Lessons from advisors in rural Canada

By Melissa Shin | January 17, 2014 | Last updated on November 8, 2023
9 min read

Toronto is not the centre of the universe—and few know that better than advisors working in rural and remote areas. We spoke with three who say they’d never work in big cities, and their experiences are instructive for advisors all across Canada.

Meagan S. Balaneski

Advantage Insurance and Investment Advisors

Where I work:

Vermilion, Alta.,

population 3,930 (with 27,800 in neighbouring Lloydminster)

Vermilion Meagan Balaneski

How I got here

I took over my own book at age 25. I was leaving Fort St. John, B.C. because my husband got a job in Lloydminster. I approached the local Manulife advisor in Vermilion and asked if she needed a junior advisor; instead, she offered to sell me her book because her husband was ill. I moved here in October 2010, and [the book owner’s] husband died in December, so we didn’t spend much time together. And because of her history with a previous business partner, she had a contract provision saying we couldn’t let clients know I was taking over [ahead of time].

I would have preferred an open transition. But her circumstances, understandably, shifted her priorities.

Types of clients

We have 500 clients who range from $2,000 in AUM to $1 million.

A lot of clients come from oil and gas money: young fellows who are self-employed, doing things you’ve never heard of, like coil-tube operating. They work 14-to-16 hour days, seven days a week, and are ridiculously hard to get a hold of. They’re typically the breadwinners, but my book is only slightly skewed male. Since we have spousal RRSPs, the whole family would become involved.

Read: Advising new breadwinners

Disability insurance is a huge thing—clients are always driving, going to the next site. In urban centres, people spend less time running into deer and moose. Highway 63 to Fort McMurray is two lanes and dangerous. Compared to urban areas, the risk in these clients’ industries might be higher.

If they’ve had someone close to them injured or sick, they’re fairly receptive to purchasing the insurance. Other than that, they’re young, generally male, and feel they’re invincible.

To convince them otherwise, I usually ask the wife, “How would you feel if he couldn’t work?” Then they get that we’re not just protecting their incomes; we’re also protecting their families.


How to help everyone

We have a client service matrix. Based on someone’s participation in the business, we give a time allotment. We take a person’s commission for one year and then find out how much it costs for meetings and prep and sending emails. We can tell her how much she’s purchasing. They’ve all been very receptive. They understand it’s a business. They don’t expect six hours a year if they have $2,000 sitting there.

On prospecting

I don’t know what actively prospecting would entail. For us, it’s about refining clients we already have and servicing any walk-ins. Including referrals, a person walks in once every two weeks.

[To earn credibility,] I’ve written columns for the Lloyd and Vermilion papers. I’m also the Treasurer of the Vermilion & District Chambers of Commerce, and a director of the Town of Vermilion’s Environmental Committee.

Compliance challenges

We have insurance clients in northern Saskatchewan, where no paramedical company will venture. It took about three weeks to convince one of them to send the lab kit to the client’s nearest hospital, which is still a long drive. Companies want to do the exams themselves. But some clients are six hours from the closest place they’ll go to (see “Paramedical policies,” below). Fedex doesn’t even go up there. We ended up Xpressposting the blood and urine samples.

The company lost the samples, and the client decided not to get the insurance. He said, “If it’s this much hassle now, imagine what’ll happen when I die?”

Read: A history of insurance rate repricing

Paramedical policies

We asked paramedical companies to share their policies for clients outside their firms’ service areas. While several declined to speak to us, MedAxio’s regional account manager for Ontario, Mark Wellman, says his firm partners with 250 community clinics, many of which are located in rural and remote parts of Canada.

If a clinic’s still inaccessible, “we can send a kit to the client’s nearest hospital,” where the hospital performs the tests, he says. “We’ll also try and get as much [of the test] done as possible over the phone.”

As for turnaround, Wellman says the company’s goal is to see all clients within seven calendar days, though turnaround in urban areas is usually faster. “For clients who live in remote areas, we still hold ourselves to a seven-day standard,” he says. If there are extenuating circumstances, “we’ll try to keep at most under 10 days.”

And, “if advisors have a lot of clients in remote areas,” he suggests they alert their paramedical companies “so we can ensure we either have a health professional available for them, or that we can [work with] a clinic or hospital that we have a relationship with.”

Kelly Stevenson

Georgian Bay Financial

Where I work:

Parry Sound, Ont.,

population 6,200

How I got into the business

I was in management with a bank for 21 years, and left in 2000 to join Freedom 55 Financial. I started Georgian Bay Financial in 2005. Its main office is in Orillia [about 115 km south]. My marketing associate works there, and I get a courier every day from her. I go there once a month for meetings, and I go to the regional office once every two months.

When I joined, I was given a block of business. And I made my first sale in the first two weeks, strictly because I would visit an elderly client in her home, and I was female. I serve mostly families and retired couples, and have 830 life policies and 304 investment policies.

Kelly Stevenson Parry Sound

What’s different

I see 95% of my clients in their homes and offices. I own two houses side by side; I live in one and have a segregated office in the other. When you’re not seeing clients, you can come to work in your pajamas if you want.

The disadvantage is I cover a large area; some clients live an hour and a half away. So when I do the Sundridge, [Ont.] run, I try to book three appointments for that day. Clients know; they ask what day I’m coming so they can be ready. I drive more than 24,000 km per year.

Read: How to deduct business expenses

Also, it can be tough going to evening appointments at a male’s home. Always take your cell phone in. If you’re uncomfortable or need to get out of there, say, “I need to make a phone call. I have another appointment I’m going to be late for.”

Fortunately, only once has a client made an unwanted advance. I said to him, “I’m here as your financial advisor only. I will no longer come to your home; you will come to my office.” And he’s fine. That happened in 2003, and he’s still my client.

On helping clients

There are two funeral homes here. When someone dies, there’s a notice board in the window. I go by both funeral homes or search them online daily. You can see who’s passed away, and I will make that phone call.

Read: What to say when someone dies

The worst possible thing clients have to do is phone the insurance company to say their spouses died. They think, “If I call today, is it too soon? If I call next week, is it too late?” I try to take away that responsibility. I say, “I understand so-and-so passed away, and we both know there’s paperwork to do. How about I give you a couple of days and after the service we’ll get together.”

I usually take a Government of Canada bereavement package and do that paperwork with them. Most clients really appreciate that. I get phone calls from people who aren’t even clients, who say, “Somebody just passed away. How much can I pay you to help me with the paperwork? And I usually say, “Nothing. I’ll come out tomorrow.” And I’ve gotten a lot of business from that. They’ll say, “We don’t have any life insurance, and I’m writing a cheque for the funeral. We don’t want that to happen again.”

Good to know

Even though hundreds of baby boomers are leaving the city and going to cottage country, they’re keeping their advisors. It isn’t until after a few years, when they haven’t seen them regularly, that they start looking locally. Only 10% of my book is retirees from the city; most I got from referrals.

Read: Are you networking enough?

But it’s slow. One prospect came in and said, “My neighbour’s been telling me about you for years.”

Brad Brain

Manulife Securities

Where I work:

Fort St. John, B.C.,

population 18,600

Types of clients

We have a young community. The median age is 31. Our guys are still in the accumulation stage. We have a lot of high-paying, skilled blue-collar jobs—many in the energy industry—and we don’t have high housing costs. You can make $125,000 easily, and it’s $350,000 for an average house. So we’ve got a fair amount of disposable income that can be put toward discretionary goals. That said, not everyone makes smart decisions.

You can have a guy who drops out of high school and immediately makes $60,000. That’s a big temptation. There are a lot of people who are 19 years old driving expensive pickups. The healthy economy distorts everything. It hurts graduation rates. It also disrupts our entire labour force.

Read: 5 tips for young clients

Brad Brain Fort St. John

On hiring staff

Our unemployment rate is so low that we often can’t measure it. That skews all the other occupations as well. If the guy at Subway is making $15 an hour, I’ve got to shell out huge amounts of money to compete with oil patch wages. So right now, it’s just my licensed assistant and me. I’d love to hire more people, but I can’t find them. So don’t try to be the tallest guy in Vancouver: come on up here, the sky’s the limit.

On prospecting

I haven’t prospected for 12 years because I’m visible in a small and healthy market. Million-dollar clients call me out of the blue. In 2010, four advisors from Fort St. John went to the Million-Dollar Roundtable in Vancouver. Right now, I serve about 350 households.

On client needs

Many clients’ biggest priority is that they’ll have money down the road. For a lot of people in this labour force (e.g., welding on pipelines), it’s like being an athlete: you’ve got a shelf life until your body wears out. And there are only so many winters you want to spend away from your family. Part of my role is to help them organize their financial lives so when they want to get out, they can. You see the old greybeards out there who can’t because their cash flow doesn’t allow it.

Read: The right way to manage debt and cash flow

On client chatter

The volatility of the markets in the past few years has left people questioning traditional wealth accumulation vehicles. A lot of people here get lots of hot stock tips from their buds, or they’re looking for a secret shortcut to get to the finish line faster. I make sure that if people are considering speculative things that they realize they can lose all their money. Often that doesn’t deter them. Then two years later they come back complaining, and I show them they had to sign disclosures. People can be willfully blind to the downside risk.

Read: Clients hate volatility? Here’s help

On professional development

In Vancouver it’s easy to meet for lunch or drop in on an office. But if I’m going to talk to a wholesaler, it’s over the phone or they’ll come up once a year. For CE and roadshows, I don’t have the same face-to-face opportunities. Instead, I have a virtual network of peers and we’ll have conference calls. Advisors from all over western Canada—those are my water cooler guys. I have to take personal responsibility for my own career development and education.

Compliance concerns

Let’s say I need to get a document signed by the client, my branch manager and me; and the original has to go to head office. First, I have to find the client. He may or may not be around. A lot will be working 12-hour days, often in camps. Then I have to get this document 1,200 km south. Now someone’s got to receive it, process it and courier it again. It could take a week to 10 days for that to happen.

I’ve also spent lots of time explaining there is no postal code up here. I don’t have mail service at my house. I have a rural route box.

And I don’t have overnight couriers. That’s science fiction for me.

Melissa Shin is editorial director of Advisor Group.

Melissa Shin headshot

Melissa Shin

Melissa is the editorial director of Advisor.ca and leads Newcom Media Inc.’s group of financial publications. She has been with the team since 2011 and been recognized by PMAC and CFA Society Toronto for her reporting. Reach her at mshin@newcom.ca. You may also call or text 416-847-8038 to provide a confidential tip.