Sometime last week, I caught up Gina Miller, one of the founding partners of SCM Private, a modern, efficient, innovative investment manager seeking to achieve consistent performance at low cost, low risk and high diversification.
During my conversation with Gina, she shares her story as early as her time coming to the UK aged 11 for boarding school to starting her first business in 1986.
Can you give us some background information about yourself?
I came to the UK from South America aged 11 to boarding school. It was a harsh adaption to make from a rather warm place - in terms of weather, culture and family – to a comparatively cold boarding school. After school I went to study for my LLB Law degree at London University and had been determined to pursue a career as a criminal barrister until I came up against the sexist, elitist world of the UK Legal Bar, which in 1982 were very resistant to women joining.
Tell me how you initially got into business?
I decided to take a year out and discovered the far more exciting and creative world of business. My legal studies / training gave me invaluable skills and tools which I found I could apply in a dynamic way in the world of business.
Although I was not certain exactly where and what I wanted to do, I was certain what I did not want, predominantly a desire not to be constrained by a large corporate environment and be a cog in a far bigger machine; I wanted the challenge of building the machine.
I then started to think about the products and services I had experienced that I found lacking and how I could make them better. There was no shortage of ideas what I had to do was to ratify them. To do this I started to study psychology, marketing and behavioural economics.
I started my first business in 1986.
How did the idea for SCM Private come about?
I had sold my financial marketing agency in 2006, the same year that my husband sold all his shares in his fund management business and we were in effect retired. After 20 years of surviving on 4 – 5 hours’ sleep, it was time to enjoy a sabbatical and so we spread our investments amongst four ostensibly reputable well known wealth managers. Then in October 2008 when financial Armageddon was on the horizon we returned to the UK to find that we had been mis-sold and basically lied to by these companies. We were absolutely shocked that the industry was allowed to operate in this manner and that treating customers fairly and with honesty never appeared to be in the psych of the City.
Once we had put our own house in order and helped family and friends, we thought that our combined experience and knowledge put us in a unique position to create a challenger brand and create a company that treated investors with respect and honesty. We started with a blank sheet of paper and designed SCM Private along the lines of what we ourselves were looking for as investors.
We invest seven figures sums in all our products and invite others to invest alongside us if they wish.
Tell me about the early days, what was the hardest part of starting the business?
There were several challenges when we started due to the fact that we were launching a hybrid investing strategy – actively passive, utilising modern innovative investment products - Exchange Traded Funds, and cutting out layers of costs including not having a fund structure, which has been the norm in the industry for decades. With so many innovative facets our business model and products meant that the regulatory bodies found it difficult to understand our model and we had to spend the first two years educating distributors, journalists and investors about what we were offering.
Added to this was the challenge that over 80% of sales were through independent advisers who were still operating in a commission-based world but our fees were set at a low level, fair level which meant we were not able to pay away commissions.
The third major challenge focused on fees and costs. The investment industry is riddled with opacity and when we tried to find out competitors total costs so we could assess where to set our fees and costs, it was virtually impossible. We operate on a 100% transparency basis and publish all our fees and costs in one number; the only company in the UK to do so. As such we were entering an extremely uneven playing field where we were met with disbelieve when explaining what I call the Iceberg Effect of Investment Fees – it not the part you can see that does the damage, it’s the part below the surface that can destroy investment returns.
What is SCM Private? And what are you trying to solve with it?
We are modern, efficient, innovative investment managers that are seeking to achieve consistent performance at low cost, low risk and high diversification. I am determined that we must never forget the human face of managing money, and that quite simply it is not our money. People come to us with their hard earned savings or investment pots that they wish to grow in order to fulfil their and their family’s long term financial health. If people are acting prudently and saving, rather than just spending and ultimately being a burden on the state, then they have the right to expect us to act ethically and with integrity at all times.
Our success will hopefully pave the way for our challengers to enter the City and stop the rot that is at the core of the loss of trust in financial services. It is absolutely shameful that UK investors and savers are basically being ripped off every day and that the self-interest that is endemic in the City means that regulators and politicians spout intellectually bankrupt reasons as to why they can’t change things.
How have you been able to fund it?
We have no external shareholders. The company is 100% owned by my husband and myself. This gives us an enormous amount of freedom to do what is right and to aim for success that is not centred on just profit and returns.
What sorts of advice do you having for entrepreneurs looking to raise money for their startups?
In my experience, it is better to work, whatever it takes, and save to fund a start-up. For my first start-ups I went to my family and a couple of friends after the first year and said this is what I’m doing / achieving, these are my plans for the next three years; do you want to help me by co-investing and reaping the rewards. The biggest challenges, as for most entrepreneurs, came around year 3/4 when I needed to achieve bigger growth and expansion. At this stage there are several viable options - banks, venture capital, private equity and family offices. But think carefully as they all have pros and cons.
What is very interesting and exciting for today’s entrepreneurs is the growth of new funding routes. If a business can supply a social benefit there are several funding opportunities via local and central government’s commission services budgets. There are also some interesting initiatives around crowd funding, neighbourhood funding and SEIS and EIS schemes. For all these, as with the traditional funding routes, it is vital to have a robust plan, do your homework and make sure you have a financial model that works.
One of my biggest frustrations is the low level of lending or funding going to women only businesses or women led business. You have to understand the process be bold and ask. Finance is still an old boy’s network so female entrepreneurs need to be gutsy, network, seek out Angel Investors and start by becoming a bit more fluent in the language of business that men use.
One of my favourite quotes is ‘Good ideas are common – what’s uncommon are people who’ll work hard enough to bring them about’ by Ashleigh Brilliant.
About the first few months, how excited were you, tell us about how those months felt, what happened?
Every day is exciting. I’m very proactive person who is in permanent ‘fidget’ mode so I’m prepared to work round the clock as I’m completely dedicated to our ideas and what we are aiming to achieve.
I’m often accused of having no sense of boundaries. Like a child, I don’t tend to understand or even hear the word ‘no’. My start point tends to be becoming an expert in what I’m doing, understanding the facets and existing boundaries, then aiming to destroy them by going further and creating an improved offering or service or product.
How did you initially get traction?
The press have been extremely generous and supportive since Day One so PR was responsible for our initial traction. In addition, most people who work in the City know what is going on so initially, and even today, the largest segment of our clientele are actually people who work in traditional companies flogging products to retail customers but ‘secretly’ invest their own money, pensions and children/family trusts with us.
What are the most crucial things that you have done to grow your business?
We have no real growth targets, we are very happy to grow organically. The most important thing is to stick to what we believe is the most ethical way to conduct investment business. I believe that if we do that and deliver what we aim to achieve clients will come.
We are not aiming to be all things to all men, we stick to what we do and aim to do it to the best of our ability.
What would you say has been the highlight of your entrepreneurial journey so far?
It will be without a doubt making enough money to be able to set up Miller Philanthropy which I did in October 2009.
In terms of SCM Private, although our direct investor minimum is £250,000, I was determined to develop a product for ordinary investors with small amounts to invest. We did just this by partnering with Deutsche Bank in May of 2012 to launch the first active Exchange Traded Fund (ETF) listed on the London Stock Exchange. This is a modern day fund of fund structure that is 100% transparent on costs and holdings, and can be bought direct by consumers on many self-trade platforms for as little as £10.
What should we be expecting from yourself and the SCM Private team for 2013?
I started a campaign last February called the True and Fair Campaign which is aimed at introducing a code of ethics into the savings and investment industry as well as calling for 100% transparency on fees and charges, and holdings - www.trueandfaircampaign.com. In the beginning the industry and its trade bodies accused me of scaremongering and tried to dismiss the campaign. But the level of debate has significantly increased to the level that they have cobbled together a voluntary code. But as we all know voluntary codes do not work so in 2013 I will be pushing even harder for regulatory intervention.
In respect of SCM Private, we are looking at innovation around distribution, as well as a partnership that will increase access to our products across Europe, and will be the first cross border reporting status investment wrapper. We are also targeting institutional and charity clients.
For Miller Philanthropy, I am keen to push the idea of ‘smarter giving’ that will see donors support small transformational charities and projects – the unsung heroes who work every day at the coalface of the growing negative trends in our society but who receive little support or patronage.
Lastly, what three pieces of advice would you offer entrepreneurs starting out today?
In true entrepreneurial spirit, I will give you four! I often get asked just what makes a successful entrepreneur.
1. Be honest with yourself. Most successful entrepreneurs have a personality defect or particular personality traits; one of these being a fairly flawed sense of self that drives them to want to prove they can be a success or good at something. And that something is not just about making money. It is about the slightly egotistical belief that they can achieve success. Success built on making a significant difference or being of significant value. And a belief that they can do the job right. To do this takes drive almost to the point of obsession, energy, dedication and little sleep.
I will happily put my hands up and say that’s me – I believe I can make a difference. If you truly believe in what you are doing phrases like ‘that’s difficult’ or ‘that can’t be done’ should fuel your ambition.
2. I also believe that innovation is the backbone of entrepreneurialism. Finding new ways of doing business or making a product that is more efficient, more effective, more …
3. You need to be egotistical to be a successful entrepreneur but it should not mean you are not prepared to listen to advice or keep on learning. Be sponge-like in your behaviour. Good entrepreneurs know they don’t have all the answers, but never stop asking questions. Remember no man or woman is an island; be prepared to consult others with more expertise in a particular area. Listen, read, cogitate, deliberate – you may still come up with the same answers or thoughts you started out with, but you will still have explored the pitfalls and any threats or weaknesses.
4. Lastly if your goal is to make a lot of money, you are starting the journey with the wrong destination. If you are successful that will happen along the way. The goal should be to do start something you are passionate about and believe you can do better that what is already out there.
Being a South American, I think my Amazonian blood and spirit directs my rather matriarchal, challenging thinking and gave me my cornerstone thinking that caring and being fair in all dealings with all stakeholders and customers is the only way to build a success.