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The Optima Group has undertaken an exceptional journey over the past five years. While Belgium was rocked by the 2008 financial crisis, this company seized the opportunity to re-evaluate their position and embrace a whole new angle.

Keen to offer something more than just financial planning, the Optima holding company took the unprecedented move of buying a bank and acquiring a banking licence. At first, this drew questions and concerns from the National Bank of Belgium. How could these little-known financial planners fit into the banking industry?

However, with a strong focus on customer service and some research help from Vlerick, Optima have firmly established themselves in their new role. We met with the CRO of the Optima Group, Jo Viaene, to find out more.

A different concept

Since acquiring the bank in 2011, Optima have begun to offer their clients a host of other services. However, financially planning remains their core business. As Viaene explains, “We are not a bank offering financial planning services in the margin. We are a financial planner with, among other credentials, a banking licence. The difference is not merely a question of interpretation, indeed it’s at the heart of Optima’s business concept. Our goal is not to sell a lot of financial products; it is to offer solutions assistance to our client in realising their and their family’s personal future goals. To this end we make a study of the client and his financial situation based on these goals, offering each client a clear insight into the different issues that might impede their success. To reach these financial goals you will, at some point, need products - that’s true - but instead of selling products we offer solutions that meet the perceived and agreed needs of the client.

“A bank is an institution with a lot of products, and as a client you can choose or fail to choose between these products, but before offering any product or solution a financial planner first makes a personal plan for each client. This plan offers a guideline and agenda to realise the client’s goals and thus overcome the issues outlined above. In that respect each and every product or solution within the plan is in line with that focus, 100%. That is, in fact, the big difference between a mere bank and Optima as a financial planner with a banking licence.”

The personal touch

As part of their commitment to focussing on the client, Optima like to keep their relationships on a personal basis. Viaene believes this is one way in which the company stands out: “Extending the service of financial planning as we do it is always done face to face. It’s not via the internet or fax or phone or mail. We believe that this is a real opportunity in the market. If you look to the banking industry today, they seem almost adamant to try and avoid seeing the client! We choose very much to do it the other way around.”

It seems that the hours spent building these relationships is time well spent. As Viaene says, “You can only work on a professional basis if you see the client and all the decision-makers in any given situation. We always talk to both partners in a relationship, or the different partners in a company. Most of the time, we meet in the comfort of their home or offices. In this setting, the client is more at ease to make the right decision and devote the necessary time to his financial well being. We believe that investing time in the client on a personal basis contributes to the overall success for all parties concerned.”

Stepping out of crisis

In the wake of the shake-up that was the 2008 financial crisis, Optima witnessed a lot of change in the industry. As sweeping new regulations came into play and the position of the major banks looked uncertain, they spied an opportunity to expand. “Since the crisis of 2008, there has been a lot of uncertainty. The major banks have lost their position as trusted partners for their clients. We tried to fill in that position by offering our proven concept for success: personal financial planning. The fact that we expanded our portfolio of solutions with an array of banking products resulted in Optima being able to offer their clients a 360-degree approach including banking products. By any means, a unique position in the market today.”

Making this change was not always a simple process. “In the first month, it was not easy,” says Viaene. “Before, banks considered us an outside threat to their client relationship and we revelled in that role. And then at some point, following the acquisition of a bank, we become a bank ourselves. It resulted in some uneasiness within the organisation to put it mildly.”

However, he does not doubt that the decision was the right one. “Since then, we have worked hard at establishing our identity - what we really want to do and how we want to be perceived in the market - and over time all the people within Optima have become convinced that this was the right thing to do. In that respect I think 2013 will be a very good year for us and I am even more positive for the future, that this strategic option was the right one to choose.”

Talking through the changes

One of the biggest challenges for Optima was changing the internal staff mind-set as the company evolved. Viaene explains how they dealt with this: “First and foremost, you have to communicate a lot about what is happening. To involve everyone at every level is very important. Sure, when the deal is closed, you can put on a glamorous show, but that’s clearly not enough.”

Throughout the process, the company prioritised staff discussion at every level. “You have to see small groups,” Viaene says. “You have to see the management team to convince them to implement the changes in their daily situation. You have to see individuals - you have some people who are not convinced, because change creates resistance, so you have to communicate and explain every detail of the deal. Otherwise, you will not be successful in this operation. So we communicated a lot: with the press, with the whole staff, with the management teams, with small groups, with individuals. Communication seems to be very important, even key, in this process.”

A constant process

Despite Optima’s recent success, they do not feel they have reached the end of the journey. In fact, Viaene argues, it is all part of an on-going process. “Change is constant, as it is in all aspects of daily life. You have, at some point, a huge change - you buy a bank or you have a new approach to your clients - but it’s never ending. If we look to our business, we see for example that the audit, the initial analysis of the client’s financial situation, has to be adapted constantly because legislation changes all the time. In addition, as an organisation, you develop new ideas, new insights. There are new products and solutions on the market. You have to choose new partners. No product, no matter how good, is ever 100% perfect.”

This change isn’t just taking part within the company, but also throughout the country. “In Belgium, the legislation is changing every day. If you, for instance, consider tax law, we merely state the obvious when we point out that the government is very active in changing these laws. And to think that change will seize to continue at some point is no more than a fools dream. So you have to manage change constantly and innovate every day. That’s our mantra: change is constant.”

The financial happiness barometer

As part of this change process, Optima have been collaborating with Vlerick Business School to gain a better understanding of their customers. Viaene believes this has been a crucial aspect of Optima’s new approach: “Vlerick has been important for us to meet these new market situations. Professor Goedertier and Professor Debruyne did some research for us on the customer journey. On what basis do consumers make decisions? What is the nature of their decision process? Are there distinguishing factors in that decision process?”

Optima used the answers to these questions to evaluate different levels of customer satisfaction. “Bearing in mind the results that the research yielded, we started to study the ‘financial happiness’ of the Belgian people. In essence we wanted to discover to what extent the Belgian people are financially happy, and more importantly how we could keep track of that if so. To that end Vlerick designed a specific ‘financial happiness barometer’ and we have the ambition to follow up on this research on a yearly basis to measure if there is a difference or evolution in these financial happiness levels.”

One thing the research has already revealed is the value of the financial planning. Viaene explains, “As it turns out, the results indicated that increased ‘financial happiness’ is highly correlated with the combination of having clearly developed goals on the one hand and a well devised personal plan to reach those goals on the other. Furthermore this state of increased ‘financial happiness’ in itself increases an overall feeling of happiness. To be brief, someone who is financially happy seems to be ‘more happy’ in general. At first hand this seems quite normal, but to see this hypothesis proven scientifically is a different matter entirely!”

The right decision

With this in mind, Optima are confident that the decisions they have made are the right ones. “We are very proud of having successfully made the switch from a financial planner with a limited portfolio of solutions to a 360-degree financial planner with an additional banking license,” says Viaene. “We have clearly defined what we can offer to our clients starting from their personal goals for the future. This approach comprises an audit, a personal plan and matching state of the art solutions. Consequently we have established a position of market leader in financial planning that’s quite unique in today’s market be it on a Belgian or even larger scale, and we are proud that we can help our clients find financial and overall happiness.”

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