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After having great mentors in the business, Ms. Appleton-Benko pays it forward by mentoring younger advisors at her firm.Alison Boulier/The Globe and Mail

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Not long after Shelly Appleton-Benko learned that she ranked No. 1 on the list of Canada’s Top Women Wealth Advisors, she got a text from her nephew, who’s also a client, that highlighted why she achieved the honour.

He congratulated Ms. Appleton-Benko, vice president, director and portfolio manager at Odlum Brown Ltd. in Vancouver, on her win and wrote: “One of the things that I love about you is that you don’t discriminate with wealth,” adding he “always felt valued.”

Ms. Appleton-Benko says she aims to treat all of her clients like her family, giving them the same advice and respect regardless of the size of their portfolio.

“What I love about my job is that I get to help a lot of different people,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if you have $100 or $100-million; my goal is to get to know you and your goals.”

Ms. Appleton-Benko originally wanted to be a teacher growing up in British Columbia but found educating people about finance a better fit. Her career choice was influenced in part by her father, an accountant, who made working with numbers appealing.

Her first finance gig after graduating from Simon Fraser University was at the former Vancouver Stock Exchange (VSE), which, after a few years on the job, sent her on a three-month secondment to assist the United Way. The experience opened her eyes to the different career options in finance. When the assignment was over, Ms. Appleton-Benko told her then-boss she wanted to try something new and he introduced her to Nancy McKinstry, an advisor at investment dealer Odlum Brown.

Ms. Appleton-Benko felt an immediate connection to Ms. McKinstry, one of the few women in the industry at the time, who soon became her boss and lifelong mentor.

“Nancy paved the way for many women at the firm, helping shape the firm culture as well as sharing her commitment to the community,” she says.

Ms. McKinstry left Odlum Brown in 2004 and served as a corporate director at a handful of organizations.

Seeking a voice at the table

Ms. Appleton-Benko wanted to work at a smaller, independent financial firm with an entrepreneurial spirit, which also drove her decision to join Odlum Brown 27 years ago.

“I love that no one ever said, ‘This is your ceiling; this is as much as you can do or make in this career,’” says Ms. Appleton-Benko, who started as an assistant at the company in 1996 before becoming an investment advisor a year later. She then became a director and portfolio manager, roles she has held for the past two decades.

“I still don’t have that feeling. I’ve always been super ambitious and goal-driven.”

Being at an independent firm also gives her more flexibility with her investment strategies.

“Nobody says, ‘You have to buy this stock or follow this recommendation,’” she says. “I wanted to have a voice at the table. Here, I’ve always felt what I had to say was important and that people listen. That’s always been key for me.”

Wanting it all with support from family and coworkers

Ms. Appleton-Benko, a married mother of two children, now aged 19 and 25, says the support of her family and colleagues has been critical to the success of her career to date.

“Working in a team environment is the only environment [for me] because I wanted to be a wife, a mom and have my career. I wanted it all,” she says. “It wasn’t generally accepted back when I started, but I remember everyone being very welcoming at Odlum Brown.”

For instance, when Ms. Appleton-Benko chose to return to work a couple of weeks after having her first child, newborn in tow, the company provided her with a fridge to store her breast milk.

“There were no limitations,” she says, adding that other women at the investment firm, including now-president and chief executive officer Debra Doucette, were also starting families at the time. “There were many role models who showed this can work.”

Her husband, Tim Benko, also championed her career and made some significant accommodations. He retired from his power engineering job after their second child was born 20 years ago, a time when fathers leaving their careers to raise a family was extremely rare.

“People made fun of him at the time. But he said, ‘You have this great career. So, I will be Mr. Mom for a couple of years while you grow your business,” she says. “It was a great decision because it took a lot of pressure off me, and it was great for our kids and family.”

She adds her husband has since started some of his own successful business ventures.

Mentoring the next generation

After having great mentors in the business, Ms. Appleton-Benko pays it forward by mentoring younger advisors at the firm. For any new and aspiring professionals, she recommends taking as many courses as possible, as soon as possible, to obtain the necessary designations to advance their careers.

“Once you have those designations, it opens up many other opportunities,” she says.

Ms. Appleton-Benko also suggests doing a lot of networking, and keeping it up, to build your book of business.

“You want to build a centre of influence, to be able to tell people what you do,” she says, which can include not just individual investors but also professionals like accountants and lawyers who often have clients looking for investment advice.

“Sit at a table where you don’t know anyone and start telling people what you do and why you love it.”

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