems, is probably the thing that they like the most. I think there needs to be a greater collaboration between the platforms, no one likes to lose clients, but sometimes for whatever reason clients do decide to go elsewhere. There has to be a far better way of organizing the likes of those transfers, which is one of the reasons why we did want to talk to yourselves to see how we look at getting your system into the other platform provider’s systems, obviously not only to show our own wares, but to make it easier on these occasions when these transfers do exist. So I think there's a lot of reassessment, in terms of, investment managers and their performance and what they're actually doing going on at the moment. I think the area where probably the systems are going to be really required and really interesting, there's going to have to be some really good innovation is, the hottest topic probably around at the moment, which is on ESG. The regulation is pushing for all managers to have a full ESG policy, and further than that tool, so ESG rate, every underlying investment that they make on behalf of the client. So, technology has got to play a huge part in determining how that works, so I think for me they're the two keys that I can see as well as obviously bringing in greater digitalisation sign up, ease of access, or ultimately end-user.

Kean Williams: That's great. I mean, we've seen our investors and our board have given us a lot of free reign to develop modules in the past and currently things around onboarding are obviously a big challenge for the industry and corporate actions which is another one very big. We have very diverse things, but these are areas that we've got investment in, the client portals and investment manager tools, which is the online investments that we need in this day and age. And I think interestingly, we've got a very socially aware Board which again is an area from an ESG point of view where we will probably see an easy investment from then because they are very strong believers.

Neil Blankstone: Yes, I think the whole ESG topic to be fair is going to be really interesting today because, you know, what is ESG, what is one man’s view and another man's view are totally different. I think the only thing that say we as a firm could do, and this is what we're in the process of at the moment, is all you can do is write your own policy, but suss it out really, hopefully clearly and simply, and then obviously your process with regard to underlying investments, and then it's up to investors to judge you on that. At the end of the day, the regulation is driving, we're going to have to ask the question rather than necessarily the question being asked by the clients. So, for me, there's a little bit too much of a political element to it, but you can't beat the system. So, you know, we will be devising a claim centered around whatever the ultimate the politicians decide and set out our store and, you know, people will either accept it or debate it or however they feel about it as long as it's a reasonable and sensible conversation. I think that's all we can ask, and technology has got to play a part in allowing that to happen.

Kean Williams: To finish off, to talk about our relationship again, we talked about this at the start, and I think going back in time, we've been through many many projects together. I remember being at your offices very late into the night on some massive big upgrades to your systems, but always a very nice place to come, and when we were able to get out and have a drink after the event, it was also fantastic. Those days are probably changing because the days of onsite installations and onsite support are a little bit more challenging right now, but from your viewpoint, how do you see Contemi has helped Blankstone Sington in the past, but importantly as well going forward. Cause we were having a lot of discussions at the moment, and it'd be good to hear from you firsthand.

Neil Blankstone: I think ultimately there is a like-mindedness about the two firms, and I think the key thing there is that the philosophies that underpin both firms are very similar. The customers come first; we wouldn't have a business without clients, you wouldn't have a business without the likes of ourselves, and at the end of the day, the best advocate for your business is your client. We are very big supporters, whenever we have needed something you have made yourselves available and I think the transformation from face-to-face, and spending time in the office to what's happened over this last year, as I say, it's been seamless. In fact, it's probably gone further because I think we've introduced more people to each other's firms., that's been also really really important. I think from our point of view, probably our people have had the opportunity to explain our business more to you and therefore there's a greater understanding, but on both sides, there's a willingness firstly to learn. And then ultimately at the end of the day, there has to be a little bit of compromise and always at the end of it is you know what's the best outcome for end-user, which ultimately is our client. So, it goes down the whole chain, we'd be nothing without your systems and our clients would then, you know they question, what the hell are we doing if we didn't have that partnership? So, we are delighted. I think the longevity of the partnership speaks volumes. I suspect there aren't that many, who have, sat with similar over the period of time we have, but there's a reason for it, and the reason is because you're always prepared to listen. We're prepared to work together, you look at things together and develop, and we'll be honest with each other, if we don't think something will work, you'll say, if we don't think something works from our end, once you've done it, we'll say and, I think probably the next example of that we're going to look at and it's really likely to be very important is, flexible ISA, we don't offer them at the moment, but I can see that the flexibility within ISA, bearing in mind how long they've been around, how big the pots have got, is going to be really important to people and that ability to tap into those sorts of things. We've talked about a cash management solution, which hopefully we're going to be getting off the ground, which we've got to work with yourselves. So, there's a lot of exciting things going on between the two firms, and we're delighted that it is that way.

Kean Williams: That's brilliant. Thank you., I mean, certainly, the flexible ISA side of things we've already got in place, which is great. I think the other area that I'm very excited about is the onboarding side of things., obviously, one of the areas there is, I guess the annual checks with existing clients, as much as the onboarding of new clients and that's something that we're hoping to work with you guys very soon.

Neil Blankstone: Yeah. I know, we're delighted with that. I think that the interesting thing was I read some of the larger firms actually moved to two- and three-year annual reviews. We want to go the other way, the closer we can be to clients, and obviously the technology allowing that to happen, the better.

Kean Williams: Okay. And well, I'll just let say, thank you very much for your time and your insights. It's been, fantastic and I can only hope that I get to come and visit my favorite city in the world, Liverpool, the city of my father's birth and then hopefully it is time to come and see you guys and socialize in the future.

Neil Blankstone: Well, I'm sure that once we all come out of this, there'll be a very warm, it could be slightly messy welcome to come up to Liverpool. We're a warm-hearted city, we really do look forward to seeing all our friends very, very soon.

Kean Williams: Excellent. Okay. Thanks very much for your time Neil.

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