Wily words of advice

SHOW me an adviser who'll buy back an investment he's recommended if it plops.

SHOW me an adviser who'll buy back an investment he's recommended if it plops.

All right, I will.

Henri Aram, about to turn 90 - which must make him Australia's oldest and most experienced adviser, if not the most unconventional - often put his clients into shares guaranteeing to buy them back at the same price.

He's never had to. Mind you, he says "I never recommend anything I wouldn't buy myself."

But perhaps because his family fled Nazi Germany when he was 15 and he was sacked from his first job as a window dresser's assistant at DJs, where he was accident-prone, and, later, after toying with architecture, decided he'd like to build aeroplanes and getting a job at de Havilland, he's always thought outside the box.

Who else would buy a Jaguar but never once drive it? With the waiting list for delivery a year long he rightly figured he could resell it at a nice profit.

Eventually he was to run his own textile business, specialising in children's underwear, hence his just-published autobiography came to be called Undies to Equities.

"I saw a niche in children's underwear and nightwear, which also used less material," he writes. DJs, by the way, apparently forgetting its earlier experience with the young Aram, later commissioned him to manufacture lingerie.

Although English isn't his native tongue, he went on to become a stockbroker then an adviser, and hosted financial segments on radio, pre-dating David Koch as a personal finance media star by 30 years.

As a teenager at de Havilland he bought some French letters from a workmate obviously having a lend of him, thinking "lettuces" must be Brussels sprouts.

"If they are nice and fresh, I'll have a dozen - my mother likes them," his book records. "It took me a while to live that down."

During World War II he was considered a "friendly enemy alien", clearly inspiration for later bureaucrats designing the super system to come up with terms such as "preserved undeducted contributions" which could just as likely be Brussels sprouts.

Many of Aram's clients went on to become millionaires.

"Among them was a pensioner couple with $5000 on deposit with the Commonwealth Bank who I persuaded instead to buy the bank's shares at $5 each, with the undertaking that I would buy them back at that price if the shares failed to perform," he writes. Then follows a barb, sharp as it is unexpected.

"It was plain advice based on the person, their life situation and their assets. With everyone else, if you asked them for advice, they wanted to sell you shares or managed funds."

He goes further when I meet him, claiming that rather than ensuring impartial advice, the government's financial reforms, which include abolishing commissions but allowing asset fees, will destroy it.

While he's always charged a fee for his services, he says collecting a small trailing (which is a continuing annual) commission can help keep independent advisers in business.

"Give it a couple more years and people will have nowhere to go for impartial advice. Are the banks, insurance companies and fund managers impartial?"

Aram charged $350 for an hour and, instead of the going rate of 1 per cent brokerage, charged 0.75 per cent, keeping 0.25 per cent and paying the broker 0.5 per cent.

In return for saving his client money, he got a small commission.

"If they cut out the small trailing commission, impartial advisors won't exist. They'll go out of business," he says.

"The cost structure of a small advisory firm is becoming horrendous. I've never had an argument with clients over fees."

Aram is still managing portfolios after 38 years though, alas, he isn't taking new clients.

Although he's dabbled in both for years, he says shares beat property every time.

"In [Sydney's] Auburn I had graffiti top to bottom and people didn't pay rents."

So where's the sharemarket going? He has the answer off pat.

"It will continue to fluctuate."

Undies to Equities, by Henri Aram with Michael Visontay, Rosenberg Publishing, $29.95 from bookstores or sales@rosenbergpub.com.au

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