Hester’s money story

Meet the 2020 Financial Planner of the Year, Hester van der Merwe CFP® from Ultima Financial Planners.

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The FPI Financial Planner of the Year award is the highest accolade bestowed on financial planners in South Africa as it represents the very pinnacle of the profession.


Hester, congratulations! After a gruelling competition, you have been awarded the Financial Planner of the Year 2020. What does winning the award mean to you? 

Thank you! I want to give all the honour and glory of winning the award to my Heavenly Father. For me, it represents such a growth opportunity – even the journey from entering up to just before the announcement had been amazing – a constant learning curve! For the practice, this is also a big deal since I am the third winner of the award from Ultima. Gerrit Viljoen won the award in 2003 and Jan-Carel Botha won in 2012 (he no longer works at Ultima).

What was your motivation for entering the competition? 

American businessman Max De Pree said: “We cannot become what we need to be by remaining what we are.” I believe you cannot grow in any role without pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. This competition certainly pushed me way out of my comfort zone and presented a steep learning curve.

You studied law at the University of Pretoria and then you obtained your Post Graduate Diploma in Financial Planning as well as Financial Planning and Services at the University of the Free State. Why did you change your field of studies? 

When I decided to study law, my objective was to become a prosecutor. I have always felt the need to be useful – to add value – and this career path seemed to offer that. As a student, I worked at a firm of attorneys in the debt collection department and after graduating I migrated to the debt collection department of a bank. I found the environment very harsh and did not enjoy the work.

While raising a young family, we decided that I would work half-day and that resulted in me entering the financial industry as an admin assistant. I was quite reluctant as I did not have a positive view of the industry at all! However, I was fortunate enough to enter the industry alongside an amazing planner whose attention to detail and close relationships with his clients made me change my mind completely and I grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

To better understand the work he was doing, I enrolled for the Post Graduate Diploma, with no intention of becoming a planner myself, but only to gain a better understanding of the inner workings of a financial plan (and to improve my Excel sheets). However, once the planning bug has bitten you, there is no turning back. So I persisted until I was able to write CFP® behind my name!

“It is so important for everyone to understand that
they have a unique money story, which has been written almost
since the day they were born. This personal story gives colour to
the way we perceive money and creates our blind spots,
opens certain doors for us and closes other doors.”

You started your career trajectory as Head of Wealth Planners at FNB in 2012 and then as Financial Advisor at Ultima Financial Planners in 2015, where you currently are. Besides winning the FPI award, what has been the highlight of your career? 

Head of Wealth Planners sounds much more impressive than it was. I headed up a very small but excellent team of Certified Financial Planners®. There I discovered the beauty of a fixed salary as opposed to commission-driven advice. Our job description simply included making sure clients received the best advice without offering any products. Clients valued this unbiased advice and I was able to gain a lot of insight that I can now apply when dealing with our clients at Ultima. Hence, that experience counts as a highlight for me.

According to the FPI, you set yourself apart from the other competitors through your depth of knowledge, the immeasurable detail of your financial plans, as well as your extraordinary commitment to clients. How important is each one of these factors in the financial planning profession? 

I think they are all equally important. Without a sound knowledge of the technical and legal aspects of financial planning, it will be impossible to do a financial plan without endangering both the client and the good name of the profession. This goes for an attention to detail as well. In financial planning, the adage “the devil is in the detail” is unquestionably applicable! The last is where my passion lies.

The most rewarding facet of financial planning is the people we work with. A financial planner should have a heart for people. We need to be mindful of the fact that the work we do impacts directly on our clients’ lives and well-being.

How were you able to rise above the economic and pandemic crises facing South Africa and the world, and still manage to maintain the level of excellence required to win the coveted title? 

I would not have been able to accomplish this without a strong team behind me.
At Ultima, we believe in building a diversified team where each player is allowed to play to his or her strengths. This meant that we were able to cope with the challenges by making slight adjustments only and could continue to offer the same level of service to our clients throughout this difficult year. I, therefore, felt empowered to tackle the competition and give it my best shot.

Amid the highly challenging circumstances of Covid-19, what was the biggest lesson for you? Has the pandemic changed your approach to financial planning? 

A tried and tested process is no guarantee that a super-fast about-turn is not lurking around the corner. Be forward-looking at all times, identify possible threats and how to deal with them when the time comes. The pandemic did not change my approach to financial planning, since I have always been very client-focused. The heartfelt and enduring relationships we form when doing lifestyle financial planning is at the centre of my regard for the industry and this stayed true while dealing with the pandemic.

“A financial planner should have a heart for people. We need to
be mindful of the fact that the work we do impacts directly
on our clients’ lives and well-being.”

What changes would you like to see in the industry? 

Change is inevitable as we all know by now, and will be exponential. Now may be our only opportunity to secure the integrity of financial advice going forward and this is where my focus lies. We are extremely fortunate that our industry has had the opportunity to develop to where we are now – we are skilled professionals, subscribing to a carefully cultivated professional standard and practically apply the FPI code of ethics in our everyday dealings with the public. Development in AI and therefore fintech will undoubtedly change financial planning as we know it irrevocably.

We have to start asking questions such as: Is it possible to instil the principles of our Code of Conduct into a Robo advisor? I think we need to stand together now more than ever before and ensure that our voice is heard during this time of exponential growth and development – that our principles and our very humanity do not get washed away by this tech-driven tsunami.

As this year’s FPI ambassador, how will you use the platform to motivate change? 

I will encourage women from all walks of life to put on their financial boots and climb the mountain they are facing. If I can encourage women to tackle their financial affairs, ask to be included in the decision-making process of the household or to become a Certified Financial Planner® that will be brilliant!

I would also love to introduce people to their money stories. It is so important for everyone to understand that they have a unique money story, which has been written almost since the day they were born. This personal story gives colour to the way we perceive money and creates our blind spots, opens certain doors for us and closes other doors. Once we understand this, it is possible to rewrite our story and open up new possibilities.

The challenge is that very few people even realise that they have a money story, much less understand the impact it may have on their lives! If I can accomplish this I will feel that my year has been turned to good account.

What do you consider as the most important trait of an accomplished financial advisor? 

You must have a heart for people! The qualifications, experience and technical knowledge should be a given.

What do you deem as the most critical component to financial success? 

Set sound long-term goals and work with a financial partner that can keep you accountable and help to magnetise your compass when you lose your true north.

Do you have any advice for women that are considering a financial career? 

Do not expect it to be easy, but do expect it to be the most rewarding journey you will ever undertake. Make sure you are 100% clear on your “why” and focus on that, even when the going gets tough.

Please share a message of motivation for those that have considered competing for the FPI award in future. 

Do not hesitate! This is such a unique experience and will present you with a once in a lifetime opportunity to grow and become who you were meant to be!

On another level, your practice will benefit immensely from this exercise. You are forced to consider all aspects of your practice once again and view it from a different perspective while preparing for every stage of the competition. If you are in earnest, opportunities for improvement will present themselves regardless of the outcome of the competition.

Winning brings so many opportunities to you and your practice. Both existing and prospective clients will feel reassured that their financial planning will be thorough and tailor-made. Trust is earned over time, but this award will help clients to gain a measure of confidence in you and the practice.

Investment philosophy? 

My philosophy is to be patient and never make emotional decisions.