Lead or get out of the way. It’s a line often used when a group perceived as Lead or get out of the way. It’s a line often used when a group perceived as a vocal minority is obstructing desirable change, and it’s pertinent in financial planning as pockets of the industry continue to oppose and publicly denigrate moves to raise professional, ethical and education standards.
Julie Berry is having none of it. She says change is coming, and planners must make a choice.
“If you’re scared about the change that’s coming, that’s OK. But you have to accept it,” she says. “Don’t be in the press being a naysayer and a grumpy person about it. The fact is, change is coming. Look at where you’re at now, look at what you need to do to accept it. And you either accept it or you make the decision that it’s not for you anymore. But don’t be that person being unprofessional.”
Being a professional requires commitment to the cause, Berry says, and it’s too easily undermined by infighting and backstabbing.
Berry herself is no stranger to change, having chaired the Financial Planning Association from 2007 to 2010, and having been at the forefront of efforts to put it on a level footing with other professional associations through a restructuring that eliminated so-called “principal membership” – that is, essentially, membership of licensees and by extension the institutions that own them – in favour of being a practitioner-focused body charged with serving the public interest.
Those changes were not universally popular and Berry, along with the association’s then-chief executive, Jo-Anne Bloch, regularly bore the brunt of often-hostile member dissatisfaction. But she did not shrink from the challenge.
“If you want to be professional, be professional, I say, at all costs, even when people are pointing their fingers at you and stabbing you as you walk by,” Berry says. “That was a pretty intense time that we went through with the change at the FPA. Members weren’t happy and they weren’t afraid to voice their opinion. I’m sure you’ve come across that before.”
‘Don’t be a goose’
Berry entered financial planning in 1989, working for a firm of solicitors based in the western Sydney suburb of Parramatta, before moving to regional Port Macquarie and taking up an executive assistant position in financial planning with St George Bank. After stints with Bridges Financial Services and NRMA, she established Berry Financial Services in Port Macquarie. The firm turned 11 in August.
Regional financial planners tend to enjoy – or perhaps suffer from – a high profile in their local community. The role demands a certain standard of behaviour, she says.
“That’s the interesting thing about being a regional planner – you can’t be a goose,” she says. “You can’t go out and get rolling drunk or anything, because everybody knows you. That’s my regional planner advice: Don’t be a goose. It’s all about reputation, it’s all about perception, and if you want to be seen as a professional, you have to be a professional. Sometimes, financial planners who make comments in the media forget that, and they forget that a wider audience might see that.”
Berry says current opposition to professional and education standards is probably spurred by fear of the unknown. Until the Financial Adviser Standards and Ethics Authority (FASEA) releases details of what standards planners will have to meet, planners will be flying blind. She argues it would be preferable for the proposed industry-wide exam to avoid technical planning issues and focus on bigger picture things, such as ethical and legal duties and obligations.
“You’ve got a whole bunch of financial planners who are mature-age out there – I’m one of them – who do not know what it’s going to look like,” she says. “For me, if it’s around ethics, and it’s around what your requirements are under the law, that would be fine. If it’s technical, they’re going to struggle to make it cover every aspect of advice.
“So I really think the concern right now is the fact it’s an unknown element, and that for a lot of mature-age planners, study itself will be a new thing. I do feel that you could see consolidation – practices merging – or moving to younger people. Mature-age people, when [the changes become a known, will be asking themselves], ‘Do I want to do that, or is it something that says to me it’s time to move on’.”
Berry says education standards are the single biggest challenge – and the single largest opportunity to create greater trust and confidence – now facing the industry. A proposed 100-point checklist the FPA has developed is a smart way to assess planners’ prior experience, she says.
“You might still find some issues around some in the Certified Financial Planner community who do not like to recognise the older Certified Financial Planner community,” she says. “To me, that makes no sense, because I’m a grandfathered Certified Financial Planner and I’ve done umpteen, 27 or 28, years of CPD [continuing professional development], ongoing training, diplomas and advanced diplomas. I haven’t got a degree and, yes, I’ll have to do the education bridging, but does that make my ability to provide ethical and professional financial advice lower than that of a university-educated CFP? I think probably not.”
The evolution of associations
As a profession develops, the role of associations in supporting practitioners comes into sharper focus, and a distinction between different sorts of associations becomes clear.
“There are the associations that think they’re there for the greater good of the public and the consumer world and their members; and then there are associations that are there for the benefit of their members,” Berry says. “And that’s fine – you need to have both sides of that. But my view is that a professional association really ought to be looking at making it better for consumers to interact with financial planning professionals.”
She says bodies that clearly are not professional associations, and never could be, can undermine the professionalism message.
“If you’re a professional body, you’re giving a professional message, a professional image, a professional front,” she explains. “If you’re not quite there yet, you may run around and speak your mind without giving thought to what you’re trying to achieve.”
Berry argues, however, that so long as associations are consistent in promoting professionalism and focused on consumer protection and the public interest, it does not matter if there are multiple associations representing advisers.
“When I was chair [of the FPA, the message was], ‘We should have one voice’, and I was saying, ‘No, I don’t care if we’ve got five voices, as long as they all say the same thing,’ ” she recalls.
“If you go into a government inquiry and you’ve got the FPA and the AFA and the BFP [Boutique Financial Planners] all lined up singing the same song, does it matter that there are three bodies?
Still a way to go
Berry has served as a director and chair of the FPA, and she is now on the Tax Practitioners Board, which is responsible for regulating and registering tax (financial) advisers – financial planners whose advice has taxation elements or consequences. She says development of standards by FASEA shouldn’t happen separate from the work already done by existing associations to develop codes of ethics and professional standards.
“You’ve got the Code of Ethics that the FPA has, you’ve got the Code of Ethics the Tax Practitioners Board has – which is in law – and then you’ve got FASEA developing a code of ethics,” she says. “I’m sure there are other professional bodies with codes of ethics, they’re just the ones that pop to mind. What will be interesting is to see what liaison there is between those bodies, so we don’t end up with a TASA [Tax Agent Services Act] code of ethics, a professional body code of ethics and what will then, in effect, be an industry code of ethics, through FASEA, which could override the whole lot.”
Berry says her role on the TPB is – as much as anything else – to ensure the body understands what financial planners do and how they operate. She says her motivation is the same as when she served on the FPA board: to influence strategy and to “leave it in a better condition than you joined it in, regardless of what it is”.
“When I joined the TPB, no financial adviser had ever sat at that table. We have consultative forums, but they had no financial adviser on that board. During my time there, I’ve worked with staff, I’ve worked with the board to help them understand what we do, and whom we help.”
What financial planners do, and whom they help, remains a prime motivation for Berry, almost three decades after entering the industry.
“You get people who did not see a financial planner come and see you, and they say, ‘if only’,” she says. “It’s sucky, but we really do make a difference in people’s lives. And I don’t think financial planners really appreciate the difference they make, because they’re busy building businesses and looking after their own families and stuff like that. Sometimes you’ve got to step back and go, ‘You know what? I really made a difference in those people’s lives’.”
Knowing this constructive role planners regularly play, Berry says, it remains frustrating that the industry does not get better press, particularly compared with other professions.
“If you could see the behaviour in other professions, which shall remain nameless, that doesn’t get badly reported – you just go, how is that fair and reasonable?” she says. “We’ve got a way to go.”
One way to get there may be to enlist clients to help as advocates for the industry and its services.
“We know we do a good job but we don’t get the people we do it for to speak about it,” she says. “And all financial planners will tell you the best source of referrals is their own clients.”
TOPICS: Berry Financial Services, code of ethics, FASEA, FPA, Julie Berry, professional and education standards, Tax Practitioner Board