The university student category in the SCMP/IFPHK Financial Planner Awards is a real test of what it takes to understand client needs and devise a comprehensive plan that meets near- and long-term goals.
"The university category has become a well-regarded competition, with all the prizewinners achieving a consistently high level in their case analysis and presentations," says Jones Lam, deputy chief agency officer for professional development at Prudential Hong Kong, an exclusive sponsor for the university student category. "I hope it will help attract many more graduates of any academic discipline to consider the sector as their first career choice."
Understanding financial planning should be part of the curriculum for all ages, not just at university, he says. To this end, Prudential has put together financial literacy programmes for children as young as eight.
Devising a comprehensive financial plan, though, entails an extra level of insight and understanding to go with the range of skills required to analyse a family's financial status and come up with recommendations that take full account of income, commitments and personal ambitions. Plans must also make provision for such things as buying property, retirement funds and children's education.
"It is important to make a distinction between financial literacy and financial planning skills," Lam says. "Financial planning is something that can never be taken lightly. To be done well, it requires commitment and an in-depth understanding of investment products, markets and regulations. In broader terms, it also takes excellent communication and presentation skills, plus the ability to assess risk, balance priorities and stress the need for discipline on behalf of the client."
What most impressed Lam about the Financial Planner Awards is that the format incorporates all these elements. This makes it a true test of teamwork and all-round skills, while highlighting the integrity and professionalism expected of a financial planner.
"That's why the university category of these awards has become such a well-regarded competition, with all the prizewinners achieving a consistently high level in their case analysis and presentations," Lam says. "I hope it will also help to attract many more graduates of any academic discipline to consider the sector as their first career choice."
Conceptually, Prudential would support the possibility of broader entry and other categories not limited to university students. This would be a step towards creating a more diverse and sustainable sector. Indeed, the firm has already launched its "Hope for Success" initiative to help bright and passionate youngsters, who have not won a university place, to achieve their career goals nevertheless.
"Financial planning presents not only a platform for personal excellence, but also some incredible opportunities for career development," he says. "With reforms affecting both health care and retirement now in the spotlight, there has never been a better time to be in a sector providing financial solutions in areas that affect everyone."
Winners learn to connect with clients
Having impressed with their thorough analysis, well-thought-out recommendations and slick presentation skills, the team from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) were adjudged worthy winners of the university student category of this year's SCMP/IFPHK Financial Planner Awards.
HKUST's Henry Chow Ho-ming, a third-year undergraduate reading quantitative finance, says the key to his team's success was seeing the case from the client's perspective and not complicating the proposal with jargon or too many technicalities.
"When generating ideas, we looked at financial models and made necessary assumptions about rates of inflation, but when formulating our recommendations, we thought more about milestones in life and how to ensure enough money for each stage," he says.
The case involved assessing the financial standing of a "typical" young couple in Hong Kong and setting out the most suitable plan to meet all their likely near- and longer-term financial needs. In doing so, it was important to take into account income, cash-flow management, insurance cover, personal investment strategies, buying a property, adequate provision for retirement, and estate planning.
To make it a true test, the judges added an extra element before the final round by announcing the couple had a baby on the way - a somewhat unexpected event. This meant the teams had to rethink their earlier assumptions and recast their calculations accordingly.
In preparing for the final, Chow and fellow HKUST team members Sandy Cheng Lok-sang, Joyce Lam Wing-tung and Billy Lee Kwai-yin adjusted their presentation style. Picking up on clues from the first-round judges about the need to connect more and lecture less, they focused on using clear examples and easy-to-understand explanations. They also introduced phrases such as "we can see you care about this" to create a sense of empathy and trust.
"We realised good presentation and communication skills would help us stand out in this competition," Chow says. "We also learned good financial planning is not only about understanding investment products or modelling returns, but about being client-focused and taking care of essentials."
Runners-up Chinese University also won praise for their high overall standard. Team member Raymond Yeung Chin-fai says taking part was an invaluable experience in applying academic learning to a realistic setting.
He and his fellow team members - Steve Cheung Fuk-shing, Howard Chung Chi-ho and Samuel Yau Ming-chun - also found the competition an eye-opener in other ways.
"We started thinking about a lot of important things we had not thought of before," Yeung says. "For example, that too many people still overlook the need for financial planning, or leave it later than they should."
Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
Cheng Lok-sang, Chow Ho-ming, Lam Wing-tung, Lee Kwai-yin
The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Cheung Fuk-sing, Chung Chi-ho, Yau Ming-chun, Yeung Chin-fai
Du Yifan, Gan Guan, Luo Mengjie, Yuan Ye
Chung Chi-hang, Leung Ying-lun, Sin Yip-fung, Wong Chung-hin
Cheung Po-yi, Fung Ho-wing, Ho Sze-ki, Pang Ching-yiu