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Advisor helps the client scale the retirement mountain one step at a time

By Susan Yellin | May 14 2013 04:12PM

It’s a question financial advisor Ian Burns is fond of asking: What is the goal of a mountain climber? If you answer “to get to the top,” he will say that you’re only half right – because getting down safely is just as important.
So, says Mr. Burns, is the goal of his firm, The Pension Specialists: to help clients gather assets and attain income protection on the way up the mountain of retirement, and to safely spend their income and maintain asset protection while in retirement.

“People do a lot of the wrong things for the right reasons,” says Mr. Burns in his thick Scottish brogue. “Our job is to try to help them not do the wrong things.”’

Mr. Burns himself has come a long way up a mountain. A bookbinder apprentice in his homeland of Scotland, he moved to Canada in 1972 with his wife, Mae, and $120 in his pocket. He stayed with family and began working for Holland Life Insurance selling life insurance door-to-door. When he earned his life licence in 1974 and received his CLU, he moved to Sun Life Alliance as a wholesaler. Mr. Burns was there for 13 years when he was unceremoniously let go. He sat down with a previous boss and determined what he had done right and what he had done wrong. And he learned – about himself and where he wanted to go.

He began working for a couple of brokerage companies and then for Investment Planning Counsel (IPC). Still with IPC, he created his own business, The Pension Specialists with business partner Shelley Johnston, and set up shop with five employees in a beautifully renovated heritage home on the main street of Whitby, Ontario, less than an hour’s drive east of Toronto. Altogether, they have built a firm that manages about $100 million in assets and is thriving in the annuity, life insurance and tax and estate planning business.

The primary goal of The Pension Specialists is to put the client first. In fact, as soon as newcomers walk in the door they are met with a blackboard welcome sign with the newcomers’ names handwritten in chalk. A few steps later, they are greeted in the foyer with large letters inviting them to Live Your Dream.

Mr. Burns sees his business as constantly changing, which suits the two partners well.

“My biggest strength is vision,” says Mr. Burns. “My business partner, Shelley, her biggest strength is taking this vision and making things happen.”

Mr. Burns, an avid fan of process-driven Strategic Coach Dan Sullivan, says the firm prides itself on going the extra mile for clients. For example, a few years ago, when General Motors was in financial trouble, Mr. Burns pored over Ontario’s Pension Benefits Act and the company’s pension plan documents and found a little-known clause that allowed people to take their pension without paying tax by putting all the money into an annuity. It took a few trips to the Ontario government to get them to agree, but in the end, it all worked out to the pensioners’ favour.

“We ended up moving quite a bit of money out of General Motors and giving our clients a pension plan with monthly payments through the annuity,” says Mr. Burns. “When people come to our office we research things and look for out-of-the-box solutions. The biggest problem we would see is that somebody gets a statement about their pension from their company and say, ‘that’s fine.’ But there are so many things that we see – improper years of service, improper dates of birth. When someone gets a severance or is taking a pension, it’s based on that information and pumped in the computer. If the information is wrong, then the pension is wrong.”

Mr. Burns and Ms. Johnston have co-authored Pay Attention to your Pension, which is not only the title of a consumer book on pension investments, but also the trademarked motto of their firm, highlighted in their radio ads.

“When we started using this, no one was paying attention to anything. But now, look at the pension world.”

Future prospects, which Mr. Burns prefers to call future clients, usually meet with him three or four times before they’re taken on as clients to see if they are a good fit with the four steps the firm takes: educate (through seminars or one-on-one meetings); explore (a client’s situation and what they want and need); engineer (the solution) and evaluate (what’s been done).

Once a client signs up, they have access to a personal website, seminars and client appreciation events. Depending on their needs, they are seen every six months or a year.

Some of his clients have recently been let go from their positions and need to be told the positive outcomes that can come from this. “Most people coming into the office here with a severance package aren’t doing the happy dance. Our job – the financial side – is to make them more confident. When they’re confident, they make decisions. Our job is to provide clarity and confidence and then we move them forward all the way through.”

While you might think that Burns, who has been married for 41 years, has two children and five grandchildren, has plans for his own for retirement, you would be mistaken.

“I don’t have any plans for retirement. We make good money. We have the best clients in the world. We only deal with who we want to deal with. So why would you want to retire?”

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