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Rona Birenbaum launched Caring for Clients in 2000 with one goal in mind: to offer Canadians truly holistic financial planning. ‘There’s more to effective wealth management than the investment side,’ she says. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Rona Birenbaum remembers vividly what it was like starting her own fee-only financial planning firm in Toronto two decades ago as a young mother in her 20s. At the time, Caring for Clients was one of only a handful of its kind in Canada. While the rest of the investment industry remained dominated by firms with commissions-based sales models, persuading clients to have faith in a novel fee structure was a massive challenge.

“It was a slog,” she says. “The prospective clients I spoke with would ask, ‘Why would I pay you for advice when I can get it for free?’ There was a lack of investor awareness and understanding of what real financial planning advice is and what [and how] they were paying for investment management.”

Ms. Birenbaum, who earned the certified financial planner designation in 1997 against the judgment of her employer at the time, started her own business three years later with one goal in mind: to offer Canadians truly holistic financial planning.

“I knew intuitively that if I invested somebody’s capital well, but they retired with a big honking mortgage, I hadn’t helped them,” she says. “So, there’s more to effective wealth management than the investment side.”

Twenty years later, her team has grown to nine people and serves a full client roster with a waiting list of prospects eager to get in the door.

“We’ve been [turning prospects down] for the past two years,” she says. “What’s most important is you never take on more business than you can serve.”

She’s also watched the fee-only model slowly gain traction in Canada, which she says is a good thing for her business and for investors alike.

“I really don’t see it as competition. It’s the service that I always say Canadians want, need and deserve,” Ms. Birenbaum says. “When we got inquiries and we didn’t have capacity, I had nowhere to send them before. Now, there are a whole bunch of people to whom I can refer them.”

Looking back on the two decades since the launch of Caring for Clients, she says remaining agile, mapping long-term goals and not being afraid to ask questions have been the keys to success.

“I had to ask more questions in the early years,” she says. “I think I’m asking as many questions now, they’re just a little bit different. They come from a place of greater wisdom and knowledge and experience than they did initially.”

Although Ms. Birenbaum eventually found stability, the first few years after Caring for Clients’ launch involved a lot of movement, she acknowledges. She went through three mutual fund dealers in around the same number of years to find the one that aligned best with the firm. Each time she moved on, she risked losing clients, but Ms. Birenbaum says it was important to get it right. Looking back, she’s glad she put in the legwork of finding the right fit early.

“Once I found a dealer that provided me with the platform to create what I wanted to, then it just became a lot of fun,” says Ms. Birenbaum, whose business is aligned with Queensbury Strategies Inc., a Toronto-based mutual fund dealer.

She’s also grateful for the lessons she’s learned by serving a wide range of clients through the fee-only model. Operating without an asset minimum, Caring for Clients has served people of all ages, income levels and at various life stages. The firm has even taken on a number of clients on a pro-bono basis over the years.

Ms. Birenbaum notes that handling such a broad client base with an equally diverse range of needs still comes with its challenges. But her team’s grown to match the demands of her clientele, making it easier to delegate tasks by advisor specialty.

Building her team was no easy task, though, Ms. Birenbaum says, noting that she’s made a few “hiring mistakes” over the years. But she remains steadfast in taking a proactive approach to bringing people on board.

“I don’t wait until I have a lot of money in the bank,” Ms. Birenbaum says. Rather, she plots out her goals on a long-term basis, looks at her five- and 10-year plans, maps the points at which she may need to increase her staff base to meet her objectives and hires accordingly.

“I would hire and then I would grow into it,” she says. “I think it’s a mistake to do it the other way around. I understand why people do that, because you have a certain amount of financial security around that. But I would rather cut my own personal expenses to make room for a new employee who will allow us to grow.”

Currently, Caring for Clients is operating at a lower capacity than usual – hence the waiting list of prospective clients – while some key members of her staff are on maternity leave. Ms. Birenbaum plans to look into hiring more staff after assessing her firm’s needs when these employees return – and gearing for growth as the firm enters its third decade in business.