Alim Dhanji, senior financial planner with Assante Financial Management Ltd. in Vancouver, spent two-thirds of his 18-year career in the financial planning business being mentored by Ian Mellor, another senior financial planner with Assante, before deciding to set up a practice in 2012.
Although Dhanji obtained his certified financial planner (CFP) designation in 2003, he doesn’t regret a minute of the time he spent working as an understudy. He recognizes that his approach to heading out on his own has been “much slower than normal.” But, Dhanji says, what he learned during those years with Mellor as his mentor proved to be more useful than anything learned through formal education.
(Mellor now is in the process of transferring his practice to a successor in preparation for retirement.)
“I was able to acquire invaluable experience and knowledge, which gave me the confidence to deal with all types of client situations and equipped me to excel on my own,” Dhanji says. “I had the opportunity to learn the nuances of the business, how to conduct myself as a professional and how to conduct meetings.”
At the same time, Dhanji was able to begin to focus on a narrow market and build relationships that have proven to be essential to his business over the long term.
Today, Dhanji runs a niche practice, focusing primarily on physiotherapists. His clients also include a few small- business owners, owners of medium-sized hotels and high net-worth individuals. Dhanji’s assets under administration have grown by an average of $10 million a year during the past five years to reach more than $50 million. That excludes his insurance business.
For Dhanji, running a niche practice is “very efficient and structured,” he says. “You know what to expect.” He adds that he understands his clients’ situations very well, “often better than they do.”
Dhanji came to build his practice around physiotherapists through his sister, who is a physiotherapist. He began working with some of her colleagues and developed a relationship with the Physiotherapy Association of B.C. while still a mentee.
Through that relationship, Dhanji has addressed the graduating class obtaining a master’s of physiotherapy at the University of British Columbia each year for more than a decade – an arrangement that has provided access to a steady flow of potential clients.
Dhanji speaks to the graduates about setting financial goals – from the beginning of their career right up to retirement – and encourages the grads to take prudent steps from the beginning.
“Depending on where they’re at in their life cycle,” Dhanji says, “their needs are different.”
But physiotherapists, a group made up largely of independent contractors, Dhanji says, share many challenges and sometimes need assistance with a wide range of services, including cash-flow planning, debt management, budgeting, tax planning, insurance and investing.
Although some of Dhanji’s clients are just launching their practices, other clients are established business owners.
For those who are starting out, Dhanji provides coaching on how to get their finances in order. He also provides advice later on, when these clients decide to open their own clinics – and may even help them incorporate, if necessary – and provides advice on tax planning.
Dhanji, in addition to his position as a planner with Assante, also is a senior insurance advisor with Assante Estate and Insurance Services Inc., giving him the tools to provide a comprehensive range of services to his clients.
“I differentiate myself [through] the knowledge of the business I have and in estate planning,” Dhanji says.
Dhanji finds that many of his clients need disability insurance coverage because most are independent practitioners. Depending on their individual needs, he may recommend life insurance and critical illness insurance. He also may sell whole life insurance to his business-owner clients as part of a tax- efficient estate-planning strategy.
From an investment standpoint, Dhanji typically recommends managed portfolios – proprietary portfolios, third-party managed portfolios or a combination thereof – based on suitability.
“I have been in the industry long enough to realize that selecting individual investment funds for clients is difficult,” Dhanji says, “even though they might work.”
Dhanji was born in Vancouver to parents who came to Canada from East Africa in the early 1970s. He grew up in Burnaby, B.C., where he lives now.
Before entering the financial services sector, Dhanji thought he would follow in the footsteps of his father, an accountant. However, Dhanji chose to pursue a career as a financial planner because of his outgoing personality and his preference for working with people face to face.
Dhanji began his career as an administrator in Mellor’s practice in 2000, performing back-office tasks before becoming Mellor’s assistant a couple of years later. Dhanji developed a deep love for financial planning, driven by his desire to make a difference in people’s lives.
“I get a great deal of satisfaction when I am able to work with clients, monitor their progress and help them achieve their life goals,” Dhanji says.
Dhanji holds a diploma in financial management with a specialization in corporate finance and financial planning in addition to his CFP, as well as a bachelor’s degree in business administration. Both the diploma and the degree were conferred by the British Columbia Institute of Technology.
Dhanji, who loves giving back to his community, conducts free tax clinics for low-income families and seniors, educating them about their eligibility for specific deductions and credits. He also participates regularly in a program called Women and Money, which encourages women to play an active role in the financial decisions of their families – a role that, in his view, traditionally has been reserved for men.
“During these events, we talk not only about money,” Dhanji says, “but also about pressing issues related to money.”
Dhanji says he sometimes gets referrals from these events, but the purpose of these sessions is not to increase business. “I’m not a pushy salesperson,” he says.
Dhanji also participates in the local Junior Achievement program, teaching the Dollars and Sense course to primary-school students.
At an industry level, Dhanji is a media ambassador of the Financial Planning Standards Council. This role involves working with young people and speaking to students and the media. He has been interviewed on local radio stations and quoted in various print and online media, including the Province, Morningstar.ca, the National Post and the Globe and Mail, among many others.
Dhanji figures he still has a long way to go in building out his business. Ideally, he says, he would like to grow his team over the long term, then transfer the business to a successor.
“I believe in transferring knowledge to the next generation,” Dhanji says.
A strong believer in family life, Dhanji hopes that expanding his team will give him more time to spend with his family.
Dhanji, who is 40 years old, is married and has three young children: a son who is eight years old; and two daughters, ages four and two. Dhanji’s hobbies include cycling, soccer and golf, and his kids keep him busy when he’s not working. He spends increasing amounts of time taking his son to play hockey.