The advisor

Mohamad Sawwaf, CFP, CPCA, division director and financial consultant at Investors Group in Toronto. He’s been an advisor for eight years, and is currently pursuing an MBA.

ChallengeHis challenge

Building his book during a market downturn.

How he got started

10

Degree of difficulty

10 out of 10.

Sawwaf studied cell and systems biology in university, and had planned to become a surgeon so he could help people. He decided to become an advisor instead, at the end of 2007, since he also dreamed of being a business owner. “I knew I’d still be helping people, but just in the financial services field.”

He joined Investors Group and realized that, as a new advisor in his early 20s without any industry connections, it would be difficult to build his reputation and book. So Sawwaf sought out a senior advisor to mentor him. He also got his CFP and Certified Professional Consultant on Aging designations. In 2010, he became a division director, and he’s currently pursuing an MBA. He now manages more than 300 clients with average annual incomes of $100,000.

Overcoming his challenge

Sawwaf didn’t know the market was about to turn just as he was starting out.

“When 2008 happened and people lost substantial sums of money, I lost clients who thought they could [get] better returns elsewhere.”

So, he sought advice from his managers. “They told me not to hide under my desk, and that I should take all calls. I had to let clients vent. During events like the recession, you can really shine.”

To do that, he reminded clients how he’d assisted them from the outset. For instance, he showed them how much they’d saved on taxes, thanks to his advice, and how he’d consistently matched their portfolios to their risk profiles, despite market volatility.

And he used these phrases to help calm people:

  • “Let’s look at your long-term plans and how we can preserve your wealth”;
  • “We’ll look at rebalancing so we can bring the level of risk in your portfolio back to its original level”;
  • “We have to be proactive about investing, rather than stick to a buy-and-hold strategy”; and
  • “Stocks are trading at a discount. So if you have the extra capital, we can look at buying stocks that are undervalued.”

Clients appreciated his upbeat approach. “People get scared and paralyzed during downturns. By putting things in perspective, I helped them realize they had good plans in place.”

While retaining clients during the recession, Sawwaf also built niches. He sought referrals from both professional women (who make up 30% of his book) and Muslim clients, since he was well connected to these groups due to his educational and cultural background.

What he learned

Sawwaf focused on growing his book despite the recession, he says. “I knew that, at some point, the recession would be over. Learning about the industry and building niches are ongoing tasks.”

But to grow his book, he had to be persistent.

Take-Away

When markets dip, focus first on calming existing clients. But also make time to grow your book, so follow up on referrals.

“With prospects, I followed up via calls and emails between six and twelve times to ask about meetings and offering second opinions.” He’d only stop if a prospect told him they weren’t interested, or failed to respond for several weeks. “My closing ratio during the recession was 20%, versus 80% today, but I didn’t give up.”

To cope with growing his book, Sawwaf hired an assistant and associate to help with scheduling and client requests. Still, he found it difficult to give up control when handling transactions and following up with clients. “I had my own systems in place. I had to teach those to someone else [and] accept that mistakes would be made.”

It was one of his best moves, he adds, since he can now dedicate time to teaching others about his client experiences.

Katie Keir is content editor of Advisor Group.