Tradition would have it that all GAIA firms meet annually, but Covid put paid to this for 2020 and 2021. This pause on “business as usual” made the GAIA Montreal Conference 2022 that much more special. There was a palpable sense of anticipation for what was about to unfold over the three days.
The conference was launched on Sunday evening, 18th September, with cocktails at the fabulous Restaurant Jerome Ferrer-Europea, with a welcome speech by the current GAIA Chair, Simon Brown. In total 26 GAIA firm leaders, representing 18 firms were present having flown in from New Zealand, Australia, Chile, Canada, USA, UK, Sweden, Switzerland, and Dubai.
The following morning was not a normal Monday, as this was Queen Elizabeth’s funeral in England and with several commonwealth countries being represented Simon Brown began the conference with a minute silence to mark such a momentous occasion.
Proceedings got underway with our opening speaker, Moira Somers, (Ph.D., C. Psych. Author of Advice that Sticks) where she addressed the topic of money, mental illness, and well-being.
Moira highlighted that clients with mental illness are often a source of significant concern for advisors. Her presentation looked at the links between money and well-being, as well as what happens under conditions of financial scarcity and mental illness. She discussed how advisors can be of service without straying into psychotherapy territory or crossing professional boundaries.
We were introduced to the most common mood disorders and mental health problems that are likely to surface in their work with clients, with a special focus on anxiety (the incidence of which has been skyrocketing since 2020). As our clients are front and centre to everything we do, it was incredibly useful that Moira provided us with practical strategies for dealing with clients in distress and for those showing signs of impaired judgement and reduced capacity. And considering the fact, we are financial advisers and not psychology professionals, she ended her talk on how to refer, report, and collaborate with the most appropriate professional for the client who may be affected by mental illness.
The second presenter, Ishita Shah of Catalytic Capital gave a brief overview of how to measure the social impact of investing. Her talk began from the lens of investments in private markets, and then moved onto the full range of impact possibilities and the standard way to measure that impact. She looked at how public markets can be tapped for social impact and explored some of the limitations inherent to measuring the impact of a diversified public portfolio. Finally, we explored how to determine if an investment fund or company is “greenwashing” and how to avoid it.
At lunch there was an open table discussion about employee international secondments. This would involve us sending our employees to work at another GAIA member’s firm for a month or more. The conversation covered the “Why” we would do it, the benefits to the employees and the firms and the plethora of complexities that go with such an ambitious project. Putting the practical obstacles to one side, the mood was enthusiastic to the possibilities such a scheme would engender. This project would deepen the GAIA mantra of sharing and learning and push it further than the firm leaders and start to address the thorny issue of firm succession; a topic covered in depth over the coming days.
On both the Monday and Tuesday each member firm gave a firm update on the previous year, sharing their successes and struggles. This gave everyone the opportunity to request help with one main challenge they were facing. GAIA operates on ‘Chatham House Rules’ and as such many inner most secrets were shared and there were many offers for help as each firm took their turn.
There were some definite common themes that emerged from these discussions: succession, engaging with the next generation of advisers, ensuring fair value was made available to firm founders, grappling with the ever-present tech stack and a new term “data lakes”!
As we are a global organisation with such high standards you can imagine we are regularly asked how other firms can join. As a group we are currently not on a mission for global domination but, occasionally we are connected to firms that just seem the right fit for GAIA and vice versa. They can bring something different to the group and can help other firms look at the world in a different way. One such firm is Tarbox Family Office founded by Laura Tarbox, which began had its path to what we see today in 1980.
For any new prospective GAIA members to be considered they must give a “deep dive” firm presentation to the rest of GAIA. This was Laura’s opportunity to show us under the bonnet of Tarbox’s client profile, service offering and history. She clearly demonstrated her uniqueness to the group and offered us many things to consider.
Laura was then followed by Chris Kerckhoff who gave a firm update on all that has been going on at Plancorp; which was a lot!
As previously mentioned, succession is a hot topic amongst GAIA firms as they look to the next half century. We are all mindful of the old guard getting older and the need for our great firms to be in existence long after the founders have retired from the industry. The first session on the second day was a made up of three succession tales about:
- successful M&As (Mergers & Acquisitions): Abacus (USA) and Paradigm Norton (UK) shared their experiences of how to ensure mergers can be a success story with 20 mergers under their belts.
- unwinding unsuccessful M&As: sometimes things do not go according to plan, and we learned where the mistakes were made and how we can relate these experiences to our own business in the future. A valuable lesson indeed.
- looking at the success story of internal succession with Cameron Passmore of PWL Capital (Canada) who shared their 100-year vision for multi-generational succession.
In the first afternoon session we were enthralled again by Laura Tarbox sharing her views on the pros and cons of working with the mega-rich. Some might say a nice problem to have but as with all things, you must be careful what you wish for. This was a fascinating topic that resonated with all GAIA members as Laura shared her insights gained from her experience working with some of America’s wealthiest families. She elaborated on how you source them, win their trust, and provide what they need. We learned the importance of building the right team, setting boundaries and proper pricing.
Following Laura’s illuminating talk, we glided nicely into a “fireside” chat between Sam Instone and Brian Portnoy, author of The Geometry of Money. The topic was loosely built around exploring the human experience of money, and how we, as advisers, can chart a new path for our clients away from the financial services industry obsession with “biases and heuristics.” Their discussion anchored on seven distinct departure points from the older thinking towards new ways to deepen client engagement and build better advice businesses. What was laid out clearly before us was the advent of true “human-centric” planning requires a clear-eyed vision on not only opportunities, but challenges.
I am sure Brian and Sam could have talked for much longer and we would have an extended session. However, the agenda was there for good reason and following afternoon tea Sarah Genequand Miche of Lyra (Switzerland) gave a brilliant session entitled, “How Gender Behavioural Differences Affect Investment Management and Personal Finance”. Of the many observations made by the members, the one that was striking were the number of women attending the conference and being in positions of significance within our firms. I only raise this as the financial services industry does have a slightly tarnished reputation for being dominated by middle aged men. This is not the case in GAIA; women were in abundance in senior positions and amongst the up-and-coming next generation of advisers and management.
Sarah gave an intriguing and interactive talk, looking at how men and women behave differently in their everyday life. She provided professionally researched data on how this behaviour is linked to their attitudes, concerns, relationship to money or financial realities. And the simple truth is, it does impact the way they invest and we as advisers need to be mindful of this. Sarah neatly pointed out to us: women are not a niche; they make better investors and are ideal to be GAIA clients.
This was the closing morning of the conference before heading back to our respective countries. Proceedings may have been drawing to a close, but the conference and attendees still had hunger to hear more and absorb yet more key learnings.
The session began with “The War for Talent – how to win in the battle with zero casualties”. The discussion was hosted by J.D. Bruce (USA) with three sages in this field: Tessa McGirr (Lead, People & Culture, PWL Capital), Amy Jones (Chief Talent Officer, Plancorp), and Suzanne Lawrence (CEO, Advisor Business Solution). The panel talked about how recruiting and people management drives the growth of a professional services firm. The longevity of the global financial advice business is in doubt if those currently at the helm view the world in a unique way. The background is stark with more Certified Financial Planners over 70 than under 30 in the US. And even more troubling, over 75% of them are white men.
The panellists and J.D. shared their perspective on how we, as financial advisory firms, should recruit from outside our industry and outside of the traditional demographics to create a thriving company with people from different backgrounds and perspectives. Who would have thought teachers and ex-military would make ideal advisers? They also drove home the need for us to keep the next generation engaged in their career path and, with us for the long term.
Our closing session, before heading to discuss GAIA internal matters, was presented by the highly entertaining Professor Karl Moore. Karl provided us with a fascinating view on the development of culture in a post Covid world with the focus on how to engage with Gen Z. There is a definite theme running through the conference: succession, succession, and succession.
The conference ended with a positive vote from all members to admit Tarbox Family Office as a prospective GAIA member. We debated and made the decision to hold the 2023 GAIA conference in Europe (Sweden and Switzerland) and finally with closing remarks from GAIA Chair, Simon Brown with special thanks given to Vicki Wiadrowski and Brenda Bartlett and the PWL Capital team for their challenging work in pulling the conference and study tour together to make it both resounding successes.