Albert Ashley brings a new meaning to “value” investing in his work as an investment specialist with the Waterloo, Ont. branch of the Mennonite Savings and Credit Union (MSCU).
Rather than focusing on finding undervalued stocks, Ashley’s practice – as is that of the MSCU as a whole – is focused on incorporating his clients’ personal values into their financial plans.
“[Our clients] are putting their money where their mouths are,” says Ashley, 57, an investment specialist. “They’re trying to live lightly on the world.”
This emphasis on responsible investing (RI) starts with the credit union itself. The MSCU, as its name suggests, started as a financial services institution for clients connected to the Mennonite, Amish or Brethren in Christ communities, all part of the Anabaptist branch of Christianity. About five years ago, membership in the MSCU was extended to anyone, even those outside of the faith, with the only requirement being that clients read and agree with a statement of shared convictions based on the Anabaptist faith.
Ashley himself does not work with Old Order Mennonites, who dress in 19th-century clothes and drive horse-drawn buggies. Ashley’s $125-million book of business consists of 500 client households mainly university professors, teachers and government workers. Ashley says it’s more common to see a hybrid vehicle in the parking lot of the MSCU’s Waterloo branch than a horse.
With such a conscientious clientele, roughly 60% of Ashley’s book of business is made up of RI investors. Clients invest primarily in RI mutual funds provided by the credit union’s dealer, Qtrade Asset Management Inc. These funds screen out certain industries, such as weapons, pornography, gambling, tobacco, alcohol and, in some cases, fossil fuels.
Ashley’s clients also can purchase an Oikocredit Global Impact guaranteed investment certificate, whereby the invested funds are lent out in the form of microfinancing – small loans provided to individuals in developing countries. Tithing and charitable giving also are topics discussed frequently and added to clients’ financial plans.
These values and shared convictions are important to Ashley, who describes himself as a “Mennonite by osmosis” rather than by birth. Before working at the MSCU, Ashley attended a Mennonite Brethren Church, of which he was a member. His children also attended Rockway Mennonite Collegiate.
Ashley didn’t even consider a career in the financial services sector until a personal tragedy forced him to take a closer look at his finances. In 1990, Ashley’s wife died in a car accident and he was left as a single parent of three small children with many financial responsibilities. “Through the next seven years,” Ashley says, “[in] that process of being a single parent with money issues, I learned to deal with my own money.”
One of the points Ashley learned was the importance of a pension strategy. When reviewing his deceased wife’s pension, Ashley realized that her account was performing better than his was, simply because she had started contributing early in her career. That realization, he says, brought home the importance of contributing to a pension as early as possible.
Ashley, before entering the financial services business, was a marketing manager with Home Hardware Stores Ltd. His professional interests moved toward the financial side of the hardware business when he became involved in the corporate pension plan and investments for a subsidiary of the firm in Western Canada.
Ashley’s experience with sudden widowerhood, combined with his decision to attend a presentation by David Chilton, author of The Wealthy Barber, inspired him to join the financial services sector. In 1997, he began as a financial advisor with Sun Life Financial (Canada) Inc.
Then, in 2008, Ashley was making a withdrawal from an ATM at the MSCU’s Waterloo branch when the manager came over to tell him that the credit union was hiring. Ashley initially turned down the offer, but the manager wasn’t about to take no for an answer.
“I came back [to the branch] about two weeks later, and he came out and dragged me into his office,” Ashley says. “And, somehow, the next week, I was here.”
Since Ashley joined the MSCU, pensions have remained important in his day-to-day business. Many of his clients work in the public sector and frequently need help to understand the various options offered by their workplace pensions and in deciding when to start withdrawing from the Canada Pension Plan. Mostly, these clients just want to know how much they can withdraw and from which pensions, to ensure they have sufficient funds for the rest of their lives. Says Ashley: “That’s the big question for everybody.”
Another aspect of Ashley’s job that he finds particularly rewarding is the MSCU’s attitude toward its senior clients: “We really care about our seniors and look after them, especially when they all of a sudden find themselves alone.”
In such cases, Ashley – or other MSCU employees – will walk clients who may be new to finances through the basics, such as how their bank accounts work and what their net worth is. As well, Ashley and his co-workers often help these clients set up automatic payments for as many of their monthly bills and expenses as possible in order to simplify matters. This step is particularly important, Ashley says, when the client lives in a retirement or nursing home.
Ashley remarried 18 years ago and now has five children ranging in age from 25 to 31 years old. He and his wife, Julie, a real estate agent, enjoy buying rundown homes and renovating them to reflect their past glory. He expects to be doing less of that now, however, as he is set to retire in November. Then, Ashley intends to do some travelling, including spending the holiday season in Costa Rica and exploring Africa in February.
Considering Ashley’s career as an advisor, he says he has but one regret: that he didn’t enter the business sooner and set up shop as an independent advisor.
“I’ve enjoyed my time here [at the MSCU],” he says, “but when I look back on it, I would prefer the freedom that it gives you to have your own schedule and your own clients that you deal with.”
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