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The right mindset: Grahame Hopper, VWM Wealth

28 June 2018

Grahame Hopper, chartered financial planner at VWM Wealth, tells how taking time out to travel helped him to realise the job he wanted and scoop the PFS Paraplanner of the Year award

Taking time out of his career path to travel around the world was possibly the best decision of his professional life to date, says Grahame Hopper, chartered financial planner and paraplanner with VWM Wealth.

“It broadens the mind, you learn new skills, you learn about people and you learn about yourself. And you appreciate so much more when you come home. When I came back I was ready to settle down. Within ten months of getting back I had met my wife and within three years I gone from not having my diploma to being chartered. But that’s the way I like to live – I like to be always improving and moving forward to the next level. I don’t like to be too comfortable.” It is a mindset he was pleased to find mirrored in his current employer.

Grahame comes from a financial planning family. His father and aunt were financial planners. Favouring accountancy and business management at school, Grahame says he always had a “business and finance kind of brain”. The obvious route for him into financial services would have been to join his father’s firm but, he says, although he did “help out” for a while due to illness in the family, he chose to go the independent route. “It would have been possible to work with or for my dad but I wanted to do things for myself.”

This saw him start an accountancy degree but though he liked working with numbers, he realised it wasn’t right and switched into a Financial Services degree at Glasgow Caledonian University. “I loved it. I do like numbers and I am kind of geeky in a way but why I enjoy financial services and the kind of work I do, is because I love to know I’m helping people.”

Starting his career in pensions admin for a large pension provider also showed him he didn’t want to be a small cog in a very large machine. “I’m not the corporate type. I wanted to make more of an impact on people’s lives. So I looked for a role in a smaller firm,” he says.

That turned out to be as a trainee mortgage adviser in a Glasgow based adviser firm. “But I had set my sights on being a paraplanner and I quickly moved into that role when one of the directors realised I had G60 as an exemption.”

He stayed at the firm for three-and-a-half years, “enjoying the role and working with the people at the firm… but I found I wasn’t really enjoying the transactional model. Also, while I was all about improving myself to do better, I wasn’t getting the support with progressing through exams as a paraplanner.”

It was time to move on. “I learned that if you know what you want then you shouldn’t be willing to settle for average. It’s easy to find yourself in a job and several years later you’re still in it but not happy,” he says.

Having saved since he was a teenager, he decided to take those savings and invest in himself, so at the age of 27 he went travelling.

What was supposed to be a year away turned into 2.5 years, including three months in Asia, two months in New Zealand (coinciding with the Rugby World Cup), and then a move to Australia, where an intended six months stay turned into one of two years. This included five months working on a farm, where he says he was “shocked to find I could earn more money picking potatoes than I could being a paraplanner!” He also worked for a mortgage company in Melbourne as an administrator. “It was good to get the exposure to a different market where they do things differently to here.”

He returned home to Prestwick in November 2013 and started looking for paraplanning vacancies. He was about to accept a role with a national financial advice firm when a good friend told him about a paraplanning role that had come up at her firm. “To be honest, I had set my heart on the other role, but I went to the interview,” he says. That interview was with Ken Welsh, founder and managing director of VWM Wealth. “When Ken explained how the company worked and what the role would be, it just resonated; it was the way everything should be done. From the way it looks after the families it has as clients to how it invests in the team and taking a long-term approach, the whole philosophy of the firm was what I believed it should be and there was no doubt in my mind that it was the job I wanted.” He was offered the job on the spot, accepted and has not looked back.

Focus and mindset

VWM Wealth looks after around 80 families. It is a boutique firm of seven people, with two paraplanners (including Grahame in a hybrid role), an administrator, three chartered financial planners (one of which is also our chief investment officer with discretionary manager authorisation) and an office manager.

What principally attracted Grahame to VWM Wealth was its philosophy, he says.

“Everything we do is aligned with a growth mindset, we talk openly about our goals, how we can help our clients and to get everyone involved and thinking strategically’’.

“We all sat a Kolbe test, to see where we best fitted within the company based on our unique abilities and it’s very much about working as a team – a collegiate approach.

“It’s about constant improvement and growth, pushing ourselves on individually and as a firm. It’s about always looking at what we can do to improve, making small incremental changes to our processes and to strategically work our way round any ceilings of complexity that we face’’.

“I’ve found when you are all pulling in the same direction it does bring out the best in you and you become eager to try to improve yourself and to help others.

“Our firm has been an early adopter of new technology and embraces change; we are encouraged to be curious. If you don’t know how something works, in a piece of software or in Excel for example, then you find out how to do it. If there is something that grates on you every day it’s about thinking, how can we fix that, how can we make what we do better? If you can streamline things as much as you can and there is also a mindset that encourages curiosity and helpfulness, then that naturally leads you to improve, the way you work and in what you can do for clients.”

The support for self-development is also key, he says. “The way the business is set up and how we work as a team has helped me greatly. If you want to sit an exam or attend a CPD event, VWM support you all the way. I think when you’ve got the right firm behind you and it has the mindset that matches yours, then it’s easier to sit the exams and to push yourself to enter awards.”

Hybrid role

While Grahame joined VWM Wealth as a paraplanner, a role he still enjoys, his ambition he says, was in time to be financial planner. In December 2015 he began easing into that role and currently splits his time between paraplanner and planner within the firm.

“The way I see it, the paraplanner role is a career in its own right but it can also be a stepping stone into being a financial planner. I’ve always liked the technical aspects of the work and I think every firm should have a paraplanner, so you’ve always got two sets of eyes on a case. When you move into a financial planner role, having been a paraplanner and administrator, you’ve already gained so much experience, which I don’t think you get if you are fast tracked into a financial planning role.”

This progression also plays into the succession planning within the firm, he adds, as the paraplanners have the opportunity to become the financial planners and ultimately take over some of the existing clients.

Giving back

Outside of the firm, Grahame was involved with the CII’s ‘Discover Fortunes’ programme, which is aimed at teaching first year undergraduate students about wealth management and the role of the financial planner, for which he presented at Glasgow Caledonian University. “It was really interesting as it showed the students the different types of risk and how asset allocation works. It’s about getting involved and making a difference from the ground up.”

As a result, he was asked to join the Central Scotland Committee of the PFS by one of the committee members who was also involved in the programme.

“I think if you do get out of your comfort zone and have a go and get out there and give back where you can, then opportunities like this tend to arise.”

Grahame is also a keen runner and training for his fourth marathon, he is competing in the London Marathon in April to raise vital funds and awareness for SANDS and The Brain Tumour Charity, two charities very close to his heart.

Typical day

“This will depend on the time of month because we have an 8-week process for reviews. The majority of the client meetings occur in the third week of the month – this is so the clients know when they will meet with us and we can plan ahead and arrange travel if required.

Clients must be the ‘right fit’ and buy into our philosophy. Every client has full holistic financial planning, including cashflow modelling, and every client meets with their financial planner and supporting paraplanner in their Forward Planning Meetings.

As a firm, we always have a paraplanner supporting the financial planner as a ‘wing man’ in all client discovery, strategy and forward planning meetings. This approach benefits the client, as the planner can focus on the client while the paraplanner takes notes and presents their cashflow model, and the client also has a relationship with the paraplanner.

‘’Being directly exposed to clients and the involvement in presenting in client meetings has further contributed to my success as a paraplanner as I witness at first hand the impact of my work, and it is this first-hand practical experience that you cannot get from sitting exams.

Working in this way also helped me make the transition from paraplanner to financial planner, as it has exposed me to what happens in meetings, the kind of questions asked and how to respond to clients, and it also honed my presenting skills’’.

Prior to a meeting the paraplanner will be handed the client pack for review and will check out the pen portraits, noting whether anything has happened with the family in the interim period, and will go through looking at things from a technical and tax perspective, etc.

We will also look at things from a personal perspective, what’s happened or might be approaching in their lives, such as nearing retirement and we’ll look at potential scenarios and whether a new cashflow model scenario is needed. We’re fortunate that the investment side of things is taken care of through our in-house discretionary management.

Normally I will start off the day looking at Technical Connections and financial planning groups on Facebook (such as BACK2Y and Adviser LifeTalk), to keep up to date with any technical and topical issues that I need to be aware of and I also build in a couple of hours buffer time a week on Paul Armson’s ‘Inspiring Advisers’ programme, which has helped me to build on my soft skills for client meetings and our service offering.

We’ll have weekly update meetings with the planners and admin and pre-review meetings too.

As we don’t have a huge client bank, I’m dealing with 2-3 clients a month, I can continue to do the reports at present, but that is likely to change over a period of time.

PFS Paraplanner of the Year 

Grahame says he wouldn’t have applied for the PFS Paraplanner of the Year award if it wasn’t for the encouragement of the firm and his colleagues. “It’s about getting out of your comfort zone and pushing on to the next level.”

His colleague Lisa Johnstone won the PFS Chartered Financial Planner award in 2014 and in 2016 David Thomson, the firm’s Chief Investment Officer, won the PFS Investment Advice Specialist award.

The award process was to write 500 words on ‘Why you are passionate about paraplanning’ and ‘Why you feel you deserve the award’ through ongoing development and how your commitment to the highest standards benefit client outcomes. The second part was a holistic case study.

“Having just done AF1 and seeing all the tax calculations involved I thought it would be relatively straight forward. It wasn’t until I got down into the detail that it became obvious just what was needed. Work were great, they said take what time you need to do the submission. Overall, I probably spent around four-and-a-half days working on it, being thorough and checking everything. I gave different options where I could. My final submission was 22 pages long.

Following the judging process, he was informed he was a finalist and the final round was down to two people, Grahame and Caroline Richmond of HFM Columbus.

“I didn’t go down with any expectations and I genuinely was in shock when my name was announced at the awards dinner,” he says.

“I feel quite humbled by it but I know I put in the hard work too. What’s key for me is that I never would have applied for it without the support of the firm, who gave me both the encouragement and the time to do it.”

 

 

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