Cover Story: Deborah Kent
Voice for the industry
If there's one thing that can be said for Australia's advice industry, it's that change is the only constant. And nobody knows this better than Integra Financial Services director Deborah Kent. Jamie Williamson writes.

One of few financial advisers who can say they've been in the industry since day one, Deborah Kent has not only witnessed immense change, but also shaped it, dedicating much of her time - particularly after hours - to industry advocacy.

Entering the industry at a time when insurance advice reigned supreme, only the lucky ones had superannuation and women rarely sought financial advice or - rarer again - provided it, Kent saw nothing but potential.

There's a lot of change going on in the industry but I am of the firm belief that advice is an invaluable thing for Australians to have access to and I do actually think the future is quite bright.
Where many others' careers ended as a result of the 1987 crash, Kent was fortunate enough to start her career in its wake. Taking on a paraplanning role within the then-St.George Building Society's newly established financial advice business, it wasn't long before she decided it was where she was meant to be.

"Even though I was working for another adviser at the time, I realised it was something I really wanted to do and, I didn't know why, but I could tell it was going to be good for me," Kent explains.

"So, I went and did all the relevant study at the time and officially became a financial adviser in 1988. It was a really interesting time because the aftermath of the crash was still so fresh."

Her first placement saw her stationed in Parramatta, heading up the local St.George office. After eight years, Kent decided it was time to make the most of the opportunities being afforded to her by the industry's rapid growth and go out on her own.

"It was still a relatively new industry and it wasn't really something that consumers had in mind. In those days, people basically built a house, saved some money and retired on the Age Pension," she says.

But even in those eight short years, the industry had evolved. Australia was changing and the regulatory system was playing catch up; the Superannuation Guarantee was introduced in 1992 and financial advice was changed forever.

As a result, the contestable market for advice was bigger than ever and Kent capitalised on this by establishing Integra Financial Services in 1996.

Kent has now been in Parramatta for more than 30 years, saying there are a lot of parallels that can be drawn when evaluating both Integra and its home town.

"On paper, Parramatta has changed so much in the time I've been here and while it may look like the business has barely changed at all, there has been a lot of change forced upon it," she explains.

"But it's funny, because at the same time Parramatta is still a very tight knit community. It's almost like having a country town on the outskirts of the city; everyone knows everyone and that's always been the case no matter how tall the skyscrapers got. And it's the same for Integra, it's always been about maintaining relationships in the midst of growth and change."

This is reflected in Integra's client base, with the business providing comprehensive advice to about 255 clients across Australia, in addition to some insurance clients.

As one of only two advisers in the business, it's hard to imagine that Kent would have a great deal of time for much else. Somehow, though, she has virtually made a second career out of being one of the advice industry's most staunch advocates.

"It all comes down to having good systems and processes in place in the business. I'm also very lucky in that I have a very supportive husband of over 40 years. I did it and I continue to do it because the industry needs to evolve and has needed to for some time now," she explains.

In the '90s, Kent was asked by the late Gwen Fletcher to start a Parramatta chapter of the Financial Planning Association of Australia in a bid to boost member engagement. So, with former Association of Financial Advisers chief executive Richard Klipin alongside her as the chapter's first members, she did.

From there, Kent went on to lead the Sydney chapter and ser serve on various committees before being awarded the FPA's Distinguished Service Award in 2004. Elsewhere, she served as NSW State Director for the Authorised Representatives Association and is the first woman to have led the Western Sydney Business Connection.

While she remains a member of the FPA to this day, Kent joined the AFA in 2010 and her advocacy work really ramped up. In a few short years, she went from being NSW State Director to treasurer, before being elected as president in 2014.

With the dust still settling on the Future of Financial Advice reforms, Kent concedes the timing was less than ideal.

"It is such a great honour to be elected by your peers to lead, and I was and still am extremely grateful for that honour. But I can't lie, it was a difficult time; there was so much change going on and there was a lot of anxiety and uncertainty across the membership," she says.

For Kent, all she could do was take it one day at a time and be there to listen to the members, no matter how disgruntled they may have been.

"I have always believed that everybody is entitled to their view. My goal was always to engage every member that wanted to speak to me, regardless of the reason. It was about listening and taking on their concerns," she explains.

"Some times things happen that are out of our control and so it was my job to counsel our members, help them understand what was going on and sympathise with them. At the end of the day, everyone can have a voice no matter what they say; my only rule is that it must be done in a respectful way."

This dedication in ensuring all members be afforded equal representation was also a driving force behind what Kent sees as her greatest achievement in her time with the AFA; establishing the association's women's initiative, AFA Inspire in 2013.

What was originally intended to serve as a networking opportunity for the AFA's female members has evolved to one of the industry's leading advocacy groups, focused on the positive progression of female advisers and increasing the number of women in advice.

Kent says Inspire opened her eyes to the number of women working in advice practices, in paraplanning or client service roles, that actually wanted to be advisers but either lacked the confidence to take the leap or felt they wouldn't be able to balance the work with their young families.

"I was fortunate in a way because I had my children quite young and, it was quite hard starting out but I did also have a great support network. Now that they have children of their own, I can share those experiences and try to help others," she says.

"Inspire is about mentoring and encouraging women to keep pushing ahead. When you have a young family and you're working you do require a lot of support, but that's not just at home. This is about providing practical assistance to not only retain that talent but to help women - and the industry - grow."

Helping women gain confidence has always been a strong focus for Kent, particularly in her advice practice where she has assisted many female clients through divorce.

"Over the last decade or so there has been an obvious uplift in the number of women seeking advice, unfortunately my experience has been with older women at the end of their marriage. They go through a divorce in their 60s and they're completely lost," she says.

"I can't even tell you the number of times I've had women sit in front of me and cry because they feel like they've failed, because of their lack of understanding around money."

Some of these women are virtually forced to start all over again at a time when they should be relaxing into retirement and in most cases they're lucky to afford a roof over their head, she adds.

This is where emotional intelligence comes into play, with Kent saying how you approach the tough conversations can make or break the client relationship.

"I see a lot of new clients that have been to other advisers previously. I always ask them why they were looking for a new adviser and usually the first thing they say is that they didn't understand or listen to what they wanted," Kent says.

"It's really about embracing the client, letting them know you're there and you care about their future. If you don't have those skills, I just don't think you can be successful."

However, she does believe all advisers are capable of it even if it doesn't come naturally.

"Can it be taught? I think it can. Maybe it means sitting with another adviser and watching how they engage with a client; you'll pick something up in their body language or the particular words they use. Some people just have that knack and others have to learn it, but it can be done," Kent says.

Here, there is an interesting intersection where the immense value Kent places on soft skills meets her very active involvement in shaping the technical, educational requirements of advisers moving forward.

In April 2017, Kent was named on the board of the Financial Adviser Standards and Ethics Authority. The body soon set about conceptualising the mandatory education requirements for financial advisers; no small feat given there are close to 24,000 financial advisers in Australia experiencing a lot of mixed feelings as to the need for higher education.

Earlier this year it was confirmed by FASEA that all financial advisers, no matter how long they'd served the industry, would require a university degree or equivalent qualification.

The announcement was met with an even greater mix of feelings; there was anger, others were confused, and some felt betrayed by the industry they'd given so much to. The underlying, overwhelming sentiment however was uncertainty.

"I know there's a lot of change going on in the industry but I am of the firm belief that advice is such an important thing for Australians to have access to and I do actually think the future is quite bright," she says.

She adds that she wants her work to be reflective of the great industry that advice has always been, acknowledging that advisers have endured a lot in recent years.

"Unfortunately, many advisers are getting caught up in the issues around them. But, at the end of the line, advice will have become a very well-respected profession," she says.

In an ideal world, the advice industry will foster such consumer trust that it will be commonplace for young people to seek financial advice as preparation for beginning their careers, Kent hopes.

"We need to get it to the point where there aren't bad stories on the front page of the paper," she says.

To that end, Kent believes the recent Royal Commission, while uncomfortable to witness, was a necessary process that will drive the evolution from industry to profession.

"I believe that as hard as it has been to see what has come out of the Commission, there are positives that will surface out of recommendations - particularly for consumers - and will assist in the transition to a recognised profession," she says.

"Quality financial advice can make a significant difference to a person's life but change is going to continue and if we want consumers to trust us we need to embrace the future, not fight it."

While it remains to be seen what will come of the scrutiny and reforms facing the advice industry, advisers can rest assured that Kent is on their side; working tirelessly to ensure the future of advice is as prosperous as can be and giving a voice to all those with something to say.

"I want to allay people's fears and help them to see the great path that advice is on, because we are headed in a really positive, exciting direction," she says. "And we want as many people on that journey with us as possible."

Link to something YbnIltyg