Paraplanning: My story

I really enjoy hearing stories about people. Particularly I like to find out how they got to where they are and what motivates them. It was great that last year’s IFP Annual Conference included a session where Tina Weeks and Justin King shared their stories.

Recently Al Rush shared his journey which I found very interesting. This was followed up with a challenge for a paraplanner to share their story; so here’s mine – I hope you find it interesting…

Creative study

I must admit, I never really considered a career in financial services (let alone financial planning or paraplanning) when I was at school, or when I was studying at University. To be really honest I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew that I wanted to do something that made a difference to people.

I left school with a selection of useful A-Levels which would have suggested that Physics would be the best area to study. However whilst at school I had developed an interest in Music Technology. I had learned to play a handful of instruments (drums, bass, guitar, saxophone) and enjoyed being in several bands. One of my A-Levels (my worst as it turns out) was in Music Technology – basically recording engineering and computers. You only live once, so instead of doing the ‘sensible’ option and doing a Physics degree, I decided to take a risk on Music Technology at the University of Hertfordshire.

I’ll spare you much of the detail, but this course was very different and challenged the way I thought. We were encouraged to discover more ‘creative’ genres of music and composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen. It certainly opened my mind to thinking creatively as well as teaching me a lot about communication skills. We learned to think about the big picture as well as fine detail. On reflection these are really useful skills for Paraplanning (and financial planning in general). I also spent some time leading the Christian Union on campus.

Work in progress

At the same time as studying I had two part-time jobs. My regular job was working in a cafe at BHS where I learned how to cook without poisoning myself (or others). I wouldn’t call it ‘haute cuisine’ but it helped pay the bills. What I really got out of this was learning to lead a team and interact with customers.

My other job was working for a charity that helps people with learning disabilities (Prospects); I did this during my holidays. I didn’t work directly with the people we helped, but nethertheless saw the impact that we were having. My role was working in the small, but busy, finance department. We dealt with nominal ledgers, payroll, payments and invoicing. I learned accuracy as well as becoming confident with money and cash flows.

Out of uni into the ‘real world’

My degree course did include training about setting up a business and making contacts in the Music Industry. Essentially education or work for pittance with unsociable hours – if you are lucky. Three years of Uni meant that I really didn’t want to go back home to Reading and live with my parents. I also didn’t want to work unsociable hours (and I don’t mean evening meeting with clients – we are talking through the night recording or gigging). Neither did I want to keep working at the cafe…

Having no idea circumstances led the way instead. A good friend (one of my Uni housemates) invited me to share a house with him in nearby St Albans. This meant that I needed a ‘proper job’! Not having a huge idea what I wanted to do, I met with a recruitment consultant and they identified a role which would suit me.

First ‘proper job’

So, I bravely stepped into an interview with, was then, Selestia. I knew very little about financial services, let alone quite what a fund supermarket was. I knew what an ISA was, but that was probably about it. My accuracy and speed were great assets.

In my time there I learned a lot about working with people and the practicalities of running a platform – plus a bit of useful product knowledge. I was fortunate to get exposure to some really interesting people who were keen to push and develop me. I moved from servicing type work to processing new business. This provided me with exposure to real advisers with real clients. However the money was still somewhat detached from a real person at the end of the day.

In 2007 things changed. Old Mutual bought Skandia and the operation moved down to Southampton. I didn’t fancy moving as I had fallen in love and was engaged to the lovely Hannah. She had a couple of years left at Uni in Hatfield so moving wouldn’t be practical.

I had really enjoyed my time, but it was clear that I was ready to move on to different things.

Down to the big smoke!

Connections and ‘coincidences’ seem to be what makes this profession work. Whilst on the phone to an administrator at Truestone Asset Management, it came up in conversation that I wouldn’t be relocating. Completely out of the blue I was asked if i’d like to come down to London for an interview. I didn’t really know what to expect.

As we chatted it became clear that we shared values. I really wanted to be working somewhere that had an impact on people. I wanted to be able to sit back at the end of the day and say ‘I made a difference’. I was used to working in a warm team environment and Truestone appeared to be the place for me. So I was excited to accept their offer and join the team as an administrator.

I still didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but this seemed fun and the people were great. I started not really having a clue what I was doing – but blagging my way! Fortunately I was encouraged to learn and pick up my studies. I think that it’s the best way of avoiding mistakes to understand what you are doing. The advisers took the time to make sure that I understood the why of what we were doing and how it fitted in for the client. I could see the link between what I was doing and client outcomes.

Starting to paraplan

About 5 years ago was invited to start doing some paraplanning within the firm as they felt that I would be good at it. I had worked with the existing paraplanners, so I had an idea of what they were doing. Gradually I built up from simple reviews to new business reports. I was encouraged to stretch myself and be confident.

I worked my way through the CertPFS and then DipPFS exams from the CII; this backed up the knowledge that I had picked up. The company was very keen for me to develop and get involved. This is where I first got to know Financial Planning as opposed to just Financial Advice.

Financial Planning

I was asked to take a look at ‘this software called Voyant’ so that we could do some cashflow modelling. I didn’t really know what it was or why it was useful. I sat in on a webinar and started to see that this was a tool for looking at the future. Not in a mystic meg type way, but in a scientific way. This really interested my mathematical side.

However the thing that really hooked me was going out and visiting clients with one of the advisers. We would build a model of the client’s assets, liabilities, expenses, and aspirations, in the office making sure that it reflected the information we held. Running the cashflow modelling ‘live’ with the client meant that I could ask the ‘silly’ questions that perhaps had gone unasked over the course of a long relationship. Together we would tease out what was important to the client and what they wanted to do – not just money!

My favourite thing about cashflow modelling is that it makes you think of the financial plan as a whole. You don’t just get sucked into the detail of retirement planning or managing an investment portfolio. You get to the heart of the client. One of my favourite moments was when we ran this with a client who felt that he was likely to have to keep working for a while longer. We ran the figures and together explored what an early retirement would look like. At the end of the meeting the comment I took away was that we had given him the confidence that he had freedom to choose when he stopped work. He could wind up his business tomorrow and have the retirement he dreamed of – or he could carry on working whilst he enjoyed it!

I’ve really appreciated this insight into ‘proper’ Financial Planning; it resonates with my values! The way I approach paraplanning is now much more orientated around objectives than products. This has been reinforced by exposure to the IFP and individuals like George Kinder. I think my background in creative media helps think about different approaches to problem solving and the dreaded phrase ‘thinking outside of the box’.

Getting the word out

I was fortunate to be awarded Paraplanner of the Year 2014 by the Institute of Financial Planning. This was a huge privilege and a real honour to be recognised by my peers. Attending the annual conference at Celtic Manor really fired up my enthusiasm for financial planning. The speakers were inspiring and it was great to chat to other members too.

This has provided great opportunities which I have grasped with both hands. I have had the privilege of giving an address at the IFP Paraplanner Conference and been asked to share my thoughts on a regular basis. These are great from a personal development perspective, but I also get the chance to share how great paraplanning is and encourage others to push themselves.

I’ve been fortunate that my employer (now known as EQ Investors) is super supportive of this. I really enjoy writing and I want paraplanners to push for excellence. This isn’t about me or indeed about paraplanning. At the end of the day our profession will only be ‘socially useful’ if we are focused on our clients. A good outcome isn’t (just) profit at the end of the financial year; we should be measuring success by our clients’ experiences.

So what next?

I’ve got my own blog (www.danatkinsonparaplanner.co.uk) where I post thoughts from time to time. One surprise I had though, was an invitation to write for Professional Paraplanner on a regular basis.

As well as sharing about some of the ethical investment strategies EQ offers, I want to get people in the profession thinking wider. We need to think about how to engage the next generation and get people thinking about their finances in a structured way from a young age. One of the pieces that most made me think looked at lessons from Science http://professionalparaplanner.co.uk/passionate-engaging-accessible-but-we-can-do-more/

Paraplanning is in a really exciting place. People are starting to really ‘get’ the value that we can add to their businesses and how we can benefit clients. As I’m sure many of you will know, there is a shortage of Paraplanners. When the PFS said that they wanted to form a Paraplanner Practitioner Panel I volunteered. This is a great opportunity to influence how they support this profession and discuss with peers how we might solve the shortage. There are others doing similar things with the IFP too. I think it is really important that we put back into our profession and invest in others.

I don’t know quite what the future holds, but I’m quite excited by the possibilities that financial planning offers. I really enjoy working for our clients and having a voice in the profession is great. The people that I meet through the IFP and PFS have encouraged and inspired me, so I hope my story encourages you too. Invest in the future!

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