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MM Profile: Cathi Harrison

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The founder of Para-Sols set up her outsourced paraplanning business to meet demand from recession-hit IFA firms who did not want to take on extra staff and now she is looking to widen her services to small firms with a recruitment consultancy Interview by Rachael Adams

A long commute to work proved the driving force behind Para-Sols founder Cathi Harrison’s decision to set up the outsourced paraplanning business.

She was a paraplanner at a firm in Harrogate but faced a 45-mile journey from her home in Darlington.

“I really enjoyed it but the commute from Darlington to Harrogate became too much and I started calling advice firms in the North-east to see if there were any jobs going. All of them said they could do with a paraplanner but it was 2009 and no one wanted to recruit in the middle of a recession. Setting up Para-Sols meant I could give these firms the support they needed without them having to employ me.”

Straight after university she joined Pace Financial in Bishop Auckland as an administrator and took the exams to become a paraplanner. “I saw paraplanning as a step to becoming an IFA but then realised I preferred the paraplanning side.” After three years at Pace, Harrison took on the paraplanning role at Brook Dobson Brear in Harrogate which led to her setting up her business.

Harrison believes launching Para-Sols has improved her paraplanning skills. “Working with so many different companies and systems gives me a wider view than working in-house. We have had to master a lot of different systems but at the core most of them are essentially the same. We work with Intelliflo, True Potential and so on and they are managing the same thing - client information and planning information.”

Harrison’s knowledge of the different systems used by IFAs means last year Para-Sols was able to offer a back-office system that allows advises to access reports. “We found that advisers sometimes want to know what cases we have and what stage we are at with them without phoning us, which would take us away from the case. It means our phone rings far less often, which is nice.”

She says adapting to new technology is part of the business and it is helping make advisers’ jobs much more flexible. “We slot into advisers’ existing systems, many of which are now entirely cloud-based. It makes things so much more flexible as people are not tied to their offices. As an outsource business, this is great for us.”

She believes there is room for improvement in the way the industry uses the technology available. “There is a bit of a gap between how financial services use technology and how the rest of the world does but there are advisers who are embracing and even developing the technology. All it takes is a few to do it and the rest will follow.”
But Harrison does not believe technology will develop to the extent that paraplanners become obsolete. “There are report-writing tools available but the problem is they are only ever in standard generic wording, whereas reports should be personalised.”

She also points out that IFAs value paraplanners as “an extra pair of eyes” in terms of double-checking adviser recom-mendations. “You would never get that from a system, no matter how advanced.”

The impending retail distribution review will only heighten the squeeze on IFAs’ time and will force them to concentrate on their core services. “We have been seeing a lot more enquiries over the past few months. Advisers are starting to look at what areas they can outsource, such as bookkeeping and compliance, so they can just work on their business and see clients. Paraplanning is one of those areas.”

Harrison feels the RDR will be positive for Para-Sols but is less supportive of the way in which it has been implemented so far. “It has pushed advisers towards professionalism but there has been a lot of uncertainty.”

But she says the RDR is not the only reason behind the surge in paraplanning. “No one goes into financial services because they love administration. It has always been one of those inevitable things advisers put up with. However, there has been a natural progression for admin-istrators to become more highly qualified but not necessarily to want to see clients.”

The recent boom in paraplanning training has gone hand in hand with this, with both the IFP and the CII bringing out qualifications. Harrison is already chartered and certified so has not taken either but prefers the IFP’s qualification.

“It is useful from a paraplanning perspective as it shows you how to compile a financial plan. The chartered qual-ification is less practical and more about getting your knowledge up to date.”

Harrison’s four employees at Para-Sols are all gearing up to take the certified exam this year.

She is also planning to chair breakout sessions for paraplanners at IFP meetings this year, saying that getting them talking to each other can make a difference. “Paraplanners do not often get to meet each other so this is a great chance for them to share best practice.”

She has also been working with potential entrants into paraplanning. She says: “I did a talk for the CII at the local university. At first there was a lot of eye-rolling but once I had spoken to them and they realised they could own their own business, they woke up a bit.”

Harrison also plans to take on an extra member of staff this year but the cost and difficulty this entailed for a small business has led her to her latest business venture, a recruitment consultancy for small businesses. “I struggled when I tried to recruit because I am a small business and consultants are expensive, so I set up a company to meet that need.”

The new venture, JobHAT, is due to launch this month and means Harrison’s time will be split between Para-Sols and her new venture.

“At Para-Sols, I do more and more of the business overseeing but it is just a question of managing my time. It would be a waste of my qualifications if I just oversaw the business - and, anyway, I love paraplanning.”

Born: Darlington, 1983
Lives: Darlington, with her fiancé
Education: Degree in English and business from Teesside University, chartered financial planner and certified financial planner
Career: 2009-present: owner and paraplanner, Para-Sols; 2008-09: paraplanner, Brook Dobson Brear; 2005-08: administrator and paraplanner, Pace Financial Services
Likes: Italy, shoes, chocolate
Dislikes: Mushrooms, being cold, velvet
Drives: Peugot 206 CC
Book: How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely
Film: Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
Album: I am loving Stereo Typical by Rizzle Kicks at the moment
Career ambition: I’m already living it. I want to continue to promote the role of paraplanning and also help support young people set up their own businesses
Life ambition: Family, fun and to retire somewhere hot
If I wasn’t doing this I would be… A champion hula-hooper. It’s my one natural talent

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