Julie Berry

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Susie Boswell lunches with a local who’s leader of Australia’s thousands of financial planners. Maybe she’ll be Port’s most sought-after woman this year.

Julie Berry and I are feasting alfresco on oysters, prawns and barramundi. Restaurateur Lou Perri remarks the summer tourism trade’s been excellent. All seems well with the world.
But feast is turning progressively towards famine on the global financial scene; as we leave the holidays behind and return to work the outlook for the year is grim. Today alone BHP has shed 3400 jobs, DJs lopped 150 staff, the Crazy Clark’s group’s in receivership and Harvey Norman’s announced more store closures. Not to mention some 23 local council employees have lost their livelihoods. Closer to home, I too appear to have forfeited a valuable council contract. By Julie Berry’s count, five local investment institutions have gone belly up recently, leaving many of our neighbours broke. For some, their life’s savings have been wiped out or at least decimated, lingering in limbo in some vague notional accountancy ledger.

So it’s surprising and encouraging that Berry, financial planner and MD of Berry Stacks Financial Services, seems remarkably upbeat, if concerned. She’s especially concerned for those without a financial plan, although she’s noted more people recently seeking budget and debt management help. She’s concerned too for small local businesses who’ve enjoyed a strong few months: she hopes they’ll spread profits over the coming year to allow for rent and other commitments when times are leaner.

Of an estimated 16,000 financial planners around the nation some 12,000 belong to the peak industry body, the Financial Planning Association of Australia (FPA). It looks after the affairs of five million of us and funds valued – at last count, anyway – at more than $600 billion. Berry is chair of the group, her third year in the role. Of 9000 active FPA planners operating individually or in businesses, 5500 are CFPs – certified to international standard. Naturally, Berry is among them. But she likes to point out that all practising FPA members are honour-bound to adhere to professional standards and expected to undertake continuing professional education.

I suggest that probably, as the financial climate worsens, things will be looking up for planners as more people turn to them for advice. That’s true, Berry agrees. Indeed, it’s a mantra she repeats several times in relation to the general financial scenario: there are swings and roundabouts in any situation; while some find themselves in trouble in the global economic crisis, others will benefit.

For example: first home buyers are enjoying excellent interest rates, lower vendor expectations, government incentives. And: while many have seen their share values plummet, others have a golden opportunity to get in to the market, with some keenly priced equities offering bigger bang for their investment buck. “It’s a year of opportunity: you can invest your super fund dollar into units that have never been so cheap, achieving good value for your money,” Berry enthuses.

But for those in difficulty, she has some cautions. Don’t be tempted to try cutting losses by moving investments to cash in the bank: “There are only very limited circumstances where that would be a sensible idea,” she warns, eyebrows rising in alarm at the thought. “We want to say: get advice from a qualified person FIRST, then make that decision.” Many people don’t even understand they may newly qualify for Centrelink benefits to assist them in changed situations. Her overriding message, however, is not merely for formerly comfy self-funded retirees or those with surplus funds to stash away.

“Many people think financial planning’s about getting the best performance of your funds, but that’s not all a planner does. It’s really all about strategy.” Things such as arranging an individual’s affairs so that they minimise tax, are set up to qualify for benefits if applicable, and establish the best appropriate, viable goals. Maybe a good planner is a better bet than a lottery ticket to make you rich!

Choosing a planner is like choosing a doctor, Berry advises. Pick someone you’re comfortable with, trust and can have a good relationship with. In an initial meeting, inquire about a planner’s experience in relevant areas. If it’s retirement planning, ask about their background in that aspect of money management. Many planners will not charge for an initial appointment; they can evaluate if they can help a prospective client and offer an estimate of costs.

Then: “Don’t deal with a planner you can’t understand or who baffles you with science. We have to provide advice in writing: strategy, fees and costs. When you have that document, highlight aspects of it and come back with questions. You don’t have to understand fine detail but you must be confident you’ve a broad understanding of what it’s about.”

So has she taken her own advice? Berry looks confident, comfortably well off, lives in a top location and drives a smart car. Married to Paul, who’s with North Coast Cancer Institute, mother of a daughter, 23, and son, 16, she’s in mid-career, a planner for nearly two decades – around the same length of time she’s lived in Port, moving from Sydney’s west after arriving as a youngster with family from England. To my modest probe into her own circumstances she reveals just this formal summary: “Mine is a long-term portfolio. I intend to retire comfortably having planned well.” I demur from observing perhaps then she’s shared the pain of a plummeting share market – recalling her other maxim: “Never put all your eggs in one basket”.

Whatever, her response sounds like a motto or a formula, really – appropriate enough, I guess, for a planner. Berry is heavily involved with the FPA, chairs a range of board committees, liaises with government legislators, promotes public education, careers in planning and a new pro bono scheme, attends conferences here and abroad. The FPA operates a public access website where people can fit themselves to real case studies and find a money management toolkit for teens, amid other free advice and tips.

Berry spends her leisure hours at pastimes like rowing outrigger canoes, at Rotary and, she lets slip, Weight Watchers. From her trim figure, this last one seems unnecessary. But I’ve noticed she’s prudent not only with money: she orders a skinny cappuccino to top off our lunch – a precaution now, to insure her silhouette for the future? Or perhaps with Weight Watchers – like financial planning – if you look like you don’t need it, it’s already done its job.

Out to Lunch is hosted by Lou Perri at The Stunned Mullet on Town Beach.

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