FHSU financial planning team repeats as national champion in American Express competition

HAYS, KS -- Last year, members of Fort Hays State University's financial planning team entered the American Express Planning Invitational as underdogs -- and left with a national championship.

Thanks to them, members of this year's team had much higher expectations going into the competition, held from April 11-14 at the American Express Financial Advisors Headquarters in Minneapolis, MN. But team members Sarah Evans, Garfield; Steve Sutter, Abilene; and Nicolette Zeigler, Mankato -- all seniors -- proved they were up to the challenge by taking home the national title for the second year in a row.

The team was honored at a reception and news conference at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, April 16, in the Dreiling Lobby of Sheridan Hall on the FHSU campus.

"I put a lot of pressure on them, but it was a lot of positive pressure," said Dr. Tom Johansen, associate professor of economics and finance. "I told them, 'If you really work hard, you can win.' "

Dr. Carl Parker, chair of the Department of Economics and Finance, said FHSU's winning effort was due not only to hard work by the students, but also by faculty. "Dr. Tom Johansen and Dr. Rory Terry have really taken the lead roles, but secondary to that, there are a lot of faculty in our department who have helped in preparing these students," he said. "They had great accounting teachers; they have great presentation skills from classes in the Communication Department. We knew that this was going to be a tough competition, but we also knew that we had the capacity to win."

His confidence was echoed by Dr. Edward H. Hammond, FHSU president.

"I know these students put in a great deal of time and effort preparing for this competition, and it definitely shows in the results," Hammond said. "Coming on the heels of the debate team's national championship last week, we've proved that Fort Hays State University students can compete with anyone, anywhere."

This is the third year that American Express has sponsored the Financial Planning Invitational. "We wee this as an opportunity to support our industry and the financial advisors of tomorrow," said Bill Elliott, vice president of financial advice at American Express Financial Advisors. "The cases are judged using the Quality of Advice review process we use with our own financial advisors so these students are truly getting real-life experience."

FHSU's competition included several larger schools who "don't like losing to Fort Hays," Johansen said. "They were gunning for us." To reach the national finals, FHSU first had to beat out 12 other teams in the preliminary phase of the competition, which involved preparing a financial plan for a hypothetical case sent out by American Express earlier this year.

The top six teams in the written competition -- Kansas State University, Texas Tech University, Virginia Tech University, Western Carolina State University and Slippery Rock (PA) University -- traveled to Minneapolis for phases two and three. Phase two was an oral presentation of the written case, modified to include a "twist" which was added to the original scenario. Phase three was the "How Do You Know?" Challenge, a game show-style competition designed to test the students' knowledge of basic financial planning terms and concepts.

FHSU placed second in all three phases to win the overall championship. "We won because of our consistency at the top," Johansen said. While Texas Tech, Western Carolina and Slippery Rock each won one phase, their performance in the other phases was significantly worse.

For winning, FHSU took home $10,000 in scholarship money for the school; each team member also received $400. The $10,000, with last year's winnings, will double the endowed American Express Financial Planning scholarship fund.

While in Minneapolis, students had the opportunity to network with American Express financial advisors and executives as well as representatives from financial planning associations. "The students' financial knowledge was impressive," said Becky Roloff, senior vice president of advice and information at American Express Financial Advisors. "I have no doubt they have promising careers ahead of them."

Johansen said the students took home more than money. They gained confidence in themselves and national recognition, not only from competing schools, but also from national firms.

"While I was there, I spoke to an executive from Goldman-Sachs. When I said we were from Fort Hays State, he knew who we were," Johansen said. "Every single one of the seniors on the team received letters of recommendation from American Express executives, which will be tremendously valuable in the future."

All three members of the team will graduate this year with a bachelor of business administration degree with a major in finance and an emphasis in financial planning. FHSU and K-State are the only institutions in Kansas to offer a degree in financial planning. Students also have the option to earn an additional degree in accounting, which Sutter is pursuing.

"The combination of certified financial planner and certified public accountant is very powerful," Johansen said. "Graduates of that program are going to be extremely marketable."

Parker said it's important for students who are interested in academic programs to know that quality programs are available here at FHSU. "We've proved that the programs you can get here are as good as you can get anywhere," he said. "I think the team has set a standard to which our future students should aspire."

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