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Canadian firms have come to accept that female advisors provide a competitive advantage, especially in a marketplace where women are expected to control about 50 per cent of privately held assets by 2024

Debra Wooding, portfolio manager and investment advisor at CIBC Wood Gundy (Edmonton).Kelsey McMillan/The Globe and Mail

Debra Wooding had her epiphany in the late 1980s, while working as a branch administrator at Midland Walwyn Capital in Edmonton. Of the roughly 50 wealth advisors at the firm, only one was a woman, which posed an interesting opportunity for Wooding. While the industry was all about stock picking and maximizing earnings for clients, she knew women investors often had different priorities and represented an underserved market—one that she could cater to if she became an advisor herself.

“For many women, money is emotional and can be tied to feelings of safety and independence, a mindset I understood,” says Wooding, who got divorced around that time and was a parent to two young children. “As a woman I had a competitive advantage—one that still exists today.”

“I’d go home on a Friday night and cry because I didn’t earn any money that month. I had four little kids, so I took out a big line of credit, and that’s what we lived on”

Susan O’Brien, who left her job as a tax consultant in 1998 to become an investment advisor at a bank-owned brokerage in Calgary

So, she drafted up a step-by-step plan outlining her career progression from branch administrator to investment advisor, including the night courses she’d take to get her certifications and how she’d host wealth seminars for women to attract clients. By 1993, she was a fully licensed investment advisor, and successfully landed $5 million in business in her first year by focusing on client relationships and becoming a trusted money manager to women. She did it all while continuing her full-time role as branch administrator (and later assistant and branch manager) to earn a steady salary—not to mention raising a family. “I knew I could do the job as well or better than all those guys,” she says.

Flash forward about 30 years and Wooding, 64, now leads a multidisciplinary team of 10 at CIBC Wood Gundy and has a $730-million book of business, placing her at No. 101 on this year’s list of Canada Top Wealth Advisors—one of just 15 women on our 2022 ranking. If that female contingent sounds low, it’s because only 15% of the wealth advisors in the country are women—a percentage that hasn’t budged in years, despite the industry’s desire to bring more women into the fold.

Damn good advice: Meet some of Canada’s Top Wealth Advisors

Indeed, Canadian firms have come to accept what Wooding intuitively understood back in the ‘80s: Female advisors do provide a competitive advantage, especially in a marketplace where women are expected to control $2.7 trillion in wealth, or about 50% of privately held assets in Canada, by 2024. Although both male and female advisors can serve this growing demographic, some studies show that 70% of women clients prefer to work with a woman advisor, and 80% of women switch financial advisors after their spouse dies.

“When I think about the future of wealth management, we need to be more diverse and reflective of our client base,” says Natalie Bisset, head of corporate development at Richardson Wealth, which set a bold target last December to increase the number of women advisors in its ranks to 50% within five years. “Women have been proven to be great advisors. We’re planning for the next decade and beyond.”

To be clear, there’s never been a dearth of women in the wealth management industry as a whole. But they’re largely in junior roles, supporting a team’s lead advisor as assistants or associates. (At Richardson, for example, 81% of assistants and 74% of associates are women.) Those who have made the leap to full-fledged investment advisor with their own book of business, like Wooding, are the exception, not the rule.

The reasons why are varied and systemic. For one, lead advisors—mostly men—have been more likely to view other men on the team as suitable successors, mentoring them to eventually take over their business. And the economics of building a book of business from scratch, as Wooding did, may not be very appealing to women who have already established themselves in the industry and would need to give up their salary in the hopes of retaining a large enough clientele as an independent advisor before going bankrupt. “One candidate I spoke to told me a recruiter from another firm suggested she put a second mortgage on her home to make an investment in her career,” says Bisset. “It blew my mind that he’d say that to someone with 15 or 20 years of experience.”

To address these obstacles, firms are implementing innovative solutions to identify female talent and help them progress so they can eventually become wealth advisors with their own teams. These include formal and informal mentorships, coaching workshops and “master” classes, associate development and new advisor programs, and compensation structures that offer financial support to women as they transition out of a salaried position to the variable income of an advisor. Richardson, for example, is in the early stages of launching a succession program that will allocate $25 million to help existing team members, including women, take over a retiring advisor’s book of business. Given that 53% of the firm’s licensed associate investment advisors and associate portfolio managers are women, the succession program could help create an internal pipeline of female lead advisors.

Such professional and financial supports were the missing ingredients in the industry’s previous attempts to onboard more women, as Susan O’Brien can attest. In 1998, she decided to leave her career as a tax consultant to become an investment advisor, joining the rookie program at a bank-owned brokerage firm in Calgary. It was a sink-or-swim setup; rookies were effectively independent advisors who were responsible for landing clients while taking courses to get their licences, with little help or advice from senior wealth managers. “I’d go home on a Friday night and cry because I didn’t earn any money that month,” says O’Brien. “I had four little kids, so I took out a big line of credit, and that’s what we lived on.”

She persevered, but many rookies didn’t—the failure rate of the program was 80% to 90%. It took her five years to know she’d survive in the business, but only another five before she became one of the firm’s top advisors. Last year, she moved her four-person team (which has since grown to five) and $275-million book of business to Richardson Wealth, which she says provides a more inclusive environment than the old boys’ network at the bank. “Here my entire team is valued, whereas at the bank, only I was valued as the revenue generator,” says O’Brien, 63. “There isn’t a focus on monthly revenue numbers here. We’re valued for the kind of advice we’re providing to clients.”

Andrea Linger, vice-president of practice management at Raymond James—which set a goal in 2014 to have 25% women advisors at the firm in Canada by 2025—is careful to distinguish between those old high-failure-rate rookie programs and her firm’s three-year Advisor Internship Program (AIP). “This is not a rookie training program,” she says. “We onboard new financial advisors who have at minimum three years of client-facing experience, preferably at the associate advisor level, by providing intensive training and coaching to support their development.” About a quarter of AIP participants so far have been women, and the program has a 65% success rate, in part because it provides built-in salary and expense support while new advisors build their book of business.

That was a key differentiator for 33-year-old Brianne Gardner, who joined Raymond James in Vancouver in 2017 as an associate advisor and recently graduated from the program. “The AIP gives you the skill set to be successful and allows you to slowly wean off of your salary over three years,” she says. “That gives you a financial head start you don’t see at other firms.” As a result, she now manages a $100-million book of business with her partner, John McLean (also an AIP graduate), and was named one of Canada’s top 15 advisors for new asset growth in 2021.

“When I think about the future of wealth management, we need to be more diverse and reflective of our client base. Women have been proven to be great advisors. We’re planning for the next decade and beyond”

Natalie Bisset of Richardson Wealth, which aims to ensure half its advisors are women within five years

Such initiatives are slowly moving the needle on the number of women advisors at the firms that use them. In 2014, when Raymond James set the 25% target, 14.8% of its Canadian advisors were women; today it’s about 18%. Similarly, RBC Dominion Securities has seen the number of women investment advisors increase by 30% over the past five years to a current overall level of 18%, thanks in part to an investment advisor leave program it created in 2018. The program allows lead advisors to step away from their business—to take maternity, parental or sick leave—without the fear that they might lose clients to another advisor. “To ensure that clients have uninterrupted service, someone from our head office who is trained and has all the credentials is transplanted to lead that advisor’s team during their leave,” says Jennifer Lemieux, branch director and senior investment advisor at RBC Dominion in Kingston, Ont. “When the leave is over, that person returns to our head office.” By offering dedicated supports as well as financial compensation during leaves, women at the firm are more likely to see a future for themselves as lead advisors without the need to sacrifice a family life.

With 17% women advisors, Richardson is above the national average of 15% but still has a long road to reach its 50% target. “It’s a five-year aspirational goal,” admits Bisset. “We’re early in this journey and there’s no one solution. We have to be innovative.” A big part of the firm’s plan is to recruit teams that are aligned with their values of collaboration and sharing, who are excited when colleagues land a big client rather than being competitive and territorial with them.

The Conlin Group, which moved to Richardson from BMO Nesbitt Burns in September 2021, is a perfect example. The team is led by 55-year-old Tim Conlin (No. 144 on the Top Wealth Advisors list) and his partner Maria Miletic, 32, who was promoted to associate portfolio manager after she’d worked toward her portfolio management designation while on maternity leave with her first child in 2020. She’s a 20% partner in the business, and they share duties—he’s the main contact for most longtime clients, while she generally focuses on the next generation: clients’ children and grandchildren.

It’s a model Richardson is hoping to replicate; Miletic and Conlin were tapped to make a presentation at a recent firm conference about how other teams could explore the idea of growing their business through partnerships. “It’s an efficient and scalable business, and we can work together to reach as many clients as we can and grow the pie,” says Miletic. Or, as she and Conlin put it to the conference attendees, who responded heartily: “We’ll grow this bitch.”

Of course, all these strategies—from internships and partnerships to leaves and culture shifts—are not fast fixes. “We do need to be realistic,” says Linger, who is also head the Women Canadian Advisors Network at Raymond James. “These programs take a lot of time to develop and ensure they are effective.” But with women’s forthcoming $2.7 trillion in investable assets up for grabs, the stakes couldn’t be bigger.

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