Nizar Esmail
Jaime Hogge

This article appears in the Mid-November 2020 issue of Investment ExecutiveSubscribe to the print edition, read the digital edition or read the articles online.

Nizar Esmail has seen a lot over the years. Esmail, a financial advisor and portfolio manager with Wellington-Altus Private Wealth Inc., began his career in the early 1980s, when he joined Midland Doherty Financial Corp. just as the interest rate on Canada Savings Bonds was about to skyrocket north of 19%.

While Esmail’s launch pad at Midland during a time of sky-high interest rates may seem like a smooth start from today’s perspective, he notes that the early 1980s were also a time of turmoil. The battle to quell inflation provoked a deep recession, which hit young job hunters particularly hard.

Esmail, who arrived in Canada at 14 as a refugee from Uganda via the U.K., graduated with a degree in business administration from London, Ont.-based Western University in 1980. He then joined General Motors of Canada Co., which had provided him with a scholarship.

Soon, however, there were layoffs, and Esmail was one of them. He decided to use his severance to help fund another year of schooling, this time for an MBA from York University in Toronto. He was drawn to corporate finance as a career, but as he went door to door on Bay Street looking for a job, there were few to be had. He was told his ability to connect with people might make him well suited to working with retail clients on the advisory side.

Esmail’s decision to follow that advice turned out to be the right one. He worked for five firms during the years that followed — without actually leaving any of them. A string of mergers and acquisitions meant he had several employers — including Merrill Lynch & Co. and CIBC Wood Gundy — without having to knock on any more doors.

But in June of this year, Esmail left Wood Gundy to join Wellington-Altus. Although he enjoyed his time at Wood Gundy, Esmail decided to move on “after careful consideration and extensive due diligence,” ultimately deciding that Wellington-Altus would allow him to enhance his wealth management practice.

Esmail says he loves advising his clients, many of whom have been with him for decades.

“I have been in the business long enough that I deal with people I like and trust and relate to. [I’m] not forced to deal with anyone who is not a nice person,” Esmail says. “The vast majority of Canadians are really excellent people. When you meet a client [for the first time], essentially you’re asking a stranger for all of their money. You can imagine the level of trust and confidence that has to occur for that relationship to then mature.”

For the past 15 years, Esmail’s relationships with his clients have been supported by his colleague, portfolio manager and financial planner Michael Hendershot. Esmail says he and Hendershot have developed a close working relationship that allows them to provide services to about 140 families — including medical professionals, business owners and executives — on an almost interchangeable basis. The pair’s personalities and working styles are complementary, Esmail says: Hendershot provides clients with a thoughtful, patient approach, while Esmail is more detail- and research-oriented.

For example, if Esmail, who admits he can be blunt, is working on a difficult email to a client, Hendershot may look it over and modify the wording to soften the message. “We lean on each other,” Esmail says.

Esmail and Hendershot each have primary responsibility for different clients, but both of them usually attend important client meetings.

Esmail says he and Hendershot “think exactly the same way,” and either one of them is able to answer client queries.

“It’s seamless, talking to either Michael or myself,” Esmail says. “That’s what clients have told us.” He adds: “We take a lot of notes, we ask a lot of questions and, at the end of the day, our clients feel very comfortable calling anybody on the team, whether it’s Michael or myself, or our two assistants.”

Initial discussions with clients generally don’t include many references to the state of the markets or the economy; instead, Esmail and Hendershot invite clients to speak expansively about their goals and priorities. Over time, topics are broken down into bite-sized pieces, such as financial planning, banking relationships, estate planning, funding education or perhaps downsizing a home. In the end, clients are provided with a “road map” to their financial future, Esmail says.

“If you try to talk about everything in one meeting, clients walk out of that saying, ‘I really don’t know what he means,’” Esmail says.

With the bulk of Esmail’s clients choosing a discretionary advisory model (Esmail’s compensation is based on a percentage of a client’s invested assets — usually about 1%), the fine details of a client’s portfolio are rarely discussed. If a client inquires about a particular investment, Esmail says he listens, and adds that good investing ideas can sometimes come from clients.

Esmail says his firm’s asset-allocation model plays a key role in keeping clients calm in volatile times. In addition to risk reduction strategies and non-correlated investments, a certain amount of liquidity is always maintained so clients feel less pressure to sell if they need money. There is also a strong focus on income-producing investments. These strategies can be important during market dips, he says.

Esmail also observes that despite the unusual nature of the current health and economic crisis, the biggest factor that determines a client’s ability to weather market storms is their age and experience.

“There is a calming factor when you have experienced a lot of scenarios,” Esmail notes. “You tend to be more educated about what is in your portfolio and tolerant of swings in the market. And if you are not put in a position where you absolutely have to sell, you can look beyond the current dip.”

Clients, Esmail says, understand this, having experienced other financial crises alongside Esmail and developed a resilience as a result of his balanced approach.

Esmail also speaks from personal experience. He recalls the day in October 1987, when markets dropped by 30%, inspiring panic in those around him. But for Esmail, that loss seemed far less consequential than the loss endured by his family, who were successful businesspeople when they left Uganda. “We lost 100%,” he says.

The Black Monday market crash was “a defining moment” early in Esmail’s career that made him realize large losses should be taken in stride when there are opportunities to rebuild, as there were for his family when they moved to Canada.

“I’m really glad I went into the advisory side of the business rather than corporate finance. I’ve never looked back; only forward,” Esmail says. “I love what I do — and I love dealing with clients of all sizes and backgrounds.”