This article was first published in the 1st quarter 2018 edition of Personal Finance magazine.

Financial planners shouldn’t see technology as a threat to their profession; instead, it should be embraced, because it enables them to provide a better service. Not only can it take care of the drudge aspect of planners’ jobs, freeing them to concentrate on the all-important human aspect, but it also opens up amazing opportunities to take financial planning to a new level. This is the view of Mark MacSymon, wealth manager at Private Client Holdings in Cape Town, who is the Financial Planning Institute’s Financial Planner of the Year for 2017/18.

MacSymon received the coveted award at the FPI’s glittering gala dinner in October last year, emerging ahead of the other two finalists in the competition: Janet Hugo, a director of Sterling Private Clients, and Francois le Roux of Old Mutual Private Wealth Management.

It was the second time MacSymon had reached the finals – he was also a finalist in 2015. To qualify, you must be a practising Certified Financial Planner (CFP) professional and a member of the FPI in good standing.

In 2006, MacSymon obtained his Bachelor of Commerce from Unisa, having majored in economics, and went on to the University of Stellenbosch, where, in 2007, he completed an Honours degree in financial economics, writing a dissertation on the intriguing topic of the economics of happiness.

He explains that during a gap year, on a trip to Indonesia, it was was an eye-opener to see that the people there had very little in the way of material possessions or income, yet seemed very contented with life. He compared this with the stresses, anxiety and high levels of discontent among people of developed countries, who were materially far richer. This led him to ponder life’s fundamental questions, MacSymon says: “If we are striving for happiness, where does income weigh in?” In his Honours dissertation, he looked at various peoples and countries, comparing income and levels of happiness. The economics of happiness, he says, has since become a well-recognised field of economics.

With this mind-broadening background and an inclination to some sort of a career in finance – he wasn’t yet quite sure what – MacSymon studied a Master’s degree in pure economics, doing his thesis on optimal asset allocation, which is about constructing target-driven investment portfolios while minimising risk using statistical techniques.

In 2009, he joined Liberty Life as a financial adviser and found his niche. In the ensuing years, he completed the Postgraduate Diploma and Advanced Post-Graduate Diploma in Financial Planning through the University of the Free State, majoring in asset types and estate planning. This paved the way for him to write the FPI’s board exam and become a CFP professional and fully fledged member of the FPI.

After 18 months at Liberty, cutting his teeth in the industry and learning what the assurance world was all about, MacSymon moved to his current firm, Private Client Holdings, in 2010, where he appears happily entrenched.

At Liberty, he also learnt valuable sales skills. “I didn’t like the association people had of financial planners being salesmen, but there was merit in helping people to make decisions that perhaps they didn’t want to make but were in their best interests in the long run,” he says. This was a lot easier at Private Client Holdings, he says, where they “follow a goals-based advice process whereby you establish individuals’ needs and counsel them along the journey to meet those needs”.

MacSymon says one can take a lifestyle- or goal-based approach to planning, but, ultimately, it is about finding optimal solutions to clients’ needs, whether they be an offering from a life assurance company, an investment platform or a customised share portfolio.

As an independent practice, Private Client Holdings can apply a high degree of discretion in the products it selects for its clients – for example, with regard to portfolio management. 

“Private Client Holdings has an experienced internal investment committee, supported by independent investment consultants who provide research, opinion and due diligence exercises on fund managers. Our committee will decide from time to time whether or not various local and offshore fund solutions are appropriately positioned to help meet the individual needs of our clients. Our investment philosophy is mindful of the people that we serve and is grounded in independent rational thinking, diversification and long-term value creation. 

“We value our independence. We maintain relationships with a select number of providers and administrators. We do practise selectivity and want to be aligned with the best solutions and service providers in the market,” MacSymon says.

Private Client Holdings has a “family office” approach to wealth management. There are six pillars, or divisions, within the company – wealth management, portfolio management, fiduciary services, financial services, cash management and risk management – which cover everything from tax and accounting through estate planning and insurance broking to asset management. 

The business is a purely fee-based practice. Fees are levied on an ongoing basis as either a percentage of assets under management or on professional advice received.

MacSymon sees himself, in his wealth manager role, effectively as the “chief financial officer” of a client’s financial plan, making use of the expert knowledge of his colleagues in the different pillars of the business.
He says his firm deals to a large extent with high-net-worth, relatively sophisticated clients who typically have existing investment portfolios and a reasonable knowledge of investing.

“Our preferred client has investable assets of more than R10 million and who have a need for estate planning, tax planning, portfolio management and wealth management services. And we offer an ideal platform to manage these services, under one roof.

“We are typically dealing with clients who are not in their wealth-building phase (people in their 20s, and 30s), but with families who have created wealth and are in the wealth-consolidation phase, who require a co-ordinated effort to manage their affairs.

“We do have relationships with young professionals with high earnings potential, but they are typically part of a bigger family. Our mission is to nurture wealth for our clients and their families, and inter-generational wealth transfer is central to this.”

As Financial Planner of the Year, MacSymon assumes the mantle of FPI ambassador in promoting the financial planning profession, which he says still hasn’t quite shrugged off its “salesman” stigma, interacting with fellow professionals, and advancing financial literacy among consumers. He has various speaking engagements around the country lined up for the months ahead. 

“From a professional point of view,” he says, “I look forward to sharing insights and knowledge with like-minded CFP professionals and other industry stakeholders, perhaps highlighting some of the areas that were key to my success.

“I also look forward to driving public awareness of the value of financial planning and the CFP mark. It really should become conventional wisdom that, when people require financial assistance, they do so with the expert help of a CFP professional. 

“Last, I would really like to drive home the message to young graduates about the career opportunities available in the financial services sector. Not simply as an accountant, stockbroker or fund manager, but focusing on the importance of the role of financial planning within our society, discussing the future of financial planning and stating the case for a viable career as a wealth manager.” 

On whether robots will replace financial planners in the future, MacSymon says there are analytical functions of financial services that can be automated, citing, in the fund management space, the rise of passive investments.

However, he says, financial planning is about helping clients meet specific objectives over time. This involves providing a roadmap in the form of a financial plan, which is a living document – something that gets tweaked and moulded as a client’s life experience changes.

“What we do see is technology as an enabler, letting us spend more time with clients in helping them make decisions to achieve their financial goals, almost to smooth the client experience – freeing us from the mundane part of our jobs, such as filling in information and updating forms. 

“In our practice, much of that is already behind us. Literally, with the click of a button, we can pull data from product providers and get a full asset-allocation report, which details a client’s investments around the world. In the past, an asset-allocation report might have taken three days to collate, and it would have been quite a long, clumsy process. Now, if a client wants to pop in and discuss something, we have that information at our fingertips,” MacSymon says.

MacSymon says algorithm-driven advice platforms, otherwise known as robo-advisers, may be useful in providing basic guidance for those whose financial affairs are simple. But they will not negate the need for human interaction in wealth management, particularly for high-net-worth individuals and their families whose matters are typically more complex. 

He says the financial planning profession needs to focus on those areas where it provides value, or “gamma”, for clients. These include withdrawal strategies, tax strategies and behavioural coaching that aims to correct bad financial habits. 

“There is no doubt that the ‘how’ is changing in the financial planning landscape. But it is the ‘what’ that is never going to be replaced, and that is to help people make educated financial decisions and encourage them to achieve their long-term financial goals,” MacSymon says.


Mark MacSymon is married to Lindsey, a copywriter, and they have “an incredible little boy” called Liam, who recently turned one. 

“If I’m not in the office or at home, I can be found on Table Mountain,” MacSymon says, “Over the past year, I’ve travelled to Nepal, where I completed the Dhaulagiri Circuit Trek. Mount Dhaulagiri is the seventh-highest mountain in the world. More recently, I ran the Otter Trail for the third consecutive year and participated in the Salmon Glen Coe Skyline in Kinlochleven, Scotland, which is a 52km trail race with over 4 750 metres of vertical elevation and is described as one of the most prestigious skyrunning races worldwide, fusing mountain running and alpinism. 

“Trail running gives me a chance to clear my mind and keep mentally and physically fit, but one aspect that interests me about endurance sports are the parallels that can be drawn with goals-based wealth management and financial planning. As a husband and a father, balance and time-management are key in my life as I juggle various roles – planning is important!”