Sifting through the dozens of ratings found in Investment Executive‘s 2016 Report Card series to find how financial advisors felt about their firms overall is a little like searching for a needle in a haystack. However, the responses in a few key categories are useful indicators of advisor sentiment to their firms as a whole.

How advisors rated their firm in the “firm’s strategic focus” and “freedom to make objective product choices” categories indicate the overall level of satisfaction with a firm. For example, the five firms that received the highest ratings in both these categories also garnered some of the strongest ratings in the ” rating” and “overall rating by advisors” categories.

(The ” rating” is the average of all the ratings a firm received in all the categories in which it was rated, excluding the “overall rating by advisors.” The latter rating is the rating advisors gave their firm as a whole. Both ratings are scored on a scale of zero to 10.)

The ability to make independent product choices is one of the categories that advisors rate as most important to their businesses every year – and advisors who are happiest with their firms don’t hesitate to give credit where it’s due. For example, Toronto-based RBC Dominion Securities Inc. (DS) and Mississauga, Ont.-based IDC Worldsource Insurance Network Inc. (IDC WIN) each had a strong rating in this category of 9.6 and were both among the 10 firms with the highest IE and overall ratings.

Advisors at both firms appreciate the independence they have to recommend products – so long as they’re compliant – without interference from the firm.

“That’s one of the biggest benefits,” says a DS advisor in Ontario. “I could offer all third-party investments, [and] that’s what’s important for the clients.”

Adds an IDC WIN advisor in Ontario: “As long as you’re not out in left field, [the firm] trusts you [to make the right decisions for clients].”

Advisors also appreciate companies that are more direct about their strategic focus.

For example, advisors with Toronto-based PPI Advisory -who rated the firm highly overall, as well as in the freedom to make objective product choices and strategic focus categories, praised the firm for its focus on serving the needs of advisors’ wealthy clientele, including developing products specifically for these high net-worth [HNW] clients.

“[The firm] is definitely [focused on] serving [HNW] clients through its marketing style and product design,” says an advisor on the Prairies with PPI Advisory.

As well, advisors with Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce gave their firm the highest IE and overall ratings in the Report Card series. Those advisors rated the bank’s strategic focus at 9.7 and praised president and CEO Victor Dodig for the strong vision he has articulated for the bank

“We are looking to the future: how the bank is going to act based on technology and how the industry is changing,” says a CIBC advisor in Ontario.

Some advisors, however, weren’t as confident in the decisions their firms have made to keep pace with the changes happening with the financial services sector.

Case in point: Toronto-based TD Wealth Private Investment Advice (TD Wealth PIA) and London, Ont.-based Freedom 55 Financial had among the lowest IE and overall ratings in the Report Card series. Not surprising, their ratings in the strategic focus and freedom to make objective product choices categories also were in the bottom five among all firms.

TD Wealth PIA saw a significant drop in all four ratings due, in part, to a recent merger of TD Wealth PIA with two other divisions within Toronto-Dominion Bank to form TD Wealth Private Wealth Management (TD Wealth PWM).

Says a TD Wealth PIA advisor in Ontario: “[There’s] too much happening all at once and we can’t figure out our own name.”

Dave Kelly, senior vice president with TD Wealth PWM, says the firm has been explaining the changes to advisors and he expects the upheaval at the firm to smooth out over the next 12 to 18 months.

“This will still be a journey for TD [Wealth PWM, and] one we’re absolutely committed to,” Kelly says. “And I think advisors are feeling more centred on where we’re going and what that looks like.”

For Freedom 55 advisors, products tend to be a sticky topic. Those advisors gave their firm a rating of 7.7 for freedom to make objective product choices – the lowest rating in that category in the entire series. Many advisors complained that although they’re technically able to sell third-party products, they’re discouraged from doing so.

“There’s a lot of pressure to focus solely on [Freedom 55’s] products,” says an advisor with that firm in Ontario.

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