Shauna George
Darren Hull

Shauna George was in her late 20s when she embarked on a career that might have taken others in the financial services industry years to achieve.

With a bachelor of commerce degree in international finance and a minor in psychology, George joined the Toronto office of Beutel Goodman & Co. in the late 1990s, where she was quickly drawn to research and analysis in global equities. The job was not only intellectually challenging; it also took her on a decade-long adventure through Europe, with regular trips to Paris, London, Barcelona and Madrid, among other cities.

George is now based in Kelowna, B.C., and is working as a portfolio manager with Toronto-based Newport Private Wealth Inc. She recalls past eras of market turbulence, such as the Asian financial crisis, the collapse of the Russian ruble, the bursting of the tech bubble in 2000, and the wreckage of the 2008 global financial crisis.

So, how does the extreme market volatility that accompanied the Covid-19 outbreak compare to past crises? George acknowledges that the long-term fallout of the pandemic remains unknown, but notes that the current crisis led to a market correction that lasted only 22 days, while most market plunges traditionally last six months or more. “That is probably one of the most significant changes [from other corrections],” George says.

George’s depth of understanding in these matters not only appeals to her clients; it also complements Newport’s business model, which uses a centralized investment committee to develop wealth-management strategies offered to clients.

“My role is to work with clients on a more broad-spectrum basis,” George says, “to help them understand the reasons why we are positioned in the different sectors and asset classes, and how that, in turn, impacts their financial well-being.” She adds that, in addition to her background in finance, her training in psychology “can be helpful” when working with clients.

George says her decision to leave Toronto and move to Kelowna in 2011 was triggered partly by a desire to work more closely with retail clients following the 2008 crisis. That was when she learned that most people were struggling to understand why the crisis occurred — and how it could be weathered.

“[I saw] the strong need for an interpreter between the investment specialists and the clients, to help them really understand [what was happening],” George says. “That is when I made the lateral shift to start working with clients directly, so I could help them understand how their decisions about their portfolios were impacting their lives.”

George, who is originally from Toronto, relocated to Kelowna to take a position with a local independent firm that used a discretionary model similar to Newport’s. George’s mother had been living in the region for 20 years. Family and professional connections, as well as the lifestyle offered by Kelowna — there are 40 golf courses within a 40-minute drive and several ski resorts nearby — have helped keep George, an avid golfer and skier, in the area ever since.

George moved to Newport in 2016 after she decided she would prefer to travel less and engage more meaningfully with a select group of clients. She also was attracted to Newport’s relatively flat structure. The firm — founded in 2001 as an independent wealth-management boutique for affluent clients — provides discretionary portfolio and wealth management for clients who generally (but don’t always) have more than $1 million in investible assets.

Newport’s wealth-management advice is developed through extensive research and evaluation that assess the potential of 12 broad asset classes — not just equities, but government and high-yield bonds, private debt and equity, mortgage investments and direct investments in real estate, among others.

The strategy is similar to that used by the Canada Pension Plan. Ten committee members — drawn from fields such as banking, investing and law — work with third-party asset managers to choose investments. Separating the investment strategy from the investment execution, George says, is “one of the most fundamental differences” that Newport offers clients.

George notes the model suits the many clients who come to Newport looking for expertise that will allow them to take their own hands off the tiller after long careers. These clients, she says, are ready to let others do the work of protecting and building on the wealth they spent their careers accumulating.

“Lots of clients may have managed their own portfolios in the past,” George says, “and they have just reached a point where they now choose not to, [be it] through lack of time, lack of desire or recognition that they just don’t have access to the same kind of resources and investments [that Newport does]. We often see a point at retirement, or just leading up [to it], when clients will seek us out.”

The current crisis may be accelerating this process, George notes. “I’m finding that the pandemic is causing people to reflect a lot more,” she says. “[They are] reflecting on what’s important to them in life and, often, if they are later in their career, deciding whether they want to retire a little earlier and spend more time with family.”

Many clients have shopped around extensively among other financial institutions before arriving at Newport, George says. “I find the biggest adjustment for some clients is switching from a self-managed strategy to a fully discretionary managed strategy,” she says.

While some clients may raise the question of investing in a company or sector that has caught their eye, the goal, George notes, is to describe the reasons for Newport’s investing and management strategies. Individual stock selections by clients may happen, she says, “but that is more on an exception basis than a rule.”

Other clients may have bank accounts that have swollen almost overnight, thanks to major life events such as receiving an inheritance or selling a business. “When you acquire a large sum of cash in a very short period of time, it can be extremely overwhelming and also [makes clients feel] a little vulnerable,” George says. For those clients, George spends time ensuring that she knows what the client is looking for and whether the firm is the right fit.

George opened Newport’s Kelowna office on her own and remains its only representative. Now, as the world of work shifts dramatically to accommodate the impact of the pandemic, Newport’s model appears to be well adapted to the uncertainties of the future. For example, the firm’s weekly investment committee meetings moved from the firm’s Toronto offices to video chats that include portfolio managers. All employee meetings take place in the same format on other days.

Whatever form the future of work takes, George foresees many people looking for, and finding, their own paths. “[The pandemic has] certainly opened my eyes in amazement to how resilient we are,” she says, noting that Newport was able to switch to remote work seamlessly. “One day, everyone was in the office and working normally. Two days later, everyone was working remotely, covering clients — and [we] didn’t miss a beat.”

George’s comfort with change appears to be a quality that has served her — and her clients — well.