Creating a practice fit for a post-pandemic world

Longstanding adviser Tony Tilenni is the first to admit things are done a little bit differently at Tilenni Stiles & Associates.  

To begin with, the Perth-based Principal has spent much of his career trying to construct a suite of tax, accounting, planning and legal services under the same roof.  It’s been a long road, he says.

“It took some 20 years to get to the stage of getting an established and reputable legal practice into the same offices,” Tony says.  But for the last 12 years that we have shared offices with our lawyers of 35 years and the synergies of working together have been enormous for both practices and for our clients.”

The rationale of his multi-disciplinary approach is recognising clients need different professional services at different stages of their lives and want to work with a trusted team. The plan is to keep building Tilenni Stiles & Associate’s network and to that end, the business has recently acquired another firm from the Count network.

“We really wanted to achieve better critical mass,” Tony says. “The adviser has continued to work with us part time, which has worked for her and for us. We thought ‘why would you get rid of the adviser who has worked hard to build those trusting [client] relationships?’,” he says.

The firm has won numerous professional services and accounting awards – including the Count Pinnacle Award for Tony himself. The director credits the approach to client services for the advisory firm’s success.

“I know that it’s about trust and it’s about ethics,” Tony says. “We don’t treat clients at arm’s length but rather we work collaboratively. I have always believed in the Helen Keller quote ‘alone we can do so little; together we can do so much’,” he says.

Tony says that during the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry, the firm was receiving calls from clients ‘checking in’ and offering emotional support. He says it’s a testament to the strong relationships the firm has built with its clients.

Quality over quantity

Despite supporting the advice industry’s transition to a fully-fledged profession, Tony explains that as Accountants we have always been an Ethically bound profession offering Financial Planning services and says that he has certain concerns about how advisers’ value is expressed to regulators.

“The problem we have at the moment with the regulator is it’s all about quantitative service,” he says. “Clients don’t primarily pay us for quantitative service, they pay us for qualitative services; they trust us, they have peace of mind and we help clients to pass ‘the sleep test’.

“I think that an ongoing service agreement should reflect qualitative aspects of the client relationship and I do believe that’s possible both from a practical and a legislative point of view.”

Tony has concerns as to how the value of fees is evaluated by regulators with regards to meeting Standard 7 in the FASEA Code of Ethics and how it is translated in a practical sense.  

He also has concerns about ‘perceived’ conflicts of interest (where according to FASEA we can still act) versus ‘actual’ conflicts of interest in Standard 3 which clearly states that if we have a conflict we are not allowed to act, but says he supports the other 10 standards. In his opinion, Standard 3 needs to be rewritten to ensure the distinction between perceived and actual conflicts of interest.  

Tony says he recently completed and passed the Financial Adviser Exam but has doubts about whether it is the best measure of an adviser’s obligations to observe client’s best interests.  

“The questions could be more consistent and common sense,” he says.

Tony acknowledges there are challenges in assessing the qualities that the financial advice industry needs.

“I believe that you cannot examine someone as to whether they’re ethical. Someone is either ethical or they’re not,” he says.

Growth through crisis

The Perth-based director says the COVID crisis has been the practice’s “busiest time ever” and has not affected future growth plans.

The next plan is to purchase a smaller accountancy firm.

On the tax and accounting side, Tony says the business has been fielding many calls about JobSeeker, JobKeeper and negotiating with landlords. On the planning side, few calls were received because clients were educated and confident about the strategies in place.  

However, we still took the time to re-assure clients by either ringing or zooming with them to make sure that they were OK.

Logistically, staff were working from home one day a week before the lockdown period. The firm trialled an A team and B team rotation, but Tony says most staff are now back in the office.

“I do believe that this pandemic is not necessarily a one-off and it’s up to us to look forward, not just review the past and continue to build how we can add even more value,” he says.

“At the end of the day, we are only restricted by the constraints we place on ourselves and we need to aim as high as possible for both ourselves and our clients.”

Recent Awards: 2020 Client Services Award for Best Business Advice Firm – Australia (<$30 million), 2019 Count Female Excellence in Advice Award (Jill Stiles), 2018 won two NAB Professional Services Awards for Best Accounting Firm for WA & Best Accounting Firm for Financial Planning Services - Australia, 2017 NAB Professional Services Awards Finalist for Best Accounting Firm for Private Clients - Australia, Count Pinnacle Award 2015 (Tony Tilenni)

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