In many of her clients’ eyes, planner Caroline Bell is living the life they are working so hard to achieve.

She has run her own planning business for the last 13 years, one that allows her to live most of the year in Berlin and still come home to Melbourne three or four times a year to see clients, friends and family.

“I have clients come and visit me when they’re on holiday in Europe and one client, who came and visited the Christmas markets in Berlin with me, made the point that I was a living example of what my clients could achieve,” Bell says. “It has been way more successful than I could have ever dreamed.

“I earn a Melbourne income and my cost of living is Berlin. With technology these days, a lot of people can do what I do and work remotely. And if something comes up, I just book a flight and return home to see clients.”

Bell’s Summerhill Financial Services firm – which also includes a Melbourne-based adviser and client service administrator – has been many years in the making. She started her career in the tax practice of Arthur Andersen, was headhunted to Pitcher Partners, then poached to join a small boutique firm called Australian Private Capital.

“They were great jobs, but I like being in control of my own destiny and I have a good idea of how things should be done, so I knew that I would only have that flexibility and direction if I had my own business,” she says.

The trouble was, it was 2006 when Bell stepped out on her own – right into the headwinds of the GFC.

“It was incredibly stressful, and character building,” she says of that time. “I went out with five clients, but I didn’t lose any clients. In fact, I gained them.”

Moving to Berlin almost three years ago was another challenge, albeit one she relished. She didn’t speak German or know anyone, and had been to Berlin only once 20 years ago – but was determined to make it work.

“The first year I moved, a lot of my clients didn’t know I was in Berlin and I was a bit reticent to tell them,” she says. “But I thought that, if it didn’t work, Berlin would just come to an end and I would simply come home.”

But work it did, with Bell relying on Skype and working long hours to keep in contact with clients.

“A lot of my clients don’t have time to waste, so to be honest, it wasn’t a huge leap to do a lot of meetings online when I moved,” she says.

Bell’s clients are drawn from a cross-section of demographics, with the largest group consisting of time-poor professionals across the east coast of Australia, along with a few professionals dotted around the world.

Summerhill Financial Services has $170 million in funds under management and there is a two- to three-month waiting list for an appointment.

“All my business comes from referrals, I have never invested in marketing,” Bell says.

Part of the secret of her success is Bell’s jargon-free language and no-nonsense approach.

“I am very straightforward and direct, sometimes a little too much,” she says. “But I think clients value that honesty. You’re not trying to make things pretty for them. It’s human nature to have an aversion to saying no. But it’s one of the things that I have learned clients appreciate.

“A client will come to me and say, ‘My best friend has a property idea and I want to invest in it’, and sometimes emotion takes over and I have to say no.”

The overarching aim, Bell says, is to create long-term relationships built on trust.

“We make clients do some homework before they come and see us and we make sure that we’re a good fit for each other,” she explains. “The intention is that we have clients for life. If I don’t feel like it is not gelling or we can’t add value, then we let the client go. “It is as much a case of us working out if the client is a fit for us as the other way around.”

 

Name of firm: Summerhill Financial Services

Licensee: Self-licensed (since inception)

Time in industry (previous jobs): 26 years (started in the tax practice of Arthur Andersen.)

Qualifications: bachelor of commerce (University of Melbourne); diploma of financial planning (Australia), certificate in financial planning (UK)

Accreditations: CFP, Tax (Financial) Adviser, Life Risk Specialist

Memberships: FPA

Johanna Roberts is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist with more than 15 years' experience in news, features, lifestyle, property, finance, books and arts journalism, across both digital and print platforms. She has worked at both Fairfax and News Corp publications in Australia, as well as in digital roles in London with The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian.
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