Though still coming to terms with his success at the SCMP/IFPHK Financial Planner Awards 2010, overall champion Alfred Sit Wai-hong already knows things will never be the same.
The wealth management manager with HSBC, who was also the individual winner for the banking sector at this week's presentation dinner, is well aware of the heightened profile and new opportunities that come with such a win. But the increasing intensity of the three rounds of competition he battled through over the past few months have already given him a fair idea of what to expect.
"I am sure this will be a big help for my career," says Sit, who was keen to share the credit with colleagues and family members whose advice and support had been invaluable. "It means that all the time and hard work invested in the competition has paid off and shows clients that I have a long-term commitment to the industry."
Taking a moment to reflect on his approach to the final round, he recalls that the case study was "very complex". What made it difficult was the hypothetical client's diverse goals and the number of people financially dependent on him. There was also a psychological element since the individual was apparently reluctant to discuss finances with his family and seemed to have an unrealistic view of how far his likely future earnings would stretch.
"To find an answer for all his goals, it had to be a very comprehensive plan," Sit says. "There were also these sensitive issues. For example, one of my recommendations was to rewrite his will and another was to improve his cash management, but you have to suggest that sort of thing to clients in real life."
When preparing his final-round presentation, Sit's main strategy was that less is more. He was conscious of the need for strict time management to avoid going beyond his allotted 20 minutes. He aimed to be "simple and direct", focusing on key areas such as short-term liquidity, making solid recommendations, and not forgetting to engage the judges as if they were the client.
He also prepared additional slides - outside his main presentation - to anticipate questions that might come up.
Alpha Cheng Hung-faat, who picked up the award as this year's best financial planner in the insurance category, was similarly well prepared. He practised exhaustively to make his presentation style natural but authoritative, and sought to recreate the sense of give and take in a normal client meeting.
He also made a point of asking some of his actual clients for their views on recommendations he was planning to include in his write-up of the case study.
"I just asked what they would feel if, for example, they had to sell their house and move somewhere cheaper," says Cheng, an associate financial planning manager with The Prudential Assurance Company. "Sometimes, as financial planners, we may think a suggestion is workable, but for emotional or other reasons, the client may have quite a different feeling."
For Cheng, the experience of taking part in the awards has already brought tangible benefits. He feels more confident whatever the situation, the extra recognition has been a pleasant surprise, and he is seeing more referrals from clients aware of his success.
Agnes Lo Yim-ping, who won the top practitioner award for the independent financial advisory (IFA) category, also finds that time and effort invested in the competition is already paying dividends. "The experience has been very beneficial," says Lo, a senior wealth-management adviser with Convoy Financial Services. "It has helped me in developing all-round solutions to address my clients' issues in real life."
Her advice for other financial planners thinking ahead to next year's competition is that good time management is the key to doing well. "It is critical to find a balance between daily work and preparing for the awards," she says. "[If you do that], it can ensure great results."
Hypothetical case must be realistic and complex
The case study tackled by the three finalists in the SCMP/IFPHK Financial Planner Awards must not just provide a test of their all-round investment knowledge. It also has to be topical, realistic and sufficiently complex for the contestants to demonstrate hard and soft skills in identifying the client's financial priorities and recommending how best to meet them.
So when briefing the writers of this year's case, task force chairman Dr Louis Cheng asked them to include specific elements. He wanted to present a challenge that had less of the "fear factor" that has dominated most personal financial thinking over the past couple of years and create instead a central character with big plans, but limited income and a disorganised approach.
Essentially, this hypothetical, but not so atypical, 50-year-old had to support current and former wives, wanted to give his children a good education and had plans to set up his own health-food business. The challenge was to help him achieve all of these, as well as providing for his retirement and other needs.
"To add some new factors this time, I wanted the main character to have a confusing investment profile that led to conflicting strategies," Cheng says. "That type is quite common in Hong Kong, so the aim was to see where the contestants picked up on the different priorities and how well they dealt with a personality with these attributes."
Judges in the final round can assume each plan will be comprehensive and that the presentations will be very professional. The dividing line between contestants can therefore be very thin, perhaps coming down to an innovative suggestion, poise under fire when answering follow-up questions or clarity of communication.
"Overall, the standard was very high and we can still say that the quality keeps improving year by year," Cheng says. "In my mind, the three finalists each had their own unique strengths, but I take is as a very good sign that if you were just listening to their presentations, you wouldn't know which sector (banking, insurance or independent financial advisory) they worked in."
More generally, he notes that the earlier rounds of this year's competition highlighted the importance for financial planners of both hard and soft skills. "Practitioners still need to listen more before answering and should not just use routine replies without addressing the issue," he says.