Sandi Martin offers fee-only planning services to a far-flung base of clients from the comfort of her home in Ontario's picturesque cottage country

By Tessie Sanci | January 2017

Sandi Martin truly likes "regular people." So, when she decided to start up her independent practice, she knew those people were the type of client she wanted to help with their financial planning needs.

There are not many advisors available for clients who have competing financial priorities and don't always have the cash to cover all of those needs, says Martin, founder of Spring Personal Finance in Gravenhurst, Ont.

Martin's independent practice is the result of an ambition she developed early in her career in financial services. After graduating from York University in Toronto, Martin began working as a personal banker in 2005 at a retail branch of Toronto-based Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) in nearby Newmarket, Ont. There, she became interested in helping middle-class Canadians reach their long-term financial goals. Her responsibilities included handling her clients' investment and borrowing needs. However, the retail banking emphasis on the selling of products was not compatible with the type of service Martin wanted to provide.

"You're just seeing the tip of the iceberg when all you're talking about is someone's mortgage renewal," Martin says. "That's only one piece, and sometimes people don't know what all of the other pieces are and how they fit together."

Martin and her husband, Seth, were determined to move back to Martin's hometown of Gravenhurst, north of Newmarket. So, when a position opened up at a CIBC branch in Gravenhurst in 2007, Martin jumped at the chance to relocate.

Comprehensive planning

Driven by a desire to provide a more comprehensive level of financial planning, Martin left the bank on Dec. 31, 2012, and registered her independent business as a fee-only financial planner on Jan. 1, 2013.

Martin saw immediate interest in the fee-only planning she wanted to provide. A consumer business publication had begun to publicize fee-only planning through its stories and included her name in its national directory of fee-only planners. She also became acquainted with a popular personal finance blogger who had asked Martin to contribute to his site, which further increased her exposure. Within two months of starting her business, Martin landed her first client.

Martin has clients in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia, and she prepared 60 financial plans in 2016. She typically works with six clients at any given time - not counting retainer clients and new clients in the discovery stage.

Martin's ability to attract clients is due in part to being among the minority of advisors who provide financial services in this way, she says: "It is a pretty small pool of people who can work with anybody across the country on a fee-for-service basis."

Martin appeals to middle-market clients because she understands that she has to offer flexibility - which is a key component in her service offering.

Her clients can choose how much advice they require, so pricing varies accordingly. Martin has three tiers of service: an hourly fee for clients who simply want to ask a few questions; a project fee for individuals who would like a documented financial plan; and a retainer fee for clients who want ongoing advice.

All fees and descriptions of Martin's services are available on her website, which reinforces her emphasis on the importance of full transparency regarding her fees.

"The kind of clients that I want to work with typically received their advice for free [in the past]," Martin says. "If they can accept the fees and then we talk, I think that's a more efficient use of everyone's time."

Thanks to the power of technology, Martin serves clients across the country from her home office. Clients can choose how and when they want to "meet" with Martin, who always strives to make her meetings as convenient for clients as the time slots are for her. She conducts meetings by phone or through online video calling at times that are mutually beneficial.

No sales of products

Martin isn't registered to sell securities of any kind anymore - and she prefers to work that way. She believes the service of providing financial advice should remain distinct from the selling of products. She recently wrote her certified financial planner examination and is awaiting the results.

Martin's commitment to transparency is not limited to her fee structure. Just as she wants to get to know her clients and understand their priorities, she is very clear with clients about who she is, what she believes in and what makes her laugh. Martin has a lively sense of humour and any conversation with her is likely to be punctuated with laughter and self-deprecating humour.

"I'm not ever going to have perfect hair and be in a suit and act professional all of the time," Martin says. "I want to act with professional dignity, but that doesn't mean not being myself."

Martin's efforts to avoid the "sober bank manager" stereotype work well with her client base. That image of the serious banking professional can intimidate clients and make them nervous about asking questions, she says.

Educating middle-class clients about the facets of personal finance has become a mission for Martin, who uses social media, a newsletter and podcasting to share her thoughts and resources on these matters.

Martin is one of the hosts of the Because Money podcast, which is in its third season (more than 40 episodes in total) and involves interviews with personal finance bloggers and journalists. The podcasts, which run approximately 30 minutes, cover topics such as the distinctions among investment products, budgeting and the regulation of financial advice.

"I hope that we can make people at least brush up against the topic [of regulation], so that the next time they hear about it, it's slightly familiar," Martin says, "so that people who have a vested interest in keeping the status quo or keeping investors from knowing what's going on can't do that quite as successfully."

Martin may seem like a one-person show, but she works closely with other professionals. She co-hosts the current season of Because Money with Chris Enns, a fee-only planner in Toronto, and John Robertson, a financial writer and educator, also in Toronto, whose work focuses on do-it-yourself investing. In addition, Robertson is her partner in the development of an online calculator that allows clients to compare the costs of various robo-advisors.

Martin receives guidance and financial planning help from her mentor, Julia Chung, a fee- only planner in South Surrey, B.C. The two are exploring the possibility of entering into a formal business partnership this year, Martin says.

Comfort of home

Martin, age 37, gets to execute her business model from the comfort of her home in Gravenhurst, a picturesque town of fewer than 15,000 people within the Muskoka District Municipality, which is famous for its Nature trails and lakeside living.

"Ten years ago, if you wanted to be a [fee-only] financial planner or you wanted to do any service-based professional job as your own boss, you needed to be in a population centre that could support it. But, thanks, Internet!" she says with a laugh.

The way in which Martin runs her business has enabled her to spend more time with her husband and their children, Norah, 8; Oscar, 6; and Lucy, 4. The Martins can be found volunteering at their children's school during the academic year and enjoying Lake Muskoka with the kids in the summer.

"I never liked the idea of owing my allegiance and my nine-to-five, evenings and some weekends to some company that doesn't care if I'm at home for supper," Martin says. "I like being able to stop in the middle of my day if I have to and go pick my kids up at school if they're sick. [That lifestyle] is non-negotiable now."

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