Oricia Smith
Paul Lawrence

This article appears in the May 2021 issue of Investment ExecutiveSubscribe to the print edition, read the digital edition or read the articles online.

Oricia Smith, president of SLGI Asset Management Inc. and senior vice-president of investment solutions with Sun Life Canada, says sustainability is embedded in SLGI’s decision-making process.

“We believe that issues surrounding governance, the environment and society can directly impact an investment’s performance,” Smith said.

According to Sun Life’s latest sustainability report, the firm’s asset-management businesses had more than $60 billion in sustainable assets under management at the end of last year.

SLGI uses only third-party subadvisors that consider environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors in their investment decisions. But for Smith, investing responsibly on behalf of clients isn’t enough — SLGI needs to be the change it wants to see. When she was appointed president of SLGI in April, one of her first initiatives was establishing a corporate sustainability committee.

“If you’re going to hold others accountable to certain standards, you need to walk the walk,” Smith said.

The sustainability committee met in May to set goals for the firm’s diversity initiatives, employee mental health and wellness, giving back to the community and reducing SLGI’s carbon footprint, among other initiatives.

Smith first joined Sun Life in 2016 as vice-president of the firm’s International Investment Centre (IIC), a research team that evaluates asset managers for SLGI. She was promoted to senior managing director and head of the IIC in 2017 before being named interim president of SLGI in October of last year following the departure of Jordy Chilcott.

Smith is the first woman to be president of SLGI, an achievement she’s proud of — and one that comes with lofty goals.

“My goal is to empower, educate and inspire females in the industry,” Smith said, noting that there are still “too few” women working as portfolio managers and financial advisors across the country. “Having female advi­sors and female asset managers to understand the needs of female investors is now essential,” she said, particularly with women set to control a greater share of wealth in the years ahead.

SLGI is a “strong supporter” of female advisors, Smith said. The firm is hosting its sixth annual Women’s Investment Symposium this November. Empowering women in the investment industry also is a goal of the IIC, which asks asset managers to provide data on the diversity of their workforces. Smith said the IIC was among the first investment researchers to do so: “We were early in challenging the status quo because it was the right thing to do for our clients.”

As the new head of SLGI, Smith plans to play to the company’s strengths. SLGI is owned by an insurer and offers both mutual funds — including target-date and target-risk funds, as well as model portfolios — and wealth-oriented insurance products such as annuities and seg funds.

Smith said SLGI aims to support investors in their retirement planning: “That’s where we’re focusing a lot of our energies: How do we make sure that it’s easy for people to build portfolios and understand how they can get income and what matters to them in retirement?”

A growing number of young investors are now considering those very questions. According to a January poll commissioned by Sun Life, the pandemic has resulted in more young people thinking about their financial future. The poll found that 80% of millennials and 89% of gen Z survey participants were more interested in protecting their financial future as a direct result of the pandemic.

Those findings may not be surprising, given the toll the pandemic has taken on young workers: Sun Life found that 60% of millennials and 74% of gen Z survey participants had lost income or employment due to Covid-19. While unemployed young people may not have any assets to invest, the fact that they are thinking about their finances is a silver lining, Smith said.

“It’s encouraging to see younger generations take an interest in planning for the future,” Smith said. “We are big believers that if you plan better, you can live better.”

Catering to younger investors requires a different approach from advisors, Smith noted. She said Sun Life adopted a “digital-first mindset” to help advisors move away from serving clients in a traditional office setting. In January, for example, the firm launched an application that allows advisors to enrol clients in seg funds digitally.

“We continue to do a lot to transform our business to support the digital environment and advisors who are operating in that environment,” Smith said. “What we want to do is enable advisors to engage in building deep and lifelong relationships with clients, and that includes the next generation.”

Smith didn’t dream of a career in asset management when she was a kid — few kids do — but her interest in the space was piqued when she was in university and her older brother completed the Canadian Securities Course: “I thought, ‘If he can do it, so can I.’”

And that she did. Smith, a Toronto-area native, completed the Canadian Securities Course in 1992 and then moved west for a summer job at the Calgary Stock Exchange. (Back then, Calgary’s stock market was shifting to a digital platform and “they needed somebody who could use a computer,” she said.)

When Smith’s summer in Calgary was over, she moved back to Toronto and landed a job in Toronto-Dominion Bank’s investment-banking division. She followed that with a stint at the Government of Ontario’s Privatization Secretariat (Smith was part of the team that worked on the privatization of Highway 407, north of Toronto), before joining Invesco Canada Ltd., a firm she remained with for 17 years before joining Sun Life in 2016.

Smith is married with three teenage kids — two girls and a boy — and two dogs (both poodle mixes; a Berne-doodle — half Bernese mountain dog — and a golden-doodle). Her family loves the outdoors, and skiing in particular — although they were mostly limited to cross-country skiing this past winter as ski hills in Ontario were closed for much of the season.

Smith said she’d love the investment industry to be a place where her daughters would want to work someday — particularly because of the industry’s power to change society for the better through ESG investment mandates.

“I’m very passionate about the industry because as owners of capital, we can effect a lot of change,” Smith said. “We have the responsibility to invest our capital in a good way.”