Shelly Lairar
Myopic thinking about market conditions creates unnecessary stress for clients, Lairar says. Instead, she takes a long-term approach to portfolios. Photo by Dave Chan

This article appears in the April 2022 issue of Investment Executive. Subscribe to the print edition, read the digital edition or read the articles online.

When Shelly Lairar learned in 2005 that her hometown of Arnprior, Ont., had no women firefighters, she wasn’t about to let that challenge go unanswered. And so, the Ottawa-based investment advisor answered the bell.

“When you become a parent, it’s really important to set an example of how you take care of your community to your children,” said Lairar, 51, a senior investment advisor and branch manager with Echelon Wealth Partners Inc.

“I was motivated first and foremost by setting a good example for my kids, and then getting out there and doing the thing that hadn’t been done, and it went well,” Lairar said. “My favourite role as a firefighter was in fire prevention events — to get into the schools and talk to kids and ensure they understood the values of safe emergency exit plans, fire alarms, et cetera.”

Lairar retired from the Arnprior Fire Department in 2017: “Once I left the fire department, I had to find another way to continue to contribute.”

She has since served on the Arnprior Regional Health Foundation Board. “The hospital is a central part of all communities. Knowing that the time and effort put in to being on the board results in better health care, including long-term care, and also provides better equipment for all is something I am extremely proud of,” she said.

Lairar has shown the same passion and dedication to her profession, and is proud of the fact that she has worked from the ground up. She broke into the investment industry as a sales assistant with Midland Walwyn Inc. in 1992. Two years later, she was the sales assistant for 21 new investment advisors.

“It was a fantastic way to begin the journey,” Lairar recalled. “If you can immerse yourself in all levels of the industry, it makes you a better advisor because you’ve got a good understanding of everything, right down to grassroots administration.”

Lairar was an investment representative with Merrill Lynch & Co. from 1996 to 1999, and an investment advisor with BMO Nesbitt Burns Inc. from 2000 to 2012, before moving to her current position with Echelon.

She and her partner in the firm, Tom Gougeon, serve 220 client households, with average household assets of $630,000. “We take care of everybody,” she said, including clients in the ultra-high-net-worth category, the mass affluent and “everyday folks” with smaller accounts. “Everybody, no matter what their net worth, deserves good advice,” she said.

Lairar and Gougeon take only referrals from clients. “We’ve gotten the absolute best referrals because we’ve treated everybody respectfully. We interview each other,” Lairar said. “I want to make sure that they’re comfortable with me and I’m comfortable with them.”

If the prospective client is not a good fit, as a branch manager she can identify somebody else in the office who might work well with them.

Lairar, who holds a personal financial planner designation, said her investment philosophy with clients is to ensure everybody has access to the right financial plan for their lives.

“We spend a lot of time making sure we know every single family really well,” she said. “We don’t have a cookie-cutter approach to investment solutions. We tailor every investment solution to each individual family’s goals, risks and where they are in life — if they’re at the accumulation phase or retirement phase.”

Lairar emphasizes the importance of communication when dealing with her clients. “I’m very proud of the fact that I am an active listener,” she said. “I’ll ruminate on what I hear, and then come up with a solution that is very specific to their life.”

For example, one of Lairar’s clients is a self-employed single mom who learned that her son had cancer. “She did not have benefits or a way to continue to create income while caring for her son,” Lairar said. “We talked it through and created a solution: we simply replaced her income with her RRSP the year she stayed home. Solving that problem allowed her to concentrate on her son. Today, he is a very healthy teen and [she] has replaced every bit of retirement savings used during that period and then some.”

Lairar also takes pride in the camaraderie in her office. The Ottawa branch of Echelon Wealth Partners has seven advisor partners, plus five assistants and associates, as part of a national organization with 11 offices across Canada.

“Nobody works in a silo. We take care of each other,” she said.

Lairar coaches and mentors the advisors in her office to help them meet their business goals — another role that she finds fulfilling.

“I encourage them to continue to develop their education,” Lairar said. “We have an excellent social media/marketing platform that is really well managed to get people up on the new way of communicating. One unique thing about Echelon is we let people be their own entrepreneur. They have the freedom to develop their business in the way that they’re comfortable.”

A big challenge full-service investment advisors face today is having to compete with robo-advisors and discount brokerage services. Lairar believes the best way to meet that challenge head-on is for an investment advisor to show clients how invested the advisor is in the client’s personal and family goals.

“Robo-advisors do not foster relationships,” she said. “Personal relationships are the backbone to developing a proper advisor/investor partnership and getting to understand the client beyond just their portfolio.”

Lairar believes the industry’s client-focused reforms have been a good initiative for both advisors and their clients. “I like the fact that on Dec. 31, everyone is getting their net rate of return, net of fees, in a transparent way,” she said.

While today’s difficult market conditions are a challenge, Lairar said, she keeps her focus on the longer term.

“I have learned through 30 years in this business that myopic thinking about the current problem is not helpful for the portfolio, and it creates stress for the client,” she said. “So, what’s going to happen in 2022 does not typically affect the way I advise people. We build portfolios for people’s lifetimes, and there are going to be many systemic shocks to the portfolios through our lifetime together.”

Lairar is married to Clint Pettigrew, a real estate agent, and the couple have four adult children — Grace, Emma, Jessica and Liam.

In Lairar’s spare time, beyond her commitment to the Arnprior Regional Health Foundation Board and volunteering for local Covid-19 vaccine clinics, she enjoys cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and yoga.