Petra Remy has been motivated by social responsibility since she was a teenager. Today, she's an investment advisor who specializes in responsible investing and financial planning for high net-worth clients

By Leah Golob | November 2017

For Petra Remy, responsible investing (RI) comes naturally. "It's in my DNA," says the 57-year-old investment advisor who, as a teenager, often attended human rights protests in between school and a demanding part-time job.

Now, Remy, who's an advisor with Remy Brown Investment Group, which operates under the banner of CIBC Wood Gundy in Edmonton, focuses on RI and financial planning. Remy and her partner, Alicja Brown, also provide comprehensive wealth-management services in collaboration with other professionals. Remy Brown typically serves high net-worth clients - including entrepreneurs and professionals such as doctors and lawyers - most with $3 million-$4 million in investible assets.

Many of these clients are reaching their golden years and looking toward retirement. They're no longer willing to take risks that might affect their portfolios, especially if they want to ensure money gets passed down to their children or to charity.

Remy addresses her clients' concerns with a two-pronged approach. First, she helps them to develop a complete financial plan, taking into account any businesses the clients may own. Second, she brings in other professionals as needed, such as accountants and lawyers, to ensure the clients' estates are taken care of and that their money will last long enough for them to achieve their goals.

Although many of Remy's clients come to her through referrals or her centres of influence, she also makes her practice visible through trade shows, speaking engagements and seminars.

For example, one of Remy's recent seminars included presentations by a lawyer, a mortgage broker and an actuary to an audience of current and prospective clients. Each professional was given 20 minutes to speak on a topic of interest to clients from the perspective of his or her area of expertise. Remy spoke at the end of the presentations to tie all of the information together from a financial planning point of view.

Prospective clients often approach Remy to learn more about RI, which still is a niche investment category in Edmonton. Many community members already donate their time and resources to non- profits and other organizations that work to improve environmental and social conditions. RI is a natural progression for people with those interests.

Remy also attracts millennial clients, who often are excited by the idea of RI after hearing their parents - who, in many cases, are Remy's clients - talk about Remy's practice.

RI, Remy says, previously known as socially responsible investing, means making investment decisions based on environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors.

When Remy began exploring RI 15 years ago, there were only a few categories that ESG screens typically would eliminate, such as involvement in the arms, alcohol and tobacco industries. Now, RI has "mushroomed," Remy says, to consider how a company's ESG practices affect not only the present but also the future.

"ESG isn't about screening out companies," Remy says. "It's about making a difference in companies and having them engaged."

So, instead of dismissing a company altogether for a particular practice that has a negative impact on the environment, for example, portfolio managers who invest with an RI perspective work with companies to effect change. They attend annual general meetings to address practices that need to be altered and participate in proxy votes to influence company policies.

"They're saying to companies, 'Make a difference in this area'," Remy says. "And it happens.

Companies are more responsive than ever before, in part, because they're learning that positive ESG factors are good for business.

For example, a growing number of companies are open to improving gender diversity on their boards of directors, knowing that if they don't change, they may be screened out by RI-oriented portfolio managers.

A top concern among clients hesitant about RI is that an RI approach will compromise financial returns, Remy says. But a company's financial information, governance and prospects for sustained profitability are factors considered in most ESG screens. So, an ESG screening actually provides better assurance for potentially stronger returns.

Moreover, RI is a key factor in risk reduction, which is critical for Remy's clients, who generally have a relatively low tolerance for taking on risk. For example, ESG screening reduces reputational risk, legal risk, water scarcity risk and supply chain risk, Remy says.

Remy is empathetic to her clients' financial concerns because she has experienced "the good, the bad, and the ugly" in money matters. She began her post-secondary education at age 28 as a single mother with two daughters.

"I was broke," she says. "What happens is you learn to be frugal with the money that you have."

During this time, Remy began learning financial and investment strategies, she says: "I wish I'd had a plan prior to going to university, but, at the time, I didn't think about it. I was in the middle of a divorce and had my kids [to look after]. You should plan for these things."

From 1989 to 1997, Remy earned a business degree, an honours degree in psychology and sociology, then a master's degree in sociology. During her studies, she focused on both the qualitative and quantitative side of statistics. She now uses this quantitative and qualitative approach with her RI wealth-management practice.

"When I'm reviewing companies or when I'm reviewing investments, I use quantitative skills - which are numbers-oriented - and qualitative skills to look at what these companies offer from an ESG [standpoint]," Remy says. "For example,'Is there board diversity? Are there water scarcity issues?' [My analysis] isn't just numbers-driven."

Remy, prior to joining her current firm five years ago, spent 10 years at Vancouver City Savings Credit Union (a.k.a. Vancity), initially as an investment specialist and later as a regional manager of investment solutions.

Remy first dipped her toes into RI when she joined Vancity in 2002. She had expressed interest in RI at a previous firm, only to be told "forget about responsible investing. It's only for the Birkenstock wearers; it's not for regular investors," she says.

While at Vancity, Remy attended an RI conference and became hooked immediately. "I knew this was something different that just tugged at my heart," Remy says.

Vancity then gave Remy the opportunity to let this interest flourish, and she developed educational programs to introduce RI to the firm's branches. While in that role, Remy organized presentations by Gail Taylor, an RI advisor with Wood Gundy in Edmonton.

Taylor made a profound impression on Remy, who left Vancouver in November 2012 to join Taylor's practice in Edmonton. Taylor was preparing to retire and began grooming Remy and Brown, the latter of whom was Taylor's associate at the time, to take over the practice.

"Alicja and I were part of [Taylor's] succession plan," Remy says, "which was for us to get to know her clients and the business. We had the opportunity to figure out what we would do differently and what we would do the same."

Taylor eventually left the firm in Remy's and Brown's hands early in 2017. Remy describes her partnership with Brown as a "fit made in heaven" because of their complementary values and skill sets. Although each advisor serves her own clients, both women cover for each other during holidays and help each other's clients as needed.

Brown also is passionate about RI and is on the board of directors of the Toronto-based Responsible Investment Association. Remy stays engaged with the association as a member.

Remy enjoys hiking, reading, meeting new people and volunteering in her spare time. She helps to organize an annual symposium called Building Empathy, Conquering Apathy and she is a member of the Edmonton chapter of Rotary International and the Women's Presidents Organization.

Remy's daughters - who also are engaged in human rights and animal rights issues - now are 36 and 29 years old, respectively. Remy and her husband, Stan, are approaching their 20th wedding anniversary.

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