Paul Howard and his wife Lisa were living in Nice, in the south of France, when they sought a challenge in a “market that’s never been beaten”.
Paul, who at that time was country manager of a large offshore consultancy firm, wanted to put down roots in a country that they both would love.
They didn’t need to look far. Just forty minutes from the border, Italy was reeling from the effects of its longest post-war recession and the trail of destruction left by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
The couple was also hearing news of thousands of companies going bust each month: 2013 alone saw the closure of 111,000 firms, while in the same year unemployment edged up towards 13 percent.
But that didn’t stop them from taking the plunge, and so last summer they ventured to Rome to set up a branch of the financial consultancy firm, Blacktower Financial Management International (BFMI).
The company offers advice in financial planning, on everything from pensions and long-term tax efficient savings to complex inheritance tax issues and portfolio management, to both foreigners and Italian investors, as well as to people who may have spent time working in the UK and left a dormant pension there.
“A number of companies that were previously in Italy found it very hard to do business, but we saw a gap in the market: there was little professional financial advice being offered, and my years of experience should prove to be invaluable in such a market, ” Paul tells The Local.
“And so we approached Blacktower, which is based in Gibraltar, and obtained the Financial Services Commission (FSC) licence to operate in Italy, in order to be able to take up the roles of regional manager and office administrator for them."
He adds: "One of the advantages of holding such a high regulatory position is that if a client is unhappy with the service we offer, they have a financial ombudsman to turn to, although this is not a common event when dealing with BFMI."
One of the incentives for them setting up in Rome was the large international workforce employed by the United Nations, which is said to be between 6-7,000.
“Milan was our original choice and we spent a weekend there looking at properties, but we didn’t find the people so helpful or friendly,” Paul says.
“We also wanted to live somewhere that had a similar climate to Nice, and so told Blacktower we preferred Rome as our base. However, once Rome is more established, we’ll be opening an office in Milan and then Umbria.”
The timing was also right: many foreigners in the capital had fallen victim to poor financial advice in the past and were also concerned about their financial situation amid Italy’s economic and political instability.
“The best time for us in any country is when there is turmoil,” Paul adds.
“Take the financial crisis, which exposed all the wrongdoing by banks: people lost trust in institutions that were deemed to be solid. Being independent consultants and having the security of the Blacktower name behind us gave people a good deal of comfort.”
Paul explains that having the ability to offer clients what is right for them through an open market policy is key to giving advice in Italy.
"As consultants, we don’t have products and being independent means we can pick and choose from a whole host of companies, not just one or two that a tied agent may be able to offer."
Paul and Lisa have managed to build up a steady stream of clients since arriving in Rome, mainly through personal recommendations.
They’ve also managed to conquer peoples’ fear of rogue financial advisors.
“There were so many unprofessional financial advisors working in Rome who left a trail of destruction for the industry, and so we had to win peoples’ confidence; we had to get them to trust us, and that’s still an ongoing process,” he says.
One way of achieving that trust was by reaching out to their competitors, Paul explains.
“We went to some events with competitors, and let them know that we wanted to work alongside them rather than against them, to help the industry,” he says.
“The market is big enough here for us all to have a successful business.”
Apart from their financial experience in France, which also covered Monaco, Paul has also operated in Spain and Germany.
But Rome is their final destiny, he says.
"We have come here to set up a permanent base that will ensure that our goal to retire in Italy can be achieved."
Lisa also comes with years of experience in the offshore financial market as an office administrator and has supported Paul and his teams for the past six years.
Needless to say, Italy has been the most challenging when it comes to setting up a business.
Paul says that while the country is open to foreign business, he doesn’t think it is “necessarily ready for it”, and points especially to the corporate tax rate, which at 31.4 percent is one of the highest in Europe.
“Sometimes the lack of English language skills among Italians can also be a stumbling block,” he added.
“But in general, people in Italy are probably the most courteous and welcoming people we’ve dealt with compared to those in other countries.”
Challenges aside, Paul believes that Italy will be “the most successful part of our career”, especially with the changes afoot under Italy’s new government.
“There seems to be quite a lot of confidence in Matteo Renzi [the Italian Prime Minister] and they seem to be addressing the issue of tax evasion and are getting better at weeding out non-payers; that brings some confidence.”
High tax and bureaucracy are also outweighed by the Italian lifestyle, he adds.
“We’re living among beautiful architecture, then there’s the good weather and the quality of life…you’d expect there to be a trade-off in return for that."