riding the expat exodus wave

Added 21st March 2012

DeVere chief executive Nigel Green talks to International Adviser's Helen Burggraf about the seemingly exponential rise of his company and his evolving plans for its future.

riding the expat exodus wave

When Nigel Green launched the first overseas office of the expat advisory specialist now known as deVere Group in Hong Kong in 2002, he could not have been aware quite how perfect his timing would prove to be.

True, he had already worked as an offshore financial adviser for a number of years, looking after clients in various markets for Britex International, an expat-focused advisory business, from a base in Malta.

He also would have known that the UK had just handed Hong Kong back to China, which had vowed to put in place a “one country, two systems” government that would retain the former colony’s capitalist system for the next half-century, thus ending decades of uncertainty about its future.

Gateway to China

Indeed, by 2002, Green would have spotted, as others had, that Hong Kong was fast becoming mainland China’s doorway to the outside world.
He may even have heard that a top executive at Goldman Sachs had, the year before, coined the “BRIC” acronym to refer to four huge, developing countries that were expected to benefit from a shift in wealth and power over the next few decades.

Meanwhile, even as Green and Simon Pratt – a deVere employee who is still with the company – were prowling for office space in Hong Kong and discussing investments with their first clients there, they would have been aware of the growing importance of computers generally, and the internet in particular, in enabling businesses to operate globally.

In fact, Green recalls today, both he and Pratt were fully aware in 2002 that the world “was becoming more international, and that as a result clients were moving more, and wanted to be looked after wherever they went”.

“And that has remained a central theme for us at deVere, it is one of our fundamental philosophies,” he adds.

Domestic strategy

This philosophy – that existing expat clients continue to move rather than staying put, and expect to be looked after in their new country of residence – helps to explain deVere’s seemingly counter-intuitive strategy, launched last year, of expanding into the US and UK domestic markets.

Both the US and UK would seem at first too mature and too “domestic” to be of interest to a company that specialises in looking after English-speaking expatriates of working age. But it is not the stay-at-homes in these markets that deVere is targeting.

“Worldwide, we will deal with the local, or national market if you call it that, where it is allowed. But the main part of our business is expatriates – international people,” Green says, from his office in Malta.

International clients

“We look after people who are looking for an international service,” Green continues.

“So you may be dealing with an American, who could be in New York or London, who works for an international company and who might well get posted

“So you may be dealing with an American, who could be in New York or London, who works for an international company and who might well get posted [next] to Italy or Hong Kong. Or a British client in New York may introduce you to an American who is working for an international company and who may be about to leave.

“If you were to define our market, I would say, it would be international-thinking people of all nationalities.”

DeVere’s decision to enter the UK market at the exact moment experts are predicting an exodus of advisory businesses, after a raft of new regulations known as the Retail Distribution Review takes effect next January, would appear particularly curious. But if Green has any doubts about this or any other part of his ambitious expansion plans, he keeps them to himself.

Global expansion

As reported by Inter¬national Adviser last September, Kevin White was brought from deVere’s Barcelona office to head the UK operation as managing partner, based in central London offices. At that time, White told IA that deVere already had around 1,500 clients in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Similarly, deVere already has more than 500 existing clients in Houston – clients picked up from other deVere outposts – even though it is only just in the process of setting up an office there.

“We have ambitious global expansion plans that include 12 new offices in 2012, [and] a total of 100 [by 2016],” Green says, citing such locations as Lisbon, Milan, Doha, Lebanon, Turkey, Shenzhen, Dublin and Kiev as among those on his list. These plans are ambitious, certainly, but they are also realistic.

“Since the economic downturn, there has been an increasing awareness of the need to seek professional, independent financial advice if people are serious about maximising their wealth. The company’s growing client figures demonstrate this.”

Adventurous spirit

Green admits that he probably would not rush to set up an office in Syria right now, but otherwise, for the most part he is willing to consider any market that has a significant expatriate presence.

“We do have a reputation of locating ourselves in countries where others fear to tread,” he says.

In such markets, the hardship elements, if one is careful, are outweighed by being the only game in town, he notes.

“We just opened up in Ghana, and we are looking to go into Nigeria towards the latter part of the year.

“We have shown that it is certainly possible to turn a profit in those regions for our clients and, of course, in turn, for the company.”
As for Zimbabwe, a market deVere entered through an alliance with Tetrad, a local bank, in 2010, deVere says it outperforms some of the company’s other outposts on occasion.

“We have an office in the bank, and it has actually been very good for us.”
Mexico is the only country deVere has ever had to pull out of, and Green said the departure, last year, had been in reaction to “decidedly unclear legislation and regulations” that would have prevented it from offering existing or future clients a proper service.

Fact Box
Founded: 2002
Assets under advice/mgt: $8bn
No. of clients: 60,000 in 100+ countries
No. of consultants: 400
No. of offices: 59 globally, including Botswana, Brazil, Czech Republic, Ghana, Kuwait, Mauritius, Poland, Russia, Mozambique, South Africa (seven offices), Vietnam, Zambia and Zimbabwe, as well as more developed countries such as Spain, France, Germany and the UK; currently entering the US market
Ownership: Privately-held; majority stake owned by Nigel Green, rest by others in the company
Website: www.devere-group.com

 

London roots

Having grown up in West Ham, an area of east London perhaps best known these days for its football team, Green followed his father into financial services after studying business at university.

It was not until after about 15 years in the City, where his employers included Royal Life, that Green “fell” into the expat advisory business after getting hired by Britex.

When the owner of that company retired, Green acquired its client list, took it with him to a Luxembourg-registered company named deVere & Partners he by this time also owned, and began looking after expatriates.

Possibly because he is not a born expat himself, but came to it relatively late in life, Green is more aware than some how difficult it can be to up sticks and relocate to a country where you may not speak the local language.

Therefore, he says, the first question any IFA who is considering taking his skills abroad has to ask is: “Do you really want to live in another country? It is not easy to set up home in a foreign city and take on a new challenge.

“That is why at deVere, we don’t push anybody [to go to a particular market], we ask them to choose. I think that’s the secret. Someone might actually want to go to Ghana, for example, because they are five years from retirement, and might be looking for a place that is a bit more adventurous.”

Green says he is aware that deVere is the subject of unflattering gossip in some advisory industry circles, which includes claims that the company lacks licences in certain markets, and that it does not operate to the same high standards that others do.

“It is a shame, but perhaps unsurprising, that some people in the industry try to get ahead by knocking their more successful competitors,” he says.

“DeVere Group is licensed correctly in all the jurisdictions that it works in. It is not in the company’s interests to be anything other than properly licensed in each territory.

“Our 60,000 clients are a testament to our team’s dedication, professionalism and hard work. It is extremely rare that we receive genuine correspondence from anyone who is unhappy with their dealings with the deVere Group.

“But if there is a genuine issue raised, we will take it very seriously, resolve it as soon as possible, and then learn from it.”

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