At only 38 years of age Stephen Ballinger is a veteran of the financial services industry. Ballinger, who received an award for excellence at Count’s conference which kicked off yesterday in Auckland, explains what makes his business tick.

Stephen Ballinger’s introduction to the art of financial planning was not a pleasant one. It was pre-crash 1987 and on the advice of a planner with a high-profile firm of the time both he and his parents sunk large amounts of money in a winning fund. The previous year’s winning fund that was. Perhaps this was the days before the standard ‘past performance is not indicative of future returns’ warning was tagged to fund promotional material. When the crash came just months later and Ballinger and his parents watched their hard-earned savings dwindle away he had learnt a valuable lesson. “I thought I could do better as a financial planner,” Ballinger says. As he stepped up to receive an award for excellence at this week’s Count conference being held in New Zealand Ballinger proved this was not just an idle thought of a disaffected investor. Cut back to 1988 and Ballinger was just beginning his work in the financial services industry, barely out of school, in an actuarial firm in Sydney administering corporate super funds. Within three years he found himself heading the corporate super division for NSW at the tender age of 21. This experience just as the compulsory super system was taking off was a valuable introduction to financial services and undoubtedly set him up for his future career. A shift up to Newcastle in the early ‘90s enabled Ballinger to redirect his career where he studied for a commerce degree and found a job in a local accountancy firm running its financial planning division. Seven years later and he was finally offered partnership in the accountancy firm – something which he had always hankered after. It was curious then that he turned down the offer of partnership and struck out on his own as a financial planner. “I just decided I didn’t want to work for a firm that didn’t treat its staff well,” Ballinger says. In another strange twist he also decided to act as a proper authority for the AMP-owned dealer Hillross rather than with Count, which had licensed him while at the accountancy firm. A couple of years at Hillross was enough for Ballinger who quickly discovered that life under institutional control was not to his liking. “The grass was certainly not greener [at Hillross],” he says. When it came time to find a new dealer Ballinger was also determined he wouldn’t return to Count as a “matter of pride more than anything”. Eventually it was his staff who convinced him that Count was the natural home for his business – a decision he has not regretted. “It would be impossible for me to go back to an institution after having independent ownership,” Ballinger says. He says the listed Count is also different than the organisation he remembered from the accountancy practice days in that it is now much more prepared to listen to suggestions from its members and implement changes on their request. Its front-end technology, Count Wealth Planner, too has improved out of sight from the early days, according to Ballinger. He says the choice of platforms and investments available through the dealer suit his clientbase, whom he describes as mainly conservative. “We don’t touch complex products, there’s just no need,” he says. Ballinger’s clients tend to be business people or professionals, about 20 of whom he advises on their SMSFs – an area he has worked in since 1988. “My clients are people who appreciate what we do and are willing to listen to the advice we give them,” he says. His fee scale reflects Ballinger’s aim to make an “honest living” rather than squeeze as much as possible out of his clients with the maximum annual fees set at 0.66 per cent. “I gave a lot of thought about how we charge clients,” he says. This year Ballinger turns 39 and is looking forward to another 30 years in an industry he loves. However, his succession planning is already underway and he expects the two other advisers in his business would gradually take on more equity and responsibilities. “Within the next 15 years I don’t want to be the key person in the business,” he says. And his business should be around a long time. While the recent proposed changes to superannuation may be a threat to some advisers’ business models, Ballinger says the news is “fantastic”. A convoluted superannuation system, he says, has given the “technicians something to sell” but turned the financial advice model “arse about face”. “It [the proposed new super rules] will make super easier to understand and let us as financial planners focus on investment strategies rather than complex technical tax advice,” he says. “It will be good for my business because our clients don’t want complexities.” Name: Stephen Ballinger Business name and location: Ballinger’s Financial Planning, Newcastle; Suite 2A, Tonella Commercial Centre, 125 Bull Street, Newcastle West 2302 Dealer name or self-licensed: Count Financial Group Number and designation of staff: 3 advisers, 2 paraplanners, 1 admin person Area of speciality: SMSFs I have been advising on SMSF’s since 1988) Relevant qualifications:BCom, Dip FP, CFP Are you a member of the FPA?:Yes Number of clients:approx 280 Funds under management(or funds under advice): $106m Method of fee collection: combination of fees and commissions – general fee scale of 0.66% first $500k, then 0.44% next $500k then 0.22% for balance above that – minimum fee/commission $660 pa. Approx 20% of our income is collected by direct debit from client bank accounts. Investment platforms: Perpetual WealthFocus, Colonial First State FirstChoice, BT SuperWrap/Wealth-e-account, Skandia One, Front-end planning software: Count’s Wealth Planner Office management software: Maximizer Investment research: Van Eyk Insurance research: Life Research Technical and legal support: Count, Colonial First State Ongoing education provider: Tribeca for DFP subjects

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