Advice with a social conscience: Nic Cicutti meets award-winning money consultant Stephen Ward

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The Independent Online
WHETHER dealing with the mental needs of one set of clients, or looking after the financial needs of another, Stephen Ward's career is still all about helping people.

Last week Mr Ward, who left his social work post only nine years ago, won the annual investment planning award offered by Money Week, a specialist magazine.

A jury of his peers in the financial services industry judged his detailed reply to a case study of a couple's financial problems to be the best solution for their needs.

Mr Ward said he was drawn to it largely because the question - how to advise a risk- averse couple where the husband has just been made redundant - involved a common scenario among his clients.

'I noticed that many of them were either taking early retirement or were losing their jobs, so it was was the sort of thing I was already thinking about.'

He added: 'If you give good advice, a lot of what you say won't earn you a penny in commission. But that should not be the point of what you are doing.'

Nor does he shy away from analogies between this job and his former social work role: 'In both cases, you are offering a service. It was almost a continuation of what I was doing.

'Social workers sell every day. They may not frame it as such, but when they present a case to a conference they do their homework first. They then have to use their skills to sell that option to their colleagues.'

Becoming a social worker in the mid-Seventies was an easy option for someone with a social science degree. 'When I qualified, I decided to work in field work, which means taking on a caseload involving everything from mental health to child abuse.'

Leaving, after nine years spent working in the Earls Court area of London, was not quite so easy: 'The emotional toll was really too high. It was the daily drip-drip, but there were also the individual cases.

'I remember one week, assessing three cases for admission to mental hospital, one of them a Ugandan lady who set fire to her flat. These were pretty scary cases.'

Having decided to leave social work in mid-1985, he went to a personality-testing agency for an assessment of his potential. The agency concluded that although his numerical skills were under-used, he should remain where he was.

But he ignored the advice, and in a few weeks became a consultant with a large financial services company, Hill Samuel, leaving to set up his own independent advice firm, Stephen Ward & Co, after six years.

He said: 'The whole point of advising people is that you have to be focused entirely on their needs. At the end of the day, the relationship with clients must be built on trust.

'They must know that whatever you advise them, it is always in their interests and not yours or the company you work for. I felt that I was not meeting the best needs of my clients if I stayed with my employers.'

Mr Ward, who is based in Ealing, London, now advises about 100 clients, most of whom come to him by referrals: 'If you want to do your best for them you cannot take on hundreds of clients. At the end of the day, it is your advice, not that of an impersonal company, they come for.

'If I do expand, it will be through secretarial and admin staff to lighten that side of the workload, rather than by recruiting more advisers.'

At a time when independent advice is seen by some to be under threat from big and impersonal companies, he is optimistic about his own future. 'There will always be plenty of work around for those of us who do our work properly and can show a client that he or she will gain financially by coming to us,' he added.

(Photograph omitted)

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