10 years ago, Elke and I launched Foundation Family Wealth. It was a summer morning, and we had two laptops, a license, and a dream. That dream was to help our clients live the best lives possible with their money. To do that, we believed that we needed to do holistic financial life planning from an unbiased position, motivated by the best interests of our clients.
It is hard to believe that it has only been ten years – it has felt like a lifetime. Today our team services nearly 140 families whose assets, under our care, exceed R2.5 bn. Our team will soon expand to include ten members but more importantly, we have all expanded in knowledge, skills, expertise, maturity, and insight – and yes wrinkles!
We are grateful for those early clients who trusted us with their money and dreams. They placed their faith in us when we were yet unproven and could scarcely articulate our value proposition. Some of those clients served as mentors and sages in our business and the reciprocity in those relationships helped shape how we serve our clients. Some of those clients have recently passed – although we are not family, we feel their loss in our Foundation family. It is part of our journey and inevitable, but never easy.
We left corporate believing that it was not possible to deliver the best advice to clients from within organisations which essentially make more money by selling products to clients than from advising them on the best course of action. We believed that clients should know how their advisers are renumerated and that paying us fees would be the best way of aligning our interests with those of our clients. We also foresaw that financial advice needed to adapt to the changing needs of clients. Trends were developing that would change the face of advice over the course of this decade.
Our clients’ lives were becoming more complex. Gone were the days of ‘study, marry, work, and retire’. Lifetime employment and defined benefit contributions disappeared. Divorce and complex family structures, including global mobility, became more prevalent and increasing longevity became a reality. This complexity deserved more sophisticated and interactive planning including tax and estate planning. We wanted to be at the forefront of these developments.
We noticed a trend where people were starting to think about their lives more holistically – integrative planning was becoming a thing. It was becoming clear that money, health, family, and the environment we live in were all interlinked and that our conversations could no longer just centre around money. It has taken some time for this trend to fully develop, but we now have a better understanding of how inseparable the various aspect of our client’s lives are - and we are now having these conversations with clients.
We also believed that investment management and advice would separate. World-wide this is now the entrenched best practice. Those who face clients cannot also be managing money on behalf of clients. One of the best decisions we took was to outsource our investment management to Portfoliometrix, this after a rigorous due diligence process into the best potential partner for our clients’ investment management. Our relationship has stretched nearly the entire existence of our business, and it has served our clients well in meeting their financial goals as predictably as possible.
Coming from an investment background, I was trained, indoctrinated even, to believe that seeking the best returns was the ultimate goal; but, I have come to believe that in financial planning, seeking more predictable outcomes to ensure that our clients’ goals are met, is far more desirable. It frees us to focus on the more important business of navigating our clients’ life transitions and goals amidst the ever-changing legal, tax and political environment. It shifts the focus from meeting targets, such as index or manager averages, to the returns that will make our clients’ dreams happen with the least amount of risk.
Increasingly investment management is being overtaken or supplemented by artificial intelligence and quantitative tools. However, the human aspect of financial planning has become even more important. Although we strive to use the most sophisticated modelling when we face our clients, we have learnt that human qualities like listening and empathy, play a far bigger role. Robots may yet replace advisors – machines are fast learning from the communications experts how to convey emotion – but we believe we’re far away from families consulting machines on how to structure and manage their wealth.
Another great decision was to share offices with Bridge Capital partners in our early years. Their fabulous infrastructure and corporate finance expertise helped us to set up shop without having to be concerned about the running of an office. We thank them for their friendship and support over the years.
We always knew that we wanted our own space, with its own identity, and that it would be very different. We had dreamt about that space from the very first day and moving into our offices in 2016, was a highlight. Spaces are important – they convey energy and intention. We wanted our office to convey that we were about people, that we wanted to invite conversation, and that it was comfortable to have those important conversations. We wanted it to feel like we were welcoming people into our home and our family. We believe that our space achieves that and has contributed to the different feeling that our business has from traditional financial institutions.
Our journey has not been without challenges. Along the way we made mistakes, many of our experiments in being different failed, and our courage faltered. We had never envisaged the massive burden of compliance, and the complexity of managing a fast-growing financial services business. We could never imagine what learning and leadership would still be required from us to steer Foundation through the challenging conditions we have faced. It was more difficult to find the technology that suited our business than we thought. We took on clients who didn’t respect our work and caused damage to our business.
Last year was my 30th year in the financial services industry. I have, since 1996, advised private individuals and families on various aspects of their wealth. Throughout those years, we have faced many challenges – the Dot-com bubble, 9/11, the Great Financial Crisis and Nenegate to name a few of the big ones. However, the pandemic was by far the most challenging crisis I have ever navigated.
What made it unique was that billions of people around the world were faced with a health and financial threat simultaneously. It highlighted an unsettling ideological division and curbed our individual freedom - and all this troubling news was constantly available on our hand-held devices. It sent most people way past their comfort zones – most people felt threatened. Our beliefs on long-term investing were tested, but we endured, and we steered the collective Foundation family through that troubled time. Our clients’ portfolios and wealth, dreams and hopes are intact, and probably better off because we are asking even harder questions about what really matters. It is probably the proudest achievement of my career.
In 2019 I moved to Cape Town. It was a family decision that had been coming for years. We had a sprinkling of clients in the Cape but little did I know that the pandemic would untether people from Gauteng; a stream of clients, their friends and families made similar moves. Our client base is now spread across the country to far-flung villages - where people have sought a quieter life closer to nature or family - and new city locations as they have realised that new opportunities existed elsewhere. It is a new reality that we’re adapting to – not seeing some of our clients regularly across a table, but rather on a screen.
We were instrumental in helping those clients make those kinds of changes; dreams of living by the sea or changing careers, and we will continue to innovate to support our clients with bold moves.
Part of our vision for Foundation, was building a brand rather than a business around me, which is so often the case with advisory firms. We wanted to build a sustainable business that could stand apart from me as the most experienced and visible advisor, and which could continue to serve our clients, even in my absence. We were serious about succession planning right from the outset. It meant that we had to ensure that we had a strong team and that we had to constantly develop our team. It is an aspect of the business I love – seeing potential and creating an environment for talent to flourish is one of the most rewarding aspects of my work. Over the years, we have not only retained our key team members, but they have grown into some of the best that I have worked with!
I am immensely proud of our team and our culture. Every team member not only contributes to our warm welcome but also strives for the world-class excellence that we value. It is not easy to find or nurture competence and caring in an individual and a team, but for us, it’s imperative. Our team is highly qualified – every advisor has more than one post-graduate qualification, including the Certified Financial Planner designation and each client service team member is either a graduate or studying towards a degree. Every team member has a learning plan. It’s not that we necessarily value tertiary education over lived experience, it’s that we believe it shows commitment to learning, and continuous learning is now a necessity.
Our team would not have been where it is today if it had not been for the meeting of two very different people. I met my business partner and co-founder, Elke Zeki, sixteen years ago. It has been wonderful to watch her grow from that freshly qualified Certified Financial Planner Professional to the confident business partner that she is today. Our partnership is based on the acknowledgement that we bring different skills to the table. Elke gives fresh perspectives, endless energy, creativity, and innovation to our business. Our shared values of caring, excellence and family are what has kept us together for all these years.
I thank her for the role she has played in our success, for challenging me and for always moving us forward, although at times I have protested changing yet another system! It is all part of our successful partnership.
I feel privileged to do this work. I feel honoured by the clients who have trusted us with their hopes and dreams and shared, sometimes vulnerably, their fears and miscalculations. It gives my own life meaning and purpose when I learn that we have made an impact on their future and wellbeing.
Recently we had a regular review meeting with one of our clients. We were in three different locations around the country but we could not have had a more profound and joyful conversation. Our client described how our partnership had changed the course of her life. When we met her, years of corporate life at the highest ranks had taken their toll on her wellbeing. When we spoke, she was on a sabbatical and planning for her next phase. She described how well she felt, and how grateful she was for the position she found herself in, because of our planning. She mentioned that she was now being invited to do more meaningful work, with people she respected at her desired pace. Her pared-down lifestyle was more in line with her values, and with what she was prepared to sacrifice to earn. She was living more intentionally without sacrificing much of her future financial security. By changing her lifestyle now, she was in fact securing a longer-earnings career.
That conversation captured what we strive to do. It’s about the life money enables. Not just about the money. Our reward is that – seeing how our clients’ money enables them to live the best life possible. That is what inspires me to keep building Foundation Family Wealth.
We thank everyone who has shared our first ten years. Our team. Our clients. Our families. Our business partners. What a journey it has been and we hope to share it with you in the next ten years.
We know that it will be challenging. That change will happen faster than ever. That it will require resilience and creativity from us. That we will need to adapt to thrive. But we’re ready for it.
Here’s to the next ten!
//03 March 2022.