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A Financial adviser in Italy

By Gareth Horsfall - Topics: financial adviser in Italy, Financial Planning, Italy
This article is published on: 2nd January 2022

02.01.22

Being an adult in the financial services business

Immediately prior to joining The Spectrum IFA Group in 2010, I was in my 30th year and wanted to take a bold new direction in life. I was working for HSBC bank in Doncaster, Northern England, at the time, and thankfully the years there were good to me.

However, some things in life seem to change the way you think, permanently. My personal experience of this was during and after my international travels (backpacking ) in 1998/99, visiting S.E. Asia, Australasia and N. America. It was an experience that just wouldn’t leave me. After having grown up in England for the first 24 years of my life, where sunshine is a rare commodity, and then spending a year and a half in sunbaked, tropical and generally sunnier climes, on my return to England I set myself a goal: within 5 years I aimed to move abroad to a sunnier/warmer country.

During those 5 years after returning I had put my time to good use. I had retrained as a fully qualified UK financial adviser, worked on the front line of a bank call centre, worked as a sales agent for an insurance company and was a successful candidate for a financial planning manager role at HSBC bank.

But now, it was about 3 months before my self-imposed 5 year deadline and I still wasn’t anywhere near meeting my objective. Then, by pure luck, by word of mouth through some family connections (sounds very Italian!) I was approached by a local UK IFA firm (also in Doncaster) to be one of their advisers and to open up their first international office in Rome.

I can tell you that I didn’t need much convincing. It would be a commission only role, which was quite frightening as there would not be a fixed regular income. However, my urge to live somewhere warmer overcame everything and I jumped at the chance.

Moving to Italy

I had never been to Italy before, didn’t speak Italian and had no idea about the culture, quality or standard of life in the country. This was never more evident that in my first month of work in July 2004.

We were expected to dress to work, as we would in the UK, i.e. suit, shirt and tie. However, as anyone who has ever been to Rome in July will know, it is no place for a UK style heavy woollen suit, shirt and tie. In addition, I had to take public transport everywhere because I didn’t have the money to take taxis.

I still remember vividly the time when I was returning from an appointment with a 1km walk to the metro station. I was sweating so much that everyone was giving me a very wide berth. I assume that they just thought I was suffering from a deadly disease. This was my introduction to life in Italy. But I was also now experiencing the sun, beaches, mountains (I started skiing for the first time), countryside and not to forget the food! (I remember saying to my now wife when I first arrived in Italy that food was just fuel for me. That attitude soon changed when she served me my first mozzarella di bufala and introduced me to her family, who mainly originate from Southern Italy).

I lived the next 5 years in a kind of expat bubble, never making an attempt to learn the language and just focusing on my work with the same company, but at the same time becoming more disillusioned with what I saw as the future of the business and their ideas.

During those first 5 years I also split with my long term partner in the UK whom I owned a home with; never an easy thing to do. But, I also met my wife (Italian, but educated in the UK), got married in Ravello on the Amalfi coast and we tried to start a family.

Unfortunately, starting a family was not as easy as we would have liked. After a few years of trying we were told that the only route would be IVF and our hearts sank! It was a heart wrenching journey, but in the end we were lucky enough to be successful after only the second attempt (further attempts never brought more children our way) and we were blessed with a baby son.

However, as is often the case with IVF children, he was premature. Our son was born a month early, severely underweight and with serious health concerns. The next few months were some of the hardest of my life, not helped by the fact that my failure to learn the language was now coming back to haunt me. During a time when your child is at the most vulnerable point in their life, you would hope that as a parent you could communicate and understand the doctors. In my case I couldn’t and had to rely on family members to translate for me. This led to me swearing that I would never be in this situation again in Italy. The following 2 years were an eternal wall of worry, but thankfully he came through. We, my wife and I, were left with some collateral damage, but my son is now healthy and a great child. I am very proud of him.

Spectrum-IFA-Group-Logo

I am not sure why, but during those 2 years, I also decided to jump ship to another company, and after 1 year with a firm which was destined to failure from the start, I ended up meeting Michael Lodhi, CEO of The Spectrum IFA Group, with a view to taking on a position in either Barcelona or Amsterdam, and travelling from Italy a few times a week.

The conversation (abbreviated here), over a meal and wine, went something like this :

ML> “Gareth, tell me about your work in Italy.”

G> “There is no infrastructure for foreigners living here, unlike France and Spain, no serious tax or financial planning service, people are looking for professionals but can’t find anyone. I think there is a business here but it will take a few years to build.”

ML> “Hmmmm…it seems like you know the market here in Italy. Why don’t you open, build and manage our first move into the Italian market?”

G> “Well that’s what I was really wanting – deal!”

And so that was my start with The Spectrum IFA Group. I now had an idea of what I wanted to build and how I wanted to do it and I had the support to do it the way I knew it should be done.

During that period, and much before, the English speaking community in Italy were mainly being contacted by cold call by firms that would trip in and out of the country to pick up a client here and there, but there was no permanent and serious presence. I had done cold calling myself in the past but I hated it as an approach to prospective clients. It is called COLD calling for a reason. So I decided to take a closer look at the stats behind it. I found (not surprisingly) that the success rate from cold calls to taking on a new client was about 1%, if you were good!

It wasn’t long after when someone challenged me about how I was going to build the business in Italy if I wasn’t going to cold call. I turned the question around and asked: if cold calling brings, let’s say, a 5% success rate and you focus on this as your main way to contact clients, what exactly do you do with the other 95% who refuse the call? I explained that this was where I would be focusing my energies, and I did.

I estimate it took me 2-3 years of holding conferences around Italy, meet-ups with anyone of interest, writing numerous articles for magazines and websites and continuing my own E-zine newsletter, doing drop in financial planning clinics, speaking with numerous commercialisti and lawyers and spending hours in the car covering 100,000s km. All the time making the commitment that unless I was doing a 2 or 3 day event then I would return home to my wife and son at the end of every day, no matter what time I got home.

I didn’t think much about it at the time, but when I look back, I realise just how much I achieved in a short space of time and boy oh boy I learned some lessons in the meantime. I often say to people who contact me with a view to moving to Italy, “you don’t need to worry about making loads of mistakes because I have made them all for you, and paid the price already. If you follow the necessary steps I have laid out, your chances of running into trouble with the tax authorities are very small indeed”. I paid dearly for not taking the right advice in my first years of incorporation in Italy, and not understanding clearly what professionals had told me.

But, after the personal and work struggles of those years, things started to get easier. My name was now being passed on to friends and family members, my online content was, and still is, being discovered and my commitment to staying away from cold calling and building a strong online presence started reaping rewards. I had finally built the foundations of the business that I had always wanted.

Gareth Horsfall

The following years are much like anyone else’s, I imagine, as we advance through our 30s and into our 40s. The aches after the gym visits take a little longer to go away and the now infrequent evenings out on the wine take days of detox to recover from. But the life lessons, places I have seen, people I have met, knowledge of my business and life experiences seem to, in a beautiful way, replace all those things that you can no longer do. It feels like there is a natural cycle of renewal and replacement taking place.

My life is now more Italian than I ever would have imagined. After years of making no effort to learn the language, the birth of my son and the experience with the doctors gave me the impetus to ‘get my finger out’ (as we say in Yorkshire) and learn it. Whilst I am far from fluent I can live a comfortable and enjoyable life in Italy now, and learning the language made a huge difference with building relationships and friendships.

And it goes without saying that I no longer consider ‘food as fuel’. After finding out that my wife is a terrible cook, I took on the role of cook in the house. I learnt from my Italian family and found out that I am not as bad as I had thought.

Finally, one more point is worthy of note here: the UK’s decision to leave the EU. This created a bit of an existential crisis for me. It brought into question where my heart now belonged. I had never intended to, nor ever would turn my back on the country of my birth, but the subsequent years of campaigning to protect UK citizens’ rights in Italy and the UK’s hard-line stance on exit convinced me to apply for Italian citizenship. It was awarded in 2019. I am glad I have it.

Every time I look at my passport I realise just how much I am now connected to this ‘Bel Paese’, my business and my clients who are as fortunate to also live this amazing life as I am.