The many hats of a platform head

Al Ward, Head of Platform

Many financial services roles require circus-worthy juggling skills and the Head of the Aviva Platform is no different. From keeping an eye on the market, to exploring new technologies and searching for the next game-changing innovation, there are many different aspects to Al Ward’s role at Aviva.

Steve Nelson, from The Lang Cat, recently caught up with Al, to gain a greater insight into the challenges and rewards of his job. In the first of three articles, they focus on a top priority for all users – service.

A day in the life

Steve Nelson: Everything I’ve experienced in the last 10 years analysing the platform sector would lead me to believe that the role of head of platform such as yours means you probably have to wear quite a few hats on any given day. Could you give a wee bit of insight as to what that actually means for you on a practical kind of day-to-day level?

Al Ward: Goodness, where to start? No two days are the same, that’s for sure! Getting involved in so many different aspects of the platform is what I love about the role. I can be looking at what’s happening in the market and where it’s going, investigating emerging technology and demographic changes, or finding out what the industry's doing and how we can raise our game to stay not only competitive, but a market leader. Not to mention the investment market, the product market, the regulation…

Then there’s the more day-to-day parts of the role. I might be working on how to take all of that information and put it into a road map to develop and grow the platform and meet that kind of coming need we’ve identified – but inevitably those changes are going to work more in one customer base’s favour than another, so we need to weigh up all the pros and cons.

It’s rare not to get an e-mail from a BDM asking, “Can we do xyz?”And often it’s a great idea. But how big is the opportunity and who wants it? I need to find out what it involves, what impact it will  have on other processes etc.

Of course, we always have to be fully aware of regulatory requirements when we’re investigating a new service or process, along with risk profiles. Making sure we have a good risk balance comes back to driving good outcomes – making an efficient, effective platform for providers to use.

Aviva’s main priorities

SN: It sounds pretty full-on to me! What would you say are the main areas of focus for you just now as a business? Obviously there’s loads going on in the market, but if you were to try and articulate the main priorities, what would you say they are for you and Aviva?

AW: Clearly, consumer duty plays a major part right now. We've got a big program wrapped around that and we'll come out with more information on it as we move towards the key dates in April and July. We also currently have a big focus around driving good outcomes, taking account of foreseeable harm and value. We're also seeing an increased demand for firms wanting more efficiency in their business and that largely concerns firms which have merged. Buying other firms means there can be large numbers of platforms and operational systems or providers in operation in the business and they're looking to narrow that down. They want to manage risk and  the businesses to be more efficient, so there's a conversation going on with a large number of firms at the moment around those aims and how we support them.

Generational wealth is also a focus for us – we’re seeing quite an surge in demand around it. There are people moving their assets through retirement and then saying, “What do I do with this money? How do I pass it on effectively and how do I manage more assets as a family?” Inevitably the conversations we have with firms are all nuanced and different in terms of what they need. Our job is pulling all that together and understanding what it means for each firm.

The emphasis on ESG continues, both in terms of our sustainability goals and what we're trying to do there. We see this as a strategic piece. It’s about looking at the future, where the market is going and where the demographics are changing in what people want. For me, it’s all about client preferences – what does the client want and what’s important to them? Sometimes I fear we’re getting too wrapped up in the ESG element, when what we need to do is bring it back to good client conversations and good discussions about what they want. This inevitably links back into gaining good outcomes and avoiding potential harm to achieve them.

Service is key

SN: You pieced together all the different options for firms earlier: whether that's platform choice, technology choice, investment proposition, construction etc. They’re the hard and fast facts, that define what each firm looks like. Triangulate that with how firms look and feel, their ethics and what they want for their future. It means no two firms are the same, in my view. But one thing that we repeatedly find, and it came through as strong as ever in our latest big omnibus research in the last month or so, is the extent to which pure day-to-day servicing remains the key differentiator. Is this your experience too?

AW: To me, service is critical: it’s the key to success. No matter how slick everything else is, no matter what your price point – if you haven’t got a good service, people aren’t going to use you. It's about the service you offer via your digital capability, your BDMs and your operations team.

We have conversations with lots of firms and service always comes up. We have a great core service and  I agree with your point that no one firm is the same: our job is to gather all that information and deliver a great service model that meets the needs of advisers and their customers. We've worked really hard on this and the guys in our operations team  do a great job in making sure we're on top of the demand and what we need.

Of course, there are always challenges but our teams move quickly to resolve them. A big part of this is communication: if an adviser has an issue and wants to know what we’re doing about it, we do everything we can to keep them informed. Just knowing we’re on it and working to resolve the issue makes a huge difference.