Rising through the ranks

By Bruce Cumming | January 1, 2010 | Last updated on January 1, 2010
4 min read

Wow, where did all that time go?

I vividly remember working for banks on Wall Street and Bay Street but what I remember most is the burning desire to be an entrepreneur – to have my own business so I could be in control of my own destiny.

Over the years, and through the ranks, I’ve learned there’s no magic bullet to making it big in this industry. It all comes down to honest hard work. Prospecting, building relationships, and continually adding to your knowledge base are imperative, and designations are critical.

It never helps to be isolated. Joining professional associations initially to learn, and then later mentoring the rookies who come to these organizations after you’re well established, is a wonderful way to give back.

And don’t try to do it all yourself. Hiring that right assistant can really elevate you to the next level. My success as a financial advisor can be traced back to the decisions I made in these key areas.

Finding a place to hang my hat was not easy, even back in the late ’80s. I wanted to give clients unbiased advice, but the shops I interviewed with were only interested in me selling products in order for me to get paid. I was more interested in actual financial planning, so I joined a firm that had no proprietary products. There, I viewed my role as twofold: first, I wanted to do the planning and build trust, and then I would implement those plans.

But I needed clients. Spending all day wishing the phone would ring got old really fast, and I realized there were many advisors out there pitching services and I needed to be different. I was fortunate early on to come across a business that helped people determine their readiness for retirement. Through my association with this firm I was able to meet people contemplating retirement and by working with them I was able to start building a client base. I also aligned myself with an outplacement firm to add my growth.

In those early years, I had misgivings about whether I actually knew enough to be able to ask people deeply personal questions like “How much do you make?” “What is your Net Worth?” “Whom are you leaving your money to?” But in the end, the driving desire to be knowledgeable led me to a quest to take as many courses as I could, which gave me greater confidence and helped me build trust with clients.

I also joined the Canadian Association of Financial Planners and the predecessor organization to Advocis. Becoming part of these two organizations was transformational in my career growth. I would sit in on meetings and listen to the speakers in awe. I’d be impressed with their knowledge, but most importantly with how willingly they gave up what in any other industry would be known as trade secrets. These folks would stand up and teach all of us how to be their competitors. I quickly realized this was the greatest profession. I was finally home.

The next monumental move came five years after I started. I felt I needed an assistant – a large financial commitment, and I wanted to discuss the matter during on a long car ride with my CFO and wife, Marie Cumming. She inquired as to the job’s duties, which I fully explained, and then she said she wanted to apply.

I almost drove us into the ditch. After all, she had become the primary breadwinner while I was building my practice. But after she joined me our business doubled two years in a row.

Marie had a strong marketing background and it wasn’t too long before she realized all the designations I was piling up could be used to differentiate me from other advisors. And they did. Gradually, all those Saturday and Sunday mornings spent studying and writing exams began to pay off in greater ways than just providing me with the knowledge I’d been seeking. As I earned more designations my profile within the industry grew. I rose in the ranks of the industry associations. More importantly, I began to give back. I was becoming one of those speakers I’d admired so greatly in those early days.

As I became more confident in my abilities and recognized within the financial planning world I also became more referable. Several years ago a firm approached me, requesting help in working with a group of retirees. Within two years that added $20 million in assets to my book. This never would have happened if not for my credentials and industry involvement.

As financial planners, we play a major role in the lives of our clients and it’s up to us to ensure we’re always at the top of our game. So spend the time to learn as much as you can about this industry; take as many courses as possible; and commit the time to industry associations. Your clients, our industry, and you, will all benefit.

Bruce Cumming