In the late 1990s, Peter Letkeman, then a chemistry professor at Brandon University, lost his sight as a result of retinal detachment. He could barely read the blackboard, let alone teach a chemistry class. So, Letkeman decided to switch professions entirely.
Letkeman, who had always been interested in finance, began learning the financial advisory profession with the aid of audiobooks and courses. In his early 60s, Letkeman became a financial advisor.
“I was familiar with investing and having other avenues of income,” Letkeman says. He had been diligently investing since his late teens, always putting away 10%-20% of what he earned.
“So, when my vision dropped away, it was just natural to get into the investment world,” Letkeman says. “But it was difficult, without sight, to pass those courses. It took quite a bit of effort.”
Now at age 77 and working with Oakville, Ont.-based Manulife Securities Investment Services Inc. (formerly Berkshire Securities Inc.) in Brandon, Man., Letkeman holds the certified financial planner designation and manages about 25 client households with $5 million in assets under management. He works on a team that includes five other advisors and a secretary.
Letkeman mainly sells mutual funds, as well as a few stocks and segregated funds.
He got his business off the ground in 2004 by hosting a seminar at Brandon U, which was attended by friends and former colleagues. One of the strategies Letkeman recommended was to purchase flow-through shares to prevent the clawback on old-age security benefits.
“Immediately after – the next week – three or four people came and signed up,” he says. “One of them was a large account, and that got my business going.”
Letkeman’s business grew steadily from 2004 to 2007. “It was good going then,” he says, “but then came 2008 with the big crash, and that really hurt a lot. Some clients gave up and sold out and moved out. Most of them stayed and weathered it through and we’ve slowly come back since.”
Letkeman still serves three or four of those original client households, although, he says, “They’re buying less because now they can share their pension with their spouses. But, from time to time, one of these people might have a large income. For example, I have a beekeeper who stored inventory for a few years until the price went up … then sold a bunch and bought flow-through shares.”
Letkeman admits that attracting new clients can be a challenge. “Not having sight and not being able to drive around, you’re quite limited,” he says. “[Prospects] see a blind person and they think, ‘Hey, that guy can’t keep up’.”
But he can. Even at 77, Letkeman is active in his community, travelling and playing guitar alongside Adele Harder, a Paraguayan singer.
“I do a lot of music therapy with seniors in hospitals and apartment blocks,” says Letkeman, “so I meet people and give them my business card and let them know that if they need financial help, [they can] give me a call.”
Letkeman says he played music in high school, but started up again only after losing his vision. “It turns out that [music] is a beautiful way of connecting [with people],” he says. “Very often, seniors or people who are lonely will connect with a song or a thought in that song from their former days, maybe their youth. It’s really refreshing for them and it’s a really nice outlet for me, so it works both ways.”
During a portion of Letkeman’s time at the university, he was dean of the faculty of science. He says that even now, as he recommends mutual funds, he still finds ways to put his extensive scientific knowledge to use. For example, he understands the science that drives industries such as pharmaceuticals and oil and gas.
“But, maybe even more important, it’s the mathematics of it,” he says. “I can do percentages and ratios very quickly, much better than many of the reps that come around. Analytical chemistry, parts per million, percentages – that’s all second nature to me.”
At the office, Letkeman uses a screen-reader application called Window-Eyes to listen to the audio versions of articles about finance, which he shares with his colleagues just as anybody else would.
“I was just listening to an article by someone from [Toronto-Dominion Bank],” he says. “This morning, I shared a couple of articles that came from a CIBC connection.”
One thing Letkeman cannot do is read charts or graphs. When presented with an article containing infographics, he gets a colleague to interpret. And when the mutual fund sales reps from Dynamic Funds and Trimark come in, they sit down at Letkeman’s computer to update the returns or various fund descriptions kept on record. “[The reps] are quite at ease with me,” he says, “even though I can’t see things.”
Letkeman takes pleasure in his family – he has three grown sons – and finds meaning in his Christian faith.
“The world does not come to an end, even if you should lose your eyesight tomorrow,” Letkeman says. “I often find myself singing my mother’s favourite song, ‘Keep on the Sunny Side.’ She also had a frequent saying: ‘Everything has a purpose in life’.”
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