Michael Stanley is proclaiming his independence. After spending most of his career at a major insurance company, he has taken a leading position with Windsor, Ont.-based Sterling Mutuals Inc.
This past summer, Stanley, who turns 48 this month, took on the role of president at Sterling, an independent mutual fund dealer. The move follows 25 years with London, Ont.-based London Life Insurance Co. and Winnipeg-based sister firm Great-West Life Assurance Co. (GWL). Most recently, Stanley served as CEO of London, Ont.-based Quadrus Investment Services Ltd., GWL’s mutual fund dealer.
“I learned the business through the Quadrus team, [and] some of my closest friends are still over there,” says Stanley. “The independent side just seemed like a better feel for me.”
In his new role, Stanley will oversee the day-to-day running of Sterling and the implementation of several changes coming down the pipeline, including new technology capabilities. Nelson Cheng, formerly Sterling’s president but who remains CEO, intends to focus on the dealer’s strategy and technology development; it was he who set these changes in motion before Stanley joined the firm.
As of Sept. 30, Sterling had approximately $3.5 billion in assets under management (AUM) and 250 financial advisors in offices spanning the country. Although acquisitions are not out of the question, Stanley hopes to grow these numbers organically.
One reason Stanley foresees more advisors choosing a shop such as Sterling is because of the changing regulatory landscape, such as the potential introduction of a “best interest” standard.
“There’s a lot of change coming,” Stanley says. “I think there will be this bifurcation, [which will force advisors] to choose whether they’re going to be a proprietary salesperson or more of an independent advisor.”
Besides a changing regulatory environment, Stanley foresees advisors taking a close look at Sterling because of its focus on technology. For example, the firm has made electronic statements available to clients for many years and even sends out its Fund Facts documents via email.
“Technology has always been a strength of Sterling’s,” Stanley says.
Sterling’s management team has several plans that will affect client accounts. The firm is in the process of integrating the back end of robo-advice technology, which will automatically rebalance nominees’ accounts. Other technological advancements include digital “onboarding” capability and the use of electronic signatures. (See story on page 6.)
“There are advisors and clients out there who prefer to do things electronically,” says Stanley. “It doesn’t short-circuit the face-to-face advice that Canadians will receive; it just short-circuits the pain of all the paper.”
Although Stanley may now be firmly entrenched in the business with these new responsibilities at Sterling and his experience at GWL and Quadrus, finding his calling within the investment industry took some time. Stanley grew up in London and graduated from the University of Western Ontario in 1992 with a bachelor of science degree. Upon graduation, applying for a job at London Life “seemed natural, being a London guy,” he says.
At first, Stanley held jobs in various departments at London Life, from individual insurance to human resources to group pensions. He moved to London, U.K., with his wife, where he earned a master’s of finance degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science. By the time Stanley returned to Canada, he was a father – his son, Andrew, the first of five children, was born while the family was overseas. Stanley then joined GWL, which had purchased London Life, in 1997.
Stanley took the lead of Quadrus in 2009 as president and chief operations officer, then became president and CEO in 2012.
“I really enjoy the mutual fund arena,” Stanley says. “It’s a great business because, probably more than any other industry, it impacts such a broad cross-section of Canadians directly.”
During Stanley’s tenure at Quadrus, he oversaw the firm’s mutual fund AUM growth to $13 billion in 2017 from $5 billion in 2009.
Also while running Quadrus, Stanley discovered another part of the business he enjoys: meeting with advisors. In fact, one of Stanley’s favourite memories of his time at GWL is hitting the road with a regional director to meet advisors in GWL’s Gold Key distribution channel.
(The Gold Key channel is a “personal producing general agency” – meaning the agents are independent, but have a direct relationship with GWL.)
“I really enjoyed getting out of head office – something we don’t often get the opportunity to do,” he says. “And I’m going to get more of that opportunity at Sterling.”
In May, GWL announced plans to merge its Gold Key channel and certain advisors at Freedom 55 Financial, the wealth and estate planning group in London Life’s dedicated sales agency, into a new network called the wealth and insurance solutions enterprise division.
Stanley’s experience with GWL’s Gold Key network informs the way he plans to run Sterling’s daily operations in many ways. For example, Stanley will leave his office now and then to talk with people – advisors, fund company representatives and regulators.
This evidence-gathering style suits Stanley, given his science background, as he believes such a management approach will help him to make decisions and facilitate change at the firm.
“My personal style is to take a facts-based approach to everything, and I find it’s calming when you do that,” Stanley says. “It takes some of the emotion out of the situation.”
To that end, Stanley often is on the road, travelling from his base in London to Sterling’s head office in Windsor, or taking the train into Toronto once a week. Stanley also plans to make use of technology such as video conferencing to stay in contact with Sterling’s advisor force.
Outside the office, Stanley and his wife have plenty on the go, raising five children who are under the age of 20. Over the years, one of Stanley’s favourite family activities has been coaching each of his children in soccer, in an indoor league through to a regional division.
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