It was the saddest of news… one of the ‘best’ financial advisers I had ever known passed away a few weeks ago. And while we hadn’t kept in touch much over the years since Phil had retired down to the Southern Highlands of NSW, it was with a very heavy heart that I attended his funeral service last Friday.

As is often the case, it was a time to reflect – we had worked together for a number of years with the Capita and Zurich groups and had subsequently kept in touch, albeit intermittently since we both parted ways with the group in the early nineties. But some things stick and after all those years they came back to me during Phil’s service.

While an extremely proficient adviser in his own right, he is best remembered by me as the forward thinking leader of a high quality financial planning business. His firm, Guest McLeod, still ranks in my top 10. (In April 2008 the business merged with 13 other specialist firms to form the Shadforth Financial Group).

His mindset, first and foremost, was that of ‘business owner’, always asking what can I learn to make my business even better? And always adopting a big picture view – he’d often say to me that he’d rather have a smaller % of a bigger pie, than wholly own a smaller pie. This type of thinking led to his willingness to offer equity to his younger staff/advisers. It also no doubt contributed to his decision to roll into the Shadforth initiative all those years ago.

Phil strongly advocated the need for business owners to employ people who were better qualified than themselves; there’s nothing to be afraid of, simply hire the best you can, pay them well, train and delegate to them. The business will, in turn, reap the return on the investment. He invariably involved staff in his client meetings and was never backward in publicly acknowledging their good work (even if he had played a major part, behind the scenes).

Phil was by nature, gregarious and the epitome of a ‘people person’. As was recounted at the service on a number of occasions, Phil always found time to listen to his staff – their concerns, ideas and generally what was happening in their lives. He was ‘big’ on team building (well before it became a trend in HR) and ensured his firm’s Friday night drinks were attended by everyone.

But perhaps the best example of Phil’s business owner mindset occurred when he ‘CATScanned’ his clients using our survey diagnostic. Guest McLeod’s results were top quartile in every area assessed and the overall client satisfaction rates were amongst the highest we’d ever seen. He had an extremely satisfied group of clients!

So when Phil asked me to come to his office and discuss the results I expected it to be a reasonably quick and light conversation. ‘Congratulations’ and let’s move on. I should have known better – he assembled every staff person (at that time around 20 people) and asked me to walk them through every page of the 30 page report – what could they learn, do better, not do? As I said he was always looking to improve.

These attributes readily flowed through to his interaction with clients, all of whom were essentially very high net worth professionals, executives and business owners – not the easiest personalities to deal with. On one occasion Phil was one of three advisers who had been shortlisted by the CEO of a major bank, to handle his personal planning. The CEO’s secretary had allowed 30 minutes for each ‘candidate’ to pitch to her boss. Phil was the last of the three and his meeting went well overtime (60 minutes in fact) much to the annoyance of the secretary, who had to hastily rearrange the boss’ schedule for the day. It seems the CEO and Phil had a lot in common (I suspect cars and wine figured highly in their conversation). Phil had wisely spent his time learning about the client – his interests, what he liked and didn’t. The rapport was established and the relationship lasted for many years.

What Phil knew was that clients assumed his technical knowledge and competency – it was taken for granted by them. What differentiated him from other highly qualified advisers was his ability to tell stories and paint pictures passionately and with good humour.

Finally, for all his success and achievement, Phil was down to earth and was always willing to share with peers and colleagues. I often asked him to meet with a group of advisers (he never viewed them as anything other than peers and colleagues) to share what he’d learnt over the years. He often opened up his office for visits of up to 15 advisers at a time, answered every question asked and invariably ended each two-hour visit with drinks in his boardroom. Generous, not only with his time and knowledge but also his hospitality.

For Phil the glass was always half full. And as it came time to farewell Phil for the last time, I hoped that the skills I’ve only briefly touched upon here will be remembered and emulated in today’s business world. They are, in my view, most appropriate and perhaps needed even more than ever.

Vale Phil.

Terry Bell