Pet owners dislike going to the vet only slightly less than their best friends do.

But David Juniper, an investment advisor at Worldsource Securities, goes to the vet every day. Or, rather, they come to him.

“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t talk to a vet,” he says from the Guelph, Ont. office he opened in 2004.

It all started in 1991, when the then-executive director of the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association (OVMA) walked into Juniper’s office. She was facing a personal crisis and needed a new broker in a hurry. By the end of their meeting, she’d brought over her business.

Less than a year after adding her to his book, she referred two vets. During the discovery conversations, those new clients talked about how expensive and complicated it is to start a practice—it can cost $1 million for equipment and an office lease.

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Juniper knew how to structure businesses and control debt, and saw an opportunity to build a niche practice. Further, he knew of a colleague who managed a growing RRSP program for engineers. Juniper was inspired to copy his model.

But first, he learned about the industry. He talked to OVMA members and did more than 100 hours of research on vet school costs and typical post-graduate debt loads (currently upward of $75,000). Since new vets have to balance these expenses with their million-dollar start-up costs, most vets don’t become wealthy until their 50s, says Juniper.

His diligence paid off when he went after the OVMA’s existing group RRSP program in 1992. At the time, a Winnipeg broker was managing the account. Juniper’s client, the OVMA executive director, referred him to the board. He won the account by proving he knew more about their challenges than their current broker. He’s since added nearly 90 vets to his book.

No suits required

Part of Juniper’s success stems from regular attendance at OVMA’s annual conference, as well as other non-financial events. “I started going to conferences mostly to meet clients and lightly network. I learned that even when people glance at you, you need to put out your hand and introduce yourself.”

That lesson was cemented early when he worked at ScotiaMcLeod and minded the firm’s booth at OVMA’s conference. Attendees assumed he was a bank rep offering small business loans, so he needed to explain he was an advisor who could help them invest and manage cash flows.

Juniper also learned to dress down and keep conversations casual, because vets primarily attend to get CE credits and connect with old colleagues. Some vets even treat the three-day conference as a mini-vacation and bring their families.

He notes prospecting’s gotten easier since he became an independent broker in 2000. He no longer has to mind a booth and can spend nearly all his time at OVMA’s booth. There, he speaks with member vets and association executives, including the head of research, who fills him in on trends. For example, an influx of vets trained outside Canada is lowering fees charged to pet owners. This puts cost pressures on all vets and can lengthen the timeline to loan payoff for people trained in Canada. The rest of the time, Juniper catches up with clients.

Also, he notes clients will chat with old classmates, and this is how Juniper typically gets referrals. Following introductions, he’ll ask the prospect if she owns a practice. But he’ll let her drive the conversation.

If she doesn’t open up about her financial challenges, he’ll give her a business card and offer future help.

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Two weeks after the conference, he follows up with whoever made the introduction to ask whether her friend is looking for advice and if he can call her. He’ll only follow up with a prospect if his current client is comfortable with that.

Most years, he gets two new clients, though in some he hasn’t gotten any. Regardless, he values the opportunity to network, keep in contact with people, and reconnect with clients and prospects at casual events.

Juniper doesn’t attend complex CE sessions because, for instance, he doesn’t need to know how to perform cat surgery. Instead, he goes to sessions on vet practice management.

And he’s presented two investment sessions with another expert. Topics have included how to structure a trust and the importance of using RRSPs to save.

He adds, “I’ve made sure [my] presence is constantly felt by going to conferences and advertising in industry publications, at a cost of $6,000 to $7,000 per year.”

Find balance

Juniper also goes to more casual client events, like OVMA-sponsored golf tournaments that raise money for charities.

These let him follow up with prospects he’s met at conferences. He’ll bring up what they previously discussed as a conversation starter.

He also showcases his veterinary industry knowledge. “When talking to someone in their early 40s who’s looking at opening a practice, I can participate in a conversation about their debt situation, as well as discuss the costs of opening a practice.”

Prospects are often impressed that he knows it can take eight to 10 years to pay off start-up costs, based on average revenues, and that he can offer cash flow management tips.

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Still, Juniper keeps business talk to a minimum. He’ll answer questions about the market and his experience with vets, but veers away from self-promotion.

Instead, he politely offers business cards and requests future one-on-one meetings. He’s also benefited from being part of teams at sports tournaments.

You can learn a lot about people when you spend several hours together, he says, so you’ll know if your personalities mesh.

Choosing the right niche

Juniper tried to build a second niche business in 1995 with agrologists—people who teach or conduct research in the agricultural sciences sector. He had two clients who worked in the field, but says he couldn’t get referrals because prospects live and work far away from each other. For instance, one prospect could work on a farm, while another could work for the government and live in the city. The industry isn’t interconnected.

It was also harder to connect with associations, such as the Agricultural Institute of Canada and the Ontario Institute of Agrologists, since they offer fewer networking opportunities.

To no avail, Juniper attended conferences, placed ads and gave seminars. He spent about $4,500 and got only two clients.

He reveals three lessons he’s learned when focusing on a niche:

  1. Assess the natures of the people you’re building relationships with early on. If you don’t share any values and aren’t interested in their work, you’ll have a hard time growing the practice.
  2. Ensure the industry is well-connected. This will make it easier when prospecting.
  3. Connect with an industry association. It can offer insights on trends and members’ needs. This will boost your conversations with clients, because you’ll be able to speak to their challenges.

Katie Keir is content editor of Advisor Group.