Sterling Rempel

Sterling Rempel, like many of his clients – mostly entrepreneurs and self-employed professionals – has weathered the financial ups and downs of founding and building a business.

In 1999, Rempel was 36 and had three children under the age of five. The investment advisor decided to go it alone that year, establishing Calgary-based Future Values Estate & Financial Planning. That move meant leaving behind a decade and a half of secure and successful employment in the disability insurance sector. He recalls having a “burning desire” to prove he could run his own show as an independent advisor.

“It was challenging at times,” Rempel, now 56, recalls. But there was a distinct upside to the experience – one that still helps him in his day-to-day connections with clients. “I think it helped me better relate to my business-oriented clients, who face revenue challenges, expense challenges, [often wondering]: ‘How am I going to meet payroll?’ [and] ‘Where is the next opportunity going to come from?'”

Rempel’s practice, which offers a wide range of insurance and investment products in partnership with Winnipeg-based Great-West Life Assurance Co., now has about $50 million in assets under management and fewer than 250 client families. The product makeup is almost evenly split between individual insurance and investment products, with a small group benefits component.

Despite Rempel’s success and his age, he still anticipates a busy future: “At this point, we are still looking to grow. My philosophy is that all living things grow.”

Along with growth, Rempel is committed to keeping up with change – on many fronts. Rempel, who holds a bachelor of commerce degree and counts the certified financial planner and chartered life underwriter designations among his credentials, recently moved his practice from a predominantly mutual fund platform to that of the Investment Industry Regulatory Organization of Canada (IIROC).

He made the shift to take advantage of the greater access to investments that are traded in securities markets, such as ETFs, that is afforded by the IIROC platform. The change also allows Rempel to offer greater service harmonization to his clients, who can now make a full range of investment choices through his practice.

“As I aged, my clients aged [and] as the practice ages, there is a natural trend toward the consolidation of assets,” Rempel says. “As people are preparing for retirement, they tend to pull things together with a single advisor.”

On the regulatory front, Rempel supports recent initiatives in some provinces to significantly tighten the rules surrounding the titles and designations that an individual must have before he or she may identify as a financial advisor.

“I think it’s a tremendous initiative that we in the industry have lobbied for for some years,” Rempel says. “The industry has moved from a ‘sales’ to an ‘advice’ model over the past few decades” and, he notes, advisors should be professionally accredited in the same manner as doctors, lawyers and other self-regulated professions are.

“There is a role for a sales practice,” Rempel adds, “but it needs to be distinguished from that of a financial advisor.”

Rempel is an enthusiastic supporter of responsible investing (RI) and estimates that about 15% of his clients have some RI products in their portfolios, with the percentage continuing to grow. Rempel is on the board of the Alberta Council for Environmental Education, which provides energy-related environmental curriculum support in primary and high schools. He says the belief that clients need to sacrifice returns when they choose RI is a myth because performance numbers do not support that view.

“I think that bias [against RI] rests more with the advisor than with the client,” Rempel says.

Clients tend to be very open to the idea of RI, Rempel says, and that is reflected in the steady growth he sees in this area generally: “We are reaching a tipping point at which [RI] is becoming a more routine investing choice.”

For Rempel, “relatability” with clients has been a key principle from the outset. He says he has tended to work with clients whose ages are five to 10 years on either side of his own – people similar to himself, whom he can relate to.

Those personal connections range from the most basic, such as “age and stage,” to the way clients earn their income and their personal value systems. Most of the people Rempel deals with now are in their mid-50s. “We understand the clients’ challenges,” he says. “And, similarly, they can appreciate or sense that we do have their best interests at heart, and that we are walking alongside them. One does need to play the long game in this industry.”

Client interactions, Rempel adds, should not be about “just looking for the next sale.”

Early in a relationship with a client, Rempel takes the client through an exercise designed to tease out key financial issues and priorities – including those that clients may not be fully aware of themselves. The principle focus is a well- established distinction between needs and wants.

“[The exercise] helps [clients] articulate what it is that they feel that they have to do, either now or later,” Rempel says, “and what they want to do, now or later.”

Once a client’s short- and long-term priorities are identified, Rempel can build the financial plan accordingly. The exercise also includes elements that help identify what Rempel calls a client’s “money personality.” For example, is a client an accumulator or hoarder; in search of financial independence or more concerned about family stewardship; does he or she display avoidance behaviour regarding finances?

The process usually involves both partners in a client couple, but with the initial stage conducted separately so that each spouse answers the questions independently. When the spouses then get together to compare answers, the results can be surprising, with both partners often admitting they were not aware of the spouse’s views on a range of spending priorities.

“One of the most common responses I hear is that [the exercise] was a very good [one] for them as a couple,” Rempel says. “We are supposed to speak with our partner about these sorts of items, but, frankly, when do we ever find the time, or the forum to do so, in the midst of our daily lives and all our responsibilities?

“Sometimes,” Rempel adds, “it’s reaffirming that they are on the same page. But sometimes there is this flash of revelation: ‘Oh! That is important to you?’ or ‘I didn’t know that!'”

Clients’ concerns and approaches to both their finances and key life decisions have shifted in the more than three decades that Rempel has been an advisor. One topic in which he is noticing change is in attitudes toward retirement. Fewer clients, especially entrepreneurs, now seek a complete break from their professional lives, he notes; instead, they are looking for ways to use the expertise they have gained over a lifetime of working. “They want to continue to be vital and to contribute,” he says. “They are at their peak, in terms of their expertise, and they have so much more that they can contribute.”

In practice, that can mean working 24/7, Rempel quips: 24 hours a week, seven months of the year.

Rempel is not waiting until retirement to pursue his own long-postponed dreams. A longtime vintage car enthusiast, he acquired a 1971 Opel GT sports car about six years ago. “It was the car I wanted when I was 18,” he says, “and I finally got it when I was 50.” Even the inevitable mechanical challenges of owning such a treasure did not stop him from driving it to Sechelt, on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast, and back last summer.

But that doesn’t mean he is planning to step away from his practice any time soon. “People ask me if I want to retire,” he says, but the prospect does not appeal to him. “I’m providing value; dealing with clients I like, who have similar values to me. Why would I ever stop doing it? I get paid for working with people I care about. I just want to do more.”