Trevor Van Nest, formerly a financial services marketing executive, has found his niche as a fee-only financial planner. He strives to remove the emotional baggage from finances for his clients and to use compassion

By Wendy Cuthbert | March 2017

TREVOR VAN NEST MAY WELL be one of the most satisfied Canadians you could meet.

He is in a 25-year marriage, has three children and maintains an active lifestyle in which faith and fitness play crucial roles. And the fee-only financial planner whose practice is based in St. Catharines, Ont., says his position as the founder of both York Region Money Coaches and Niagara Region Money Coaches feels more like a calling than a career.

"I really feel that I'm called to do what I'm doing," Van Nest says. "And I'm doing it out of passion."

Van Nest, a 27-year veteran of the financial services sector, launched his independent practice in 2010 in Newmarket, Ont., after working for 20 years with American Express Canada. At Amex, he worked in several roles, the most recent of which was vice president of marketing, specializing in customer acquisitions, retention and loyalty.

Although Van Nest's role at Amex involved communicating with a broad market, he's enthusiastic about dealing with his clients on an individual basis, helping them deal with one of the more stressful areas of their lives. Money mismanagement, he says, is often at the root of illness and marriage challenges. Sitting across from clients who are struggling emotionally with their financial situation is not unusual, he says.

Van Nest's approach is to try to remove the emotional baggage attached to finances and use what his faith has taught him: compassion. "I understand that people have lives and relationships and choices to make," he says. "I respect those choices. I just want [my clients] to be more aware of their impact."

Fee-only planning has grown in Canada in recent years, but, when Van Nest earned his certified financial planner (CFP) designation with the goal of offering household financial-management counselling sessions based on a flat fee, that model was not yet a popular option in Canada. "Most people said, when I started, that it wouldn't work," he says. "People wouldn't pay for financial advice."

Van Nest, in researching the viability of his business plan, spent a week in Brentwood, Tenn., looking at the way American financial education guru Dave Ramsey's company, Lampo Group Co., delivered courses to its clients. "Lampo confirmed my desire to focus on empowering my clients with tools and ideas to manage money better," Van Nest says, "rather than sell products and manage money directly."

Van Nest estimates that he spent more than $100,000 promoting his business and the concept of fee-only planning when starting up his practice. Most of that money went into marketing, promotion and advertising. In the first year, he had seven clients. Today, he averages about 80 clients at a time.

Clients generally work with him for four months. The first meeting is a free consultation; clients then pay in three monthly instalments.

Van Nest's flat fee ranges from $1,095 to slightly less than $1,600 (based on client income and assets) for three monthly meetings, during which he walks clients through what he calls his "course" in household finances management. These sessions include cash-flow calculation, debt elimination and retirement planning. Van Nest is a big believer in passive portfolio management and recommends investment methods such as robo-advisors and full-service brokerages, depending on the client's preference.

Van Nest also offers ongoing service for a retainer of slightly less than $400 a year, for clients who want help in sticking to their plan.

Van Nest has three people working with him, one of whom is working on a CFP designation and intending to take a more active role in the business.

Van Nest's business background gives him a good idea of how to get the most bang for his marketing dollar. He mainly relies on radio advertising and event promotion, running seminars for employers and associations in the two regions in which he works.

Now that Van Nest's family has moved to the Niagara region, he spends most of his time in the St. Catharines office, devoting one day a week to the Newmarket office, which he plans to shut down this summer. Client engagements at that office will be wrapping up, moving to remote channels such as Skype or to appointments in the St. Catharines office.

Van Nest values client feedback and referrals. He asks every client to complete a simple, five-question survey to make sure he is meeting their needs. These surveys, he says, indicate that his average client-satisfaction rating is 9.8 out of 10. He offers a $100 incentive to any client who provides a referral that results in a client relationship.

Van Nest's coaching approach to finances can be attributed to his background as an athlete. A world-class runner who placed fourth in the 1,500 metres event at the Canada Games in 1989, he has worked with coaches all his life and understands the vital role they play.

"Having someone on your side is really important, someone who gets to know you and can provide guidance, pushing, challenging and support as you do new things," he says.

Van Nest revisited his sport in the masters class (in the 40 years old-plus category) and placed 12th in the World Masters Championships in 2011. But a foot injury ended his running career and he turned to coaching at a local track club. He then adopted a new sport: cycling, a sport his wife, Anita, had enjoyed for a several years.

Van Nest, now an avid cyclist, can often be found riding from his home in Niagara Falls to the wine country of Niagara-on-the-Lake on weekends. He and his family love to travel - they have plans to visit Hawaii in the coming years - and to spend time at their family cottage near Parry Sound, in Ontario's cottage country.

Van Nest and his family offer up a stay at their cottage for a week each summer to a charity, Cottage Dreams, which provides cottage vacations to cancer survivors.

Van Nest, in keeping with his personalized approach to money coaching, also has helped clients navigate a range issues, from dealing with sudden money to helping couples awash in debt to avoid bankruptcy.

But unique scenarios often are what give him the most satisfaction. Recently, for example, he helped a client who had fallen on hard times to move out of a friend's basement and gain enough stability and credibility to adopt a special-needs child. "I was there the whole way through," Van Nest says. "That was rewarding."

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