Balancing planners' perceptions about the elite nature of the CFP mark with the urge to expand the profession's reach is a tough balancing act, but that's the role Lou Garday took on August 1 as the first CEO of the CFP Board of Standards.
Although Garday has made a favorable first impression, and virtually everyone who's met him admires the enthusiasm and intelligence of the former investment and mortgage banker, his honeymoon may be just about over.
In fact, even Garday's ambitious goal for growth in the certified financial planner ranks-he's said he wants to grow the CFP certificant ranks to 100,000 over the next three or five years-is causing ripples in the CFP pond. Worldwide, with 15 international programs registered, Garday has put his membership goal at closer to 250,000.
Sounds reasonable enough. What CEO, especially one just out of the chute, doesn't want to grow his business? Well, welcome to the fractious world of CFP certificants, Mr. Garday, where even projecting growth in the number of people who hold the coveted CFP mark can make advisors nervous. Although they desire the attention they're getting as a profession, planners are fearful that growth for growth's sake may have the opposite impact-diluting the CFP mark and potentially harming the profession and even investors by attracting those who simply want to use the certification as a marketing tool.
Quality is more important than quantity, some advisors maintain. John Brown, president of Brown Financial Advisory in Fairhope, Ala., is one of them. "Growth for growth's sake is a bad idea because it would undermine the whole group," Brown says. "I'm a purist in that respect. I'd rather see the mark retain great credibility and have no growth than see it watered down. I know tens of planners across the country who, if it [the CFP designation] got too common, would drop it."
Brown isn't alone. One Virginia advisor says all the talk about growth and running the CFP Board like a corporation is making him nervous, too. His fear? "Making the certification a commodity so it doesn't have meaning anymore." For now, though, he says he's trying to think positively about growth, hoping that it means "more planners will be trained to do things right."
Elaine Bedel, chair-elect of the CFP Board of Governors, has been to several meetings with Garday. "He's a new CEO, and he's enthusiastic. But I do think it is possible to grow to 100,000 in the U.S. over three to five years. I think that's a realistic goal. The importance of the mark is being realized by both the consumer and the industry."
As for watering down the mark to get growth, Bedel says that simply isn't going to happen. "We're as concerned as any certificant that we have quality people, and I think our exam, rightly, ensures that. The pass rate is less than 57%. But we do believe there are a number of professionals in our industry who haven't taken the time to become CFP certificants who want to do so and will be encouraged by the growing consumer recognition."
Whether Garday and the CFP Board can effectively triple the current roster of 37,781 certificants is an open question. But what is clear is that the organization plans to step up efforts to ensure that people understand what they're supposed to be getting when they hire an advisor with a CFP certification. After the last of its practice standards goes live January 1, the organization intends to spend next year communicating the importance of all 10 standards CFPs must live by. The standards range from planning engagements to monitoring.
In effect, the practice standards will become a to-do list for consumers who hire or work with an advisor. "These help quantify and qualify what consumers and planners should expect from an engagement," says CFP Board spokesman Doug Nogami. "These are the bedrock principles of what we want from participants, and I think those messages will come across in all we plan in the next year."
The board started working on the 10 standards in 1994 and kicked off its first by requiring that advisors define in writing what they will provide to clients as part of a planning engagement. "This is good for planners, and it's a tool for consumers to use to demand a certain level of service," says Suzzette B. Rutherford, a member of the CFP Board of Practice Standards, which wrote the rules, and president of Rutherford Asset Planning Inc., which has offices in New York City and Naples, Fla. "It's important for clients to know what to expect and to be able to manage the process and meet their expectations. If they want a comprehensive plan and implementation, they should get it. If a planner is an insurance broker and selling a client only insurance but is using their CFP to do it, they must state the fact that they're only selling insurance products in their engagement letter."
The newest standard, which goes into effect January 1, requires that planners and clients define what, if anything, is to be monitored and who is going to do the monitoring. Sometimes clients hire an advisor to solve one problem or answer one question-a limited engagement-but then assume the advisor will continue to monitor anything impacting their situation.
Say clients want confirmation that they've chosen decent 401(k) investments. Several years pass, the tax laws impacting retirement plans change and the clients call up wondering what the planner is doing about their retirement plans. In the planner's mind, the engagement was limited, but the clients are expecting ongoing service. "This standard helps prevent these kinds of misunderstandings," Rutherford says. "All we're saying is communicate with clients about what expectations there are for ongoing monitoring and who is doing it. Some clients may want to implement themselves. Others may want ongoing services. This simple communication should make sure there are no misunderstandings," she adds.