One day you have the security of a steady job and a regular income, the next you have no clients, no routine and no money coming in. This was the choice made by Vicky and Guy Quigley, who hatched their plan to strike out on their own as Demna Consulting while working in the employee benefits arm of accountancy firm PKF, now merged with BDO, back in 2013. To say it was a risk is an understatement, but it appears to have paid off. Six years later they have a growing client bank of 200 corporates, covering over 15,000 employees, and in July Demna Consulting walked away with the award for Corporate Adviser Small Firm of the Year.
The Birmingham-based firm was established with the aim of delivering high quality employee benefits services at a price point accessible by firms of all sizes. Vicky Quigley says high quality introducers, both accountants and wealth managers, were the key to starting to fill that empty client book. The strategy has clearly worked, bringing a range of clients into the firm, the largest of which has 5,000 employees, while the smallest has just one. Demna’s clients come from all parts of the country and from all sectors of the economy.
Back in 2013 the rollout of auto enrolment had just started and lots of businesses were thinking of ways to profit from the introduction of more than a million organisations to employee benefits.
“Auto-enrolment was definitely a door opener,” says Quigley. “Back then, lots of advisers that had never touched workplace suddenly saw it as an opportunity and tried to crack it with auto-enrolment solutions that addressed problems that weren’t there. We had been doing employee benefits already, but auto-enrolment definitely helped start the conversation between employers and employees about employee benefits. The fact that employers were now doing something meant some would give pensions and broader benefits more thought.”
Vicky and Guy Quigley met each other while working at PKF. Prior to that Vicky had spent periods at RMS Tenon and PwC. Guy joined PKF in 2001 having previously had spells at Swift and Clerical Medical, amongst other organisations.
So what pointers can they pass on to others thinking ofquitting larger organisations and setting out on their own?
“For SME clients it is a challenge for them to get access to good advice and services at the right price. But if you make things easy for them by showing the value of what you are doing they are more likely to engage,” she says. “It is also a case of understanding the prospective client’s own business pressures.
“What is right for each new client will be different – every client has their own challenges. Some clients just want to comply, others want to compete and to attract certain employees or to benchmark where they stand in relation to other organisations,” she says.
Health and wellbeing strategies are generally seen in their most developed form amongst blue chip companies, but Quigley identifies a trend amongst SMEs towards wanting to make their workforces happy. “Clients want things that will make their employees happy – visible benefits that will look after them. We are seeing more and more clients wanting to increase pension contributions or introduce matching arrangements,” she says. “And we see more focus on the physical and in particular themental health of their employees.”
Quigley cites employee assistance programme tools as a particularly underused resource for SMEs.
But setting up on your own is not all plain sailing she says.
“There are definitely challenges in dealing with providers as a start-up. You don’t have credibility and are not known as a brand, so you have to find alternative ways to establish yourself,” she says.
Some providers would not provide agencies at first. “So we solved it by aligning ourselves with Best Practice, the network,” she says.
While network membership served its purpose in the early years of the firm, Demna became directly authorised on 1 April this year, and now operates through Simply Biz.
“Direct authorisation means we can increase our flexibility in terms of solutions through technology and support services,” she says.
The authorisation process was relatively straightforward, she reports. “The FCA made it very easy. I was impressed with the process. It is time-consuming but not too onerous. It is all about being professional, being organised.”
So what is at the kernel of an employee benefits consultancy that can move from start-up to award-winning in six years?
“We spent a lot of time listening to what the market wanted. And we concluded that what they want is the consultancy, not the products. The products are the solution, but the consultancy is the thing clients really want,” she says.
Demna structures benefits from the ground up, running focus groups with employees to understand the needs of the organisation. The firm backs this up with EBC-style benchmarking comparison exercises. With expertise across DB, DC, group risk and financial planning, the firm offers a range of specialisms that belies its size.
The hardest thing about running a small firm is having a finite pool of resources says Quigley. “You can outsource compliance services, but when it comes to marketing and PR you have to make sure you are spending your time efficiently in the right areas.
Quigley says there a big opportunity out there, even amongst SMEs, because of the advice gap. “People need support and guidance, particularly approaching retirement. There is definitely a role to be filled in the SME space doing workshops to raise awareness of financial matters.”
Quigley would like to see higher awareness of the £500 tax-deductible financial advice benefit. “Advice vouchers have not received the traction you might think they would have. It is a great way for people to pay for financial advice through payroll,” she says.
‘Demna’ is the Celtic name for Finn MacCool, the legendary Irish hunter-warrior – it also stands for wisdom, integrity, certainty and honesty. So how are Vicky and Guy planning to develop their own story?
“We basically plan to continue to grow and keep on offering a quality service,” she says.
And how has winning Corporate Adviser Small Firm of the Year impacted Demna? “We were delighted and honoured to have won it. We have worked hard to get where we are and to have your hard work recognised by people within your industry is fantastic. Winning the award has certainly raised our profile and that has been a real benefit for us.”