A journey with lifestyle financial planning

Blue Chip speaks to Irish-born Barry O’Mahony CFP®, founder of Veritas Wealth Management – and winner of the Financial Planner of the Year Award in 2013.

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Barry O’Mahony CFP®, Founder of Veritas Wealth Management

How did your financial planning journey begin?

I originally planned to spend two years in South Africa, but soon realised I wasn’t going back to Ireland. In South Africa, I was offered my first real job cold-calling at an asset management firm. It was horrendous: I was hopeless and was only paid R500 per month. I was later offered a position in asset management where I did well and ended up at the helm of their national client services team.

In 1998, I was approached by Brait Unit Trusts, which was essentially a no-name brand competing against the likes of Investec and Coronation. Our differentiator was the philosophy of lifestyle financial planning – a revelation at the time. We saw a gap in the financial planning market – integrating investments to individually suit a client’s lifestyle and needs. We brought an Australian company called ipac into South Africa to introduce the concept. I became the practice development manager at ipac (which later became Acsis).

Please share with us the career trajectory that led you to your current position as the founder of Veritas Wealth Management.

Eventually, ipac became more corporate – and I realised that it was not for me. It was 2004 and the timing was less than ideal. Although I had qualified as a Certified Financial Planner, my wife, Lisa, was pregnant and there was the ever-present bond on the house to consider. Thankfully, Lisa has an entrepreneurial spirit and encouraged me to strike out into deep water.

I was floundering over this huge career change. My father who was in South Africa at the time took me aside and said: “You will be successful on your own, and if you’re not, you can get another job. But you will be successful.” Two of my most beloved were on board – now I just had to get myself there!

It happened rather quickly after that. I had a telephone, a painfully slow IBM computer and a photocopier that couldn’t print more than two pages at a time. I had no assistant or anyone else to bounce ideas off. It was humbling.

I had no clients, but I knew all about the philosophy of lifestyle financial planning, and I knew how to interact with people. My sole focus area was sourcing referrals, aided by my wife. Previous colleagues and other advisors in the industry were incredibly helpful and sent me clients who weren’t suited to their particular business models. The accounting firm, Meredith Harrington, gave me a portfolio of clients to take over.

You won the 2013 Financial Planner of the Year Award. What did the award mean to you and did winning impact your business?

Entering the competition was initially part of our growth strategy. We hoped that if we at least managed to make it into the top five, it would be an opportunity to attract new clients.

Our existing clients were so proud of us and themselves. The biggest business surge came from them and referrals close to them. The preparation needed to win is huge. Your business will never look better than it does the day the judges come to visit. Everything is up to date, from a client point of view and an HR perspective, and your strategic thinking is right on point.

Have a differentiator when you deal with clients. Financial planning done well is a long-term game.

The press was quite daunting initially. But there is also a great feeling of growing through this process and getting over anxiety issues around standing up in public.

The industry becomes more aware of you. This is good and bad. You learn to choose between the different opportunities that it provides. I think it does help in attracting new CFP® professionals to our business. The sense of pride that the win had internally was huge – our staff were delighted to be part of the win.

I was also invited to tell my work story with other financial planners in a book called, The Good, the Great and the Intrepid.

What was the most satisfying achievement in your role as the FPI brand ambassador?

I had to think about industry issues from a completely different perspective and to get my head out of the small bubble of society in which we work in. I needed to apply my mind to how most South Africans live, work and save. I realised how difficult it was to regulate this industry and how consumers were not getting the best out of our profession.

You played rugby for Ireland A before you came to South Africa in 1993 and once here founded the Vuka Tournament and CoolPlay. Tell us more.

I owe so much to rugby. A rugby scholarship took me to Oxford University in the UK and further, to Hong Kong and Japan on a pre-season tour. On a bus in the Far East, three of my teammates from South Africa unanimously declared that I was made for Cape Town.

That bus ride changed the course of my life.

It seems crazy, summed up like that, but it’s true. Without rugby, I would never have ended up in South Africa or met my wife and I likely would never have discovered the philosophy of lifestyle financial planning, which has brought me to this point.

I helped set up Vuka to encourage kids in the townships to play rugby, and to try to reverse a trend towards gangsterism and drug abuse among teenage boys on the Cape Flats.

We also run CoolPlay, a series of training sessions to teach social and emotional learning. We have more than 1 700 kids participating, and we’ve expanded from rugby into netball. It’s a hugely powerful programme; the children love it.

You founded the Just Do It Foundation. To date, the foundation has raised R15-million to support local community projects. Please expand.

I helped set up the Just Do It Foundation in 1997. Just Do It is more of an attitude than an organisation – an attitude of caring and giving and making a difference in people’s lives.

Members form groups and meet with charities to find out how they can assist and then use their skills, influence and contacts to help the charity in the long term.

We also set up the annual Cableway Charity Challenge where entrants are encouraged to run up Platteklip Gorge on Table Mountain and to come down again in the cable cars for as many laps as they choose.

Veritas Wealth Management is a lifestyle financial planning business. What is your company’s approach?

We focus on the quality of interaction with our clients. The financial planning business is not about sales, but about trust, and trust is about people. We believe that the future is advice, not selling products. We’re on the side of the client, and we work with them to sift through the baffling array of investment options out there.

Our business culture is key. People that work together should come from the same ideological position. At Veritas, most importantly, we look for people who care about clients.

The financial planning business is not about sales, but about trust, and trust is about people.

What advice do you have for those financial planners who have just started their career?

If you are a financial planner starting out, don’t get distracted by things like trying to build your own software, reporting system and management tools. That’s not what advisors do. Stick to your strengths.

It is scary to start on your own, but not impossible. Have a differentiator when you deal with clients. Financial planning done well is a long-term game. Focus on character and competence and build a great culture in your business with these things in mind. Trust your own people. Otherwise, you will never grow. Lifestyle financial planning is the way to go!

Would you like to add anything?

I believe that small things can make a big difference. I like to make a small impact in every aspect of my life. I believe everyone has this opportunity every day. As a business, we are finally able to take on an ASISA intern and we are loving this experience. We will continue to give these awesome young people a chance to get into the financial planning profession.

We have joined the Vulintaba Association whose passion it is to grow lifestyle financial planning in South Africa and to build an association of financial planners who can support each other, as they strive to create a world-class offering for their clients.