March 1, 2002

Having an 'FPA Experience'

At the Financial Planning Association's recent broker/dealer conference in Los Angeles, I spotted new FPA President Bob Barry standing at one end of the low-ceilinged exhibit area and smiling at the healthy turnout of more than 600 industry honchos, planners, and B/D reps. He certainly had ample reason to be upbeat. A decade-long board member of the International Association for Financial Planning who helped engineer its 2000 merger with the Institute of Certified Financial Planners, Barry now presides over a 29,000-member group that is rapidly developing its own identity and voice.

But Barry thinks the FPA has a long way to go. He is especially keen on enhancing the association's value proposition to the public and its membership. "We need to continue to deliver value to members without their having to go to the Success Forum or Retreat, or to chapter meetings," Barry told me when I caught up with him the other day at his planning practice in rural Hackettstown, New Jersey, where he oversees about $26 million in client assets.

Delivering more value to members in the post-9/11 "tighter budget environment" is not an idle concern. Unlike M.D. or J.D., "financial planner" remains a somewhat amorphous title, and consumers are being confronted with a growing chorus of organizations arguing their claims to financial planning expertise.

In addition to the FPA, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, the Society for Financial Service Professionals (the CLU-ChFC folks), and the Association for Investment Management and Research are all trying to win consumers over to their approach to financial planning (you can read about what AIMR is up to lately in Cort Smith's interview, on page 22, with association chief Tom Bowman). And don't forget the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors, with its rigorous entrance requirements and strict, fee-only discipline.

Amid this alphabet soup of professional groups, who wouldn't forgive consumers for being confused? Barry's immediate answer to strengthening the FPA's position is to concentrate on what a speaker from the Walt Disney Company told an IAFP gathering some time ago. Barry recalls the speaker observing that Disney is more than theme parks, noting that the mantra within the company is, "'How many people are having a Disney experience during the day?'"

To Barry, the FPA should be asking the same question of itself. "Having an FPA experience during the day," should be the association's catchphrase, he argues. "We need to increase our general level of visibility."

Barry thinks one way to approach this goal is to work from the inside. In partnership with Morningstar Inc., Barry in February launched a co-branded Web site at advisor.morningstar.com to help B/D reps looking for a new home evaluate competing firms. Eleven B/D's have joined so far, and Barry says the FPA is now in "conversations" with several unidentified companies that might launch other partnership programs this year. Barry is also pushing ahead on a $400,000 revamping of the FPA's member database that is expected to be complete by late this year or early 2003. "We need to better monitor and segment our membership," he says.

More importantly, Barry says the FPA needs to "sharpen its message" to the public and promote what he sees as its core values: competency, integrity, relationships, and stewardship. "Financial planners get painted in the media as people who build a better mousetrap to get better investment returns," he says. But he argues that there is more to financial planning than investing. "It's the totality of the process," he says. Getting that message out, in a time of tough markets, competing trade groups, and tight budgets, will be one tall order for this financial planning industry veteran.

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