Although most financial advisors spend the majority of their time working with individuals and families, Karen Hall spends much of her time offering advice and investment information to groups of employees.

As vice president of financial education and employer services with T.E. Wealth, a subsidiary of Jovian Capital Corp., in Calgary, Hall oversees the education services her office provides to corporate clients. The firm fulfils a need of many employees — a need for financial education and advice about the retirement benefits offered by their employers. There is also a need for employers to ensure that their plan members understand their benefits.

Hall, a certified financial planner and registered financial planner, believes there is a striking knowledge gap among employees about the benefits provided by their employers. “One of the biggest challenges [for management] is the lack of engagement among employees with their plans,” she says. “And from the employees’ point of view, they feel unqualified to make investment choices within their defined-contribution plans or group RRSPs.”

That’s where Hall’s office steps in. It provides that advice, which can take one of three basic forms: individual “financial coaching,” in which the client company pays T.E. Wealth to meet privately with individual employees to provide advice; seminars for groups of 10 to 100 employees; and online financial education programs, both generic and custom-designed.

Hall’s client roster consists of 20 corporations, most of them in the oil and gas and pipeline industries. These companies range in size from 900 to 12,000 employees, with most falling in the 3,000 to 6,000 employee range. Most client companies are situated in Alberta, but Hall’s office also serves client locations in northeastern British Columbia, the Territories, Saskatchewan and parts of Manitoba.

In addition to Hall, the office consists of four consultants, who deliver seminars and individual advice; a paraplanner, who prepares retirement plans; and two administrative assistants. Hall is a seminar presenter, an advisor and a manager — a role that often involves travel to client sites as far afield as Cold Lake, Alta., and Weyburn, Sask.

“Not only do I do part of the delivery,” Hall says, “I’m also managing most of the corporate clients. Part of my role is doing the project management and consulting with the clients, to design the programs, to do the planning meetings, to make innovations to find out what their needs are.”

T.E. Wealth follows a three-step approach to helping clients’ employees understand their benefits plans and make the right investment decisions, Hall says. The first step is to provide information. The next step is to educate the client’s staff on what that information means. The third is to meet with clients individually to personalize the education. That third step — individual counselling — is the most costly to the client firms but, ultimately, it is the most valuable to the employees.

Most of Halls’ client companies offer their employees DC plans or group RRSPs. “Some companies have both,” Hall says. “They have savings plans as well as pension plans, sometimes with different choices.”

As a fee-only planning firm, T.E. Wealth offers education and advice to employees but does not implement that advice, sell products or make specific fund recommendations. “When we’re looking at investments, it’s really from an asset-allocation point of view,” she says. “We try to instil an understanding of the information and assumptions being used so that [employees] have a better understanding of what makes up a good portfolio.”

Hall typically looks at an employee’s investments, both within and outside his or her pension plan, and makes suggestions. Rather than recommend specific funds, Hall might, for example, suggest adding foreign content.

Hall’s firm charges set rates for seminars, online programs and the various individual planning services. Project-management fees vary, depending on the amount of work her firm does for a client company in one year, as well as the number of locations the client has and how widespread those are. Hall is paid a salary plus a variable amount based on how much revenue she brings into her firm.

Hall has not always been a financial planner. A graduate of the University of Calgary with a degree in geology, she worked for 10 years as a geologist in the oil and gas industry before being laid off in 1991. She and her husband, Ken Hedlin, a geophysicist who worked with the same company, had two small children at the time.

“We thought some diversification might be useful in our career choices,” she says. Hall set her sights on financial planning and obtained her CFP designation. She set up her own company and offered financial planning services to stockbrokers and financial planners who needed help in serving their clients. She later joined the investment-management group at Canada Trust in Calgary. That was a sales position, but Hall was more interested in financial planning.

She joined T.E. Wealth’s group services in 1998, delivering seminars and individual planning services. A few years later, Bob Donlevy, an RFP and former consultant with Mercer Consulting (Canada) Ltd., joined the firm, looking for a suitable home for his roster of financial planning clients before he retired. “[Donlevy] brought a consulting mindset to the area of financial education and, at that point, the focus changed,” she says. “Now, we are looking at strategic plans and multi-year budgets.”

In 2004, the Joint Forum of Fi-nan-cial Market Regulators released the capital-accumulation guidelines requiring employers to ensure that members of company retirement plans had the information and assistance needed to make informed investment decisions. This meant T.E. Wealth’s services would be more than an employee benefit; they would be a governance obligation.

While the new governance requirement created a demand for T.E. Wealth’s group services, the firm’s new, consultative approach further positioned it to provide more comprehensive services. “A lot of what drove us during that period was helping companies meet their obligations under the guidelines,” Hall says.

As for her own retirement planning, Hall, 51, and Hedlin are looking forward to what she calls “significant travel” — trips that take them off the beaten tourist path. As a warm-up, they recently travelled to Turkey. Closer to home, the couple, who have a daughter, 22, and a son, 19, enjoy hiking and cross-country skiing. “We’re moving into this next stage of life, which is doing some nice trips but continuing to work full-time,” Hall says. “We very much like what we do.” IE