Regional planners offer large scale advice

The logistics of serving clients who often live miles away is a challenge for regional advisers but, as Jason Spits writes, the long distances are quickly offset by the rewards of being a trusted professional in a place where everyone knows your name.

Picture the following as an average day for a financial planner. See first client of the day — an annual review that takes an hour, followed by a first face-to-face meeting with a new prospect, and then two more existing client meetings, which provide an update on their situation before heading home.

Except that home is 300 kilometres or possibly even a two hour plane ride away.

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This is the reality of financial planning for Australia's regional and rural advisers: a client base that is often geographically spread across wide distances and locations but still values the place and presence of face-to-face advice.

For HPH Financial Planning director, Randall Stout, this scenario is a reality a number of times a year with his practice servicing clients at both his Perth office but also across a great part of Western Australia, including Broome — 2,240 kilometres away.

Stout's metropolitan-based counterparts may flinch at travelling more than twice the distance between Sydney and Melbourne to see clients, but Stout said this willingness to engage face-to-face is important in maintaining client relationships in a state as vast, but also sparsely populated, as Western Australia.

"This type of contact is highly valued by our clients and is probably one of the most valuable things we can offer. We supply ongoing access and are aware of their situation and stay up to date with their needs and circumstances," Stout said.

"The service offering is very similar to what most advisers would be doing but we have the added factor of having to cope with the distances between those clients."

But distance is no longer a barrier to a good advice relationship, according to DMG Financial, Certified Financial Planner, Ben Lancaster.

Based in Sale in eastern Victoria and working with oil crews and Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) personnel based in the area, Lancaster said technology has allowed advisers to stay in contact with itinerant clients and maintain long-term advice relationships.

"It has made things much easier. We find that people do move on and online advice and technology keeps us in contact. We typically start the relationship face-to-face — not always, but that is the ideal situation," Lancaster said.

Tamworth-based Cameron Stewart, who is a regional manager with State Super Financial Services (SSFS), also believes that while technology has improved ongoing client contact, it is still not close to being a replacement for old-school, face-to-face contact when dealing with comprehensive advice.

Our rural offices have high quality staff and they stay a long time because they settle and become part of the community, with support staff getting to know the practice's clients very well. - Sean Bradley

"When it comes to working up a full financial plan and providing comprehensive advice, you do want to look your client in the eye. Down the track, communicating via video online is fine, but face-to-face is ideal initially," Stewart said.

"For us, this does have its own logistic issues and we would visit 10 to 12 towns in the wider area around Tamworth throughout the year and invite people to come to our satellite offices so we can have that type of contact."

Many advisers, in both regional and metropolitan areas, will see similarities in what they do with their clients but Stewart believes regional advisers have an added advantage in being such a presence among their clients.

"Country people like local people looking after them. We may not always be from the same town but we can relate to their local needs. And we often bump into them at the local supermarket or at the footy on Saturday afternoon, so we are part of their community," Stewart said.

For SSFS, which provides advice to public servants, this local presence has also led them to sponsoring local conferences around education or health where current or future clients may attend as well as setting up referral networks with other advice professionals.

Stewart said for his practice there are no formal arrangements in place but they do have the ability to point people in the direction of legal and accounting professionals if a client needs further assistance.

He said that in this regard, he does not see any major difference between regional and metropolitan advisers in the provision and quality of advice pointing to a group wide culture in SSFS that dictates what the advisers do and what clients can expect.

FOFA

Lancaster, who is licensed under Securitor, agrees with Stewart and said his practice and colleagues are on par with any around the country, pointing to the Future of Financial Advice (FOFA) reforms as both a leveller, and an added burden — something most advisers would agree with.

"The impact of FOFA and other compliance changes for us would be similar to city planners and we have always had those compliance issues we need to cover," Lancaster said.

"Like many advisers, we have found it a hindrance to the provision of advice, mainly around the paperwork and the cost of implementing it all."

While FOFA has been inescapable for regional financial planners, are they more subject to the vagaries of local economics and even national economics, such as the downturn in the resources sector in Western Australia, or agricultural pressures in parts of Eastern Australia?

ECONOMIC CONCERNS

Stout said the WA downturn in mining has not had a significant impact on his practice or clients but there were signs of concern in the local economy.

"We are seeing more people being laid off in the resources sector and migration to the state has dropped but we have not focussed on the fly-in fly-out workers but on retirees and families," Stout said.

"However income rates are falling and people are becoming more cautious around property and debt so we are starting to see a strong appetite for advice driven by consumer concerns."

Lancaster said economic concerns have not changed the way his practice does business, and while the advisers within the group represent a broad range of specialists, there is a steady flow of work for them within their region.

Country people like local people looking after them. We may not always be from the same town but we can relate to their local needs. And we often bump into them at the local supermarket or at the footy on Saturday afternoon, so we are part of their community. - Cameron Stewart

He said this is partly because of the skill and advice set on offer as well as the quality of the practice's work and reputation among its clients and the wider community.

"The bush telegraph can be the best and worst mechanism, depending on what is being said about you. Having said that, the flow of business has remained constant because we have not focused only on investment advice but on broad based advice to all our clients," Lancaster said.

"Many of them do not invest with us and instead use our advice for life insurance, superannuation, general advice or even budgeting. It is having trusted advisers in a local setting that people can turn to which is drawing people in more than our skill set or our specialisations."

This perspective is shared by Stout who said while there are always particular needs, regional advice falls into the bread and butter categories of setting up a financial plan for long-term goals and preparing for a tax effective retirement.

"Clients are universal in these ways and having ways to reach goals around family or education or retirement are the leading concerns of people in regional areas with the major difference being the distance and logistics it takes to service them," Stout said.

"We are still dealing with clients the same way but are using technology — which are handy platforms — to deliver that advice and our clients are not seeing a massive difference in what we do."

However SSFS, general manager - financial planning, Sean Bradley, highlights one key area in which regional advisers have to plan further ahead than their metropolitan counteparts, and that is in the area of staffing.

According to Bradley, recruiting qualified staff from city locations to work in regional and rural Australia is a tough task but SSFS did recently relocate a Sydney planner to Orange after her partner received a job transfer.

He also said SSFS was moving all of its practices through the Financial Planning Association's Professional Practice program and was training advisers toward the Certified Financial Planner standard. Alongside this, SSFS was also creating a graduate program to recruit new planners from regional universities in recognition of the competition for talent that metropolitan centres offer.

"Our rural offices have high quality staff and they stay a long time because they settle and become part of the community, with support staff getting to know the practice's clients very well," Bradley said.

According to Stewart, while recruiting is one of the more difficult sides of being a regional planner — and staff turnover is low — it is also one of the key attractions for local planners and their staff.

"The country lifestyle, the short communte, lower cost of living and work/life balance are all good things but the main thing that holds people is the community and our connection to it. This is why we have low turnover in staff!"




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