A night of celebration at the SCMP/IFPHK Financial Planner Awards 2010 saw the crowning of this year's winners and was marked by a real sense of achievement in how far the industry as a whole has come in the course of the last decade. Over that period, financial planning has become established as a widely recognised and well-respected profession in Hong Kong, advising investors, educating the public, setting standards and creating new jobs and careers. Understandably, that success was a recurring theme for guests and speakers at last night's event. It provided fitting context and reminded participants of the organisational support, scope of expertise, and continuous training and development that are now hallmarks of the profession. That backdrop also goes a long way to explaining the elation of the individual winners. They came through three tough rounds of competition over the previous six months, which required them to prepare written plans, make presentations to the judging panel, and demonstrate all-round financial knowledge. But they - and their clients - can be confident in knowing that success here confirms them as among the very best in the industry. As such, they can expect all kinds of new opportunities to materialise and look for their careers to move to the next level. 'It means everything to me,' says Alfred Sit Wai-hong, who was named this year's overall champion as well as winner of the practitioner category for banking. 'I feel very proud of the achievement and I am sure it will raise my profile in the industry.' A wealth management manager with HSBC, Sit was quick to thank the bank, colleagues and family members for their support. This had been invaluable particularly in helping him to think through the technicalities of the final-round case study and fine-tune his presentation for the judges. The case itself, while hypothetical, contained many complexities familiar from real-life situations. In many ways, the situation of the central character Gary, a 50-year-old sales and training manager, represented an all-too-common scenario. He had limited assets, trouble meeting commitments that included support payments for his ex-wife and children, and comparatively little time to build an adequate nest egg for retirement. However, he also had plans to start his own health food business and wanted to have enough set aside soon to put his eldest son through university and enrol his young daughter in a good kindergarten. 'The client had many goals in mind, so I had to figure out the priorities and understand the emotional side,' says Sit. 'His financial situation showed a short-term liquidity problem and, [from the information provided], I could see he was a 'family guy', but didn't like disclosing details, and had ignored risk management in the past.' Sit's approach initially involved a lot of practical research. It meant exploring the prospects for the type of consultancy business Gary hoped to start, checking residential property prices, and speaking to estate planning experts for ideas on writing a better will. Going a step further, he also sought informal feedback from a few of his own clients about what they might want to do if facing such circumstances. In the resulting financial plan, Sit's basic recommendation was for Gary to sell his property, rent or buy somewhere more modest, and carefully reallocate his assets. Doing so would make it possible to attain all his main goals in due course, while also establishing a necessary level of financial stability and providing for contingences. 'A point I kept emphasising is that he had to improve his liquidity,' Sit says. 'And if he didn't change, he would never achieve his goals.' To get this across to the judges, Sit kept his presentation simple and direct. The acronym 'care' was used to summarise the main priorities - children's education, asset accumulation, retirement needs, establishing a business - and due attention was given to interpreting 'psychological' aspects of the case. 'Taking part in the competition really broadened my horizons,' Sit says. 'I feel more confident about handling all the different angles of financial planning and know that the experience will help me do my day-to-day work better.' Agnes Lo Yim-ping, who took home the trophy for winning the independent financial advisory (IFA) category, was equally sure the hard work that went into preparation and practice had all been worthwhile. The senior wealth management adviser for Convoy Financial Services was especially grateful for the 'spiritual support' from colleagues, friends and clients. This had given her the self-confidence and determination, firstly to enter the competition and then to make it through to the final. 'The experience has been very beneficial and will help in developing more all-round solutions when addressing real-life client issues,' she said. 'Also, preparing for the interaction with the panel of judges [reminded me] how important it is to analyse a case from different perspectives to make your proposal more comprehensive and give constructive advice.' Overall, Lo found that time management was one of the toughest aspects of the contest. Therefore, to be sure of covering all the key points of her plan in the 20 minutes allotted for the final-round presentation, she drew up a detailed timeline. This kept her on track with a short recap of the main facts, before moving on to recommendations, reasons and suggested action. 'Every minute of a presentation is important; you need to deliver each point clearly and effectively,' she said. For Alpha Cheng Hung-faat, winner in the practitioner category for insurance, the main challenge of the final round was that the case study posed a new set of problems. Few of his current clients are yet in their fifties, and those who are generally don't face Gary's degree of financial uncertainty. But studying the numbers, he soon saw that the medium-term goals all pointed to the same thing. In this case, the best way forward was to recommend selling the current property, which would realise about HK$6 million. And for immediate cash needs, it made sense to raise a personal loan and to pawn a collection of expensive watches which were listed among Gary's assets. 'Before including this recommendation, I did some 'physical' research by visiting local pawnshops to ask about their interest terms and security arrangements,' said Cheng, an associate financial planning manager with The Prudential Insurance Company. 'People don't think of this as an option for financial planning, but in a case like this, it would give short-term cash and the chance to redeem the watches after the property sale.' He sums up his win as 'fantastic' and, with all due modesty, is sure it will help him to do a better job with a wider range of clients in future. Reflecting on some of the key aspects of this year's competition, Dr Louis Cheng, task force chairman for the awards, noted that the character in the case study was purposely given a very confusing investment personality. This was not simply to see how the contestants would deal with it, but because such characters, with their big goals and unstable incomes are quite common in Hong Kong. The intention was to move beyond a situation seen often in the past couple of years where the 'fear factor' was the main principle governing most investment decisions. 'In my mind, the three finalists were very close,' Dr Cheng said. 'I feel the overall quality has improved again and it is a good sign that contestants give all-round plans without the 'baggage' from a particular sector.'