Managing Director, Martin Hall, discusses Highvern's USPs in May issue of Connect Magazine
The financial high ground
Over lunch at Ormer, Martin Hall, Managing Director, Highvern Trustees, explains how Jersey’s new boutique wealth structuring firm combines continuity and choice.
From the top of the Duomo in Milan you can see the terracotta roofs of 18th century palazzos, spindly turrets and squat towers; acres of Italian financial and industrial powerhouse framed by the Alps.
From the top of an office block in St Helier, the view is slightly different. The rooftops are grey slate and verdigris cupolas, covered with a proliferation of seagulls or flags.
700 miles separates Milan from Jersey, 30 years separate Martin Hall’s first significant position in finance in Italy from his newest.
“Being with Coutts in different roles for most of that time gave me a line of sight across all elements of wealth management as I was responsible for banking, investments, and trusteeship at various times to very exacting standards, and I’ve been able to bring all that forward with me into Highvern.”
Highvern is one of Jersey’s newest and, at the same time, one of the longest standing finance sector firms. Created by Martin and his colleagues Advocate Naomi Rive and Miles Le Cornu in December 2016, following a management buyout, Highvern is designed to give clients both continuity and choice; its roots in Jersey go back to the 1960s however.
Martin said: “Had the firm been bought by anybody else the chances are it would have been absorbed, ultimately to disappear. We know our clients would not have been happy with that and the vast majority of staff would have been displaced too.”
“Highvern may be a new name, but the key thing we are offering is continuity of our expertise and our relationships. At a time when so much else is changing, that is a very strong USP.”
Independence is also a key feature for Highvern, and something that is very important to Martin.
“Being owner-managed and independent means there is no outside influence from other investors and decisions are made by a small group of people. That means they’re taken fast as a result. We own every element of the decision making too, not various committees, or those with conflicting agendas.
The MBO itself went surprisingly quickly – taking just four months from initial negotiations to signing, and with completion in December, making it a very special Christmas.
“Early in 2016 we learnt the business was going to be divested by the previous owner. We felt very strongly that it was important to look after the interests of our clients and staff and felt an MBO was the best way to do that.
“Early on I expect the vendor might have been considering all its options but soon agreed that our proposal was the best route.
“It took a lot of thought and planning obviously but as a team Naomi, Miles and I work extremely well together and were supported by some close colleagues and great third parties.
“We completely believed in the MBO so when the time came it was not a difficult conversation to have with clients, and without exception, all responded incredibly well to the news and have stayed with us. Many simply expressed their delight that this team was buying it. They know us, they know the way we work, and we are obviously doing something right in terms of our relationships with them. Thanks to all the clients staying, we are far ahead of where we expected to be at this stage.”
At Easter, the 50-strong company moved to new offices in Whiteley Chambers, Don Street. Bright and sleek, with gleaming white desks, sea green and mauve ‘pops’ on the walls, and a reception reading light the size of a giraffe, Highvern’s offices are not that far off those you might expect back in Milan.
“We have invested significantly in our new premises with Elliott Design Partnership really capturing the feel we wanted and in market-leading technology as well. C5 Alliance has built a state of the art platform that gives everything we need for speed and ease, resilience and capacity to grow.
“Growth means doing more with our existing clients and developing new business at the same time. We are considering strategic growth options already as well. However, we have no ambitions to be the biggest – that’s not what clients want; our aim is to be among the very best.”
High standards of service are fundamental for Highvern, hence the name. The inspiration comes from the High Line in New York; a place Martin loves to go when he has downtime in the city.
“I think it’s becoming my spiritual home. It’s a disused elevated railtrack that has been transformed into something really quite special, and is having the same effect on the areas in Manhattan that it passes through. And our brand carries that same quality, that ambition, that sense of always striving for more.
“Mayfair boutique advisory firms have inspired us too. Boutique evokes words such as high end, bespoke, and discrete – these resonate with our client base. It’s a client base drawn from all over the world, beyond London, the Middle East, and Asia are key for us and we are keen to build out in our other markets too. ”
Being responsive to clients means directors have to travel extensively – something Martin is also quite happy with.
“I know that being chained to a desk doesn’t work for me. I took over 100 flights in 2013 and enjoyed them all.
“I love the travel and all that goes with it - even the airports. I don’t always mind getting delayed either, within reason! It lets me see how airlines deal with a crisis and how well they look after their customers. When they get it right, and some do, that sticks with you.”
After years of commuting to Jersey from London and Geneva, Martin has moved to the Island to live here permanently. Although that doesn’t mean he’s grounded. He plans to use the time he saves perhaps learning to fly, or learning to sail.
The end of a tax year is always a busy time for anyone dealing with wealth structuring, however, the first quarter this year was particularly busy for companies like Highvern because of the ‘de-enveloping’ of UK property.
“Our team was magnificent and as you’d expect this is every inch a people business. More challenges for the industry await – the Common Reporting Standard, enhanced beneficial ownership registers, General Data Protection Regulation, the National Risk Assessment and so on. Our job is three-fold – to stay abreast of all that is required of us, to educate and support those affected but, at the same time, to seek to influence the pre implementation detail – to try and protect rightful privacies for example. Engaging early with government and industry bodies is critically important.”
“Adapting to the changes in taxation laws is just a natural part of what we do. We are not expecting such significant changes again anytime soon ... but you can never say never.”
Brexit is a case in point.
Martin said: “Brexit has the potential to have a good outcome for Jersey and for business in Jersey. It’s not just financial services that are impacted, but all industries. It’s complicated but with the right focus and communication between government and those industries we can make it work.
“The concept of trusteeship has been around for centuries – nearly 1,000 years – and it has always successfully adapted to some pretty seismic changes. What never changes though are the underlying needs of the families we serve, which are about succession and protection and legitimate privacy. We and Jersey will continue to adapt and look after those needs.
“I was very pleased to see Jersey Finance’s announcement of the funding being made available for a strategic review of the implications and options. It will take a couple of years to work through all the detail that Article 50 has now triggered, which is why industry and government need to work closely together, and with the UK government, to monitor and influence the outcome. I’ve come to learn though just how strong entrepreneurialism in Jersey really is, so I’m confident we will adapt and make a success of it.
After studying History of Art & Architecture at Warwick, Martin spent the earliest part of his career as a researcher at Penguin Books but left for a career in international finance because he didn’t see his future commuting just to the British Library. Swapping that for Milan, Manhattan, Mayfair and now Highvern couldn’t have worked out better.