The Work Ahead of Skip Schweiss

The new president of the battered, evolving Financial Planning Association and his effort to shape public policy for 20,000 financial planners.

Skip Schweiss, President of the Financial Planning Association (Courtesy photo)

Skip Schweiss, President of the Financial Planning Association

(Courtesy photo)

On Jan. 1, Skip Schweiss became the new volunteer president of the Financial Planning Association, the largest organization for financial planners, with more than 20,000 members. But his face is a familiar one.

Schweiss previously served as a board member and the president-elect of the FPA and was encouraged to consider another leadership position in the organization, he said. “I really had seen the value of financial planning to consumers and the value that the association can bring to its members who deliver those services to consumers. I threw my hat in the ring and was fortunate to be elected president.”

His duties won’t dramatically change. In August, Schweiss left TD Ameritrade after 12 years, where he was president of TD Ameritrade Trust Company and managing director of Advisor Advocacy. He has long lobbied for changes to public policy on behalf of financial advisors and will continue to do so for the FPA. The financial services firm and the organization are often aligned on issues, he said.

However, the world around Schweiss has radically changed.

Like most other businesses and organizations, the FPA was forced to cancel conferences due to the Covid-19 pandemic, harming it financially. It has begun a process to modernize, including developing ways to deliver its benefits to members virtually. And a new White House administration will bring fresh faces and changes to regulation governing financial advisors that stakeholders (like those Schweiss represents) must evaluate and work to influence.

But Schweiss is eager to get started, he said in an interview this week with RIA Intel.

“I sit here today as passionate as ever about financial planning and the value it brings to consumers and how FPA can help its members deliver on that.”

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At TD Ameritrade you were in charge of advisor advocacy for the Institutional business. Tell me more about that. That seems like extremely relevant experience for you as a board member, president-elect, and now president at FPA.

I think it is relevant. One of the hats I wore at TD, as you just said, was leading our public policy advocacy work for the institutional business. In that role, I worked with all the trade associations and some of the consumer groups, really got to know some of the policymakers, how the sausage is made in Washington, as well as some of the states.

Now I’ve left TD Ameritrade and I’m currently spending my time on FPA, it’s very relevant as a lot of these issues impact planners. I think I’ve got a good base of knowledge and experience to help lead us there.

Tell me about this new role as president. What are some of your broad and short-, middle-, or long-term goals? Are those things the same as they were when you were the president-elect and as a board member? Or now that you’re president, is there anything on the horizon you’re changing?

The association’s role is to add value to the professional lives of its members. We have about 20,000 financial planning members across this country. What many planners tell me is they get value two ways from FPA. They get value via continuing education and content. They get value from the community or the networking. Both of those things are changing.

The continuing education — planners are telling me now they can get that anywhere. They get emails every day saying sign up for this webinar and you’ll get an hour of CE for your CFP certification. I think FPA can still play a role there, and we intend to still play a role there. We’re not the only game in town, we know that. We not only have to make sure our content is relevant in this environment, but we also have to understand that’s not a primary leg we can stand on in terms of member value anymore.

The second part, the community is also changing with the pandemic and the meetings moving to virtual. We’ve moved our annual conference to virtual last fall, and it actually went fairly well, quite well. We had good attendance, almost what we normally have at an in-person conference.

The chapters are also doing the same thing. (There are 86 around the country.) One interesting thing that chapters are reporting to us is that they’re actually getting higher attendance at their virtual meetings than they were getting in their in-person meetings.

That’s because people don’t have to drive across the city to go to a meeting or come from maybe more rural areas to maybe a city where a chapter meeting is being held. That’s been an eye-opener for us.

We’ll go back to physical meetings, I’m sure. Will there also be a virtual component? Will we be able to deliver more content virtually than we were able to before physically? Questions like this. These are the kinds of things we’re looking at as the world changes before us.

As the president, what are some things that you’re doing this first week, and then what are some things you’re going to be focusing on a little further down the road?

Near term, the association itself was disrupted substantially, as all people and entities were in these last nine, 10 months. We lost a lot of revenue from event cancellations and so on. We had to streamline the organization. We’ve gotten to where we needed to be right now. We’ve hired a new CEO (Patrick Mahoney). He was interim last year, and he started on a more permanent role here January 1st. He’s continuing to evaluate the staffing and structure of the organization to make sure we’re in the best position we can be to deliver maximum value to our members.

We’re going to be hiring someone to build out a much broader education content track that’s really going to be aimed at supporting the planner from the time they’re in college studying to be a planner to the time they’re studying for their CFP exam, to the time they’re becoming a planner and ultimately getting deeper into a career, managing a practice, and becoming an industry leader. That’s a little more longer-term.

More broadly, we’re looking at, in this new world that’s evolving in front of us, how do we need to change in order to maintain our relevance in the world?

We are the largest membership body for financial planners. We have 20,000 members. How can we maximize our value to them? How can we maintain the community element that many of them find such high value in. How can we continue to support them in their career development? There are some near term things in there to create some building blocks for some longer-term things.

At TD Ameritrade, you were a formal public advocate. It sounds like that is very much going to be a part of your role at FPA. Can you tell me more about that kind of lobbying? Is there a difference between you as the TD employee to you as president of this membership organization?

That’s a great question. It isn’t dramatically different. I was working for TD Ameritrade in that role before, but the role had evolved over the years, over the last 15 plus years, to one that really advocated on behalf of investment advisors and financial planners.

We found out early on when we started engaging in that work that the independent RIAs are a very fragmented field. There are a lot of small businesses in that population. They don’t really have the time to stay on top of developing policy issues, lending their voice. Even if you do lend your voice, you feel like you’re a whisper in a cacophony of voices in the public policy debates. When TD Ameritrade stepped in there, we started getting a lot of positive feedback from these independent planners and advisors saying, “Hey, this is great. A big entity is standing up for us. One that has a much louder voice than we could have individually.”

FPA really serves the same role. It’s a collection of 20,000 voices coming from one, coming from FPA, as opposed to 20,000 separate, perhaps, smaller voices. The positions we take are going to be very similar. TD Ameritrade and FPA collaborated for a long time on public policy issues. 90 some percent of the time they are well aligned on those issues. I’m essentially advocating for the same constituency that I was before.

You mentioned that there’s about 90% alignment on things. Is there something specifically that the FPA is either in favor of, in terms of policy or a specific policy it focuses on more than others? Is there some policy or something specifically that you think the organization needs to or should focus on? And how are priorities established, as those the most accomplishable changes to policy?

It can get complex and it can get very nuanced. I think one of your points was, how do we come up with our priorities? We take a survey every year of our members at FPA. We asked them, in the advocacy arena, what are your main concerns? Where do you think we should be focused? How do you feel about this issue or that issue? Of course, across 20,000 members, you’re never going to have a total consensus unanimity. If we get 70% of our members say, “Hey, I think we should go north, and 20% say we should go west, and 10% say I’m not sure,” that’s pretty strong direction.

We did a lot of just day-to-day, one-on-one input from people through our messaging forums and just people reaching out to me, or the staff, or other volunteer leaders always wanting to be listening to those kinds of things.

We’re looking at things like, gee, if you call yourself a financial planner, should you have certain qualifications? If I call myself a doctor or a lawyer or a CPA or an engineer, I’d better have the qualifications to back that up.

I better have certain schooling, certain degrees, or certifications, or licenses, or something like that. Financial planners, I could call myself one. You could call yourself one tomorrow. Is that as clear as it should be to consumers? If they’re wanting to reach out into this vast multi-sleeved industry of ours to get some help, I think they should know if they are contacting someone who’s calling themselves a financial planner, what am I really getting? How is that person qualified to call themselves a financial planner is one issue.

Another is Regulation Best Interest, which is a big deal the last couple of years, as you know. It’s in effect. We have a new administration now. We know that consumer groups, if I can speak generally, felt that that regulation could have been stronger. I think with an incoming administration you could well see some action to strengthen Reg BI, meaning make it tougher, raise the standard further. That’s something that we’ll be interested in and in the room having conversations with policymakers as well.

You mentioned surveys; that planners help drive what you guys are focusing on and thinking about. Have those winds changed directions over the years now that you’ve been paying closer attention to the policy and are involved in that?

If there’s one thing that’s changed and it’s been a slow evolution, but it’s been an acknowledgement that the financial services industry needs to do a better job of taking care of its customers and the public. What I mean by that is the standards of care, the fiduciary versus best interests, that whole thing. We’ve already seen suitability has been raised to best interest by Regulation Best Interest, although there still seems to be a fair amount of ambiguity about what exactly does best interest mean. I think that’s what you could see the SEC move to clarify this year.

I think there’s just been a general recognition about that. The Department of Labor rule, you mentioned the on again off again nature of that, and I was deeply involved in that for the eight years it made its way from conception to ultimate death in the courts. I’m pretty close with Phyllis Borzi, who was the assistant secretary of labor. She and I have had extensive conversations about that. Of course, I think she’s disappointed that it ultimately met its end in the court.

She also says, I think accurately, that the whole eight-year journey really raised the profile of that issue in the public consciousness. I know that many advisors tell me they have clients and prospects asking them for the first time ever, are you a fiduciary? Or what standard of care are you held to? And things like this. I think that counts as progress.

Is that something else that you can talk a little bit more about, Skip? That sounds like a good example of effort in changing policy over many years that was worthwhile. Do you think it’s a problem that a lot of people chalk up changing policy as just very black or white, either the policy was changed or it’s not and that change was either a success or failure?

Yeah, that’s a great observation. I have to remind people of that and having been in that arena now for 10, 11 years. I know this. What you just said is so true, that you pretty rarely get a black or white win or loss when you’re advocating in the public policy arena. In our political system, there are forces tugging in different directions, and oftentimes more than just two different directions. I think an ultimate victory is when everybody gets most of what they want or some of what they want in our system.

Many times, even if on the scoreboard, it looks like you lost, maybe you nudged the whole debate in a direction where, longer-term, you can continue to make progress. It often isn’t black and white. Some of these issues are quite nuanced. If you don’t spend a lot of time in that public policy arena, sometimes it’s easy to say, well, I think policy should be this or that. It’s often just not quite that simple.

There are unintended consequences, too. You got to think about what the impacts are going to be on all kinds of different parties. It’s often a long game. It’s often a game of nudge, of just nudging the ball down the field very gradually. Sometimes it’s two steps forward, one step back. You really have to stay at it. You have to stay engaged over the long term. That’s a good observation.

I’ve heard advisors say they feel like policies [specific to their profession] are far down the list of their representatives’ priorities. I’m curious what your observation is? And is that changing?

Many times, I’ve been in the office of a member of Congress, or one of their staffers, and we’re explaining an issue to them. Frankly, there’s a pretty blank stare on the other side of the desk. You have to walk through things. That’s not a criticism if that member of Congress is doing a mental reset. Think about the headlines you see on a day-to-day basis, of all the issues that are facing our policymakers in Washington, taxes and the pandemic and all kinds of foreign policy issues. And then you walk in and you want to talk about standards of care for investors. Okay, my last meeting was about North Korea and nukes, and now I’m shifting to a fiduciary standard.

I’ve never talked to a member of Congress where I sensed that this was their highest issue. You also make a good point that this issue impacts really every American, every citizen, every voter. Yet, it’s just something that’s really beyond the core radar screen of a lot of policymakers.

Now you get into the SEC and the DOL, you have people there working on these issues every day. That’s their job. As far as a member of Congress, their playing field is so broad that this is not in the bull’s-eye of what they’re dealing with every day.

Now you also asked, has that changed? I sense it’s changed a little bit. Again, I go back to the DOL journey for eight years. Again, it brought it more to the forefront in the public consciousness. There was such a debate about that for so long that I think it did bring greater visibility to it, to the eyes of a member of Congress. The whole set of issues around standards of care is a little more visible today than it may have been 5 or 10 years ago.

If I’m a CFP holder, but not a member of the FPA, and I meet Skip in a bar, or the grocery store, or wherever, what’s your elevator pitch to them? If they ask you, should I join the FPA and why, what do you say?

When I talk to the more senior members of this profession and financial planners who have been members of FPA for a long time, I love to ask people, are you a member? If so, why? Or if not, why not? The ones who are, especially if they’ve been around a long time, will look at me right in the eye and say, I’m a better planner because I’m an FPA member. That’s intangible. That’s what I say to people.

I love to repeat that line because I’ve heard it a number of times, again, especially from the more senior members, because they’ve spent decades in the field, decades in FPA. They’ve rubbed shoulders with their colleagues. Many of these are small, independent businesspeople. The way they get greater knowledge, both formal and informal, is by being a member of the association and having conversations with fellow members across the land. They can do that at in-person events. They can do that in our online discussion forums.

Every day, I see planners asking “hey, does anyone know a good estate planning attorney in Sioux Falls, South Dakota? I’ve got a client there who needs help.” People will come to their aid. That’s one answer I give. Another is a little more tangible. We have a whole range of discounts on products and services from health and disability insurance for the planner and staff to discounts on software and various other kinds of products that financial planners use.

Of course, you need 30 hours of continuing education to maintain your CFP designation. We have opportunities for loads of continuing education qualifying content. There are more tangible reasons and there are fewer tangible reasons.

Another less tangible one is we spent some time here talking about the public policy advocacy association, like FPA can be that larger voice for the planner in that public policy arena. I think there are lots of reasons to belong.

Is that conversation materially different with other types of would-be members, the aspiring planners, or people new to the profession who are eligible to become a member, but might not have their CFP designation or had been in the industry for a while?

That conversation can be different if you’re young and you’re just thinking about getting into the field or you’re just studying to get your CFP than it is someone who’s been in the industry 25 years and for whatever reason is not a member. Because there are different reasons that each individual chooses to belong.

You’re sure going to feel like you’re out there on an island unless you belong to an association with 20,000 members and you can find your niche there. We also have a next generation, it’s not formally a chapter, but a next generation group with very strong membership that has its own events, its own set of content delivery, its own online forum. If you’re new to the profession, people in that category seem to get tremendous value out of that. There are different value propositions for different probably career stages or different interests.

You recently got the CFP designation yourself, am I remembering that correctly?

You are. Just last month.

Was the test hard? What was that experience like?

It’s not easy. I know some [designations], you take a two-hour online course, and you take an exam and you got it. This is very, very far on the other end of the spectrum. I spent nine months of quite intense study, not a small amount of money, committed to educational advancement to prepare me to take the exam. I thought if I’m to be leading a number association for financial planners, that would be a good experience for me.

Between when you left TD in the fall and now, what have you been up to besides maybe studying for the CFP?

Studying for the CFP was a big part of it. I left TD in August and I took the exam in November and was certified in December. I just really enjoyed the holidays with my family. Of course, as president-elect at FPA, I still have responsibilities there. That takes up some time. Now as we enter the new year, I’ll be spending more time on FPA matters as well as trying to discover the best path for my professional life.

I saw on your Twitter you shared some photos of yourself hiking and things like that. Is that something you do a lot?

I’m a very avid hiker and having the time away, away from the professional world for the most part, has really allowed me to get out and do more of that. That’s been real fun. I do really enjoy hiking.

I’ve developed a set of friends who really enjoy the same thing. We love to get out primarily in Colorado, but we get around the country sometimes, different places, and going on good long hikes. I just find that very rewarding time.

Is there anything that people should know about you that they might not?

I’m a pretty public book at this point between LinkedIn and Twitter and all my time at TD Ameritrade. The only thing I would say is I have a real passion for the value that financial planning can bring to people and families. I really have a ton of energy for promoting the ability of financial planners to deliver that.

Michael Thrasher (@Mike_Thrasher) is a reporter at RIA Intel based in New York City.

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