In the sea of financial information, investment products and services now available, Stewart & Kett Financial Advisors Inc. has positioned itself as a “financial lighthouse” for clients looking for unbiased advice.

Established in 1996 by principals David Stewart and Cynthia Kett, the Toronto-based, advice-only firm provides customized financial plans for clients who don’t have the time, interest or confidence to sort out their complex financial situations. The pair offers complete financial planning services — including tax, investment, estate and retirement planning, as well as cash and risk management — on a fee-for-service basis.

Stewart and Kett consider a person’s or a family’s complete financial picture, and then work with the client to develop a customized financial plan. The client then implements the plan with his or her own banker, accountant, investment advisor, insurance broker and/or estate lawyer.

“You need someone in there to set the agenda, set the pulse, set the planning, then let it get solved,” says Stewart, a financial planner who previously worked at a trust company and started his own firm in 1986 before teaming up with Kett. “Our role can be that of a general manager for the client. We give ideas, we make decisions together, then they get them implemented.”

The Financial Planning Standards Council recently classified only 8% of certified financial planners as fee-only planners, meaning there are limited options for clients looking for advice-only services.

“There are people who are looking for advice from professionals who aren’t tied to products of any sort,” Stewart says. “They are worried about biases that may arise.”

Stewart & Kett serves almost 250 clients, and the firm does not place a priority on growing that number. The small client base allows the firm’s advisors to do more for each client with their customized services, developing relationships and maintaining finances year after year. These relationships often expand to the older and younger generations of a client’s family, and to other financial concerns.

Although the majority of Stewart & Kett’s clients live in the Toronto area, the firm has clients throughout Ontario and in Western Canada. It also has affiliated businesses in Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver.

Some of these clients have sought out Stewart & Kett’s services on their own, but many have come to the firm through referrals from current clients or people working in the financial services industry.

Kett, a certified general accountant, describes the firm’s clients as “people who are accustomed to paying fees for professional services” — high net-worth and high-income individuals and families with financial situations that are above average in complexity.

And with fees for professional planning ranging from $750 to $5,000, depending on the services provided, Kett says, there is a certain set of criteria clients must meet to make the service worthwhile.

“We feel we can best add value for clients who have a more complicated situation that would be difficult for them to sort out themselves,” she says. “We can come in and do it for them.”

Adds Stewart: “We want our fees to pay for themselves in the benefits our advice brings to the client. So, the more assets the client has, the more we can do to make things work better.”

Although Stewart and Kett were both established in their own businesses (Kett started an accounting firm in 1992), their common philosophy on personal finance and shared emphasis on advice-giving has helped their individual skills dovetail nicely.

The pair joined forces after Stewart, searching for an accountant one day, found Kett in the Yellow Pages; she then agreed to help him with certain projects. The partnership worked out so well that, 11 years ago, the pair merged their businesses into Stewart & Kett.

Today, the firm has two additional planners: Wendy Chang, a CGA and CFP who works closely with Kett as an associate advisor; and Andrew Rice, a CFP who works with Stewart as an advisor.

Apart from considering another person at the partnership level, Stewart and Kett are not looking to expand their staff. They don’t want more than six people at the firm.

They also see their business as complementary to other financial services. For instance, they can help an investment advisor set up an investment portfolio or fill information gaps another advisor may not be equipped to fill.

@page_break@“We don’t sell financial products, so we don’t compete with a lot of advisors,” Kett says. “We see large referrals from banks, investment advisors, portfolio managers, insurance broker and estate lawyers. They often have a client base that is similar to ours. They’re able to provide a service in a particular area, but not in all the areas we do. So, they refer clients to us so the clients can get the help they need.”

The increasing sophistication of clients also provides a venue for advice-only services. Clients have become more demanding, often requiring financial planning advice in areas in which some advisors have no expertise. Kett says these people look to such firms as hers for specialized help.

Stewart & Kett often provides one-time advice to clients who want help in certain circumstances, such as retirement, job loss or loss of a family member. However, staff forge a relationship with each client they work with. And because discussing finances is quite personal, it’s necessary for clients to have a “good fit” with the firm, Stewart says.

In the initial consultation, which is free, Stewart and Kett first try to learn whether a prospective client has a financial situation with which they can help.

Second, they try to learn whether the prospective client is prepared to be transparent about his or her finances. If the partners don’t see a good fit in a potential client, they let that person know.

“If we don’t believe we can provide anything unique that would be helpful for them, we’ll let them know that,” Kett says. “We want our clients to feel they’ve received advice that outweighs the fees they will be paying us. The benefits may include peace of mind, savings in taxes or fees in other areas, or resolving differences within the family. They have to see some value in that. And that means we’re not suitable for everybody.”

When there’s a good fit and a willingness to develop a relationship with a financial planner, a client will see benefits. Stewart says there are occasions when certain choices for a client family’s finances make the most sense technically, but aren’t suitable personality-wise. Knowing those personal preferences helps Stewart and Kett create a unique financial guide for each client.

“There’s a magic to the process,” Stewart says: “Having a good relationship between client and planner, and having someone understand the situation who has the expertise to make it happen.” IE