When Kevin R. Keller was tapped as the new chief executive officer of the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards in April, one of the financial trades queried: "Will the third CFP Board CEO be the charm?"
Keller, 46, follows -- in pretty short order -- two predecessors: interim CEO Don Tharpe, who had served for about six months, and Sarah Teslik, a two-year veteran.
Making the announcement about the new hire, Karen Schaeffer, who chairs the organization's board of directors, noted confidently that Keller possesses the expertise and vision to lead the board at "this critical juncture" in its 22-year history.
Keller takes over the helm at a notable intersection in the CFP Board's organizational timeline. First, the professional regulatory body for almost 55,000 CFPs is relocating from Denver to Washington, D.C. to ramp up its influence over policy involving financial planning and financial literacy. Keller calls the move, planned in the fourth quarter, "as much strategic as it is geographic." Keller will also honcho the integration of the CFP Board's new standards of professional conduct, announced May 31. The revised ethical guidelines raise the bar for certified financial planners -- while also heightening public awareness.
"This is a great opportunity for the CFP Board to tell its story," Keller says about the new ethical standards, which will take effect one year from now. "There's a wide variety of designations, but it's the CFP designation that is the gold standard. It is the one that really speaks to a comprehensive, holistic approach to financial planning. This is certainly an opportunity for the CFP Board to do a better job of telling its story about why it's important to select an individual who has CFP certification if you're in need of financial planning."
Keller has a deep background in, as he puts it, "working in partnership with volunteer leaders to define their goals" and in working with staff "to operationalize the strategic vision."
Most recently, he worked for 16 years at the Association for Financial Professionals, a 16,000-member organization that credentials certified treasury professionals. He also started AFP of Canada.
"Yes, there's a comfort level," Keller said about the similarities between the CFP Board and AFP. "One, they're both volunteer organizations working with volunteer leaders. And the organization I came from has a certification program, not as large as the CFP, but the concepts of certification are the same: making sure the examination is valid, reliable and legally defensible."
During the last seven years, Keller -- tapped by the CFP Board after a seven-month search -- served as AFP's senior vice president and chief operating officer. During his tenure he managed basically every function, including -- not coincidentally -- AFP's relocation from Connecticut to Bethesda, Md. Prior to that, Keller served in senior staff positions in associations involving agribusiness and commercial construction.
The upcoming move to Washington, D.C. means Keller will be working side by side with executives from the Financial Planning Association, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association and others on financial planning policy topics like retirement security and college funding. "There's power in numbers," Keller says.
Meanwhile, Keller will be focusing on the new ethical standards, at the moment the buzz among CFPs. The updated standards, in the works since 2005, involve a "heightened duty of care" by requiring certified financial planners to "at all times place the interest of the client ahead of his or her own." Previously, the standard called for "reasonable and prudent professional judgment."
The revisions, the first significant updates since ethical standards were implemented in 2002, also require CFPs who provide financial planning services to do so with the duty of care of a fiduciary. Professionals found in violation may be subject to public discipline. [In 2006, the CFP Board opened 1,471 professional review cases although, typically, most investigations do not result in disciplinary proceedings. Last year, for example, 29 disciplinary actions were announced.]
Other changes call for written disclosures concerning the financial planning engagement and self-reporting of criminal convictions. The new standards also redefine subject areas covered in the financial planning process to include, but not be limited to: financial statement preparation and analysis; investment planning; income-tax planning; education planning; risk management, retirement planning; and estate planning.
Last year, over 9,200 people took the CFP exam in hopes of earning the coveted CFP mark -- a factor that's likely lost on consumers in search of financial planning.
Going forward, Keller hopes to increase the visibility quotient of the CFP designation. Next month, for example, 165 volunteer CFPs will conduct a free financial planning clinic in Boston. Last year, a similar event in Los Angeles attracted 1,500 consumers. Keller is planning to take the program nationwide.
"As the financial planning profession evolves, the big issue is: How do CFPs meet the needs of their clients and serve the profession as a whole? As CFP certificants look to the future, the challenge is that there is an ever broadening array of opportunities and options for individuals to invest their assets and plan for their future," says Keller. "It's the CFP designation that signals to the public at large a commitment to ethical practices, education and continuing training. That's the message we have to bring home."
Kevin R. KellerChief Executive Officer, CFP Board of Standards, DenverMission: to increase the "status, visibility, respect and credibility" of the CFP designation.Sound bite: "We now need to build our organization and we need a leader who has those skills." --Karen Schaeffer, chair of the board of directors
Freelance writer Ellen Uzelac is based in Chestertown, Md., and is a contributing editor of Research.