Career Path

Competence provides bedrock for financial advisers

by Mahlon Campbell

Phil Neilson, CEO, The Henley Group
Photo: Johnny Kwok

With 25 years' experience in the financial services industry, Phil Neilson certainly knows what it takes to succeed as independent financial adviser (IFA) in Hong Kong.

"It's working smart that counts, not working hard," says Mr Neilson, who is CEO of The Henley Group, one of the leading private client financial planning practices in Hong Kong. "You also need to challenge yourself regularly and always prioritise what you are doing, which will help to deliver value."

At present, he notes, it's not that difficult to break into the industry. More IFA companies are being set up and some now have between 50 and 100 professional advisers, so they are also great training grounds. Overall, it is an exciting time for the sector. There is substantial growth, projections show this will continue, and the mainland market is also starting to open up.

"As an IFA, you are, to a large degree, responsible for your own success," Mr Neilson explains. "The work environment is much more flexible than in most other industries."

Of course, that means people must manage their own time well and be ready to account for their personal performance. However, people who are good at the job can gain real satisfaction from their achievements and reap greater financial rewards.

"It's working smart that counts, not working hard"

Distribution network

Prior to assuming his current role, Mr Neilson was managing director and CEO of ING financial planning. "Since 1984, I have been building high performing sales teams in the financial services industry, culminating in over 15 years of experience in distribution network development," he says.

Nowadays, his main focus is to review all business processes and compliance issues and to ensure there are adequate internal controls. Besides that, he is expanding the range of products available to clients and building a more diverse team of advisers.

With so much to do, there is no such thing as an average day. Usually, though, he starts by running through the most urgent items, and then has internal meetings in the morning and external meetings after lunch. Every Thursday morning, he works from home to catch up on the backlog of email and to make sure he is on top of all the administrative issues.

In view of his experience, Mr Neilson has became a sought after speaker for industry events and is currently vice chairman of the Independent Financial Adviser Association. Away from the workplace, he is chairman of Variety, the children's charity, having previously been involved in numerous community activities in his native New Zealand. Considering what it takes to prosper in the industry, he says that good product knowledge and relevant professional qualifications are now prerequisites. What he also looks for are measures of competence or effectiveness, which are not always easy to define objectively in the Hong Kong market.

Establishing trust

Broadly speaking, Mr Neilson believes competence is about how confident a person is and whether they actually deliver. It is not the same as being qualified, since it is more a matter of personal characteristics and how well training is put into practice. Also very important are people skills, which include being able to establish trust with clients, display integrity, and deal effectively with different situations or types of enquiry.

Mr Neilson emphasises that anyone joining the sector must be willing to keep learning throughout their career, but particularly in the first three to five years. That applies whether someone starts out as a frontline adviser or in a support, operational or marketing role. He also advises people interested in a career in financial planning to give close consideration to a prospective employer's reputation, training courses and development programmes and corporate culture before making a commitment.

As someone who is married with four children, Mr Neilson has given considerable thought to how he would like things to unfold in the next few years. "I might work in Hong Kong for a couple of weeks per month and spend a quarter of my time in Thailand," he says. "I might be semi-retired, but would still want to be involved. I will want to continue to spend a significant amount of my time in a place as exciting as Hong Kong."


Taken from Career Times 23 February 2007, p. B18
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