GAIA Canadian study tour

The McClelland Financial Group office

One of the central tenants of GAIA is to learn from each other but also to embrace opportunities to discover best practice outside the GAIA community.

In September 2022, nine GAIA firms had the rare opportunity to visit two non-GAIA firms and one GAIA firm.

We gathered in Toronto, having travelled from as far afield as the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand to begin our study tour with The McClelland Financial Group.

Day one started with hotel check ins, a sublime diner looking over Toronto’s commercial district with Lake Ontario in the distance. There was no need to unpack more than one shirt plus smalls as literally it was a place to rest our heads before we headed for Rob McClelland’s office in the quant suburban Thornhill the following morning.

No sooner had we arrived that the learnings began: stepping from the coach we saw that Rob’s “Diamond” clients have specific, reserved parking spaces, clearly signposted. This level of service continued in every experience served up by Rob’s team to their clients. Photos were taken and we then entered the beautify manicured office, which is more akin to a home than office and was used as a funeral parlour back in the day.

We were warmly greeted by Rob’s team and once suitably charged with tea and coffee Rob and his team gave an immersive deep dive into the running’s of their business. It began with an overview from Rob and then each department head shared their role, how they contributed to the success and future success of the business.

What became clear from the moment we entered their building was, it was a home – they are a tight knit team, and their clients are part of the McClelland family. They had also successfully embedded themselves into the local community and were even the focal point for the occasional client visit for a casual cup of coffee.

Key learnings

  1. The adoption of Strategic Coach and the plan for “10x” of turnover and profit
  2. High use of technology facilitating efficient use of time and maximising time with clients. Some advisers managed between 15-18 client meetings per week
  3. The empowerment of the whole to team to embrace growth and innovation
  4. High client engagement with a very proactive events calendar, which is supported by a high proportion of clients: this was a big driver for new referrals being made to the firm each year
  5. Every person in the firm had a ‘Kolbe profile’ – which is an important determining factor in their work, how others collaborate and which team they sat in
  6. Marketing is a multifaceted function, ranging from the use of social media and SEO, down to the finest of details, like what to put into Christmas gift boxes for clients
Rob McClelland, some of his team and the GAIA study tour

Our visit finished with a joint lunch that allowed the conversations to continue between GAIA and the McClelland folk. We then headed to the airport for a quick 55 minute hop across to Ottawa.

There is a big contrast between downtown Toronto and Ottawa; the skyscrapers are replaced by grand European influenced architecture and wide-open spaces.

In true GAIA fashion, the evening meal held at Beckta, was an event with wonderful food and wine. The group were really beginning to gel and stories and jokes were abound.

The Ottawa firm we visited was PWL Capital (a GAIA member since 2013). There was a different feel to The McClelland Financial Group being located at the top of an eight-storey building but the welcome was the same: warm, friendly, and energetic. Coffee and breakfast were served, and we quickly got down to business. We were now getting into our stride; iPads and notes books out and we were all set to learning mode.

PWL is known within the GAIA community for its marketing prowess especially in creating podcasts and videos. We were in for a treat as we found out about their marketing plans and activity but were served up so much more by Cameron Passmore’s young ambitious team.

The agenda covered topics such as: people and culture, the use of technology to improve data management, digital marketing, the ‘Rational Reminder’ podcast, the subject of firm ownership and building a long-lasting enterprise. that extends beyond the founders.

One of the most striking things was the freedom afforded to the next generation of team members (Advisers, HR, tech, and marketing). Cameron has an incredibly empowering way about him and engenders faith in his hires with the response to any question, “I don’t know, what do you think?”

Like many GAIA firms PWL has adopted the Entrepreneur Operating System (EOS) laid out in Traction written by Gino Wickman.

The process of interviewing and then embedding of new members of the team was core to the continued success of PWL, so much so that it had almost become a science; drawing on books such as “Who” by Geoff Smart and Randy Street and “Reality Based Leadership” by Cy Wakeman. Nothing was left to chance: each new hire has a clearly defined first twelve-month pathway, supported by an engagement program covering personal growth, right the way through to wellness and happiness.

The hiring is just the start of the employees’ journey at PWL, as they also focus on retention. Why go to all that effort to hire great people if you do not invest in them? There were some standout mantras: “clarity, not control” – a team member knows clearly what is expected of them and they are given the freedom to succeed. Another was “help to excel.”

Drawing from many sources to build a culture of motivation including: “Drive” by Daniel Pink, The Fearless Organisation by Amy Edmondson, and the Project Aristotle conducted within Google – succinctly captured in five words:

  • Autonomy
  • Purpose
  • Psychological safety

We were all so engrossed with the content of the presentations that we elected to have a working lunch to maximise our time with the PWL team.

Other key learnings included:

  • The use of ‘Diamond Teams’ to maximise efficiency and allow a clear path of progression
  • The use of proprietary programming that enabled the PWL team to access the complexity of each client and, determine the work required to deliver the best service and by which team
  • Fully embracing the Microsoft suite of products, allowing them to leverage technology, to improve efficiency and deliver more to their clients
  • Engagement and feedback from clients are essential to improve services and receive referrals
Team PWL and the GAIA study tour

Sadly, all good things must come to an end, and we said our farewells carrying away “swag bags” full of Rational Reminder merch and we hopped onto the bus for the final leg of our tour and headed to Montreal. Finally, we could unpack for five whole nights!

Our last visit on the GAIA study tour was to meet Keith Matthews and his team at Tullet, Matthews and Associates, based in Kirkland, Quebec. The expression last but by no means, least really comes to mind here. Keith and his team welcomed us with open arms and being a rugby coach and fan of the sport for many years, he was particularly excited to have so many kindred spirits from the global rugby community visiting his offices.

The agenda covered many topics, with many in common with PWL and the McClelland Group. Keith is such an incredible and passionate communicator and he and members of his team presented with minimal slides, but every slide was succinct and poignant to the discussion.

The two stand out topics were Keith’s deliberate drive to corporatize his business and, incorporating long term succession of the business, ensuring longevity for clients and the team alike.

The second was the way he viewed their clients: He referred to them as “our Tribe”. There was deep sense that these people, who happen to be clients, were incredibly important to Keith, and this featured as the central driver to how clients were served from an advice point of view and the methods the practice used to get their message across to “the Tribe”.

Keith clearly demonstrated the power of the written word having written ‘The Empowered Investor’ fifteen years ago. This book, now on its 4th edition, sits central to marketing activity and new client experience. Over 23% of all new clients have been attributed to this book. Something for all of us “wanna be” authors to ponder upon!

As a summary of the study tour, not an easy feat to pull off as there was so much rich data to absorb, but there were five standout features worthy of note:

  • The spirit of generosity to openly share what would usually be classed as corporate secrets with other GAIA firms
  • For all business owners the topic of succession is at the forefront and how best to structure it in a way where the founders, the employees and ultimately the clients, all get a wonderful experience from advice, career progression and purpose
  • Podcasts are an essential tool within the mix
  • Mastering technology is key in improving productivity and allowing Advisers to serve the client better
  • And finally, the realisation, that irrespective of where a financial advisory practice is in the world, the challenges are remarkably similar, the career/business journeys we all take are practically the same and above all, our clients are front and centre to everything we do and as such continue to drive us ever forward


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