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Carole Nicholls

As a keen hot-air ballooner, this Bristol-based IFA drifts through much of her leisure time but, as the new president of the Personal Finance Society, she has her feet firmly on the ground, warning that advisers must earn the right to be seen as professionals and encouraging members to take the chartered financial planner exams to improve their skills. Interview by Helen Pow.

Carole Nicholls, newly installed president of the Personal Finance Society and keen hot-air ballooner, has high hopes for her year at the top.

The Bristol IFA took up the post last November and attaining professionalism in the industry is her number-one goal. Nicholls believes that many financial advisers are still not taking that responsibility.

She says: “We have to earn the right to be professionals so we have to act like professionals. If we act like professionals, we earn the right to be professionals and then we complete the circle that a consumer recognises us as a professional.” She wants financial planning to be a respected profession comparable with law and accountancy and encourages IFAs to obtain the chartered financial planning qualifications.

Nicholls is combining the presidency with running her financial planning business Nicholls Stevens Financial Services which was set up 20 years ago. She has two major strat-egies for achieving professionalism. First, she wants to get the message out to consumers that they should be dealing only with PFS members to ensure they are treated fairly.

“I want to communicate to the consumer the importance of the PFS. We really want the consumer to think of the PFS adviser as the adviser of choice because this is somebody who has signed up to professionalism.”

She also wants to encourage all 22,000 PFS members to be the best in their particular areas and make them aware that the PFS has something to offer them.

“I am concerned that everybody who is a member feels included. We have this big drive for chartered financial planners, who are obviously the people at the top end who have done the exams, but there are 840 of those and we have 22,000 members so there are 21,000 who have not got that and they are just as important. We also need to communicate to the membership that we have training and meetings that address their needs so that they can get the skills they need to run their business.”

She believes that members are doing a good job and should be proud of that and hopes that new members will join as a knock-on effect of her campaign.

Nicholls takes time out from her work to enjoy hot-air ballooning with her husband. The couple used to own their own balloon but recently sold it so now float through the Bristol skies with friends.

“It is amazing. You just drift and although you have got the gas that makes a noise, it is very, very quiet. First thing in the morning is particularly beautiful. In Bristol, where I live, you take off in the park and the balloon more or less comes level with the top windows of all these Victorian and Georgian houses so you can peer in when people are getting up. It is quite funny.”

Nicholls is concerned that the average age of the IFA is 54 and she plans to set up training and work experience programmes at universities around the UK.

“We have a project with Orpington College where 11 students are coming to the PFS to meet 11 mentors and in their summer holiday will go and work in these companies and get some experience, not just doing the filing but proper experience to see what it is all about.”

The plan is to convince young people that financial planning is an interesting and professional path to follow and to strive to be as qualified as possible. “What we really, really want is to get more young people into the profession and for them to see that it is a profession. We would hope is that now we have chartered status, they will think about it in the same breath as they think about lawyers, chartered accountants and chartered surveyors because we desperately need young people.”

She points out that the average age for chartered financial planners is 38 and says younger IFAs are more likely to see value in qualifications and will still be more in the swing of studying.

“Younger people are coming through and seeing the need for the qualifications. I have noticed that young people now are going on to do diploma subjects as soon as they finish their certificate. They are anxious to do it, they are not being forced and they are saying: Well, I want a better job and I want to do something more interesting.”

Nicholls says many older advisers feel that getting more qualifications would be a waste of time but she says this can be overcome by encouraging them to train their younger staff.

“We are trying to encourage some of our mature members, who perhaps do not particularly feel the need to do more examinations, to look at their staff and say: OK, we want to recruit young people and we want to train them. So you start getting that flow through the business, even if the business owner does not want to do it.”

Born: Cheltenham

Lives: Bristol with my husband Andrew, a Persian cat and the occasional appearance of two daughters

Career: 1986 to date: managing director of Nicholls Stevens Financial Services; managing Director of the life and pensions division of Richards Longstaff

Likes: Getting to know people, travel and theatre

Dislikes: People with no sense of humour

Drives: Racing Green MGTF

Favourite film: Shallow Grave

Favourite book: Poems of Robert Frost

Favourite band: Any Stan Getz album

Heroes: Elizabeth I, Tony Benn, Martin Luther King

Career ambition: To apply my skills to give my clients the best possible advice and service

If I weren’t PFS president or an IFA, I would be… Sitting in a piazza somewhere in Italy with a glass of red wine in my hand but it would not last long. I bore quickly and I would want to get back to what I really love doing.

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