Nadine Allen
Joey Podlubny

Nadine Allen didn’t plan on becoming a financial advisor at first. After she completed high school in Nova Scotia, she set off to see the rest of the country with her boyfriend — now her husband — in the late 1970s. While walking down a street in Edmonton, she spotted a sign for a bank-teller training course costing $500. Allen, who has a gift for math, signed up.

Now, more than three decades later, Allen is based in Fort McMurray, Alta., and oversees a book of more than $180 million. She is a member of Raymond James Ltd.’s Executive Council and is this year’s recipient of the firm’s Woman of Distinction award. Allen, reflecting on all that has happened since signing up for that teller’s course, notes: “It was the best $500 I ever spent!”

Allen was hired at age 17 as a teller in a Toronto-Dominion Bank (TD) branch in Edmonton. Although she was robbed five times in one year, it was clear to her from the beginning that she had made the right career choice. “As soon as I got my first job at the bank, I fell in love with the whole idea of helping people with their money,” she recalls.

Allen’s enthusiasm translated into a series of promotions: after six years at TD in Edmonton, where she obtained her mutual fund licence, she moved to National Trust Co. in Ottawa. There, she spent another six years overseeing the registered products department, which gave her wider exposure to stocks, bonds and the mechanics of investing in public markets. That was an eye-opening experience for Allen, one that motivated her to add the Canadian Securities Course to her credentials: “I realized there were other [investment vehicles] besides GICs and products that the bank was selling. I really loved the whole idea of learning more about the stock market.”

Allen clearly has an adventurous streak. When she dived into the investing side of financial services in the mid-1980s, the industry was still very much dominated by men. Now, looking back on more than 35 years in the industry, including 28 years with Raymond James in Fort McMurray, Allen notes that the firm tackled the issue 25 years ago with targeted measures such as annual intensive national networking workshops for women.

While only about 600 Raymond James advisors are women (about 17 %, compared with the industry average of 15 %), that percentage is a significant improvement over the fewer than 50 who were advisors when Allen joined the firm in 1992. “Our goal is 25 % by 2025,” she says.

Career change

Allen’s appetite for the new extends into other areas. In the early 1990s, she and her husband, a chartered accountant, opted for a career change that entailed moving from Ottawa to Fort McMurray. Once there, Allen realized her interests lay outside the banking world, where she had worked for a dozen years, and were aligned more closely with the non-banking investment industry. That was in 1991.

Now, Allen works with a team of three and 365 client households — heavily concentrated in the oil and gas industry — and notes that her practice has been shaped by the unique circumstances that come with being based in Fort McMurray.

Incomes can be high in this remote area, and many people have the ability to accumulate substantial assets while they live here. But they may not always see the best ways to do that, Allen says: “It’s not just the stock market that we have to pay attention to; we have to pay attention to the oil market.”

That includes persuading clients to consider investing options other than the oil and gas stocks often offered by employers. “So, asset allocation is super-important to us,” Allen says. “There is also the idea that a lot of [clients’] pension plans can be better allocated by working with an independent advisor. I believe that everybody who comes to this community has the opportunity to become a millionaire.”

Allen doesn’t underplay the difficulty of achieving that goal, however. When clients hit that milestone, she marks the occasion in her office with a bottle of Dom Pérignon champagne. “We have a great meeting about what an accomplishment this is,” she says.

These clients, Allen notes, are not just fortunate; they are willing to act on the advice they receive. “They were disciplined,” Allen says. “They listened, they didn’t get scared and they didn’t let their emotions take over their decision-making.”

Allen cites the example of one couple who came to see her in 2009. Both spouses had good jobs, but virtually no assets. Now, after a decade of saving and investing one income and living on the other — without scrimping — both spouses are members of Allen’s Millionaire’s Club. And that accomplishment isn’t just a win for the clients. Allen enjoys seeing her clients achieve goals such as retirement security and children’s educations achieved. “It’s a wonderful feeling,” she says.

Allen emphasizes the importance of asset allocation, placing her clients’ assets in a range of investments spread over various risk categories. She works to help clients avoid taking losses by selling assets when markets become volatile.

Among other strategies Allen uses to help her clients stay the course, she reminds them of the power of dividends and the value of balanced funds. (She remains a believer in mutual funds, including bond funds.) She also regards downturns as opportunities to pick up undervalued stocks.

Portfolio managers

Allen, who keeps a picture of Warren Buffett (the legendary chair and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.) on her office wall, backs up her commitment to active value investing by staying in close touch with the portfolio managers of the funds she recommends to her clients. She regularly attends sessions during which the portfolio managers explain their strategies, including running through a list of questions she uses to test those strategies.

“Before I [make recommendations to clients], I have to meet [fund portfolio managers] in person, have an interview with them and keep monitoring them,” Allen says. “It’s very hard for a new fund idea to get into my platform.”

Allen’s book comprises about 60 % mutual funds, 30 % stocks and 10 % cash. She also is investigating alternative investments — such as private equity and hedge funds — in advance of new rules coming into force this year that will make such investments more widely available to certain retail investors.

Charitable activities

Sometimes empathy is what a client needs most. When devastating forest fires swept through Fort McMurray in 2016, thousands of people lost their homes, including 35 of Allen’s clients. She recalls men crying in her office, overwhelmed by the scale of their losses. “It’s hard to sit through a meeting [during which] somebody loses it,” Allen says. “You’d better not start talking about the stock market right then.”

In those instances, Allen says, touch base with people in ways that offer emotional support instead, such as by ensuring telephone availability and through thoughtful gestures such as sending gift baskets when clients move into new accommodations.

Allen maintains close personal connections with her clients, which has helped her extend her charitable activities into Fort McMurray’s community. She may, for example, choose to support junior sports teams favoured by a client, raise funds for food banks and soup kitchens, and support crisis centres. “There is always need,” she says. “If I can give back 10 % of my wealth to support my community, that’s my goal.”