INDUSTRY TROPHY WINNER Insurance INCREASED AWARENESS among the general public about the need for long-term planning and prudent financial management has made insurance companies more confident about their business prospects. Trophy award winner Michael Ho, business manager of The Prudential Assurance Company, believes that the market for financial planning is gaining momentum and is pushing the industry to respond with better-trained planners and increased professionalism in terms of compliance. 'When the market for professional financial planning booms, the quality of service will also improve,' Mr Ho said. 'This happened with other industries such as property agencies, leveraged forex trading in the 1990s, stockbrokerage and Hong Kong's manufacturing in the 1970s, and so on. 'The market forces will drive the quality of financial planning, and things will develop,' said Mr Ho. Having worked as an economist at the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce for three years and a securities analyst and stockbroker for the following two years, the Hong Kong Baptist University graduate in applied economics believes his change in profession to the role of an insurance agent was 'a quantum leap in his professional life'. In 2002, Mr Ho joined Prudential and qualified for the Certified Financial Planner certificate, having undergone challenge status examinations, which include an 10-hour examination, without having attended classes. Apart from researching and re-packaging insurance products to fit his client's needs, Mr Ho's role includes tapping into key markets to provide financial planning for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). 'Family-held SMEs, businesses employing fewer than 50 employees, are the core of the Hong Kong economy,' Mr Ho said. 'What we are now dealing with are the baby boomers [generation]. Over the next 10 to 15 years, the founders of these enterprises are going to retire and they are now coming to the realisation that business continuity and succession, handing over their businesses to the second generation, is vital. 'Our role is to help manage financial risks and work out a contingency plan for these SME owners,' he said. Although the concept is new to the Hong Kong market, and clients as well, Mr Ho is placing much emphasis on his ability to help family-run businesses find corporate continuity. His cover story in the official journal of the Institute of Financial Planners of Hong Kong last year highlighted the importance of financial planning for SME owners and their corporate continuity planning. 'It's about development, governance and succession. Continuing professional development in areas such as corporate governance, management, finance, estate planning. Learning about the psychology of SME owners will be very important to the whole campaign of developing corporate continuity planning,' he said. With clients from SMEs and the high net-worth bracket, Mr Ho is quick to point out how they are different from his general clientele. 'They all share one characteristic - they [get to] know people quickly. They know who is trustworthy and who is not. That's why they are so successful in their own businesses. When I work with them, I need to be myself and trust that I know my own trade. I should be as professional in my career as they are in their own,' he said. Mr Ho admits that insurance agents who are commission driven can choose to make their lives as busy or as quiet as they wish. However, at the moment he is opting to work under a tight schedule due to his high expectations about the growth of the industry. 'I can see financial planning for SME owners being in huge demand, although it's very much a virgin market right now. My plan is to start recruiting new partners [agents] to work together in this field. But this means added pressure for me right now because I am obliged to make sure they succeed, too.' Despite the arduous task ahead, Mr Ho enjoys his profession and meeting new clients, establishing trust and helping them prioritise their lives and to meet their goals. 'A good planner should be a good listener, and always on the same side of the client - that is, the buy side, helping them to analyse their priorities in life and how to meet their goals,' he said. 'As planners, we advise our clients when they need to make investment decisions. Normally, only one in 10 prospects will turn out to be my clients, but all 10 of them end up being my friends. Although in most cases we don't [handle] all of their business, we earn their respect.' He had to cut short a holiday to prepare his final presentation for the awards competition, but Mr Ho said he was usually able to strike a balance between his work and his personal life. 'Actually, I got my colleagues to join in the competition and I would say we had at least 17 to 18 applications from Prudential. During the last round, I had only 15 minutes to present my financial plan in front of a panel of five judges and I was quite nervous. It really makes sense for someone from our company to win the title. We are providing the best service in town,' he said.