Michelle Tate-Lovery's drive to professionalism and focus on client education won her the 2012 Money Management Financial Planner of the Year title.
Michelle Tate-Lovery moved from Western Australia to Melbourne with the hope of becoming a secondary school teacher.
But by answering a job advertisement one day, she "fell" into financial planning, as she describes it.
Twenty-five years later, Michelle owns her own business (which she built from scratch), has loyal clients (some of whom have been with her for over 20 years) and has just been named the 2012 Money Management Financial Planner of the Year.
What Michelle takes most pride in, however, is being able to run a financial planning business independent of any institutions or product manufacturers.
"We have never relied on generating our revenue from selling investment products, but rather on providing holistic, tailored, sound, strategic financial advice that my clients understand," Michelle said.
This, she said, was the main reason she decided to go it alone.
"I got my own licence and practised financial planning the way I wanted to without big brother over me, telling me how I had to make budgets," Michelle said. "I wanted to also practice fee-for-service at that time."
What the industry is embarking on today - fee-for-service and holistic advice - is something she has been delivering to her clients for over two decades.
It was this commitment to professionalism and education which impressed the judges the most.
"Michelle has made a significant contribution to the continued drive towards professionalism in the industry, particularly through her work with the Financial Planning Association (FPA) and the development of workplace financial education programs," said last year's winner and member of the judging panel, Charles Badenach.
In fact, she has participated on the FPA Transition to Fees Taskforce, FPA CFP Curriculum Taskforce (ethics, professionalism and compliance), and the association's pro-bono program called Ask an Expert, among other involvements.
The winner of the Money Management Financial Planner of the Year award needs to be an exceptional adviser with high levels of technical and practice management skills, as well as offering a refined client value proposition.
"The Financial Planner of the Year needs to be trying to be more than a good financial planner, as there are a lot of outstanding financial planners," said Julie Berry, managing director of Berry Financial Services and former FPA chair, who also sits on this year's judging panel.
"They need to be looking at ways to lead the profession and to implement changes."
Winning clients by education
When Michelle first started as a financial planner in a dealer group called Monitor Money, she was introduced to her original client base - medical professionals coming from an organisation called Allied Health. This is the same client base that has worked with her for over 20 years.
The first thing she did was conduct a survey, after which she realised her clients wanted to know more about superannuation and finances in general.
"What ended up happening is I used my teaching skills to develop workshops and financial literacy programs in the workplace of major public hospitals," Michelle said.
Because education was so important, it wasn't about attracting people who had money to invest. Whilst investment advice is important, it is only part of the equation, she said. It was a long road to developing credibility and relationships with people.
"They weren't speaking the same language; it was all about 'dumbing' it all down and making sure people were with you on the journey of financial education."
Holding education workshops for her client base, and raising her own profile in trade and mainstream media, resulted in her being referred to other health professional organisations.
Today, she works with 14 other organisations in disseminating topics of interest in the areas of personal and business financial planning.
Helping her peers
Michelle said opening her own financial planning practice in 1989 was very difficult, particularly because there were no mentors or coaches to guide her.
Someone once told her that starting a small financial planning practice was like a five-year apprenticeship in the industry.
"And then the next five years you 'unlearn' all the things that you learned," Michelle said.
"Because in the beginning you're all about trying to impress with your knowledge; but that wasn't engaging clients, so obviously you have to be relatable and have a bit of an edge - our edge at the time was definitely education."
As time passed, she learnt how to ask for help and how to observe other successful financial planning businesses in the industry.
Because she had no mentorship when she decided to go it alone, Michelle became involved with boutique dealer group networks, where practice owners "show and tell" various aspects of their businesses.
"It's not as lonely as it once was because people are actually understanding that they need to share more and that they need to be with like-minded groups of people," she said.
"Provided you've got that right cultural fit, then the sharing becomes quite easy. There are now lots of forums out there where people are getting their information and bouncing their ideas off their own associates."
Michelle is proud to be part of the independent financial adviser space. She did admit, however, that she had been approached by larger institutions in the past.
"The industry is at the point where, with the compliance costs in the market-place, it can be prohibitive out there for small people to make a go of it," she said. "So I think there will be like-minded people coming together in the future."