Bev Moir, an investment advisor and financial planner with the MoirTEAM, ScotiaMcLeod, was in survival mode when she first started her practice. A registered nurse in her previous life, she went into advising to help people make their finances healthier—and at first, she wanted to help everyone.

“I felt I had to keep my doors wide open for anybody interested in investing with me,” she says.

Moir knew she wanted to work with successful women and their families, but was afraid narrowing her focus would lower her chances of thriving in the industry. But she soon realized she couldn’t be all things to all people, “just like I can’t follow every single investment opportunity,” and started advertising herself as a female-friendly advisor.

“It’s helpful to specialize, [so you can] better promote your brand,” says Moir.

To that end, she now has conversations with on-the-fence clients about consolidating their assets with her. “It’s not uncomfortable because it gets better service and attention for the client, and I can do a better job. I say, ‘Make a decision and either go or stay.’ I’m doing it for them as much as for myself.”

She’s also gotten better at saying no to clients who don’t fit with her practice. “It frees up my time to focus on the more profitable clients. I wouldn’t have believed that when I first started, but I certainly see it now.”

That resolve has been tested. An eager prospect came to her in 2006 who didn’t meet her practice’s asset minimum. Five years later, he reached the requisite amount, but Moir’s minimum had increased again—and she had to say no a second time.

“Part of the reason he wasn’t being well-served [at his current advisor] is he was going to demand more service than his level of assets warranted,” says Moir. But true to her caring roots, she still wanted to help him, and called his current advisor.

“I was able to connect him with the right person on that team. He had just fallen through the cracks,” says Moir. “He said, ‘I’ll come back in five years and then you’ll tell me I’m still too small.’ But I don’t expect he will because he’s in the right spot.”

Natalie Jamison has never had to turn away a client because he doesn’t fit her practice.

“My message is always on brand,” says the RBC Dominion Securities advisor. “So when I get referrals, they’re
exactly the kind I want.”

She’s positioned her practice, Women and Wealth, as a boutique—a word Jamison deliberately chose to reflect her French heritage and her past work-life. Before joining the financial services industry in 1996, she worked in five-star hotels in Europe and Canada.

“That’s where I learned the art of high-end service,” she says. “For me, [customer service] is a vocation—something you’re more than passionate about. You dedicate yourself to it for life.”

Another deliberate choice: the pains taken to shape her practice. She developed a vision statement for her business in 2005, then spent two years researching her preferred niche, professional women who appreciate a posh service offering. She found out women currently start four out of five new businesses in Canada, and decided to focus part of her practice on women entrepreneurs. To better understand this market segment, Jamison joined her local chamber of commerce along with an entrepreneurs’ club.

“This opened my mind to a different way of running my practice—like a business owner, but with the added benefit of the resources of a large firm. And I’m in charge of my destiny as an advisor.”

That means taking control of client relationships. Jamison is explicit about the referrals she wants from her existing base. “I say, ‘I wish I could deal with more people like you.’ When you have an authentic relationship, it doesn’t sound contrived.”

Jamison admits earlier in her career, it would have been more difficult to be so direct. “It comes with years of experience and confidence in the value I’m offering,” she says. Her advice for less-experienced advisors? “Draw from your experience in other careers. Everyone has a background.”

Shelley Streit won’t deny who she is anymore.

The Stettler, Alberta advisor runs Guiding Light Financial, which started as a traditional investment practice in 2006 but then shifted its focus to debt and cash-flow management in late 2010.

Why the change? Early last year, Streit found herself deep in debt and disillusioned by the materialism of the financial services industry. “I was tired of playing pretend,” she says. “The Armani suits at meetings didn’t sit well with me.” Determined to change her ways, she looked for an advisor who could help her manage her cash flow, but never revealed her profession.

Streit says advisors weren’t interested in reducing her debt, and instead gave her trite advice: she needed to spend less than she made. “Oh really?” scoffs Streit. “People actually want to know how to fix their debt.”

Seeing the gap, she turned her practice’s focus to debt and cash-flow management last October, and took inspiration from personal finance maven Gail Vaz-Oxlade and fellow advisor Stephanie Holmes-Winton, who mentors her.

The outpouring of interest has been impressive: in a town of 5,000, 30 came to her debt- and cash-management seminar held at the local library in February.

“People are asking us for monthly [debt management] coaching, like a personal trainer,” says Streit.

She’s even seen the need for her services from her existing clients. Before the changeover, clients were investing but cashing out months later so they could spend.

“If those people choose to be my investment clients, I’m bulletproofing my practice because I’ve dealt with their behaviour.”

Her motivation? “Debt is a problem. It’s in our families, our neighbourhoods, and our backyards and it’s affecting everyone,” she says, citing the Vanier Institute of the Family’s finding that averrage family debt hit $100,000 in 2011. “If I can change the world one family at a time—that’s what I’m going to do.”

She’s not without critics. “Advisors say I’m doing charity work,” she says, even though Streit developed her own compensation model with permission from Manulife Securities. Others ask why she charges people with debt. “If I save you $70,000 and your family stays intact, is it worth it? My fee is less than a lawyer’s,” she jokes.

With her business’s quick expansion, Streit has to remind herself of her priorities.

“If I do everything, I’m not staying true to myself and my family.”

She’s learned to do the things she does well herself, and outsource the rest.
As for clients, Streit has an open-door policy, but is clear about the line they can’t cross.

“If you have another advisor and you want a debt management plan, we’ll take you. We sign a non-compete clause. I started this to help myself and other people,” she says. “But clients no longer get to work with me when they keep making excuses.”

Lisa Applegath, first vice-president and advisor with The Applegath Group, CIBC, sees herself as a lifestyle manager, not just an investment manager. Applegath loves people—“my boys laugh because I chitchat to everyone,” she says—and wouldn’t be in the business if not for the relationships.

That love doesn’t get in the way of being clear about her brand, though, and causes Applegath to be more firm with criteria for whom she’ll take on—and who stays.

“We’re divesting ourselves of relationships that aren’t working” in order to make room for better ones, she says. If a client consistently fails to take advice, “I will call and say, ‘Mr. Smith, obviously you lack confidence in our team. Now is a good time to make an adjustment.’ ”

And right now is a great time to take these actions. “We wouldn’t [adjust our client base] when the markets are down 30%, but we can now because our accounts are more than recovered.”

To intensify her existing relationships, Applegath’s team created a client advisory board during the deepest part of the recession—when client sentiment could have been antagonistic. The board consists of Applegath’s top 10 relationships.

“I had a stomach ache all day long,” Applegath recalls of the first meeting, but she had nothing to fear.

“The feedback our clients gave us, that we were doing the right job, was enlightening,” she says. “Before we put a process in place, we go to our advisory board. Depending on their feedback, we either go forward or we don’t.”
This openness to criticism has paid off in spades. “The relationships with board members have deepened, and have resulted in them bringing more assets or providing great referrals.”

After two-and-a-half years of relying on board feedback, Applegath won’t turn back. “If you have a vision for your business, you want to be on track with the people most important to it.”

Originally published in Advisor's Edge

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