The distance from the stylish streets of Toronto’s fashion district to the steel and glass towers of the city’s financial district is not that great – at least, not for Rebecca Horwood.

Horwood, a top math and chemistry student in high school, graduated from the fashion program at Ryerson University. Then, after two years in the fashion business, she decided her designing skills were more suited for the boardroom than the catwalk.

“Coming from fashion, I’m always looking forward,” Horwood says.

One of the few women to enter the financial services arena more than 35 years ago, Horwood is director of wealth management and portfolio manager with the Horwood Team in Toronto, under the Richardson GMP Ltd. banner.

She began her career in the late 1970s as only the second woman to be hired at Canada Life Assurance Co.’s main office in Toronto, and proceeded to set company sales records as a new advisor. At the time, there were few women in the insurance business at all, and no mentors or coaches to help female advisors steer their way.

But when Horwood was sent off to “man” the desk at a Women’s Day event being held at a local mall, she was more than happy to comply. That event is where she met a like-minded woman from Merrill Lynch Canada Inc. (since acquired by Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce) and realized her math skills would be put to better use in investing rather than insurance.

“I started to think to myself: ‘I need to go this bigger way’,” says Horwood of her holistic approach to wealth management. She took the Canadian Securities Course and, in 1980, went for an interview at what was then investment dealer Richardson Greenshields of Canada Ltd.

Horwood was hired on the spot, becoming the first female advisor at Richardson’s Bay Street branch. Later, she became the first female to qualify for the elite President’s Council, a distinction given the firm’s top advisors.

“This role fit in with my background,” Horwood says. “If you can work in fashion and in retailing, if you can figure out your cost per foot and work at retail stores buying and thinking in trends, you can certainly invest.”

Horwood’s goal has never wavered: to demystify financial issues for women. Horwood’s first clients were women, then men who felt intimidated by a male advisor. Despite some snickers from the guys in Horwood’s office, she set about educating women on the subject of investing.

Horwood told women not to keep their money in the bank, but to buy stock in the bank itself and take advantage of dividends and dividend tax credits. She connected with other female professionals, teaching them how to invest.

In 1987, Horwood asked her husband, John, to join her business. John, a chartered accountant with a business and corporate background, readily agreed. That was, says Horwood, a good decision, as John’s knowledge of taxes helped the advisory team rise to the No. 1 spot in the company based on revenue. And the partners complement each other: John looks after the investing and client management sides of the business, while Rebecca continues doing what she does best: bringing in new clients and, recently, providing discretionary portfolio management to high net-worth clients.

Richardson Greenshields was taken over by Royal Bank of Canada in 1996, but was resurrected in November 2003 by the Richardson family, heirs of the company founder, who asked Rebecca Horwood to set up her own wealth management team under Richardson GMP (then Richardson Partners Financial Ltd.).

“We saw the future, and I wanted that growth that I saw coming in wealth management,” Horwood says. “[My future] was no longer trading stocks. It was this big-picture portfolio – wealth management, wealth planning and going back to the family office. We also wanted to be owners and have a voice.”

Horwood’s two daughters, Alexandra and Rosemary, have joined the 10-person team. A typical day for a Horwood Team member involves arriving in the office by 7:30 a.m. and leaving at 4 p.m., with no break for lunch. Anyone who wants more business gets the same advice: bring in your own clients.

“Everyone has earned a spot on the team,” Horwood says. “We’re all playing from the same book that John and I have written together.”

And lest you think Horwood is all work and no play, she recently returned from a two-week trip to Hawaii, where she won second prize in a ballroom dancing competition.

While women have lagged in the financial services sector in the past, Horwood says, they now have an advantage when dealing with clients.

“Women have the human touch,” Horwood says. “We understand clients’ needs.”

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