A bicycle helmet hangs on a doorknob in the Georgetown, Ont.-office of Ryan Colwell, a financial advisor with IPC Investment Corp. The helmet is a part of Colwell’s morning routine; he rides his bike to work whenever possible.
And although Colwell’s preferred commuting methods are good for the environment, they also are simply common sense. The bike ride means Colwell and his wife and associate, Darlene, are getting some exercise and saving money on gas.
Colwell takes a similar approach in his financial advisory practice. He focuses on the use of socially responsible investments (SRI). Building a portfolio of SRI mutual funds, he says, is like buying traditional funds with an additional benefit.
Says Colwell: “[We show people that] you can buy a comparable [SRI] portfolio for a comparable price with a comparable amount of risk to a traditional one, with the value-added that you’re helping the world.”
Colwell has been in the financial services sector for 18 years and has spent most of those years as a mutual fund advisor. He also offers life and disability insurance coverage via PPI Solutions Inc. He has been educating his clients on the potential benefits of SRI since the beginning of his career as an advisor. Most of his clients are not ardent environmentalists, Colwell says, but they are willing to try SRI if it makes sense for their financial plan – a stance Colwell supports wholeheartedly.
“I am a financial planner first,” he says. “I just happen to offer socially responsible investments as a possible solution to clients’ financial planning problems.”
“Just happen to” is an apt way to describe Colwell’s move into the financial services sector. He admits he began his career in finance by accident, after focusing on art and art history in his post-secondary education. Colwell met his wife when they were both studying art through a joint program of the University of Toronto’s Mississauga, Ont., campus and Sheridan College. After graduating in 1996, the couple moved in together and planned to look for work that would make use of their specialty.
When Darlene, Colwell’s fiancée at the time, decided to go back to school, it was up to Colwell to support the couple financially. They agreed he would take a one-year break from searching for work in his field and find any job that could support them.
“I think I applied to be a CEO,” Colwell jokes. “I know I applied to pack boxes and drive a forklift and build cars and work in a cab factory.”
The job he did end up finding was his introduction to the financial services sector. He became a marketing assistant to a financial advisor in 1997. With no background in the industry, Colwell began reading the Canadian edition of Personal Finance for Dummies, by Eric Tyson. Colwell soon was required to study more advanced material when his boss required a licensed assistant.
Colwell studied for the Canadian Securities Course (CSC), offered by the Canadian Securities Institute, even though he did not plan on staying in the sector for more than a year. However, his original aspirations were thrown for another loop when he realized he enjoyed the course and the challenge it provided.
“The CSC opened my eyes to a whole new world I had never considered,” he says. “I never went into the arts.”
Colwell’s interest in SRI began soon after he was licensed. He added an SRI fund to his own investment portfolio. In 1999, he became a branch manager with the mutual fund arm of a small, independent managing general agency. He also had a small roster of clients, and SRI became a part of Colwell’s practice.
After five years, he decided to take the leap into running a full-time advisory practice, within which he made the SRI discussion a focal point of his business.
Although Colwell is a licensed advisor, a certified financial planner and a registered health underwriter, he has not forgotten the usefulness of his first industry “textbook.”
In fact, Colwell’s dog-eared copy of Personal Finance for Dummies is brought out during presentations and helps him prove how practical it is to be environmentally conscious. The book provides budget-friendly tips to readers that include taking public transit and reusing items, tips that are helpful to both the pocketbook and the environment.
The majority of Colwell’s clients seem to agree, as their portfolios are made up entirely of SRI funds, and include a mix of securities that cover equities and fixed-income investment vehicles from various regions – just like the portfolios of traditional investors.
However, Colwell does seek a specific type of SRI fund. He looks for fund companies for which “active engagement” is a priority. For these firms, fund portfolio managers encourage the companies listed in their funds to improve performance in environmental, social and corporate governance areas, in addition to the companies’ bottom line.
“You can’t change a company you don’t own,” he says.
Transparency is key to Colwell, both in what he looks for in investments and how he interacts with his clients. Colwell is an advocate of educating clients about the possible risks and the fees involved in investing.
He prepares for each client a spreadsheet that lays out each fund’s market value, management expense ratio (MER), how the MER is weighted within the portfolio and how much of that MER, listed in both dollars and percentages, goes directly to Colwell’s practice.
So, it is no surprise that Colwell does not feel threatened by the increased fee disclosure mandated under the second phase of the client relationship model, which comes into effect in 2016.
In fact, he believes that mandate should go further and break down the MER, showing how much goes to the fund portfolio manager, how much goes to government in taxes and how the remainder is split between the fund dealer and the advisor.
Colwell, who serves 200 client families, does not actively seek clients nor does he have a minimum asset level. He is happy with the modest annual growth in his client base provided through referrals from current clients and a local professional networking group.
“I do love the business,” Colwell says, “but I also have an active family, and we like to travel and go on personal adventures and offer time to charities. What’s great about this job is that it allows us the flexibility to do all of these things and make a decent living.”
Those adventures include keeping up with the extracurricular activities of his busy sons, Grant, 14, and Luke, 10, and a recent family road trip to Western Canada. The family’s next vacation destination will be Newfoundland, and the Arctic is on the Colwells’ collective bucket list.
Colwell’s community involvement includes sponsorship of Luke’s baseball team and volunteer work with Food4Kids, which provides healthy food to kids who might go hungry when school breakfast and lunch programs are not available.
Colwell used his favourite set of wheels to deliver packages of food to children this past summer: “I was the bicycle delivery boy who would deliver to the Georgetown group.”
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