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GWA and Three Counties Ltd Update

In July 2019 Greaves West & Ayre purchased Three Counties Ltd, a financial services and investment management company based in Bournmoor County Durham. Two years and a global pandemic on, we thought it was time to check how things were going.

John Coats (JHC) is a Chartered Accountant and Independent Financial Adviser. A partner at GWA since 1992, John is a Board Member of Three Counties Ltd.
David Hepple (DH) is an Independent Financial Adviser and has been a Director of Three Counties for 5 years.
Corryn Wild (CW) is a Chartered Financial Planner and has been a Director of Three Counties since 2019.
Martin Howe (MH) is also a Director of Three Counties and has over 20 years’ experience in financial services.

Q: Buying another company was an uncharacteristic move for GWA. Could you remind us how that came about?
JHC: had already worked closely with another Three Counties director, Andrew Alexander, for a number of years prior to the takeover, so a relationship was already there. A lot of synergies existed and we knew we would work well together.
DH: Three Counties was 30 years old and the then chairman wanted to retire. It was identified that the culture and ethos of the two organisations were very similar, so that was the main driving force that brought us together. We like to describe it as more of an ‘Evolution’ than a ‘Revolution’.

Q: You mentioned similar culture and ethos, could you expand on that?
CW: GWA and Three Counties both put their clients at the heart of every decision. At each turn we want to do the right things for the right reason.
MH: Both firms like to work with people on an ongoing relational basis, rather than just doing one-off transactional work.
JHC: Yes – we all want to build ongoing, lasting relationships across the generations.
CW: We also both recognise the importance of chartered status. GWA is a firm of Chartered Accountants, Three Counties is a firm of Chartered Financial Planners and GWA Wealth Management is working towards chartership too. This means our staff are highly trained and qualified and have a breadth and depth of knowledge. It gives our clients the reassurance that they are in safe  hands.

Q: You have maintained very separate branding and identities, what is the thinking behind that?
JHC: Both GWA and Three Counties have built up their individual reputations over a significant period of time and both are well recognised within the geographical areas where they are based.  That is something we didn’t want to lose.
CW:Although both firms have shared objectives and values, we have very distinctive identities and personalities. Hopefully the variations in the brands mean that we can resonate with a wider  crosssection of clients.
MH: Also confidence in the shared values means that we are able to refer clients from one organisation to the other without the fear of damaging our individual reputations. It has been a comfort to Three Counties’ clients that the company was getting involved with a longestablished firm like GWA.

Q: In 2019 GWA said, ‘Having Three Counties as part of the family would make both organisations stronger and be able to provide a better service to all of our clients.’ Has that been proved true?
DH: The relationship between the two firms has evolved positively behind the scenes without any massive changes that clients would notice, which was the point really – we wanted to continue to deliver the same high level of personal service to each client. Most changes have been at a management level.
JHC: We combined our investment committees into one, our operations committees into one and our risk and compliance committees into one. That means we make joint decisions and then take them back to the individual organisations and apply them in the most appropriate way. We have also appointed a new Business Development Officer, David Simpson, who works evenly and equally across both firms attracting new clients.
CW: I believe that each firm has been able to learn from the other and we have moved forward together.
DH: At Three Counties, we have been able to expand the range of services we can offer to our clients through GWA, for example tax and accountancy.
MH: It has also been a huge benefit to Three Counties to have access to an in-house IT department, especially in the early days of the first lockdown.

Q: That moves us nicely on – what were the main challenges of continuing to look after your clients during the COVID pandemic?
CW: When the first lockdown was announced in March 2020, our primary objective was to let our clients know that we were still open for business and we were still available for them in this very uncertain time. We did lots of phoning and emailing our clients, just checking that they were alright. With the pandemic came a market crash so it was a hugely worrying time in terms of  investments.
JHC: We had suitably diversified for market adjustment and as a result were able to continue to put our clients first. For example, when we saw the advantage in moving out of an investment class into cash we did so without hesitation, knowing it was the best decision for our clients and even though there would be a loss of income to GWA and Three Counties.
MH: And there was no negative impact on our level of service or our response times to our clients. GWA’s IT team responded rapidly to the requirement for everyone to work from home and within a couple of days we were fully operational. We weren’t just marooned with a mobile phone and laptop. We were able to access the full range of software required for background information and to issue up-to-date reports and statistics, without compromising on security. Some of the adaptations we’ve made to our way of working actually enhance the services we offer eg online meetings and reviews.
CW: Early in the lockdown our objective of being visible to our clients and actively getting in touch with them led us to try new ways of communication. After the success of a couple of market updates via Zoom, both firms started hosting online Webinars. These have been hugely popular with our clients giving really positive feedback, so we will definitely continue with those too.
DH: The pandemic has in some ways been a great leveller. Previously we found it harder to compete with the large IFA firms with huge marketing budgets but during lockdown everyone was reduced to what they could do with the internet. Both GWA and Three Counties were able to show they are stable firms that had the infrastructure in place to punch above their weight, but small enough to deliver that essential personal service to clients.

Q: Finally, any ideas for where the next 24 months will take you?
JHC: We see both firms continuing to move forward together positively, expanding and enhancing the services we already offer and we are actively recruiting for new staff across the board to help us to do that. We are currently working on some exciting strategic projects and new innovations in terms of investment opportunities which we believe will benefit all of our clients, present and future. Watch this space!

If you would like to know more about Three Counties, why not visit their website.

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