Help your busy clients: Part One

September 1, 2011 | Last updated on September 1, 2011
8 min read

Discretionary managers take charge of finances so wealthy people don’t have to. What can they teach you about trust?

Adena Franz’s phones were silent on June 2.

“Sino-Forest blew up, and we didn’t get one call,” recalls the Montreal-based advisor. And despite having the beleaguered stock in her clients’ portfolios, they won’t hear about the hit until their annual reviews.

Franz is a discretionary portfolio manager with Richardson GMP. She decides on investments without consulting the client, subject to the parameters laid out in the investment policy statement (IPS).

During reviews, she’ll be upfront about what happened. “I explain, ‘This is your performance. By the way, we had a stock that blew up,’ ” Franz says. “It’s all about the way it’s handled. Responsibility means taking risks, and you’re not always going to be right.”

Know your client

Part of that responsibility—which, in a discretionary relationship, is a fiduciary duty—is ensuring the IPS reflects the clients’ wishes. It’s the blueprint for how the advisor will execute going forward.

“You say what kind of house you want, and I as the architect will draw the plan,” says Franz. “You might suggest a paint colour. But I make the decision.”

The statement is revisited at least once a year, and also in response to events such as setting a date for retirement. Barring a major life change, risk tolerance is modified every three-to-five years. That’s because of the flexibility afforded by the ranges in the IPS—a manager can go between, say, 10% and 50% in fixed income, depending on how they read the market.

Nancy Hoi Bertrand, a director with Citi Private Bank who uses discretionary managers, says determining the IPS and long-term asset allocation for her clients, who have at least $25 million in investable assets, can take up to two years before a client is satisfied.

“It is an iterative process,” she says. “The most difficult part is figuring out somebody’s real risk tolerance. That’s hard for someone to express until they’ve actually experienced volatility.”

To that end, Julia Kim, an investment counsellor with RBC Phillips, Hager & North, delves deep into a client’s financial situation, previous investment experiences and life goals to determine investment needs.

She then presents the IPS as a work-in-progress. “When the client reviews it, I say, ‘Hopefully it prompts you to ask more questions. If I didn’t capture [your needs] correctly, let’s flush them out further,’ ” she says. “Only after they’re fully aware of the nature of the engagement do I let them sign off.”

Franz had a client who presented as very conservative. He had mentioned precious metals, so she asked the amount he would invest in a certain stock to gauge his interest. “He gave me a number that was double what I would have done [based on his IPS],” she says. “It turned out part of him wanted to be speculative.” To reflect this, Franz changed his asset allocation to include a small allowance for riskier investments.

Customer’s not always right

The role of a discretionary manager is to make sure clients don’t jump ship at the first sign of trouble.

“There’s a financial and emotional cost every time a client abandons the investment strategy,” Kim says, and that taints the discretionary relationship.

“The moment the client makes a decision to buy or sell, we have to share in the performance,” says Franz. “We run portfolios according to models, and that would completely interfere with the process.”

For example, a client phoned Franz asking her to buy back Sino-Forest stock because it had doubled in the past week. That’s not how the process works, she says. “When we sell [a stock], we reinvest the cash, and we don’t buy it back.”

Standing firm when a client tries to go off the rails is important, but there’s a fine line between following your own investment strategy and overriding a client’s wishes.

“If the client tells me he doesn’t like gold, I’ll respect that and not put him in gold,” says Bertrand. “If our client fears inflation, we’ll overweight the portfolio with inflation-protected offerings: real estate and commodities. For clients who are deflationists, we’ll use managers who will express that view.”

And even if you haven’t crossed the line, there will always be the clients who push back on your decisions.

In that case, “the IPS is the document that protects us,” says Franz. “[It says] we alone are responsible for the buy-sell decisions. It’s the client’s responsibility to set forth how we do that. But what we do is not the same as how it’s done.”

Franz knows this well. During the middle of the 2008 market turmoil, an ex-client remembered—erroneously—he’d told her to sell all his equities that June.

“I asked [compliance] if he had a leg to stand on,” says Franz. The answer was no, since he would have had to change his IPS to go 100% into cash.

It’s important to keep meticulous records of client conversations and research that justifies investments made. And if an event does shake a client’s confidence, a discretionary manager’s role is to talk him through it to avoid overreaction.

“I say, ‘What’s different that would cause us to rethink your plan? We discussed this two years ago. Have your needs changed since then?’ ” says Kim. “That step-by-step discussion is why they engage us.”

Panic can also stem from legitimate concerns that mandate a change in the IPS’s risk profile, such as anxiety about job security or the spectre of an impending divorce. Other times, good news prompts a switch.

“I had an elderly client who had done such excellent estate planning that [his] money became designated for his grandchildren,” says Kim. “This resulted in a significant change to the investment strategy, as the time horizon changed from being his lifetime to that of his grandchildren, who were in their 20s.”

Different conversations

While busy discretionary clients may only want face-to-face meetings once a year, Franz calls clients at least quarterly to update them on portfolio performance, and other times to simply ask how a vacation went.

“The contact now happens on a strategic level,” says Franz. They no longer talk about buying and selling individual securities. “We talk about how the portfolio did in comparison to the market. That helps clients to understand returns are more than just a number.”

Kim customizes client communication based on the degree and type of contact a client prefers. For instance, she finds out how clients want portfolio performance presented during reviews: text-based, graphically or numerically. “Typically, clients want to meet more in the first two years of our relationship,” she adds.

Reviews are also a good time to ask for feedback, says Bertrand. “I ask, ‘Is this working for you? Are you comfortable with this volatility?’ If not, I suggest ways to adjust the asset mix.”

Yet for most clients, the bottom line is whether their initial investment has grown.

“Some clients just want to know if they’re still on target,” says Kim. “Then they’re happy to talk about their travel plans for the next half hour.”

And that’s the main reason they hire a discretionary manager, says Franz.

“We are adding to their quality of life. They don’t really want to invest. They’d rather go bike riding.”

Success Factors

The best discretionary managers have a long track record of performance over different business cycles, a good team, and an investment process that’s repeatable.

Humility is also important. “I eat crow quickly,” jokes Michael Newton, a portfolio manager with Macquarie Private Wealth in Toronto. “It’s what you do with your losers that’s the most important part. I take care of [those investments] quickly, and allow my winners to run.”

That requires objectivity. “You have to be unemotional with respect to the hourly gyrations in the market,” he says. “You need good behavioural management skills to keep yourself in check.”

That’s easier with thorough research. Newton reads financial reports and monitors the market daily. “There’s no vacation for me,” he jokes.

Discretionary managers save time elsewhere. Instead of calling multiple clients to confirm a trade, Newton executes his strategy right after completing research, often taking care of many portfolios at once.

four keys to discretionary management:

  • Active listening
  • Respect for clients’ wishes
  • Meticulous documentation
  • Standing your ground


Richardson GMP portfolio manager Adena Franz spent two years converting from advisory to discretionary management “in order to avoid the back and forth with clients about every transaction,” she says. “It clarified my role in clients’ financial lives. They understood who was in charge.”

The first thing on clients’ minds was fees. To justify the increase, Franz established a list of benefits, explaining, “ ‘I’ve upgraded myself; I’m offering a better service. I now have the same licence as Beutel Goodman.’ ”

Franz told clients she would no longer be calling to ask permission to make trades, highlighting the freedom they would feel. “A lot of people haven’t a clue about investments, but they feel pressured to appear knowledgeable [and make a decision].”

Franz also upgraded her back office, and now uses Toogood Financial Systems Inc. “It’s what the Jarislowsky Frasers of this world use,” she tells clients. The technology allows her to track her overall performance and make models of models.

The last piece of the puzzle is the marketing message. Franz says all her material implies, “We offer discretionary money management only. If you want to run your own portfolio, go elsewhere.”

In the ten years since she’s made the change, only one client has left her practice. “He became uncomfortable [with the delegation],” she says. “He apologized to us, saying, ‘I just can’t do it.’ ”

Five questions clients will ask when you switch

  • Will I lose control?No, the investment policy statement lets you direct how we manage your account.
  • Am I taking on more risk?No. We’ll outline the amount of risk you are comfortable in the IPS and follow that when making investments.
  • Will I be put in a box?No. You can have a client’s account holding two or three models so you don’t feel boxed in with everybody else.
  • Will you pay less attention to me?Discretionary management allows me to spend more time learning about your goals and needs, instead of chasing you down to confirm trades.
  • Will you still call me?Yes. The conversations will be strategic, rather than talking about individual trades.