Contestants who accept the challenge of entering the SCMP/IFPHK Financial Planner Awards can be sure of several things. They know, for example, that their communication skills and general expertise will be tested thoroughly over the three rounds of competition. They are aware that participation will entail detailed preparation, hours of practice and perhaps the odd sleepless night. But they can also be certain that the experience gained will make them much better professionals, and that being a winner in any round or category is a lasting distinction. That is not a claim of the organisers or judges. It is borne out by former winners who have moved up, helped by the recognition of their talents and the additional business that can bring. Rainbow Pan Ji-hong, now chief executive of ipac financial planning Hong Kong, scored a double triumph in 2006 as industry winner in the IFA (independent financial advisory) category and overall champion. This gave her greater self-confidence and belief in the company, contributing to promotions in early 2007 to head of sales and operations and, later, to her current role. 'It was confirmation that we are doing the right thing and that our standards are high,' Pan said. 'When they call out your name as a winner, it does make an impact on your life.' She recalled the presentations in rounds two and three as the toughest parts. The challenge was not so much the technicalities of the cases or facing a panel of expert judges. It was being able to demonstrate expertise in 20 to 30 minutes, when a client meeting might last over an hour. 'In real life, we would have second and third meetings with clients to discuss strategy and go through the educational process. In the competition, the key is time management, communicating effectively in plain language, and thinking of the judges as real clients.' Besides company acclaim, her success led to a noticeably higher level of referrals and recommendations, with clients viewing the awards as a certificate of quality. 'I don't know how to measure the exact benefits, but I am sure winning the awards helped my career quite a bit,' Pan said. Albert Mak Man-kit has taken significant steps since claiming the top prize for banking sector employees in 2005. He has advanced from day-to-day financial planning to branch manager with HSBC, overseeing wealth management and all other transactions. He acknowledges that success provided exposure and recognition, while changing the way others viewed him. 'People know you can do the job,' he said. 'I found that has made it easier to communicate with my staff. There was no automatic promotion; it was more to do with the reputation you earn and the higher level of trust from customers because they know that you are one of the best.' He said a shift within the banking sector meant there was now greater emphasis on financial planning services. His team of around 70 included 20 specialists in this area, and it helped if they mentioned to clients that the manager who trained and advised them was an award winner. Mak said he had put a lot of time into preparing for the contest. That was mainly because he wanted to make sure his written plan was sufficiently comprehensive and because, in the competition's first year, he had no idea what the judges were looking for. His advice to contestants - and his own staff - is still to prepare thoroughly and to remember that if you don't know something, don't pretend. For Johnny Chan Ka-hing, the 2006 winner in the insurance category, one of the biggest advantages of competing in the awards was that it effectively reduced competition afterwards. Even as principal financial planner with Prudential Assurance, most client meetings had previously involved discussion of his credentials, his relative merits versus other advisers, and the reliability of his recommendations. Since winning, mention of the award has generally answered those questions. 'In the past few years, I have not had to face competitors in the same way,' he said. 'Clients are not comparing me like before, so that has indirectly helped my productivity increase.' By a rough calculation, the business he generated went up around 40 per cent the year after his win. And despite the economic downturn, his individual performance up to the end of September this year was about 40 per cent ahead of what he achieved in the whole of 2006. 'The effect of the competition is still coming through,' he said. 'People know me better, partly because of continuing media exposure, and have more confidence in me.'