A focus on the client

Julia Chung strives to give clients the 30,000-foot-high view of their finances. To do that, Chung, a certified financial planner, gets down into the weeds.

Unlike traditional financial advisors who provide both advice and investment- management services, Chung, CEO of Spring Financial Planning in Vancouver, co-owns what she describes as “a conflict-free financial planning firm offering advice-only personal finance services. We do the ‘big picture’ stuff.”

The “we” is a team of 11 planners, cash-flow specialists, money coaches, paraplanners and others who work from various locations across Canada. Chung lives in South Surrey, B.C. Her business partner, Sandi Martin, lives in Gravenhurst, Ont. “We’re remote [from each other]; we all work from home. Those who meet with clients in person – and not all do – use business centres,” Chung says.

Working remotely is both a business model and a personal philosophy. “Remote work gives people who might not be otherwise employed [a great job]. You can live in the middle of friggin’ nowhere,” says Chung. “Every planner on my team is a mother. We have commitments.”

The firm, launched in 2017, appropriately has its roots in the virtual world. Chung and Martin met as part of a group of fee-only financial planners who touch base each month to build better and best practices. That connection led to client referrals in both directions and, ultimately, to the merger of their two practices and the formation of Spring Financial.

Growth has defined the two-year-old practice. The firm has hired employees each year and Chung anticipates this trend will continue: “We would like to have between six and 10 financial planners in the next three to five years. We’re still fairly new at bringing on new partners.”

What is becoming old hat is the fee-only model at the heart of Spring Financial’s success. The model has two strong appeals for Chung. First, Chung, who also holds the family enterprise advisor designation, says financial planning requires a concerted commitment.

“Financial planning, to do it well, really means focusing on your client,” Chung says. “To do a really good financial plan takes a lot of time.”

Chung, who says she doesn’t want to dilute her expertise or divide her time, begins her client process with a “discovery” phone call or meeting. Then she prepares a proposal.

“Each plan is customized,” Chung says. “Everybody is unique. We haven’t created cookie-cutter proposals.”

Once the client has signed a formal engagement letter, Chung begins to collect a wealth of data from the client – everything from tax returns to insurance information. She also converses with the client’s accountant and lawyer. Next, Chung develops a “foundation” report.

“This is verification we got it right,” Chung says.

She then completes a full analysis and a final plan, including an education component and recommended strategies, which is delivered to the client. To follow up, Chung checks in at six months and then annually. “I care a lot that people implement these things,” she says.

Chung says her fee-only model involves no commissions and eliminates any real or perceived conflicts of interest.

The firm charges a flat fee for services such as financial plans and cash-flow plans. A financial plan, for example, costs $3,750-$6,250. “The only way I get paid,” she says, “is through my clients.”

Chung says her clients are aware of the distinction between fee-only (a.k.a. fee-for-service) and other financial advisory compensation models, the latter of which can include sales commissions and asset-based fees. “Clients understand the difference,” she says. “We talk about it. Clients like the idea that there is no conflict of interest.”

Chung believes a culture of mistrust is brewing in Canada, and advisors are being viewed with skepticism. “Media reporting has shed some light on this,” she says. “Trust in financial advisors has declined.”

Chung says the financial services landscape has changed since she began working in the industry as a receptionist with an investment-counselling firm. Chung, with strong encouragement from her boss, began training through the Canadian Securities Institute and went on to become an advisor. After following a traditional financial planning path, Chung founded JYC Financial in 2011 as an independent financial planning firm.

Today, Chung, who is 42, focuses on clients with complex situations, including families with children who have disabilities. Doctors also are a growing part of her client base. “That started with one physician who had a good experience with us,” she says. Today, the firm has physician clients across the country.

For Chung, who is also a chartered life underwriter, clients with cross-border issues are another area of specialty. “There is no cross-border software,” she says. “You really have to know what you are doing.”

Chung’s commitment to ensuring best practices is reflected in the Financial Planners Association of Canada, a new financial planning association she is helping to launch. Financial planning is relatively new compared with many other professions, she notes. “There is a great opportunity for us to become a profession. There is more that we can do as a profession in education and peer sharing.” As of May 2019, the association has 20 members. Chung is its vice president.

She also is president of Admin Slayer, a virtual assistant company that provides administrative, bookkeeping and marketing support for entrepreneurs. This company, Chung says, grew “out of the fact that I needed these services.”

When Chung is not providing financial advice to clients, she spends time writing and speaking about her profession and her passions. She has co-written three e-books: Women & Money, The Art of Delegation and The Entrepreneur’s Survival Guide. She also has held the role of business editor at two magazines and has been frequently interviewed on financial issues for numerous media outlets.

When she’s not working, Chung likes to play guitar and spend time with Glen, her life partner, and Marek, her 23-year-old son. She and Marek recently took up rock climbing.

The financial advisory business has seen significant technological change, pressure on fees and diminishing levels of trust in recent years, according to Julia Chung, CEO of Spring Financial Planning in Vancouver. She offers the following tips to help financial advisors overcome these challenges:

Examine your practice. As an advisor, you need to identify the business model that works for you and your clients, Chung says. “There is an ability to build a practice that works best for you,” she says. “There is no one best model.”

Be patient. The fee-only sector in Canada is very small, and it is not easy to launch a new business, Chung says. However, patience pays off: “The people I know who have been doing this for more than five years are overloaded.”

Stay in touch. When Chung completes a financial plan for a client, the job is not over. After the first year of implementation, she contacts her clients annually to see how the plan is progressing and what has changed in the client’s life – both personally and financially; the client may need a new plan. Chung has one client she has connected with each year for the past 10 years, and the original plan still works well. So does that client/advisor relationship.