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Australia's first lady of financial planning

Columnist
— 1 minute read
Australia's Gwen Fletcher has been appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in this year's Queen's Birthday Honours list for services to the development of the financial planning industry.
The place: Grenfell, south-west New South Wales, birthplace of Henry Lawson. The year: 1948. The setting: Grenfell Town Hall.

A young woman, the electorate secretary to the federal Member for Calare, is sitting backstage with the speaker, a renowned politician and skilled orator. Suddenly he turns to her: "What am I going to say?" he demands, panic-stricken.

"What am I going to say to these people?"

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The young woman steadies him with her clear blue eyes. "Well," she says quietly, "there are lots of things you could talk about. What about the recent floods? That's something that's really affected these people."

The man lets out a long breath, gathers himself. "Thank you," he says, patting her gratefully on the shoulder. He stands up, walks out on stage and delivers a powerful speech that resonates with the small community.

The man was Robert Menzies, who in 1949, after many years in opposition, was re-elected as Prime Minister. The woman who gave him the courage to go out and face the people of Grenfell was Gwen Fletcher.

"It was one of many defining moments of my life," Fletcher says today.

"I realised that even the most powerful amongst us can suffer anxiety. Sir Robert taught me that it is okay to be afraid; that the important thing is to face your fears, to get help when you need it and keep on going."

It is a philosophy she has carried with her throughout life.

Gwen Fletcher, Dip Financial Services (Broking), AFPA (Snr), QPIB, AIMM, JP, was born Gweneth Edith Rogers, the daughter of a Baptist minister and a school teacher. And while she steadfastly refuses to reveal exactly when that auspicious event took place, it's fair to say she is of a similar vintage to the Model T Ford.

Although born in Sydney, thanks to her father's vocation, Fletcher and her brother, Eric, grew up in Armidale, NSW, and Toowoomba, Queensland. Gwen went to a prestigious girls school, Fairholme College, but at 16 was offered a plum job as trainee stenographer and accountant with Toowoomba's leading firm of chartered accountants. Following her father's ministerial posting back to Sydney, she accepted a position in Sydney with a firm of chartered accountants, Offner, Hadley and Co.
But then came the war. Wanting to do her bit for her country, she volunteered for the Women's Emergency Signalling Corps (WESC), where she trained military personnel in morse code. She so excelled in this role that she was invited to become one of Australia's first ever members of the Women's Royal Australian Naval Service. However, unwilling to leave her mother alone in Sydney (her father and brother had both enlisted in the army), she elected instead to serve as a civilian with the American army, stationed in Sydney.

After the war, she became assistant accountant for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). UNRRA was created to provide economic assistance to European nations and to assist refugees. Although she was invited to join UNRRA in the Philippines, she chose to marry instead.

"You didn't disappoint the boys when they had been away fighting a war," she says.

"I really wanted to go to the Philippines - those who did went on to have distinguished careers with the United Nations - but I didn't. I very happily married instead."

After moving to Orange, NSW, with her husband, she worked as electorate secretary to John Howse, the Member for Calare. She worked for Howse for 11 years and in that time met the leading politicians of the day, including Billy Hughes, Ben Chifley, Harold Holt, Dame Enid Lyons and, of course, Menzies. She also established the local branch of Liberal Women and became one of Australia's first female justices of the peace (JP).

Over the next two decades, she worked in a number of capacities in the insurance industry in Sydney and Melbourne. Reluctantly divorced in 1968, by 1970 she was happily remarried to John Fletcher and was working as an office manager for Dalserv, a corporate consultancy headed up by Jeff Dalco.

"In his travels to America, Jeff met many people from the world of finance, in particular, people from the International Business Exchange (INEX) and from the International Association for Financial Planning (IAFP), an American financial planning association," Fletcher explains.

"INEX invited Jeff to return to America to talk to private investors about investing in Australia but he was a very shy man and not a confident public speaker, so I went in his place."

She researched Australian investment opportunities, liaising with people from state and federal government, industry, trade and business. In the early 1980s she went to Los Angeles and spoke to a small group of private American investors. She was to make many more trips over the next eight years, across America and throughout South-East Asia, to promote private investment in Australia - something she did using her own money, completely unsupported by government, trade or business funding.

She also organised investment conferences for Americans in Australia. Her efforts were formally recognised by the NSW Government and in 1982 she was named Ambassador of the Year in the Ambassador of the Year awards.

At the same time, she became intrigued by America's IAFP - a group of professionals who earned a living helping ordinary people to reach their financial goals. While there had been a long history of people (both in Australia and America) 'advising' people on how to invest their money, in Australia they were typically stockbrokers (who provided advice on shares), life insurance agents (who only sold life insurance policies), bankers (who often 'advised' only on in-house bank products) and accountants, who would review a client's entire financial situation, but usually only from a tax perspective.

"The IAFP presented a different way of thinking about investment advice. It called for qualified advisers to provide quality, holistic financial planning advice to clients; advice which first assessed all of a client's financial needs and objectives and then helped them to find the way to fulfil those needs and reach those objectives. The way forward was mapped out in a financial plan prepared by a financial planner for each individual client. I thought it was a very forward-thinking, logical approach and I became convinced that Australians, as much as Americans, really needed it," Fletcher says.

Members of the IAFP in America came from all areas of America's financial services community and included fund managers, advisers, consultants, educators and affiliates. It was an approach Fletcher liked because it drew together everyone involved in the investment advice process - from the providers of the investment products to the marketers, distributors and advisers. In 1982, she successfully campaigned for the IAFP to hold its annual Advanced Planning Conference in Sydney. Soon after, she threw herself energetically into establishing a branch of the IAFP in Australia. 

"With Jeff's encouragement, I compiled a list of all the people in Australia holding an investment licence and invited them to attend a meeting to discuss the establishment of an IAFP in Australia," she says.

She sent out 600 letters but received only a handful of responses. The people who turned up to that first meeting included Rob Morrison, Paul Terry, and John Godfrey and Max Weston, who later went on to establish the highly successful Godfrey Weston financial planning group, which was eventually sold to MLC (now part of National Australia Group).

The meeting voted not to follow the American-designed IAFP model, but to establish an association comprised exclusively of investment advisers. Fletcher believed a professional body should represent all its players and so went on to establish IAFP Australia.

Although disappointed there was not one cohesive group representing the industry as a whole, she was supportive of both associations, became a member of both and later held all four executive offices of the IAFP, including national treasurer, national secretary, president and chairman. She remains the only person ever to hold all four executive positions of a financial planning association.

Fletcher's dream to establish one association that would speak for the whole financial planning community was realised in 1992 when, as chair, she led the IAFP through a merger with the adviser association to form today's Financial Planning Association of Australia (FPA).

But her work in the industry has not been confined to establishing professional associations.

In 1979, with Fletcher's help, Dalserv became the very first holder of a licence from Corporate Affairs (a forerunner of ASIC) to provide financial planning advice.
In 1984, encouraged by her husband, John, Fletcher finally went into business for herself, partnering with Harold Bodinnar and John Green to establish one of Australia's first financial planning groups - Bodinnars Personal Financial Services.

Around this time, she realised the fledging industry would never be considered a profession until its members, particularly those offering financial advice, were properly educated.

"America freely and gracefully offered us the intellectual capital we needed to get a training college started," she says, "and so John Green and I formed the Investment Training College (ITC), which became the first ever educational facility for financial planning in Australia."

In 1990, Fletcher and Green went on to establish boutique financial planning practice Fletcher Green Financial Services. They worked together as financial advisers until the death of Gwen's husband in 2001, when Fletcher Green and ITC Australia and New Zealand were sold to Lowell Flinders (later named Flinders Trustees).

Flinders Trustees was recently sold to Financial Index Australia. Until that time, Fletcher remained a practising financial planner with Flinders Trustees and now acts as a consultant to Financial Index Australia. She is also a consultant to Adviser First, providers of backroom services to licensees.

In recognition of her contribution to the profession of financial planning, in 2001 the FPA awarded her its first ever life membership. She is also a life member and inaugural resident of the Association of Financial Services Educators - a post she only relinquished last year. She is also the co-author of the book Sleep Tight Money.
Today, retirement is a word that only enters her vocabulary when she speaks to others. She continues to be involved in the industry on a daily basis and is principal adviser to the FPA Education in Schools Project. She also mentors younger women both officially, through the mentoring program offered by Women in Finance, and unofficially, and provides advice on career paths for new financial planners.

Her visits overseas in search of developments within the financial planning industry also continue. She visited the United States again in October 2006 to attend the annual conference of the (American) FPA - something she has done almost every year since 1979 - and to gain further insight to help her in her mission to help all Australians gain a higher standard of financial literacy.

Born in a time when women were not raised to work at all, Fletcher has excelled in what is still, essentially, a male profession. And she has done it with warmth, enthusiasm, humour - and the quiet confidence she once lent a prime minister.

Julie Bennett is principal of 64 Media and is currently co-writing Gwen Fletcher's biography, Dry Sherry and Driftwood: The Story of Australia's First Lady of Financial Planning.

 

Australia's first lady of financial planning
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