The Paraplanners

The changing face of Paraplanning Sat 28 Oct 2017

The other day, someone asked me a question that always fills me with dread.  “What do you do for a living?”

I dread being asked this for no other reason than the fact that I find it very hard to articulate, clearly and succinctly to people outside of our industry, exactly what I do.

For nearly half my life I’ve been trying to perfect my ‘elevator pitch’.  That brief two-minute window where I have to convey – in plain English – something that I struggle to convert from a whole heap of industry jargon into a language that Joe Bloggs will understand.  When I’ve finished trying to explain it, the unfortunate recipient of my techno-babble is usually left baffled and slightly unnerved at the energy and enthusiasm that’s bestowed upon them in those brief moments after asking a seemingly simple and innocent question.

The public at large still only recognises our profession if we call ourselves financial advisers, or IFAs, which is not what I consider myself to be.  After all, I don’t personally give ‘advice’ – certainly to the public, anyway.

In recent years I’ve started to tell people that I’m a consultant in the financial services industry.  A kind of ‘adviser’s adviser’, helping IFAs with complex or time-consuming cases, training people to do financial planning and providing business consultancy services to advisory firms throughout the UK.  This pretty-well sums up what outsourced paraplanning is all about, and by and large it’s enough to baffle Joe Bloggs in the elevator into stunned silence, such that I can continue to sip on my over-priced, skinny decaf in relative peace.

In stark contrast, when I’m asked the same question by someone that works in our industry, my answer is considerably fuller.  Recently, an unfortunate business development manager from a well-known discretionary investment firm asked me the dreaded question and ended up on the receiving end of a non-stop, 75-minute barrage of verbal diarrhoea. 

The best bit was that he was trying to sell me his services, and what I did was actually managed to sell him some of our services.  It wasn’t intentional at all, I’m not a sales-person and we have no need to market ourselves or drum up any further business at the moment (all those final salary scheme transfers are keeping us more than busy).  The reason it happened is simply because I’m passionate about the difference that we make in the industry – and that enthusiasm is deeply infectious.

My 75 minute rant started with my professional life-story, starting out 20 years ago in an accountancy firm in Eastbourne.  Paraphrasing (significantly), I was telling my poor unsuspecting victim about how there was no such thing as a ‘Paraplanner’ back in those days, and how it was a very lonely experience, feeling like the only person in the world that did that job.  There was no support, no recognition, no tools or guidance on how to be a Paraplanner – you simply ‘made up’ your job.  You only learned how to do it right after being told by your employers and your compliance consultant week-in, week-out, that you’d got it wrong.  It was a soul-destroying and tough way to learn your trade.

Crikey, how things have changed.

When Richard (Allum, my good friend and business partner at The Paraplanners) and I first started working together we both shared similar experiences of paraplanning, although we’d come at it from different angles.  I had worked in small financial planning firms, being an Administrator, Adviser, in-house Paraplanner and ultimately moved into outsourced paraplanning after I met Richard.  He had come into the industry through life offices as a Business Development Consultant, and ultimately had the foresight to see a gap in the market for ‘outsourcing’ the paraplanning function, so he took the plunge and set up the first outsourced paraplanning company in the UK.

These two routes into paraplanning are extremely different and it is fair to say that the pros and cons of each are pretty significant.  They respectively appeal to different types of people, which is a good thing – Richard and I (as well as everyone in our team) have complimentary skills and it makes for a well-rounded team, which goes down well with our IFA clients.  Everyone has a more natural ‘fit’ to a particular person or personality type.

Despite our dissimilar paths into paraplanning, we share one very strong ethos that has sat firmly at the core of a lot of what we do; we don’t want other people to go through the ‘pain’ that we both respectively experienced in those early days.  We’ve got enough experience under our belts that we can pass on some valuable advice to others that are walking the same path, and that’s exactly what we do.

The best bit is, particularly over the last five years or so, we’ve met loads of other ‘old timers’ – and some newbies as well - in paraplanner land that all share the same desire and ethos.  From these humble beginnings, the paraplanner Powwow movement and many other groups, committees and partnerships have been born.

The paraplanner community in the UK has grown in both size and volume, to the extent that we are now a recognised profession in virtually all areas of the industry.  Gone are the days when we’d phone up a major life company and be asked “You’re a Para-what?”.  They know who we are.  They know that we make significant decisions.  They know that they need to engage with us to stand a chance of getting business from our companies.  They also know that we can’t be sold to; their products and services genuinely need to stand up to rigorous, arm’s length scrutiny before they get a foot in the door.  It’s a remarkable feat of evolution in what was – even ten years ago – still very much a sales-based industry.

One of the most amazing things about being a Paraplanner is that the community that I’m proud to be part of is so giving.  We’re all very happy to share ideas, help each other technically, organise events, socialise and to push for positive changes where we feel they are necessary.  We do all of that without recourse and recognition.  In many cases, we do these things in our own time, or at our own cost.  How many other professions are so philanthropic?

It’s been a long and interesting journey so far, and there’s still so much more positive stuff to come.  Personally, I’ve made some really good friends along the way and my development, both professionally and personally, has expanded significantly as a result of spending my days with like-minded people that share my inexplicable passion for Excel, chocolate, emojis and cool stationery. 

So I still don’t really have an elevator pitch.  After 20 years of thinking about it, perhaps I should just give up trying to put a label on what it means to be a Paraplanner. 

One thing I’m certain of, though, is that – whatever it is – I absolutely love it. 

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