Chris Ferris was thrilled to learn that he achieved the highest mark in the November 2018 sitting of the certified financial planner (CFP) examination. In doing so, he beat out 562 other candidates across Canada and earned top spot on the FP Canada’s (formerly the Financial Planning Standards Council) President’s List.
“My objective when I started studying was to do my best,” says Ferris, an associate financial planner with Ottawa-based Ryan Lamontagne Inc. (RLI) and research associate at its sister company, SONA Wealth Counsel Inc. “I worked hard, but never thought that being top in the country was a reasonable goal to have.”
Passing the six-hour CFP examination, let alone getting the highest mark in the country, is no small feat. To qualify to write the exam, candidates must first complete an FP Canada-approved core curriculum education program, the FP Canada Level 1 examination in financial planning, and an FP Canada-approved capstone course.
Ferris says he completed his financial planning assignments for the capstone course without using popular software – although he had the option of doing so.
“I constructed the financial plan manually, using spreadsheets,” Ferris says. “It was a ton of work, to be honest, but I probably learned a lot more about the mechanics of different tax credits and the application of other relevant variables by doing it manually.”
Ferris, 29, says he chose to join RLI and SONA because he wanted to work in an established firm. He also found that the firms’ joint values are aligned with his own. Those values include “a focus on knowledge and mentorship, putting clients first and providing independent, impartial advice.”
RLI is a boutique financial planning firm founded by partners Thomas Ryan and Marc Lamontagne in 1994. SONA provides investment-management services for RLI’s financial planning clients.
“We had to keep the companies separate for regulatory reasons,” Ferris says. “But the same staff work at both companies from the same office.”
Ferris says the two disciplines – financial planning and portfolio management – are closely aligned: “The portfolio manager needs to know the client’s investment objective, while the financial planner needs to establish the rationale for selecting the portfolio.”
Because RLI and SONA are small firms, their six advisors have many responsibilities, with roles in both financial planning and portfolio management. On the financial planning side, Ferris prepares financial plans; during the tax season, he prepares tax returns.
On the portfolio-management side, Ferris is a member of SONA’s investment review committee, which makes asset- allocation decisions for the firm’s model portfolios. As part of that committee, he is chairman of two subcommittees: the benchmark selection subcommittee, which ensures that a fair and accurate benchmark is used in reporting; and a subcommittee that is responsible for developing a new framework for making asset- allocation decisions.
Ferris does not work in a client- facing role currently, although he has worked in such roles at two other firms in the past. He worked for four and a half years as a financial advisor at IG Wealth Management and for more than a year as a fully independent advisor associated with Sterling Mutuals Inc.
Prior to that, Ferris held positions as a summer student at the Canada Revenue Agency, for which he worked in collections, and at the Business Development Bank of Canada as an analyst for its venture-capital investment fund.
Ferris plans to move back into a client-facing financial advisory role in the near future and build his own book of business at RLI.
Ferris credits his performance on his CFP exam – and on other professional exams – to his diverse work experience, exposure to quality professional mentorship and his formal education. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in commerce, summa cum laude, with a specialization in finance, from the University of Ottawa in 2011.
Ferris, who is studying to write the Level 2 chartered financial analyst (CFA) examination in June, says that obtaining relevant designations is critical for success in the financial services industry.
Designations do more than provide an advisor with knowledge, Ferris says. They also show clients that the advisor has made a commitment to the profession.
“Clients recognize that maintaining certain designations requires adherence to high standards of conduct and principles,” Ferris says. “[Those designations] are a key component of building trust.”
When Ferris completes the CFA program, he plans to pursue the chartered market technician (CMT) designation, which will improve his portfolio- management skills.
Ferris also intends to enhance his knowledge of options and options-based strategies by pursuing professional courses in these areas at a later date. “Learning about derivatives is really more of a personal interest,” he says. “I enjoy the challenge.”
While Ferris’ formal training and experience have helped him hone his skills in portfolio management, financial planning, insurance planning and debt management, he also benefits from working with mentors who have shared their experience with him, he says: “I learn something new every day.”
Ferris foresees the advisor of the future becoming more specialized than in the past. “Every area of financial planning is getting more and more complex,” he says. “No single advisor can be an expert in everything. Clients can benefit greatly from dealing with a panel of experts, which is why I value the team approach we have here at Ryan Lamontagne.”
Ferris also foresees more clients turning to independent firms operating on a fee-only model of providing advice. That model, he says, “really aligns the interests of the firm with the interests of the client.”
Ferris was drawn to the financial planning business by his interest in the markets, investing and investment strategy. He recognized that the field has unlimited growth potential, he says, and the opportunity for a good work/life balance. What he loves most, he says, is to “pass on knowledge to clients, in sort of an educational role. I like to make clients feel comfortable with strategies and techniques that can help them achieve their goals.”
Ferris says this type of client interaction is an important part of building trust.
“Clients want to know that you have a good knowledge of what you’re suggesting for them,” Ferris says. “And helping them really understand your recommendations makes it easier for them to see that you have their best interests at heart.”
Helping clients in this way, Ferris says, becomes more challenging – and more important – as financial advice becomes more complex.
In Ferris’ personal life, he pays close attention to his health and fitness. “I am at the gym five to six times a week,” he says. He believes this habit helped him to develop the discipline and focus required to succeed academically and professionally.
Ferris is an avid motorcyclist and rides his bike up to eight months a year. To him, riding a motorcycle is an exercise in risk management: “People say, ‘You’re going to die riding a motorcycle.’ But I don’t want to die or stop riding. So, I have to manage that risk.”
He also travels a couple of times a year. He visits Germany, his mother’s birthplace, at least once every few years.
Ferris was born in London Ont., but grew up mostly in Kingston, Ont. He also lived in Winnipeg and Belgium as a child. His father, now a retired major, worked for the Canadian Army and the family moved frequently.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” Ferris says, “seeing different places and living in different environments.”