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Anthony Villis of First Wealth on the Journey to B Corps

By Next Wealth | 14 January 2021 | 5 minute read

We caught up recently with Anthony Villis, MD of First Wealth, to hear about the journey that he and his team have been making to achieve B Corps certification

I began at the beginning with the obvious question:  what is B Corps certification?  Anthony told me that B Corps is an international community of businesses, operating across over 70 countries, that are certified as meeting the highest standards of social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose. In short, he told me, B Corps are all about helping to drive a global culture shift to redefine success in business, and build a more inclusive and sustainable economy.

A big idea, no question – and one from which my second question naturally flowed:  how does that certification process work?  This, Anthony explained, is where B Labs comes in – an international non-profit certification body which, frankly, exists to give firms like his a very hard time.  B Labs runs a rigorous, evidence-based questioning process across five areas:

  • Governance:   how the firm is run
  • Workers:  how it looks after its team
  • Community:  how it relates to and engage with the wider world
  • Environment:  its relationships with suppliers, and how it selects them, as well as how    environmentally focused it is
  • Customers:  its advice to clients

A road map for the future

You won’t be surprised to hear that Anthony and his colleagues enjoyed a few moments of mild celebration back in August when they heard they had come through and their B Corp status was confirmed – even though, as Anthony admits, “We made the cut fairly narrowly, and our certification report lays out a road map of areas we can work on going forward.” In fact the average company scores around 50, so just making the cut is an achievement.

In a world in which ESG considerations are becoming ever more important in investment decision-making, it was clear that this was a way in which firms looking after clients’ money could apply an ESG focus to their own business practices.  Was that where the motivation had come from, I wondered?

Partly, replied Anthony.  He and his partner Robert Caplan had founded First Wealth as a Chartered financial planning firm back in 2009, with a strong set of core beliefs:  an emphasis on holistic lifestyle financial planning, a focus on evidence-based investing, and a strong belief in financial coaching to help build real empowerment.  Ten years on, the firm had grown strongly and steadily, and was collecting the awards and industry recognition to prove it was achieving its initial goals;  and although there were still areas for improvement, Anthony had begun to think it was time for a major new challenge.

An inspiring sense of purpose

From the moment he first heard about B Corps, he realised it ticked a great many boxes.  First and foremost, it added a genuinely important new dimension to the role that even a small firm like First Wealth could play in the world, positioning the firm as part of what can only be described as a business revolution.  Second, it would help achieve real change in public perceptions of financial services – an industry which, Anthony believes, is simply too important to people’s wellbeing and quality of life to be allowed to carry on under today’s cloud of suspicion and distrust.  And third, it had the potential to instil everyone connected with the firm – its existing staff, new recruits, current and potential clients, partners, contacts, suppliers – with an inspiring sense of purpose.

These were all massive benefits, but in Anthony’s mind the third was perhaps the most important of all.  We’re living at a time when a business’s purpose is becoming more and more important, to its staff and to its clients alike.  When all other things are more or less equal – and they often are – a positive and strongly-held sense of purpose can make all the difference.  First Wealth’s clients are a diverse bunch, but there’s a bias towards younger, more dynamic business owners and entrepreneurs – people considering exactly the same issues around purpose and culture in their own firms.  Anthony’s growing commitment to B Corp struck a chord with many of them.

Broader horizons

I asked him if there were benefits he hadn’t anticipated.  Many, he said, but one has been particularly important and has the potential to be long-lasting.  Becoming a B Corp provided an admission ticket for Anthony and his colleagues to a whole world of other good, progressive and exciting businesses in fields far beyond the world of financial services.

Anthony had felt for many years that too many financial services firms – including his own – spend too much of their time focusing on the business landscape immediately around them, and nothing like enough time on firms in completely different sectors and markets.  As a B Corp, First Wealth is as likely to learn from a biotech in New Zealand as from a wealth manager in Newbury.  And the same is true for Anthony himself, as an individual – in fact, he has made some of the benefits of this kind of cross-fertilisation available to everyone, in a podcast series of fascinating conversations with other B Corp business leaders available at [details].

Not for the faint-hearted

Finally, I asked Anthony if he had any words of wisdom for other business leaders inspired by hearing about First Wealth’s example to look at B Corp status for their own firms.  Just one thing, he said.  Do it seriously, or don’t do it at all.  It’s a really tough, challenging process that will be uncomfortable at times, and will force you to think again about many aspects of the way your firm operates.  No pain, no gain, says the old saying:  well, this is a fair bit of pain and a great deal of gain.  “Now, Heather,” he finished, “When you talk about business leaders inspired by hearing about our example, did you have anyone particular in mind?”

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