Sponsored by AAM Advisory, the “training session” for ex-pat youngsters keen to improve their football skills featured four players from the UK’s internationally-popular Manchester United football squad, including Andy Cole and Dennis Irwin. Although it lasted just a few hours, the event, held on the grounds of Singapore’s 30-year-old British Club, was covered by a number of Singapore media organisations, including the Straits Times, Channel News Asia and a handful of expat publications.
Almost everyone shown in these press reports – including all four of the Man U “legends” – is shown wearing identical red T-shirts that feature the words “AAM Advisory” in white, above a silhouetted image, also in white, of a football player dribbling a ball.
The Man U gig was typical of the “hundred-plus” events that AAM Advisory’s marketing department attends, sponsors and otherwise participates in each year, according to Nick Anderson and Matthew Dabbs, two of the Singapore-based advisory firm’s principals.
“I must admit, I was never a big fan of cold-calling [as a means of finding new clients], even when I first came out to Asia in the early 1990s,” says AAM chief executive Dabbs, of one of the industry’s traditional business-building techniques, which has been restricted in Singapore since the beginning of this year.
“But especially now that cold-calling is being discouraged, events like our sponsorship of a Manchester United ‘Legends’ soccer clinic for local children, and all the others we do, are clearly the only way to go for our industry.”
Such events, as a means of reaching potential clients, also reflect the transformation and growing sophistication of both the advisory industry in Singapore in general over the last five or so years, and that of AAM Advisory in particular, adds Anderson.
He stresses, though, that the company began moving in this direction from the moment it was set up in its present form, a little over five years ago.
“With the changes being put into place by the Financial Advisory Industry Review (FAIR) coming in over the next few months, all the companies here are having to change the way they do business, and that includes the way they go about finding clients,” Anderson says.
Client numbers, AUA leap
That Dabbs, Anderson and their team have had some success in finding clients is difficult to deny.
Today, they say, they have some 3,500 clients, with assets under advice of around S$400m (£191m, $315m), compared with only around 300 clients and AUA of just S$25m in 2009.
2009 was the year that Dabbs, Anderson, a fellow advisory industry colleague named Lee Sanders, and a couple of other associates joined forces and began to build what is now AAM Advisory, as it is currently comprised.
Prior to that, the company, such as it was, was called PKF-AAM. At that point it was a joint venture between a local arm of PKF, the global accountancy network, and what remained of a licenced Singapore advisory entity called Absolute Asset Management that Dabbs had founded in 2002 with a former Financial Partners colleague, and otherwise had mostly sold on to an Australian buyer in 2007.
“At that point Nick was in charge of an expatriate advice team at Professional Investment Advisory Services (PIAS), one of Singapore’s largest financial advisory companies, and Lee Sanders was with Affinity Financial Consulting [another Singapore advisory firm],” says Dabbs, a native of Manchester, England (and consequent supporter of its football team).
“So we bought back the PKF share of the business, divvied up the equity, and took it from there.”
Equity in AAM Advisory was in the news last year, actually, as it happens: in January, a Melbourne, Australia-based, Australian Securities Exchange-listed company named Easton Investments Ltd purchased a 19.9% stake in it.
The deal was seen as an endorsement of AAM Advisory’s position in the marketplace, and in addition to an injection of capital, was expected to give it a fresh appeal among expat Australians living in Singapore, of whom there are estimated to be more than 20,000.
Since then, a number of similar deals have been completed or announced recently: Aviva, the life insurance giant, last year acquired the 81% of the holding company that owned PIAS that it didn’t already own, for example. And in January of this year, it was revealed that Dubai-based Globaleye was to merge its Singapore operation with that of Singapore-based Jigsaw Wealth Management.
Ultimately, the significance of the Easton deal, Anderson and Dabbs agree, is that it shows how established Singapore advisory firms like AAM are being eyed-up by foreign companies keen to buy a footprint into the desirable Singapore expat advisory market, which has relatively high barriers to entry due to its regulatory frame-work and high business costs.
Keeping advisers happy
Manchester United football stars may have got AAM Advisory lots of consumer press coverage last year, but it was the company’s steady hiring of experienced advisers, mainly away from rival advisory businesses, that kept the AAM name in the pages of financial industry publications in 2013, including this one.
After hiring a total of some 10 advisers and around 15 other staff last year (obliging it to take another floor in its Central Business District building), AAM now employs 65 people, including 27 advisers, and is aiming to end the year with 35 to 40 advisers, according to Anderson.
Already the company is, he says, the largest expatriate advisory firm in Singapore, as measured by adviser numbers.
Dabbs says AAM is able to attract good advisers because it offers them an adviser-friendly corporate structure, which gives them a comprehensive back office support team in addition to other perks, such as a system which encourages the use of trail payments. This, he notes, enables them to keep more of the money they bring in to the company.
“Advisers like the support we give them, because it gives them a lot more time to spend advising clients, which is what they’re supposed to be doing, rather than pushing paperwork around a desk in an office,” he says.
Fewer, larger companies is also what the MAS has shown that it wants, Dabbs adds.
“They like to know that if they want to, they can go directly to a compliance department, for example.”
As for expansion plans outside of Singapore, Dabbs is adamant that there are none, and unlikely ever to be.
“We believe Singapore is the best market to be in, so why would we go anywhere else?” he says.
“We see plenty of room for growth in this market, especially in terms of taking on more local [Singaporean] clients, and selling protection products, which are almost certainly the most under-utilised product category here.”
AAM Advisory targets another specialist
Expatriates are not the only specialist category of the advisory market AAM Advisory caters for. Another, added last year, is that comprised of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals.
Company executives say AAM is believed to be the first financial advisory operation in Singapore to target the specialist needs of the LGBT community there.
In Singapore, the LGBT population has been estimated at more than 300,000, with an annual spending power of more than S$20bn ($15.8bn, £9.6bn).
Mikael Ng, a Singaporean who has been with the company for six years, is overseeing the new operation, which is the Singapore outpost of LGBT Wealth, a Hong Kong-based company 51% owned by LGBT Capital, a London- and Hong-Kong-based entity created to invest in and cater for the LGBT consumer market. It was launched in February, 2013.
At the time it launched, AAM Advisory said its new LGBT operation would provide advice and services to LGBT clients “in a number of important areas, including retirement planning, term savings, insurance, property and wealth protection”.
AAM Advisory chief executive Matthew Dabbs noted that in Asia, legal protections can be a problem area for LGBT partners, and noted that this was one of the things AAM expects to be able to help its LGBT clients and their partners with.
Sex between men 'criminal'
For the time being, the LGBT community in Singapore exists alongside a law which criminalises sex between men.
In April last year, the Singapore High Court rejected a petition by two graphic designers to repeal the law banning gay sex, but press reports at the time said it was expected that the case would be appealed.
Last June, for the fifth year in a row, a “Pink Dot” rally was held in support of same-sex rights, which saw some 21,000 individuals show up – wearing pink – at Hong Lim Park, to form a large pink "dot".
|IA Fact Box|
Founded: In 2007 as PKF-AAM, re-branded as AAM Advisory in 2009
Assets under advice: $400m
No. of clients: Approx 3,500
No. of advisers: 27, going up to 40 by December
No. of employees: (including advisers) 65
No. of offices: One (Singapore)
Website: www.aam-advisory.com, www.financialadvice.com.sg