Charlie Spiring

Charlie Spiring says the key difference between his two-year-old brokerage, Winnipeg-based Wellington-Altus Private Wealth Inc., of which he is co-founder and chairman, and the previous firm he also helped found, Wellington West Holdings Inc., is the calibre of his new executive team. That bench strength allows Spiring to focus most of his energy on his goal of building another national, independent wealth-management firm from the ground up.

“Last time, I think, I was a one-man band for a long part of that ride,” says Spiring, age 61. “This time, I’ve said, ‘I don’t want to be an operational guy; I don’t want to dot the Is and cross the Ts.’ I’m chairman of the board, I’m an advisor and I’m a dreamer.”

Wellington-Altus’ top ranks include some of Spiring’s colleagues from his time at Wellington West, as well as at National Bank of Canada (which bought Wellington West in 2011 for $333 million) and other investment industry veterans Spiring has attracted to the new firm.

In 2017, Spiring and Todd Degelman, also a former executive at Wellington West, left National Bank Financial Inc. (NBF) to launch Wellington-Altus after acquiring Toronto-based Altus Securities Inc. Degelman, co-founder and vice chairman of Wellington-Altus, manages a book of business worth more than $1 billion in assets under administration (AUA) in partnership with Spiring. Shaun Hauser, also a Wellington-West and NBF alumnus, is another Wellington-Altus co-founder and is president of that firm.

Wellington-Altus has experienced significant growth already. When the firm launched in April 2017, it had $2.5 billion in AUA, 46 employees and five offices. As of January 2019, it had $5 billion in AUA, 162 employees, 14 offices and 41 investment advisors or advisory teams.

Spiring says he’s spending a good deal of his time travelling the country, helping his executive team recruit advisors who are thinking of making the jump to Wellington-Altus. The key to Spiring’s pitch is Wellington-Altus’s character as a firm run by advisors for advisors – an alternative to the bureaucratic culture at the bank-owned brokerages. The strategy seems to be working. About two-thirds of Wellington-Altus’s recruits have come from bank-owned firms, Spiring says.

“We’re open to having [advisors who are] characters,” Spiring says. “You can be a little bit of a rogue; you can poke needles in the eyes of management and we’ll encourage that, because it’ll make management better.”

Spiring says the firm is looking for established advisors with annual revenue of at least $750,000, with a “sweet spot” of $1 million- $2 million in production. However, the firm has brought younger advisors on board who are below that production minimum and placed them on established teams.

“We’re finding some of the hidden gems in the industry that are the future of the business,” Spiring says. “You don’t want all old guys like me.”

Wellington-Altus is a firm that avoids slotting its people into rigid roles and functions, Spiring says, and the intention is that the philosophy will continue.

However, Spiring adds, the firm is looking primarily for advisors whose businesses are oriented toward a fee-based model: “We will take [advisors] who are transaction-based, but we think they need to evolve their businesses, as I’ve had to do over the past few years.”

Spiring says advisors are frustrated with what they perceive to be the relentless reduction – “slicing and dicing,” Spiring calls it – of compensation grids at bank-owned brokerages: “Every year, they’re [cut] a little bit more.”

Instead, advisors are looking for simplicity and certainty regarding compensation, Spiring says: “At our shop, our grid is fixed. The only people who are going to change our grid are our advisors.”

Spiring also says that advisors at Wellington-Altus own their books: “If, for some reason, you hate us, we give you a free pass out. We say, ‘Give us our stock back and you’re allowed to go.’ We had that [policy at Wellington West], and no one ever [took advantage of] it. That freedom is a big thing for advisors.”

While Spiring positions his firm as an alternative to the big banks, he readily acknowledges that it works with banks in certain business areas. For example, Royal Bank of Canada provides private-banking services for Wellington-Altus.

However, the firm’s key bank partnership is with National Bank of Canada, where Spiring served as vice chairman on the executive committee of NBF from 2011 to 2016. Not only does National Bank provide Wellington-Altus with back-office capabilities through the National Bank Correspondent Network, but the bank and Wellington-Altus have an understanding to refer advisor candidates to each other.

“Quite often, we’ll run into advisors who just aren’t really our type of people, so we refer them to National Bank,” Spiring says. “And [the bank] will run into people who are just anti-bank and want to be independent, and [the bank] will help us get to the table.”

Spiring agrees that trying to build an independent firm at a time when competitive pressures, including the rising cost of compliance, are forcing small and mid-sized firms to sell out to bigger players is a challenge: “There’s no question that this is the hardest time to do it.”

He doesn’t foresee much change in that trend, with further consolidation likely to continue in the industry. “The trend will continue: small firms [will] disappear,” Spiring says.

However, Spiring believes that because of the dominance of the banks, there are more dissatisfied advisors in the country than ever before. By remaining agile and leveraging lessons learned through the first go-around with Wellington West, Spiring sees a path to success.

While his focus is on the banks, Spiring also is recruiting from other independents, although many of these advisors are more “curious” than ready to make a move, he says.

And despite recent rockiness in the markets, with client angst to match, most advisors seem to be maintaining a steady course. Spiring says volatility does not seem to be affecting advisors’ decisions about whether to switch firms, which sometimes can be a sign of advisor discontent. “I worried that [volatility] would slow up some things, but it is in the nature of this business.”

However, Spiring does believe that some advisors, if they’ve experienced a drop in the asset value of their books of business, may choose to wait until markets recover before making a move.

Spiring also wants to inspire the next generation of advisors and entrepreneurs, challenging them to topple him from the “mountaintop”: “When I meet these recruits, the first thing I do is encourage them to try to beat me. I’m crazy enough to have done this twice now. Which is a beautiful dream for a knucklehead from Winnipeg.”