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Profile: ‘A degree is not always essential for a career in financial services’

Watson Wood Financial Planning director on the benefits of the vocational training route over student debt

Deciding whether to go to university or not is a big decision, given the levels of debt that it could entail. Young people who are trying to get a foot in the door of their chosen career need to determine if the benefits of going to university outweigh the costs in the long run – or whether finding a job which provides vocational training is the better option for them.

Watson Wood Financial Planning founding director Kirsty Watson has some personal experience of this, having joined the financial planning arm of Scottish accountancy firm Johnston Carmichael straight from school, back in 2000. All she was looking for was a position that could provide her with vocational training and qualifications.

“I didn’t specifically seek a financial services role, but it fitted in this respect – training and opportunity for progression were there,” she recalls.

Watson went on to gain various qualifications while also working in different roles and learning from her co-employees.

“I now try to encourage others that financial services is an alternative route into a professional career and one where you do not necessarily need a degree – potentially reducing student debt,” she says.

Watson started out as an administrator before moving into paraplanning, then becoming a chartered financial planner. Acknowledging that some people become career paraplanners, she points out that trainees coming in can stop at any role they feel is appropriate for them.

Paraplanning roles open more doors than ever

“I think starting as an administrator definitely helps in developing into the paraplanner and, ultimately, the planner role,” she says. “Being an administrator allows you to firstly grasp a basic knowledge on the products and providers.  I think it also helps later in your career, as you can then work very effectively with other team members, having done the roles.”

With various mentors helping and encouraging her, Watson found that her own career progressed naturally. “My development into different roles came from a need to challenge myself and gain further qualifications,” she says. “Report writing is important in any career in financial services, so working as a paraplanner obviously helped in this respect. At Watson Wood, I write my own reports and, to this day, it is a part of my role that I really enjoy.”

Watson Wood was established two years ago by Watson and her former colleagues Kevin Wood and Allan Sillars. “We decided to set up the new firm in order to provide a high-quality service to a small number of clients,” she says. “The three of us had a similar outlook and tend to work well together. Allan deals with finance and HR functions, as well as a number of other operational tasks. This lets Kevin and I concentrate on meeting clients and planning work.”

Watson Wood was one of the first companies to access the Scottish Microfinance Fund, which provides loans of up to £25,000 to small businesses starting out. How did this help the company?

“We planned thoroughly before setting up the firm in order to ensure that we were in a good place financially.  However, being able to access the fund meant that we had a further cushion available in the early months,” says Watson. “We were reassured very quickly that our cashflow forecasts looked to be on the conservative side. However, being able to obtain the loan meant we had some back-up if the initial period in business didn’t go to plan.”

Watson says the firm has limited the number of clients requiring an ongoing service to 50 per planner. “We didn’t want too many clients as we’d find it difficult to service them,” she says. “We wanted to be proactive, getting in touch with them throughout the year if there are changes to taxation, or new products we think they could benefit from.”

As Watson and fellow director Wood approached the 50-client limit, last year they took on another planner, Martyn Percival, to enable the firm to bring in the next 50 clients.  “We will continue to work on this basis to ensure we can always take on new clients,” says Watson.

As a mother of three boys, Watson admits that running a business while bringing up a family is challenging. “I condense my full-time hours into four days, which gives me a day at home to catch up. However, I do work very hard. It’s important to me that I put a significant effort into the business, particularly in these initial years. I usually pick up the laptop after the children are in bed.”


2017-present: Director/chartered financial planner, Watson Wood Financial Planning

2014-2017: Chartered financial planner, Mackenzie Investment Strategies

2011-2014: Career break

2009-2011: Accountancy assistant, Peter Graham & Associates

2007-2009: Paraplanner, Campbell & McConnachie

2000-2007: Administrator/paraplanner, Johnston Carmichael Financial Services

Female advisers share their stories

All of the founding directors are parents, so they know how important flexibility is for all staff, who are able to leave the office to attend sports days and assemblies. “I believe financial services lends itself to women in a way,” says Watson. “It is a sector which really struggles to fill vacancies, but if you have requisite qualifications, you may easily be able to negotiate different hours, for example.”

Earlier in her career, Watson took a three-year break to focus on her children when they were all under the age of five and, upon her return, she completed her chartered qualification. Having recently attained certified financial planner status to complement that, Watson admits she enjoys the challenge of exams and qualifications, and will continue to study.

“The Chartered Institute for Securities and Investment certified financial planner qualification is tricky to get through, but more generally, doing a bit of study covers some continuing professional development and you always pick up parts to take into day-to-day work, even if you feel it is a topic in which you are well versed,” she says.

Watson would like to see more robust qualification requirements to call yourself a financial planner. “If a client has not done their homework, it will be hard to gauge which planners are the most appropriate for them. I think a higher base level – having to complete either the Chartered Insurance Institute or CISI route – would be more appropriate.  It would also help in cementing the profession’s standing with others.”

Editor’s note: Is an all-chartered world where we want to be?

Watson believes the profession is moving in the right direction. “Mifid II has meant that we have to document charges and service levels to clients, but this is something we would always look to do as a firm anyway,” she says. “We want to demonstrate the value of the service which we provide and do not shy away from being frank on charges.”

Five questions  

What is the best bit of advice you’ve received in your career?

To listen.

What keeps you awake at night?

Trying to remember everything I have to do – work and personal.

What has had the most significant impact on financial advice in the last year?

Regulatory change.

If I was in charge of the FCA for a day I would…? 

Work out how to reduce the amount of paperwork going to clients.

Any advice for new advisers?

Consider your writing skills, as well as verbal.



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There is one comment at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Neil Liversidge 13th June 2019 at 1:36 pm

    I’ll take somebody with good judgment and plenty of common sense anyday, degree or no, especially if theirs is a Mickey-Mouse degree a la ‘Gender Studies’. I’ve met no end of graduates who were so useless that I wouldn’t have hired them to clean shoes.

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