When Margaret Cameron graduated from Ottawa’s Carleton University with a degree in political science, her first instinct was to head for Parliament Hill. Lacking the right political connections, she wound up in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley, teaching English to the burgeoning Sikh community. That experience had a profound impact on her subsequent career as a financial planner.

Although Cameron has earned six professional designations over the years — including certified financial planner, registered financial planner and executive master of business administration — her enthusiasm for teaching has remained intact. You can see it in the work she’s done in her firm, Ottawa-based Cameron Leadership Development Inc., which she launched in 1998.

At one level, her business offers clients the sort of advice on taxes, retirement and finances that you’d expect from an established financial planner. But there’s an extra dimension: Cameron is also a personal business coach.

“[The latter] is not a huge component of my practice at this stage,” she says. “But it’s the fun part.”

When it comes to the more serious side of her business, financial planning, Cameron has a lively mixture among her client base. “I have quite a few real estate agents, artists, teachers working abroad and government retirees,” she says. “A large percentage come to me because their taxes are complicated.”

Another common characteristic is that her clients are very active in their hunt for labour-sponsored venture-capital funds or other investments with government tax breaks. Cameron has very firm views about this: “My advice is to make sure it’s investment-quality. Don’t do it just because it saves you taxes.”

Cameron does not sell any financial products, such as mutual funds, so she does not maintain a book of business — nor does she offer specific advice about what to put in a portfolio. But financial advisors often refer their clients to her for independent advice about taxes or risks contained in their portfolios.

Cameron’s rule for buying equities: if you buy them and can sleep at night, then they’re probably OK.

Cameron used to give seminars to employees of Nortel Networks Corp. in the late 1990s and had warned them that their exposure to risk was stratospheric. Not only were their company’s shares overvalued, but many employees also held them in their pension plans as well. Those who listened still think Cameron is a genius.

“I am very conservative with other people’s money,” she says. With interest rates in single low digits, her advice is based on the assumption that a conservative portfolio will generate annual rates of little more than 4%. “It’s better to be surprised on the upside rather than disappointed on the downside.”

Cameron describes herself as a “buy and hold” investor. She uses a stockbroker.

As for the more “fun” part of her business, leadership training, her target clientele is the financial services community. In the three years she has offered her program most intensively, one pattern has surprised her most: “I’m blown away by the number of people who deal intensively with numbers, yet don’t have a specific, measurable goal. They want to be happier, richer or work less, but they don’t have a plan for achieving these things.”

One client had noted his goal was to increase his income, but when Cameron asked him how he did the year before, he didn’t know. “It’s very basic,” she says. “If you’re a financial advisor, how do you know if you’re moving toward your goal if you can’t see what the numbers are?”

One metric Cameron has found particularly useful is time management. She cites the example of a financial advisor who wanted to increase the number of clients he saw each week. Following Cameron’s 16-week program, which involves self-study with prepared course material and biweekly sessions with her, the advisor met his target. The following year, he earned income at twice his former rate.

Cameron is the first to acknowledge the course material is not rocket science. It is based, in part, on self-improvement concepts she licenses from LMI Canada Inc., a Mississauga, Ont.-based professional-development firm.

Cameron’s enthusiasm for leadership training was whetted in the late 1990s while attending an LMI seminar describing how people could grow their businesses through planning, better decision-making and understanding the characteristics of great leaders.

The timing was good for Cameron. She had recently left Welch LLP, the Ottawa-based full-service accounting firm, to establish her financial planning practice. She applied LMI’s self-improvement principles and added clients quickly. Many clients had followed Cameron from Welch LLP and other companies that had employed her as a financial and tax planner. Last year, Cameron saw almost 200 clients, and she now relies almost exclusively on word-of-mouth referrals for new business.

@page_break@As her practice had matured, Cameron saw how her tax and financial planning clients could benefit from leadership development. She didn’t really emphasize her leadership training services until 2007, when she got her master’s degree in a specialty known as neurolinguistic programming, of which a big component involves improved communications.

“I’m using the LMI tool kit, but with the added benefit of neurolinguistic programming,” she says. “Along with my financial and income tax planning, the whole thing makes me an interesting package.”

Does the combination produce results? Let’s put it this way: she offers full refunds to any leadership client who does not make at least 10 times the return on her fee. The caveat is you have to follow her program.

As for Cameron’s main lines of business, she charges by the hour for her assessments of clients’ financial positions and plans and for advice about the tax implications of various strategies. Indeed, understanding taxes is core to her practice. “When I do financing planning, I focus on the tax side rather than the investment side,” she notes, “It’s all tax-related in some form.”

Outside of work, Cameron says, her friends consider her something of a sports freak. Her antidote for a morning spent poring over tax rules is — depending on her mood — going for a run along the Ottawa River, playing squash, doing yoga or sailing. “One friend calls me a jock,” she says, “but I really am not.”

Cameron also plays piano and collects art in the form of photographs, both of fine art and interpretations of life by various photo-graphers, such as Justin Wonnacott and Lynne Cohen. In fact, she used to host expositions. “I’d run an art gallery out of my home,” she says. “I’d take all the furniture out, then cover the walls with art.”

And while Cameron has not hosted a gallery in her home for years, her walls are still adorned with photos.