Featured Profile: Benjamin Marshan
The science of quality advice
Financial advice and scientific research are one and the same. At least that's what the Financial Planning Association of Australia's head of policy and standards Ben Marshan believes. Jamie Williamson writes.

Inspired by Michal Crichton's sci-fi classic Jurassic Park, Ben Marshan studied science and entered medical research at the ANZAC Research Institute. There he studied female infertility and, later, neuro-degenerative diseases.

He was drawn to the fact he was helping people but was conscious of the gig's shelf life; Marshan's research was funded by a three-year grant and the clock was ticking on his third year. He still wasn't sure what he wanted to do.

To think that you can keep providing advice in the same way that you always have, is very naive.
"All I knew was that I wanted to go into "business". I would use quotation marks and everything because I had no idea," he laughs.

Following the advice of a friend, Marshan enrolled in a Diploma of Financial Planning. While studying, he sent out more than 100 resumes in the hope of getting a client service role.

At their core, the process and logic underpinning both financial planning and science are virtually indistinguishable; ask a series of questions, collect and analyse the data, devise a strategy, present it in writing and then disseminate it.

"I only ended up getting one [job] interview, but I knew that if I got one I might be able to talk my way into it. I had figured out the logic of why a scientist would make a good financial planner, I just needed the opportunity to explain it," he says.

State Super Financial Services gave him that opportunity in 2005, hiring him as a client service officer. After 12 months in the role, he became a financial planner.

At the same time Marshan studied a Master of Financial Planning and, upon graduation, the University of Western Sydney presented him with the Dean's Medal.

On the back of that, and after three years working with his own clients, Marshan was promoted to technical and compliance manager.

"I want to help people, and in this role I was helping other advisers help their clients. That was really attractive to me and I felt it was a good move for me," Marshan explains.

In 2014, KPMG came knocking and Marshan took on the role of associate director, wealth management advisory.

While there, Marshan also volunteered on a number of Financial Planning Association of Australia committees and working groups, so much so he recalls half-seriously ribbing FPA chief executive Dante De Gori; "When are you going to start paying me for all the work I do around here?" he asked.

Not long after, De Gori offered him a position.

He became professional standards and advocacy manager in 2015, helping the association's 14,000 plus members and their clients. Marshan's role has since evolved, heading the FPA's government relations strategy for two years before being appointed to his current role in July 2018.

"What gets me out of bed in the morning is talking to government and regulators about how to make Australians' financial future better," he says.

"We generally feel like the government has a reasonably solid basis for what it's trying to do, but that doesn't mean it understands the real world implications of what it's doing."

And that's where Marshan comes in, with his typical day spent reading 300 pages of legislation or writing 40-page responses to two pages of proposed legislation.

This was particularly the case in the last 12 months, with the FASEA reforms and the Royal Commission ensuring there was no shortage of work for Marshan and his colleagues.

"FASEA wasn't really talking to anyone, they were providing very little information and it was virtually impossible to communicate with them. So, there was a lot of frustration for a large part of last year coming from members," he says.

Reflecting on how the FPA counselled members through this, Marshan says the numbers do the talking.

"You generally get a little bit of drop-off each year when membership renewals are due but we've actually already got more renewed and new members than previous years, and we've had net growth for the last few years," he says.

However, the pressure of the new professional standards was compounded by the Royal Commission, the second round of which Marshan says "hit home like a sledgehammer."

"I got hiccups for four days straight from the stress. It's not like nobody knew all this stuff was out there, but to hear it day after day with real-life case studies was really challenging," he says.

Sympathising with FPA members who are doing it tough, Marshan is grateful his job generally sees him looking forward, rather than focusing on the past or present.

"For the most part, advisers do a good job and clients trust their advisers. But outside of their own practices, they are having a hard time and getting bogged down is hard to avoid, and that's difficult when you're trying to change people's lives," he says.

"I'm lucky enough that I tend to spend my life two to five years in the future because I'm dealing with policy and regulation and what the government is looking to do going forward."

Despite living his day-to-day in the future, Marshan says his role at the FPA is the first where he's been unable to gauge what comes next.

"I've kind of always had a view of what the next job is until I moved here. I feel like I've reached the peak of my value proposition in terms of financial services; I'm excited to get out of bed every day," he says.

"I think when the time is right the right opportunity will come along, but I can't see myself moving on to anything else just yet because there's still a hell of a lot left for me to do."

This includes finding a solution for the increased costs associated with opening an advice business; the amount of regulatory change coming down the pipeline; the broader impact of the Royal Commission and the amount of time advisers will spend outside of their practices chasing FASEA's requirements.

It's for this reason Marshan works with fintechs to understand the role that technology can play.

"This year provides a six to 12-month period where advisers can make some changes in their businesses, but that will evaporate really quickly as they start doing further education," he says.

Now is the time for practices to be looking at the efficiencies they can deliver, Marshan adds.

"To think that you can keep providing advice in the same way that you always have, is very naive. Advice processes have to be more efficient, more cost-effective, and a lot more engaging," he says.

Until then, Marshan will continue to enjoy the work/life balance the role affords him, allowing plenty of "generally stress-relieving" time with his two kids as well as ample opportunity to indulge in his greatest hobby - Lego.

"Being one of those professional Lego builders is the dream - my desk is covered in the stuff as it is," he says.

And on the off-chance that even Lego can't ease the stress?

"Chocolate; it's a comfort in life," he laughs. "Maybe too comfortable." fs

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