“I realised what a privilege it is to be such an integral part of people’s lives”

May 10, 2019

Carolyn Gowen of Bloomsbury Wealth reflects on her career as a financial adviser, how the industry has changed and why robots will have a tough task replicating the human touch.

Did you know that there are artificial intelligence machines which can detect if someone is feeling stressed when they walk into a meeting room and adjust the lighting to something more soothing?

Times have certainly changed since the late ’80s when information was stored on paper, Salesforce had yet to be invented and financial advisers worked on commission.

How has the financial services changed over the years and, with artificial intelligence becoming smarter by the day, what does the future of the industry look like? We spoke to Carolyn Gowen, co-owner of Bloomsbury Wealth, to find out more.

The beginnings of a career

Carolyn, who has over thirty years of experience as a financial advisor, fell into the financial sector by accident: “I don’t think many people wake up in the morning thinking ‘I want to be a financial planner’. They certainly didn’t in 1987,” she says, “my background is in theatre, I was a stage manager for a number of years. I ended up working for Hargreaves Lansdown completely by accident: I was just applying for loads of jobs and they were the people who offered me one.”

She may not have dreamt of a career in financial advice, but once Carolyn was in she was hooked. It’s not the cash flow forecasts which have kept Carolyn in the financial sector: it is the interpersonal relationships financial advisers are able to form with their clients: “I realised what a privilege it is to be such an integral part of people’s lives,” she says, “people tell financial advisors things they probably don’t tell anyone else outside of their immediate family.”

“I don’t actually like the stuff in the background,” she continues, “the heavy lifting, creating financial plans and looking at cash flow forecasts, that kind of stuff doesn’t interest me. I’m only interested in the clients, their lives and helping them get to where they want to be.”

How do you become a good financial adviser?

Being a financial adviser can feel like a cross between being a journalist and a therapist. In order to help people with their money, you need to get to know them on a personal level so you can understand their goals: “To be a good financial planner, you need the more touchy-feely skills. Being able to build relationships with people, being honest, trustworthy and empathetic,” she says.

“I think being nosy is a really good trait to have as a financial planner,” she continues, “it makes you ask questions. I’m incredibly nosy, I’m very interested in people and what makes them tick, and I think you can learn a lot about clients that has nothing to do with their money.”

Being a good financial adviser isn’t always easy because life is full of ups and downs. “It can be an emotional journey that you go on with clients because it’s one thing looking at cash flow forecasts and saying ‘yeah, things are going to be alright’, but real life can get in the way sometimes and you have to help them deal with that,” Carolyn says.

“If you’re suddenly told you have 12 months to live, how do you deal with that? That’s where we add value, it’s not in investment returns and that kind of thing. It’s about helping clients get over those hurdles when they arise,” she continues.

What’s it like to be a female financial adviser?

With some estimating that women make up just 11% of the financial advisory workforce, one might assume that the industry feels unwelcoming to young female recruits. If that’s what it’s like now, what on earth would it have been like in 1987 when Carolyn was just starting out in the industry?

“I don’t think I’ve ever been discriminated against as a woman,” she says, “most of the women when I started were secretaries or worked in admin, but that being said two of the directors were women.”

While Carolyn doesn’t think her sex has ever been used against her, she is aware that the industry is predominantly made up of men: “I always say that, if you go to a conference or an industry related event, it’s the one time you can guarantee there won’t be a queue in the ladies loos because there are so few women,” she says, “but beyond that I’ve had a very positive experience as a woman working in the financial services.”

For an outsider looking into the financial services industry, it still looks like a sector largely dominated by middle-aged white men, and there is a danger that could be turning young people away if they don’t see themselves reflected in the industry.

“If all you see is one type of person in an industry then, whether you’re thinking about working in that industry or seeking advice from people in that industry, there is a danger that you would assume it’s not for you if you don’t see people like you,” she says, “but I think it is slowly changing and I think financial planning tends to be pretty enlightened.”

How have financial services changed over the years?

When Carolyn first started working as a financial adviser in 1987, it was a very different industry. “When I joined you could literally be a plumber one day and two weeks later you could be selling pensions and life insurance to people. It was like the Wild West,” she says.

“There were virtually no regulations and everyone was paid by commission,” she continues, “it wasn’t until the Institute of Financial Planning got going that fee-based planning and advice started to gain a bit of traction. I think the industry has changed a lot for the better. I think it is more apt to call it a profession now then it was in the past.”

While Carolyn is a fan of the technology that has allowed her company to go paperless and helps financial advisors look things up rather than having to carry information around in their heads or on bits of paper, in some ways she thinks things have gotten worse since the dawn of computer programs.

“We use so many systems, we have our CRM, then our financial planning software, our documents storage system, the trading platform and everything else and none of the systems talk to each other,” she says, “so you can enter data four or five times where ideally you only want to enter data once.”

“The system is so small and fragmented in the UK,” she continues, “there isn’t the same return on investment for companies and software developers to actually get their systems talking to each other. I hope that improves in the future because it’s probably the biggest obstacle to moving forward.”

Are robots going to steal the jobs of human financial advisers?

“I was at a conference in Australia last month and one of the speakers was Jamie Susskind, author of Future Politics,” Carolyn says, “and we talked about how a lot of jobs will become obsolete. There was a discussion as to what extent financial planners are at risk. I like to think that no AI or machine can replace the human touch when tragedy strikes.”

“Is a machine going to celebrate with you when your daughter gets married?” she continues, “or if you have your first grandchild? I like to think that human element will never go away and that humans will always want to deal with humans, but one of the things that was discussed at that conference was that actually there are robots that can display empathy, so … who knows. Maybe we’ll all be redundant in the end!”

While jobs which require human-to-human relationships are probably safe for now, Carolyn isn’t so optimistic about more technical jobs. “The empathy and being there as a trusted adviser is going to be difficult to replace with machines, but if that’s not what you’re doing now then your future doesn’t look too bright.”

“If you’re a paraplanner, that job could be redundant within the next five years,” she continues, “I reckon there will be machines which can chunder our advice letters and write plans and all that kind of thing. You’ve got to build your people skills, because just being able to pass exams and having technical knowledge is not going to be enough.”

Words by Sophia Moss