It is never easy for someone already in a senior position in their chosen career to accept the need to upgrade what might be seen as their basic professional qualifications. In most cases they can point to their years of work experience, a portfolio of satisfied clients and diverse management responsibilities as clear evidence of their expertise and ability to perform to the highest levels.
However, in the fast-evolving world of financial planning and investment advice, the designation of Certified Financial Planner (CFP), though only introduced in Hong Kong four years ago, is rapidly becoming a prerequisite. It is, therefore, being sought not only by those just starting out in the business but also by more seasoned practitioners who realise the importance of keeping in step with changes in the industry and of being fully equipped to meet any future challenges.
"Being qualified as a CFP practitioner gives credibility and means clients have greater confidence, from the very first meeting, in your professional ability to serve them," says Steve Lo, deputy director, Towry Law (Asia) HK Ltd. "It makes a difference, especially when you are in competition for business with banks which are keen to ensure all their representatives now have the qualification."
With an MBA and over ten years' practical experience behind him, Mr Lo anticipated that the CFP mark would become an industry standard and signed on for a concentrated three-month course of preparatory evening classes on his own initiative and at his own expense. He was able to obtain exemptions from the normal six course modules and passed the exam in late 2002.
"I had already been working as a financial adviser for many years so the investment and insurance parts of the course were not too bad," he recalls. "However, for the pension and tax modules I had to do some real studying to get through! Looking back, it has been worthwhile and, knowledge-wise, it has broadened my exposure in related fields."
The policy at Mr Lo's company is now to "encourage" all account managers to qualify as CFPs and a scholarship programme has been established which will allow successful applicants to reclaim all course fees once they pass the exam. CFP certification will not lead to an automatic pay rise but will undoubtedly help towards speedier promotion. "At the end of the day, career advancement and getting to the next level is down to your personal performance," he notes. "For me, as I was already quite senior, it has been a useful add-on and kept me a step ahead of colleagues and subordinates."
The local market and investor priorities are steadily changing. Most clients are turning away from speculative investments and thinking more about long-term planning for their children and their retirement. In this climate, dependence on professional financial advisers is set to grow and consumers, more than ever, will look for the very best independent advice before committing to any scheme or product.
Mr Lo notes that the Institute of Financial Planners of Hong Kong is becoming more active in putting out the message that there is a professional standard for everyone practising within the industry and believes this is a positive move. "We need more exposure and more promotion to make the public aware of the CFP certification and exactly what it means," he says.
"In Hong Kong, the financial services profession is still comparatively young," he adds, "but, if you look here and to the mainland market, the potential for business and for recruitment could be huge."