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Charyl Galpin
Charyl Galpin

the lunch

Banking's in her blood: From teller to the top at BMO Nesbitt Burns Add to ...

Charyl Galpin likes to say she’s been with the Bank of Montreal for 54 years – she was basically born into it.

The daughter of a lifelong BMO banker, Ms. Galpin started her own career as a teller more than 35 years ago, and recently took over as sole head of full-service investment business BMO Nesbitt Burns.

Growing up under the bank’s banner gave the frank-talking Ms. Galpin a front-row seat to spot the many changes in demographics, technology and communication that are reshaping Canada’s wealth-management industry.

“The business has really evolved,” she marvels. Investments used to be all about stocks and bonds, and now clients want to be understood on a different level. “People want to know, ‘How much money do I have? How much money do I need? How am I doing, and am I going to be okay at the end?’”

These are big questions but answers don’t need to be complicated, Ms. Galpin says, scooting up to a high-top table for a light lunch at Toronto’s Reds Wine Tavern. Fittingly, the restaurant is built right into the skyscraper BMO calls home. No fuss, and no coat required.

Having been steeped so long in the customs of Canada’s oldest bank, there’s a lot about Ms. Galpin that feels traditional: her pearl jewellery trimmings, halo of feathered brown curls and the way she ensures the thumping music in the dining room is turned down, so we might hear each other better.

But that polish belies Ms. Galpin’s hunger for change – from the way the bank hires staff and reaches new clients, to preparations for the next generation of depositors, savers and borrowers.

For one, finance and investing used to be more straightforward, she says brightly, glancing over the menu. “People didn’t spend as much time thinking about it perhaps, and in a lot of cases it was driven by the man in the relationship.”

Those days are over. And after settling on pan-roasted salmon, fingerling potatoes, heirloom carrots and a glass of water, Ms. Galpin begins to map out the landmarks in her life – and her career – that track the development of the country’s wealth-management business.

By the age of 13, Ms. Galpin, the eldest of four, had already moved seven times for BMO, as her father climbed through management roles in Southern Ontario bank branches. “I spent a lot of time on farms, with my sisters, and my brother … and our dad,” Ms. Galpin says of her early years. “We would go on client calls with him, because [banking is] about building a relationship business.”

In 1967, her mother, who later worked for Bank of Nova Scotia as a senior mortgage officer, sewed the entire family pioneer costumes for a parade in honour of Canada’s centennial, the same year as BMO’s 150th birthday. And when her father rolled up on a float in his getup – complete with suspenders and top hat – she and her siblings all piled on. Three of the four of them would go on to work for BMO.

It wasn’t long until an 18-year-old Ms. Galpin, who’d only recently graduated from high school, followed in her father’s footsteps, landing a job as a teller at a BMO branch in an Ajax, Ont., strip mall.

Seven years later it was time for a change. “I was thinking that the bank was all I’d ever known, because I’d grown up with the bank,” she says. So she moved into the world of full-service investing at securities firm Burns Fry in 1986.

But fate pitched Ms. Galpin back to BMO in 1994 when brokerage Nesbitt Thomson, owned by the bank, merged with Burns Fry to form the investment arm Nesbitt Burns. She continued to chew through leadership positions, steadily advancing within the firm, making sure those around her knew she was keen to move up.

“I’m the kind of person that just tells it like it is,” she says of the no-nonsense approach that has helped her advance. “I don’t ask people to do things that I wouldn’t be prepared to do myself.”

Plus, keeping a bowl of chocolates on her office table doesn’t hurt to encourage colleagues to pop in and chat, she reveals.

Ms. Galpin’s management style has won fans. “She has an edge to her that I respect, in that she holds people accountable,” says Geoff Newton, Greater Toronto Area regional manager with BMO Nesbitt Burns, who has known Ms. Galpin for about a decade and now reports to her. Ms. Galpin surrounds herself with successful people and leads by example in an industry of big personalities, he says.

“She’s her own harshest critic sometimes, but she’s got a great family around her that continually remind her of her success.”

It was in the early 2000s that Ms. Galpin saw a major ground shift was under way in the wealth world. Clients who had settled for advice on individual securities began to want more detailed financial plans. And this trend was only accelerated by volatility in the stock markets during the financial crisis.

“A lot of people were working with advisers and were happy about that, but perhaps weren’t checking up on their portfolios as much as they might have, or should have, or wished they had,” she says of the Great Recession slump.

These days, shell-shocked investors are more in tune with marketplace variability than ever, and want to talk through investment options for their families in greater detail. “We’re finding out clients want to have much deeper conversations with advisers. It’s really not just about them as individuals any more. It’s really a broader perspective,” she says.

Ms. Galpin is now in the driver’s seat of the retail brokerage, navigating BMO’s wealth-advisory business in Canada and the firm’s network of more than 1,300 investment advisers at 50 branches across the country. She formerly led the group with another executive, and the November promotion came after a year of staffing changes and a new leadership group, as part of an effort to better align with changing client demands. “We’ve done a lot of heavy lifting in the past year,” she says.

One big mission is to attract more women as clients and the advisers to serve them. “As an industry we’re not really doing a great job,” she says, adding that less than 17 per cent of all Canadian wealth advisers are women. “There’s a huge opportunity there to bring more women into our business.”

The case for boosting estrogen levels in the bank is clear amid a shifting wealth landscape that is putting more wealth in the hands of women as they outlast their spouses, hold an increasing share of jobs and take greater control over family finances. Wealth-management businesses are keeping an eye on Canada’s aging baby boomers, the first of which hit retirement age in 2011. This will mean more families transitioning from saving to living off the assets they’ve amassed. And by 2022, “nearly $5 out of every $10 held with wealth managers will be owned by senior households,” according to a report by research firm Investor Economics. Much of that will be controlled by women at some point.

“What we’re trying to guard against is women getting to a stage in life where because they haven’t been involved, they have a life event that puts them in the driver’s seat and they don’t know what to do,” Ms. Galpin says.

Then there’s the women just getting their start, she notes. More of them are now establishing financial stability before they have children or find partners.

With all this money in motion, it’s not enough to pick the right stocks and bonds. Canada’s wealth-management firms are having to communicate better to capture and retain clients. In the summer of 2014, BMO Nesbitt Burns launched a website aimed at recruiting female investment advisers to boost its business. Ms. Galpin led the charge.

She also wants to see more women in leadership, and balancing family and career needs is a topic Ms. Galpin coaches others on regularly. The key is a good plan.

“Whatever your support network is, you need to make sure everybody’s on the same page,” she says firmly. She and her husband, a retired executive recruiter, left for work in the wee hours when their two sons were young, but made it back to the family home in Whitby, Ont., by 6 p.m. for dinner, homework help and bedtime stories. “All I can say is the tradition and importance of us eating as a family still remains … we all love to cook, we’re all foodies!”

Watching her now grown sons use technology has shed some light on the demands of millennials, who are unlikely to want to spend too much time meeting advisers in person.

Tyler, 25, is an app designer working for a Los Angeles-based tech startup. “We call him our Steve-Jobs-Mark-Zuckerberg-Bill-Gates guy,” she gushes. Ryan, 24, is another source of pride: He’s joined the family business, working for BMO’s private banking group.

“I know in my house, when the phone rings, neither one of my sons are going to answer it because they know it’s not for them,” she says of the way the next generation will change the future of wealth and the advisory business. The days of making house calls with dad may be long gone, but building trust is still important and Ms. Galpin is looking for ways BMO can reach out.

“How are we going to build those relationships when a lot of communication with that group doesn’t happen face to face? It’s text messages, it’s barely e-mail.”

These are major changes to crunch through, which might be why Ms. Galpin’s plate appears only to be missing a few bites when the server clears it away. She scarcely notices – there’s so much more ground to cover and it’s no time to slow down.

These days Ms. Galpin stays close to her roots in small-town Ontario through a 130 acre farm just north of Belleville, Ont., which is home on the weekends. “There’s no livestock, but we rent the arable land to a farmer that grows crops for his horse boarding operation,” she says of the place she plans to retire with her husband eventually. During the week, it’s a quick drive from the Bay Street core to her Yorkville condo.

Despite her steady rise to one of the top posts in her field, Ms. Galpin’s ambitions don’t stop there.

While she’s served on not-for-profit boards in the past, she recently obtained certification with the Institute of Corporate Directors and and is in a mentorship program with Catalyst to make the transition to corporate boards.

“I’m still managing my career forward. I’m very happy with the role I have right now … But I’m also looking to progress my career in the bank, and so I’ve declared that. It’s not a secret,” Ms. Galpin says.

Could that include being CEO one day, a position yet to be filled by a woman at any of Canada’s Big Six banks? “I have aspirations to go higher up in leadership – I’m not limiting that in any way,” is all she’ll say.

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The benefits of Charyl Galpin Inc.

“I think it makes you feel like you have more choices and you have more control. It puts you in a place of constantly evaluating where you’re at. I’m constantly evaluating what are my personal objectives, professional objectives and my financial objectives. Then I’m auditing that information.”

Know what you want

“Be transparent and declare what your career aspirations are. Sometimes people are afraid to say what they want to do.” Declaring to work partners what you are managing when it comes to children, elder care or other commitments will help people understand your needs and work with you around them. Use your performance reviews to explain goals and aspirations and discuss them with your boss. “I’ve always thought ahead, what is my next position? Today I’m still managing myself the same way. I’m in a fabulous job here at the moment, I love it, and I can love it for a long time, but … I’m always interested in hearing what is next.”

Listen to feedback

“If you have the courage to declare those aspirations then you get much richer feedback about what you need to do, and how the company can be your partner in helping you get there.” Be prepared to get some tough love. People might not think you’re ready for a desired next step, – you may need training or more experience in another area of the company – but then you’ll know what to work on.

Calm down

“When you find yourself in a situation where you’re so emotionally charged, thinking about it in terms of your professional, financial and personal objectives helps you take that emotion out and have you make a business decision. It really level-sets you a little bit in terms of how you think about the problem, and presumably puts you in a better position to have a professional, constructive conversation with whoever you need to talk to in order to get to a better place. You still might not like the answer, but at least you had the discussion and that’s information you can take in and decide what Charyl Galpin Inc. wants to do about it”

Find your own balance

“In terms of managing my life, I’ve always thought about it in terms of, ‘I want to be a good employee, I want to be a good wife, I want to be a good mother and I want to be a good person.’ When you have children you have to think about how you’re going to manage your life – particularly today, when so many couples are both working in big jobs and have big demands.” But be flexible: “It’s always give and take, it can’t be so regimented.”

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