Cathi Harrison: Paraplanning, the future of financial advice and the role of advisers

March 22, 2019

Cathi Harrison didn’t intend to become a paraplanner, now her company Para-Sols, founded in 2009, is doing everything it can to get graduates into the profession. In our latest ‘Women in Finance’ interview, she talks us through her career to date and what the future holds for her industry.

I hate explaining what I do,” jokes Cathi Harrison as she starts to spell out what being a paraplanner entails, “just yesterday, someone asked me and I got around it by just saying I run my own business.”

It’s not that Cathi, the founder of Para-Sols, doesn’t love her line of work — she goes so far as to suggest all her paraplanner peers enjoy what they do — it’s that explaining the role in layman’s terms is a bit tricky.

“It’s a bit like being a paralegal but for financial services,” she says, after taking a moment to consider her answer. For the sake of clarity, she adds, “while the financial adviser is out seeing a client face-to-face, going over the softer stuff, a paraplanner beavers away in the office on the technical details.”

It turns out that one of the biggest issues faced by the paraplanning profession is its lack of visibility. “It’s about letting people know it exists as a career,” says Cathi, who realised she might be onto something when she turned the heads of a room of students studying for an accountancy degree.

Rectifying the recruitment situation has helped Para-Sols, which was founded in 2009, go from strength to strength.

In 2017 they, alongside sister company Apricity, launched the industry’s first, and to this date, only, paraplanning specific graduate training programme — ‘The Grad Scheme’. Its website is noticeably lighthearted in tone, offering to ‘provide a cape’ to those who ‘don’t own a suit’ but are still ‘eager to take the world of finance by storm’.

“It’s a really, really fulfilling job, you get involved and it’s really technical,” says Cathi, whose team has expanded considerably as a result of the structured two-year training programme.

Having graduating from Teesside University in 2005 with a degree in English with Business and “absolutely no idea” what to do for a job, Cathi might have benefitted from such a programme herself. Her introduction to the world of financial services, came purely by chance. A friend who’d received an inheritance was seeing a financial adviser and it piqued her interest.

“It just really got me interested as to what that would entail and what an adviser would say, it just seemed like a huge gap in my knowledge,” she reflects. “I started to look for roles in financial advice and as an administrator and just went from there.” Paraplanning was supposed to be a route to becoming an IFA, but she enjoyed the former too much to turn her back on it.

Cathi’s subsequent career journey has been inextricably linked with a quest to find solutions to issues causing her a headache. Fed up with her long commute to Harrogate, she started looking for paraplanning vacancies closer to home in Darlington but found that due to the global financial recession, in-house opportunities were few and far between.

“It just gave me an idea,” she says. Instead of looking for direct employment, she approached companies about outsourcing work to her case by case. Providing a flexible, timely and professional paraplanning service proved popular and Para-Sols took off.

The early years proved to be something of a learning process as case updates flew back and forth over email and spreadsheets were shared in a blur of emails and Dropbox downloads. To increase efficiency, minimise time on the phone and to grow the client portfolio, things had to change. Within two years the Para-Sols team launched ‘Rise’ — a product management system that has evolved to help internal and external stakeholders track the progress of projects. “It’s the centre of everything we do,” Cathi says proudly.

Working for 110 different firms means Para-Sols is well-versed in the myriad different client and planning information systems on offer. Cathi identifies FE Analytics as a key piece of internal kit but admits, “we use pretty much every piece of software out there…some are more user friendly than others.”

That more and more platforms are cloud-based, certainly makes it easier to integrate. As does the progressive attitude of the firms that hire Para-Sols, many of which are happy to take their lead on the platform front.

Cathi maintains there’s little risk of robo-advice making paraplanners obsolete anytime soon; certainly not in the UK, where the stigma attached to talking publicly about personal finance means there’s still an appetite to confide privately with an expert. “I think all of that would need to change to take the personal element out of finance,” she says.

So is Cathi optimistic about the future of paraplanning? Simply put, yes. “I think paraplanning will continue to grow because it’s such a fascinating career choice,” she explains. That said, in her mind, it’s not yet clear how financial advisers will fit into the maturing automated landscape.

“At the minute the adviser is right in the centre and you’ve got the support around them, but that might change as technology progresses.”

Quick fire round:

What piece of tech could you not live without?

Disappointingly, my iPhone. I hate being an Apple slave! But I’m working hard on getting my screen time reports to a less embarrassing level.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

To embrace who I truly am, quirks and all, and not be afraid to bring that to the business world. The best way to lead a company is by being your authentic self.

If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why?

Dame Helena Morrissey; I would pick her brains on how she’s juggled raising nine children with a successful financial services career!