Whistleblower: Chloe Meley was told to call herself Sarah and be vague about where personal details came from
Rogue partners at wealth manager St James’s Place employed student labour in a cold-calling operation to hook wealthy clients, a whistleblower has revealed. Chloe Meley, who has given an account of her time as a cold-caller to The Mail on Sunday, was one of those employed for £10 an hour to try to lure high net worth individuals to invest.
The use of the telemarketing firm, run out of a living room in Guildford, contravened SJP’s own ban on cold-calling and is at odds with the high-class image the firm projects.
Meley’s revelations will provoke fresh controversy about the methods used by the FTSE100 company, which has previously come under fire for charging high fees and offering lavish incentives to its salespeople. SJP said a handful of its advisers have now been disciplined for using the telemarketing firm’s services.
Meley took the job at Barnaby Beckett Referrals to pay her way through university in 2018. With a small group of others from the University of Surrey she was told to cold-call well-off lawyers to persuade them to set up an appointment with an SJP adviser – in breach of a ban on cold-calling at the company.
The boss of Barnaby Beckett called herself Jules, but sometimes also Susan or Sarah on the phone. She told the students the work was ‘covert’, as SJP partners were not meant to use her firm’s services.
Meley and the other students were instructed to lie about where they had obtained the lawyers’ contact details. Female students were told to call themselves Sarah when they spoke over the phone. They were never given a contract or had tax deducted from their pay. Sums would simply appear in their bank account following a shift.
SJP says it never had any connection with Barnaby Beckett, and that individual advisers at its partner firms must have used its services in breach of company rules.
Founded in 1991, SJP uses more than 4,500 wealth managers to sell its funds. ‘Gifts’ handed to top-performing advisers include white-gold cufflinks and luxury holidays. The firm was blasted by experts and MPs in 2019 when the extent of those rewards – funded by clients’ money – was laid bare by an earlier whistleblower. The firm was lambasted for charging higher fees than many of its peers.
SJP says it has changed its practices to make sure rewards reflect ‘the value partners provide clients’, and ensure they incorporate ‘elements such as professional development and training’. It also claims independent research ‘shows the total charge St James’s Place clients pay is below the market average for the service we provide’. But the call-centre allegations raise new questions about its compliance and supervision of partner firms.
Meley, who now works for financial publication Citywire, was in her second year at university when the offer arrived in her inbox, forwarded by the careers department. All she had to do was leave a voicemail to apply. Jules, she says, called her back the next day, and said: ‘I like your voice, do you want to come in for training?’
‘There was no interview, no CVs. She told us she was looking for pretty voices – people who sound nice on the phone,’ Meley says. Jules, who ran the call centre out of her living room, was an enigma. ‘She told us she was an actress in her 20s and 30s,’ Meley says, putting her age at 60. Jules never gave a surname, or explained why she was working for SJP.
Meley says: ‘I knew it was dodgy, as we were using fake names and couldn’t tell people how we got their details. It was stressful, at times overwhelming, because of the pressure.’
She worked for Barnaby Beckett for about eight months in total, between 2018 and 2020.
It was only when she started working for Citywire that she realised the job was in contravention of SJP’s rules. And there is no record of Barnaby Beckett Referrals on Companies House, the register of UK firms. Its website disappeared when Meley wrote about her experience for Citywire in April.
Tarnished image: St James’s Place said a handful of its advisers have been disciplined for using the telemarketing firm’s services
She still has a copy of the script they were asked to use. When asked what the SJP adviser would do in the meeting, she was told to say they would ensure ‘you are receiving the very best possible returns on any investments you have’. If a lawyer asked where she got their details, she says she was told to reply: ‘Our partners deal with law partners on a daily basis – probably from a colleague of yours.’
She says in reality she was handed a wodge of papers every shift with hundreds of numbers on. She had no idea where they came from. In eight months, she secured only about 20 appointments – earning less than £200 in commission on top of her £10-an-hour pay.
SJP said it was aware of the malpractice before it was exposed by Ms Meley. However the Barnaby Beckett website only vanished in April, when the Citywire article was published.
A spokesman added: ‘We reject Barnaby Beckett’s methods and have taken action to prevent it dealing with our advisers. We have never engaged or approved it. The few advisers who had unauthorised engagement with Barnaby Beckett were disciplined after a detailed internal review. We have demanded Barnaby Beckett cease engagement with our advisers and are deeply concerned it had gone to such lengths to conceal this from SJP.’
The Mail on Sunday was unable to reach anyone from Barnaby Beckett for comment.