To James Kraft, vice president, BMO Life Assurance in Toronto, volunteering is not simply giving his time once a month or helping out on the rare occasion.In fact, Mr. Kraft estimates he puts in about six to eight hours a week as volunteer chair of the Financial Planning Standards Council (FPSC), averaging out the all-day meetings, preparation and follow-up.
But that’s just part of his volunteer life. Armed with a slew of accounting and financial planning designations and degrees, Mr. Kraft co-authors a bi-monthly newsletter published by Advocis, is the past chair of the Toronto chapter of the Society of Trusts and Estates Practitioners (STEP), was a technical contributor for CCH Canada’s CFP Education Program and writes and co-authors a number of professional papers and articles. He and his wife, Deborah, the Director of the Master of Taxation (MTax) program at the University of Waterloo, just finished a 10,000-word essay on one section of the Income Tax Act. And oh yes, he’s also a frequent speaker at professional and educational seminars.
“Without volunteer help our profession wouldn’t be able to survive,” says Mr. Kraft.
At the crux of his in-depth commitment to volunteering is his client-focused desire to better the financial planning profession – one of the reasons he was honoured with FPSC’s distinguished Fellow distinction award this year.
Born in Kitchener – Waterloo in southwestern Ontario, Mr. Kraft received his BBA at Sir Wilfred Laurier and earned his Chartered Accountant designation and MTax at the University of Waterloo – one of the first to go through the course on a part-time basis. He has also completed the CICA’s In-Depth Tax course and Wealth Preservation program and is a CFP.
“FPSC has been a big focus of my volunteerism. I think it’s an industry that is hugely important to Canadians today. I’m excited to be chair and excited to be granted my Fellow.”
His original aptitude for numbers grew from dealing with hard facts and figures on a financial statement to a more interactive and interpretive role when he began dealing directly with clients. “We called it estate planning back then but I think it was always financial planning – sitting down with people and helping them articulate their goals and objectives and then analysing what needs to be adjusted to achieve those goals. With my accounting and tax background, I dealt with a lot of owner-managers in businesses. I guess everything evolved from that. I thoroughly enjoy working with business owners, executives and wealthy families to leverage their financial affairs and achieve their unique objectives.”
Mr. Kraft, who has held positions with some major industry players, including Manulife Financial
and PPI Financial, joined BMO Financial Group a couple of years ago. There he works on its wealth-service teams to integrate financial planning into the unique situations of clients.
While most of the clients are high net worth, Mr. Kraft says his key role is to help clients understand and meet their goals. “When I look at a client’s estate plan I’m not looking at their net worth – I’m looking at whether there is an issue that is stopping the client from accomplishing his objectives and how we can fix it as efficiently as possible,” says Mr. Kraft. “I usually find that if you focus on just doing good work, you will be rewarded in the long run. So I never look at the value of the client before I get involved in an engagement.”
He gives the example of a wealthy busy client who needed a complete reorganization of his business affairs – a transaction that was going to cost him $20,000 in accounting and legal fees. “He’d never spent that kind of money before. But what I did for him was list off the advantages of the deal – security for his wife, security for his retirement and independence for those children who were going to take over the business. The client got excited about the transaction, and the price of the project became much less important than the results.”
Mr. Kraft thrives on coming up with new ways to tackle financial planning objectives. While many advisors like doing things in traditional fashion, he takes the customized approach, seeing where ideas may have gone wrong in the past and coming up with a forward-thinking plan that is most appropriate for clients and their unique facts and objectives. The key, he says, is listening to the client.
“Nothing’s easier than paying attention to a client because a lot of times, the objectives, the issues and the solutions are all there in the conversation. The client needs to work through it and find out what’s available. And I think that’s why our team works well because we can help them through those conversations.”
As chair of FPSC, he sees the industry’s major goal as setting the direction for Canadians to improve their lives through effective financial planning. The way to do that, he says, is by putting standards in place to ensure consistency of deliverables. “If consumers get the right advice for their financial planning needs then government should theoretically have an easier role in the future.”
Mr. Kraft is in his second year as chair of FPSC and is firmly committed to the role and his volunteering commitment. “I’m looking forward to what I can contribute to FPSC in the next few years. But at the same time, I’m looking for other opportunities to volunteer in my community.”