Ron Rau grew up poor. And that’s why he became an advisor.

“My parents never owned a house,” he says. “I remember playing hockey on a flooded field in Zurich, Ont. with magazines taped around my shins because we couldn’t afford equipment.”

Rau’s father was 50 when he was born, and died when Ron was 23. “After that, my mother—who became a horrible alcoholic—was left penniless, and hooked up with the first guy she thought she could cling to for financial support. It ended disastrously.”

He says, “What motivates me is that all that could have been avoided had there just been life insurance.”

Rau now runs RJ Rau & Associates in Sarnia, Ont. While he started as an insurance advisor, he began shifting to 80% investments, 20% insurance eight years ago. At the same time, he moved to his current office on the 14th floor of First Sarnia Place.

The advisor

Ron J. Rau, CIP, HollisWealth

City: Sarnia, Ontario

Clients: 300 households

Years in the business: 31

Compensation style: commission, but moving to fee-based

Minimum: Usually $250,000, but “we never turn anyone away.” He’ll do pro-bono portfolio reviews for people who don’t fit his client profile

The expert

Jodi Mason, lead stylist, Urban Home Windsor

Years in the business: 12

“It’s right on the water,” he says. “The refinery area to the south has buildings with little lights. So Sarnia looks like Dallas or Houston when you’re looking outside at night.”

Rau’s no stranger to reinvention (he’s currently moving to fee-based), and was eager to upgrade his office’s look. “We did some renovations last year and now the furniture seems outdated,” he says. “We want people to come in and go, ‘Oh, that looks great.’ ”

The office should keep its welcoming, family-friendly vibe, he adds. The team bakes cookies for clients, and wants to create a snack menu in the near future.

Existing clients have never complained about the office’s appearance, and are pleased with their service: “In our last client survey, they said the number one reason they deal with us is because they know we genuinely care about them,” Rau says.

But he’s prospecting and planning on acquiring a book of business, so he wants to project a consistent image to those new clients. “We advertise on local radio and most new business comes in as a result of that,” he says. “New people are wowed by our location and view, and we need to make the rest match.”

Rau’s colleagues are Annette Campbell, the team’s office manager and client care specialist; James Brandon, a client care specialist; Dan LeBelle, a CFP; and Falk Hampel, an insurance advisor. There’s also an accountant who comes in half time.

Rau’s challenges

Rau salvaged his furniture from the building’s former tenants, including Polysar, a rubber company acquired by NOVA Chemicals in the late 1980s. In fact, his desk used to belong to Polysar’s president.

Most of that 30-year-old furniture is ill-suited to computers with their many wires. “We all have ergonomic issues,” says Rau. Most staff use two monitors to improve productivity, but these screens can block a visitor’s view of the person across the desk.

As for the client experience, Brandon says the reception area can look cluttered when he’s doing work. Also, some clients get confused because the space isn’t well-defined. He says, “After people say hi to me, I can tell they’re thinking, ‘Where do I go next? Do I sit? Do I stay here chatting with this guy?’ ” Brandon always guides clients, but sometimes isn’t at his desk when people arrive.

There’s also no ideal meeting area. The boardroom is located outside the main office, meaning clients have to walk through the outside hall to get there. And everyone avoids the designated meeting room because it’s cramped and windowless.

Rau adds, “If I want to meet clients in my office, I’ve got a round table with three chairs. But if there are four people, it doesn’t really work.” He also has a couch, but says no one ever sits on it.

Other unused elements include a room the team designated for filming instructional videos. It has lots of natural light, but no one uses it (not even for filming videos). Finally, Rau has two dogs, each of whom spend time at the office (usually one at a time). When he leaves for lunch or an off-site meeting, the dogs are usually put in his office.

What the expert says

We enlisted Jodi Mason, lead stylist at Urban Home Windsor in Windsor, Ont., to help Rau. Her company uses virtual design software so clients can visualize how new furniture would look in a space before they buy.

In addition to reviewing the physical space, she asked Rau how he started in the business; his target clients, philosophy and age; the number of staff; and his likes and dislikes about the office.

“We take into account your business model and how you got started,” Mason says. Here are her recommendations.

Reception area

  • She’d repaint the red reception area. “While red is welcoming and homey, it’s jarring when paired with the great view outside,” says Mason. “We’d prefer colours similar to the outside that are calming and relaxing.” She recommends a soft-grey or taupe-grey blue.
  • She recommends a custom-built raised reception counter so clients won’t see Brandon’s work. She also suggests textural wallpaper or a wave board to evoke the nearby St. Clair River, and to clearly delineate the reception area. The wave board should also have Rau’s logo on it.
  • She says the reception seats should be comfier and more brightly coloured.
  • Another good touch would be sculptures of climbing men on the wall. They represent strength, stamina and persistence, which she sees in Rau. They can also act as conversation and interest pieces.

Rau’s office

  • The new desk is U-shaped, allowing Rau to keep his monitors to one side and leave the client-facing section open. Available from Mayhew and Associates, it has built-in cord management.
  • His TV, formerly mounted at an angle, should be flat to the wall for easy viewing.
  • The desk comes with a matching floating console Rau can put a coffee maker and snacks on. It also has drawers to store files.
  • The couch has been replaced with four swivel club chairs. That way, Rau can host up to four clients at once in his office. When he makes presentations that require the TV, the chairs can turn around easily.

Meeting room, video room and boardroom

  • Mason recommends changing the video room into a meeting room to take advantage of the natural light. She’s found a dining table that doubles as a boardroom table, providing a homey feel while lowering costs. If Rau doesn’t want a TV in this room, she suggests a 76” by 38” mirror, available at IKEA for $89, to fill the wall above the credenza. That will create a better sense of spaciousness.
  • She suggests turning the meeting room into a storage area with wall-to-ceiling filing cabinets, and adding a doorway into the boardroom so clients can walk through from the main office.
  • Mason added two half-walls to the storage area to provide a space for Rau’s dogs. (For fun, she installed a TV at dog level.) But, “ideally, a dog shouldn’t be in a professional office.”
  • She recommends framing prints of historic Sarnia to personalize the boardroom.
  • Rau notes the space has baseboard radiators throughout. Mason says it’s fine to put furniture against them, and recommends painting the radiators the same colour as the walls.

Costs

Urban Home Windsor’s fee is $175 per hour. This makeover took about 15 hours, including product sourcing, pricing, 3D development and proposal presentation$2,625
Estimated repainting cost$8,000
Estimated cost to knock out a new door$6,000
Selected furniture pricing
Custom covered reception station from Mayhew and Associates$4,600
Wave wall$2,000
Climbing men artwork$550
New office desk and floating console from Mayhew and Associates$7,700
Lotus swivel chair, each$1,099
Small meeting table (actually a dining table)$1,089
Boardroom table$5,000
Total furniture costAbout $36,000

If budget is an issue, Jodi Mason of Urban Home Windsor suggests completing one room at a time. She would prioritize the reception area, since clients see that first.

The team’s reaction

Two weeks after Mason’s reveal, the team has de-cluttered the reception area and brought out beige chairs they had in storage. Rau replaced his office couch with surplus swivel chairs. They also moved a table into the video room so they can meet with clients there. These changes have “given us better flow,” he says. As for purchasing furniture, Rau says his lease expires in two years, so he wants to determine whether he’ll stay before getting customized products.

Regardless, Rau and his team love Mason’s ideas. “She gave me a clear vision to focus on,” says Rau. “She also showed me a way to get past the clutter.” Further, he appreciates that several of her tips, like re-aligning his office TV, were simple yet effective.

Campbell likes that Mason was able to preserve the office’s spirit. “Ron wanted sleek and modern, and I wanted a family feel,” she says. “[Mason] did a nice job of meeting us in the middle. It’s got cool features, but it’s not New-York slick.”

4 ways to improve your office

When your office looks sleek and modern,“it tells clients you know what you’re doing,” says Jodi Mason, lead stylist at Urban Home Windsor. “When I go into a doctor’s office and the décor is from 30 years ago, I wouldn’t perceive the doctor as up-to-date with what’s going on,” she says. Same goes for advisors.

Here are four ways to spruce up any office.

  1. Identify easy-to-fix problem areas. While you may hate your drop ceiling and aging carpet, replacing them is expensive. But, small changes can have a big impact. Ask a new employee or a friend to walk through your space and identify trouble spots. For instance, advisor Ron Rau’s office door appears to be a pull, but it’s actually a push—which client care specialist James Brandon noticed upon joining the team earlier this year. Mason recommends affixing an aluminum sign engraved with “push,” available from specialty websites starting at $15.
  2. Minimize clutter. If your office looks messy, clients may think you’re disorganized and unprofessional, says Mason. So trash extraneous items. Once that’s done, everything should have a designated place. For instance, a microwave and beverage cabinet had migrated from Rau’s kitchenette into his boardroom, which Mason says contributes to a cluttered feel. If you can’t afford new shelving or filing cabinets, she recommends using decorative boxes from discount furniture stores to store files and hide miscellaneous items.
  3. Emphasize your space’s best attributes. Rau’s office has an expansive view, but one of his client meeting rooms was windowless. Meanwhile, a windowed room was sitting unused. Mason’s redesign turned the windowed room into a meeting space, and the windowless room into a storage area.
  4. Align client service to your brand. Rau’s team aims for a homey, friendly atmosphere. And that’s why clients stay loyal—and perhaps why no one’s complained about the office’s dated look. “If reception can make small talk with clients before meetings, it makes them feel part of the family,” says Mason. “Even a bowl of apples on the reception desk says, ‘We want you to be comfortable and feel welcome.’ ” She adds, “An office can look good, but that’s meaningless without strong client relationships.”