Keith Boyes – St James’ Place
21 November 2017
Keith Boyes, paraplanner with St James’s Place, talked to Rob Kingsbury about moving from Edinburgh to Hong Kong, the ex-pat lifestyle and what it’s like to be a paraplanner abroad
For Keith Boyes, Chartered Financial Planner and paraplanner with St James’s Place Wealth Management in Hong Kong, the decision to leave his paraplanning job in Edinburgh and become an ex-pat in Asia was a no-brainer. “My girlfriend Anna had travelled and worked abroad and she often talked about the experience. Then Anna was unexpectedly given the option to work in Hong Kong. After talking it through we couldn’t find a reason not to do it. It was a fantastic opportunity to be offered and to have the chance to live and work in Asia, a continent I’d never been to before. So, while it was very much a step into the unknown, it was exciting opportunity and one we felt we couldn’t pass up.”
Now nine months into this new life, it’s a decision neither of them are regretting. Anna moved out to the city first in late 2016 while Keith worked his notice at his then employer, Brewin Dolphin, and he joined her in January 2017.
The difference between the UK and Hong Kong in the way people approach life, Keith says, is marked. This is in part because the ex-pat community in Hong Kong is a transient one, with people living there for a few years and then moving on or back home. “What you notice for example is that while in the UK people can have the tendency to just put their head down and charge past people, in Hong Kong everyone is very open to meeting new people and having new experiences. And compared to Scotland, where you may finish work at 6pm, squeeze in a gym session and go home; here you will finish work, go to the gym, have a quick pint with one person and dinner with someone else. You squeeze a lot more into an evening. It makes for some interesting nights. It’s because of that transience; people want to make as much of living here as possible.”
Keith’s journey to becoming a paraplanner in Hong Kong, began when he graduated from Glasgow Caledonian University with a degree in sports management and took a job with Aegon as a pension administrator. “It was 2008, not an ideal time to be graduating given the obvious events in the financial world,” he says. “Around the same time my father was approaching retirement and was quite disappointed and frustrated by the advice he had been given in terms of his retirement and returns. There were a lot of reports at the time about poor advice being given and various scandals, and I thought, ‘I’m a decent guy, I can have an impact here’.
“So at that point I started studying for the certificate in financial planning as it was then, and it carried on from there. I found it really interesting.”
Keith left Aegon to join the wealth management arm of Edinburgh legal firm Turcan Connell.
“Initially I was in administration, but I continued my studies and graduated into the paraplanner role. I moved to work directly with the financial planners doing suitability reports and research and technical work for them. I had a couple of good mentors there who guided me along.”
After three years he moved to Brewin Dolphin, in 2013, “as a more of a fully-fledged paraplanner”, working with the director of financial planning, “who was fantastic mentor and very supportive of my move out here”, and becoming much more involved in the advice process. He continued studying, passing his final exam to become a Chartered Financial Planner in 2016.
Finding a job in HK
Having made the decision to move to Hong Kong, Keith then had to find a job in the city.
“My main goal was to find a business with UK standards and a link to the UK in some way. I narrowed it down to two companies; one was the Fry Group and the other was St James’s Place, both of which are based in the UK base as well.
“I met with St James’s Place late in 2016. They have a business acquisition team and were looking for people both in the UK and abroad. They’ve only been in Asia for three years, having acquired a company called the Henley Group. They took me to see their administration operation in Cirencester and they suggested that whilst I was visiting Anna at Christmas I should go and meet the guys in Asia and see if it would be the right fit for me.
“I also met with the Fry Group. Both were fantastic, doing UK standard work, which is important to me. I was literally here for a long weekend, a whistle-stop trip, meeting with them both.”
Keith decided to accept the role with St James’s Place “because of the level of back-office support that they have and the personal support they were offering, particularly in respect of my development. That was key for me – finding a company that would continue to support my development as a paraplanner and my ambition to step into advising at some point.
“Also, I was conscious of the reputation of some overseas companies for just flogging products and not thinking about the clients in the way I was used to in the UK. So that was a focus for me, to find a company that was client-focused.”
Paraplanning in Hong Kong
St. James’s Place in Hong Kong has around 80 people but the partner practice in which Keith works – CF Wealth – has 11 staff; a ratio of 8 advisers to three paraplanners. However, Keith explains that paraplanning in Hong Kong is a lot more straight forward than in the UK. “There is no income tax, no capital gains tax, and no inheritance tax….”
So, you might ask, what does he do all day? “My role is technical support to the advisers. The products range in Hong Kong is fairly limited, mainly insurance bonds but my main focus is pensions work. We deal mainly with expats, although we deal with locals as well and have Cantonese speakers in the office. The expats are largely from the UK but overall there is a spread of nationalities. Australian clients in particular are interesting to work with as their home tax regime is fairly punishing.
“I will do the technical work in terms of the background research, the fund analysis, all the usual paraplanning stuff, including the deep-dive understanding of the client’s situation and providing the pack for the adviser to then speak with the client.
“What’s important is making sure the clients have a solid understanding of what they have and what we’re putting them into. This is very much as we would do it in the UK.”
In fact, he adds, one of the challenges of the role is combating the poor reputation that financial advisers have in the city. “There’s a general distrust because a lot of people have had bad experiences with financial advisers in the past.” As an example, he points to the sale 20- and 25-year bonds “with promises of quite substantial returns but which didn’t fully disclose the nature of the charges. Clients now find they are locked into these plans because if they choose to exit they are hit with the charges from day 1 right through to the end of the 20-year plan. There have been examples where clients have had their investments totally wiped out because of the product and adviser charges and the adviser has disappeared off into the sunset.
“That gives you an example of certain challenges that advisers can face here. That’s why it was very important for me to choose a client-focussed business because there are a lot of good people here too.”
Another element to the job that Keith says he is enjoying is business development. Due to the small team and the tight-knit, transient ex-pat community “you really have to get out and meet people here and take an active approach to building the business,” he says. “There is no back book of clients, so you have to take a more active role. Even as paraplanners we are very much encouraged to go to networking events and connect with people willing to engage with us.
“So, it’s not just about being in the office, it’s also about being representative of the company.” That aspect of the job has been “a good development experience” he says, with an eye to becoming an adviser further down the road.
When Keith and Anna first moved to Hong Kong they lived in Wan Chai, a busy commercial area filled with office workers and shoppers. “We had a tiny 320sq foot apartment but we needed more space so we moved to the Mid-Levels, which is where most ex-pats tend to live to get away from the hectic pace of the city.”
The work environment he says is more relaxed, “there is more give and take”.
“In the UK paraplanning is often a rigid office-based role. Here, it is a more active approach to doing business. There are days when everyone is out doing something.
“The reports we do here are shorter too, there are no 30 or 40 page reports that you get in the UK. In the UK it might take eight hours to do a pension transfer report, here the reporting standards are much more punchy and client-friendly.” This can lead to a better work/life balance, he adds.
And Hong Kong offers “the best of both worlds”, he says, “on one hand the city with skyscrapers towering 60 floors above you in a small space and, on the other hand, amazing walks and beaches.
“And you can escape from the city quite easily. In fact, it’s cheaper to travel than to stay in Hong Kong. A flight to Thailand costs £100 so you can do it at the weekend.”
On a day off Keith recommends taking a junk boat trip. “You are out from 9am to 6pm, with all food and drink covered, enjoying a good day in the sun.” However, the Hong Kong classic pastime is race night. This takes place every Wednesday at the famous Happy Valley race course. “It’s the done thing to do.”
One aspect of ex-pat life in Hong Kong that has been harder to adjust to, he says, is the weather. “In the summer it fluctuates between two extremes; from hot and humid (it can be 100% humidity) to typhoons. You have an intricate typhoon warning system – and Hong Kong island is quite well protected, although the New Territories often are hit quite badly – but suddenly everything will shut down and you end up with the day off.”
So, would Keith encourage other paraplanners to consider working in Hong Kong?
“Absolutely, 100%. There are a lot of quirky things that are different from the UK but it is a very enriching experience. You will meet a lot of people, all open to a lot of new experiences with a fantastic mindset. And there is no shortage of people here happy to help you. It is a fantastic opportunity to experience a different way of life.”