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Martin Seay
Martin Seay

Q&A with Martin Seay: How a Millennial Ph.D. Plans to Disrupt the FPA

The group’s new president-elect, a millennial, discusses the FPA’s stance on state regulation, his plans in the new role and the perspective of young planners.

Attracting young talent into the financial planning profession has been a long-time struggle. There are more Certified Financial Planners over the age of 70 than under the age of 30. But if the Financial Planning Association’s new president-elect, Martin Seay, is any indication, the industry is getting younger.

Seay, 32, will serve as FPA president-elect starting Jan. 1, 2019, and he’s the youngest incoming president the organization has ever had. He’s also an academic; FPA presidents tend to be industry practitioners. He serves as the program director and associate professor of personal financial planning at Kansas State University. He has a Ph.D. in housing and consumer economics, with an emphasis in personal financial planning, from the University of Georgia.

The FPA, which held its annual conference this week in Chicago, made news recently when the CFP Board announced it would not support state legislation regulating financial planners.

“We are not in a family feud with FPA,” said CFP Board Chair Richard C. Salmen, on a call with reporters. “We just don’t believe state regulation is the most effective way to elevate the profession.”

Seay chatted with about the FPA’s stance on state regulation, his plans as president-elect and the perspective of young planners. You are the youngest president of the FPA. What does that mean for the organization and what do you plan to bring to the table?

Martin Seay: I am one of the first individuals that was in financial planning from the beginning—that started as an undergraduate and then straight through the PH.D. program in financial planning. I’ve been actively involved since I started out of graduate school working to develop young planners, helping to contribute to the body of knowledge that is guiding those planners forward.

So if you look to build the profession, you need to have that robust academic basis to build off of. And I think it’s a little bit of a coming of age of the profession where the next generation is coming up and contributing and certainly learning from and honoring all that has come before. In 1970, financial planning started, and we now have Ph.D. programs with folks that are learning everything there is to know about financial planning and then taking that out and teaching it across the country. And so, I think it in some ways it represents a coming of age, a tightening of the relationship between academia and the practice.

WM: What are you seeing in the classroom these days? Are young people getting more interested in the profession?

MS: The number of programs is growing dramatically. The number the CFP Board shared was 140 registered programs that they’re currently operating. If you go back 5 or 6 years, that was closer to 80, so just a massive growth. Financial planning is coming of age and being distinguished as not being a sales-based profession but as an aspirational noble profession. That’s really helped. At Kansas State University we did a survey, and 50 percent of our students had heard of the CFP before they joined the major, which is an incredible change in terms of consumer awareness of the mark. We see far more people that are coming to universities for financial planning. Whereas, historically, it was more of a major that people found when they were there.

WM: A lot of past FPA presidents have been planners themselves. But as an academic, what does your background bring to the table as president-elect?      

MS: One of the really great things that’s been unique to me is that at financial planning we have a Ph.D. program that’s distance-based. Distance-based programs mean we get planners from all across the country that participate in that program. So we’ve had past leaders of FPA, past leaders of other professional associations that have been through that, and from day one had the opportunity to listen and learn. And while I was teaching them about research methods, statistics and theory, they were helping me to understand financial planning.

Part of my role has been to create connections with firms and go in to meet with these firms, and they share with me their processes. And so I’ve been fortunate enough to visit multiple dozens of firms in the U.S. We’ve also taken trips to South Korea, the Netherlands and China to understand these best practices and how they filter, which is really unique, I think, in terms of access and understanding.

WM: I know that you guys recently split with the CFP Board on the state regulation of financial planners. Why did FPA take its position?

MS: Both organizations agree on the need for clear and consistent understanding of regulation for financial planners, but sometimes when you serve slightly different individuals, the tactics that you take can be slightly different. So, there is no split with CFP Board in terms of vision. But for us, we did not want to take a stance where we would be predetermining outcomes for our members. Many of our members are engaged and will be directly impacted by state regulation.

States are consistently moving these forward. And it’s not FPA’s position to go out and actively seek this, but we do want to be able to make sure that we are able to. We have 80 chapters across the country. We are very plugged in at the local and at the state level. We have focused a lot of energy and time in building up that network and building up the profile of our members to help shape and inform regulators at the state level. And we want make sure that we maintain that dialogue.

The CFP Board’s position is that, effectively, they will not pursue a straight strategy, and they will oppose legislation that exists there. It’s a relatively locked-in position, and we think it’s important that as things come along, it is very possible it is in the spirit and alignment of what we want to accomplish in our member’s best interest.

WM: At FPA’s annual conference, held this week, the organization informed attendees of a new harassment policy. What prompted this?

At FPA, our staff is consistently engaged in understanding best practices of associations and meeting management. This is a step forward, understanding the times, understanding the best practices of meetings. This is not a response to any specific event. It’s not in any response to any sort of situation that got feedback, but it’s a proactive step to understand where we are as a country and to make sure that our values are coming forward in terms of appreciating all of our members.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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