Senior corporate executives know a good thing when they see it, which explains why so many have lent their support so enthusiastically to the SCMP/IFPHK Financial Planner Awards 2009. 'I think this kind of award is great,' said Roger Steel, chief executive of Sun Life Hong Kong, one of the sponsors of the event. 'Firstly, it helps the community to recognise that financial planning is a real profession, although a relatively young one. [And for contestants], it is like a super-advanced form of training because they are up against the best from the other companies, which makes it a great motivational thing for the individuals involved.' Mr Steel said that having to impress experienced industry judges over three tough rounds of competition had the effect of polishing communication skills. The format also helped promote a detailed and holistic approach to financial planning, focused on actual customer needs, and gave due recognition to participants working in the insurance, banking and independent financial advisory sectors. 'One of the key roles of the awards is to put people on a pedestal publicly and increase awareness of professional financial planning,' Mr Steel said. 'Our company encourages participation, but you've got to be very selective and only pick the people who are the best of the best.' He felt that entrants who had already qualified as certified financial planners (CFPs) probably stood a better chance of success. The course gave them a structured six-step approach to analysing and addressing client needs, which the judges specifically looked for, as well as an appreciation of the general range of investment products. 'The CFP is the most internationally recognised training programme,' he said. 'It is a bit more technical and theoretical and is really regarded as the gold standard in financial planning education.' As a result, the company was looking to collaborate more formally with the IFPHK (Institute of Financial Planners of Hong Kong) to make the CFP qualification an integral part of its in-house training scheme. A 'multilayered' strategy, involving 17 full-time trainers and a purpose-built leadership development centre, took all recruits through a basic introductory programme that led to further education options. The usual next step was to take an executive financial planning diploma run in co-operation with the Chinese University of Hong Kong. This dedicated part-time three-year course, taught by university staff, included a mix of academic and practical modules and was based on Sun Life products and role-plays. About 800 people were now taking part, with 340 having already completed the programme. From there, it was possible for employees to transition to a distance-learning MBA offered by Victoria University in Wellington or to the CFP course. The company was prepared to consider education-related subsidies based on results. 'Overall, it is quite a big investment for us,' Mr Steel said. 'But it is always part of our strategy to have high-quality training support, so our advisers can really build a career and develop their skills over time. As a customer, you need skilled, educated, certified financial advisers to be able to rely on what they say.' He added that statistical summaries had shown the right training helped staff increase productivity by 20 to 30 per cent. This clearly illustrated why course enrolment, while not compulsory, was actively encouraged, and meant that advisers saw a definite value in it. Despite the downturn, Sun Life was aiming to increase its agency force by a minimum of 500 this year from 1,300. In doing this, the emphasis would be on maintaining high standards of training and professionalism, meeting the needs of the mass-affluent market and protecting their assets. 'The basic thing from a customer point of view is that markets are getting more challenging, so there is an increasing need for people to get good quality advice,' Mr Steel said. 'We are really concentrating on developing advice-based channels, not just marketing and telemarketing. In terms of products, we are pretty 'vanilla' - we don't sell any derivative-based products - and we intend to remain that way.' Looking at what had happened in the financial sector over the past 18 months, he said that insurance companies had generally come through quite well. Even so, it was clear that the mis-selling associated with the mini-bond scandal locally had shaken investor confidence in financial institutions. Therefore, it was only right to expect more regulation in the next year, once various inquiries had concluded and recommendations been considered. 'We are not worried about that. Anything that protects the customer also protects the product provider and the adviser, so it is better for the industry in the long run. We all got a bit of a rude shock with the mini-bonds but, as an industry, it is important we say there are some excellent people doing an outstanding job of looking after their clients. We need to remind the public.'