In 1996, Sackers opted to go niche – and it hasn't looked back since

As the pensions industry gets ever-larger and the issues surrounding it more complex, niche City firm Sacker & Partners is happily growing. A steady increase in turnover of around 25 per cent since 1996 puts the figure at £11.5m for the year ending December 2001. Back in 1996 when Ian Pittaway and his eight-strong team joined from Nicholson Graham & Jones, almost doubling its number of fee-earners, the decision was made to concentrate on pensions.
The bulk of the firm's turnover comes from more than 800 pension schemes, which it advises on all issues. Partner and business development committee chair Pittaway says: “We could see that the pensions market would develop dramatically and we decided to go with our strengths. The way the pensions market is at the moment, clients are looking for the specialists. We're winning a lot of business.” The firm's clients include the BBC, HSBC and GlaxoSmithKline.
Sackers' aim is to have more than 50 fee-earners by 2003/4. There are currently 40, 20 of which are partners. With a growth of fee-earners, the firm hopes to increase turnover to around £15m.
The firm has tried to get away from rigid departmentalisation, but it does have specialist units, including pensions litigation and investment. Both units were established in 1997 and together pull in around 20 per cent of the firm's turnover.
Referrals from other firms is another key area, operating both permanently and on an emergency basis. Sackers is a natural choice for many firms because it poses no threat to the rest of the business.
As a niche practice, Sackers is unable to take on trainees and prefers to avoid senior lateral hires. Preference is given to newly-qualifieds and then to internal promotion and hands-on mentoring. Pittaway says: “Our retention is incredible. No assistant has left us in the past two years. When new people arrive they sit with a partner for a year or so. It is unfashionable but they learn how to deal with clients.” Marketing manager Suzanne Kavanagh believes this system gives newcomers a more integral role.
Three partners – Katherine Dandy, Julie Curry and Jane Kola – have been made up recently. The latest appointment was director of professional development Claire Carey, who was a senior associate at Baker & McKenzie. Her role involves training, briefing clients and internal information sharing. She joined at the beginning of May.
Pittaway says: “I never thought I'd see the day when pensions and curling were vying for the front page. Schemes have gone through a real period of change – FRS17, a new accounting standard, is one of the catalysts. People are waking up to the fact that it is quite expensive to provide final salary pensions.” Alternatives are being considered, such as Care (Career Average Revalued Earnings), which involves more risk-sharing between employer and employee.
A recent case is Blagden, where Pittaway advised the trustees. Blagden sold its business and had £75m to make an acquisition with. Having failed to find a suitable purchase it decided to return all monies to the shareholders. It was going to leave several thousand members with a fraction of their pension benefit. Sackers launched a campaign persuading the liquidator to pay up. The £5m shortfall in pension funds was paid at the end of last year.