Mikestrathdee’s Blog

Mango time


Mango Time

Kenya vegetable packer helps small farmers expand into fruit production

By Mike Strathdee

As Printed in The Marketplace – March/April 2018

Jane answers questions best

NAIROBI, KENYA – Jane Maina has a plan to increase the incomes of thousands of Kenyan farmers, and diversify her own business in the process.

Maina, managing director and co-owner of Vert, aims to reduce her vegetable processing firm’s dependence on European markets, and replace some of her nation’s imports of one of its favorite juices.

Through a partnership with MEDA’s M-SAWA project, (M-SAWA stands for Maendeleo- Sawa, or Equitable Prosperity) –Vert aims to train subsistence farmers how to grow mangos and passion fruit that meet international standards.

Vert has focused on shipping and packaging green vegetables since it started 18 years ago. French (green) beans and peas are picked at farms one day, packaged at Vert’s plant the next afternoon, then put on a plane to Amsterdam that evening.

It started small with one or two shipments a week of one tonne at a time. In 2017, Vert shipped 1,300 metric tonnes of beans and peas.

The firm currently has 71 staff. Its entire production is exported to the UK, Netherlands, Denmark,

Germany and Belgium.

In 2013, the European Union brought in new regulations regarding the import of vegetables from Kenya to increase tests for pesticide residues. Because Kenya doesn’t have national regulations on this matter, 10 per cent of all of Vert’s shipments had to be pulled out for physical testing.

The testing adds 24 hours to the time from farm field to store shelf, undermining Vert’s goal of having products on shelves within three days of receiving them.


Many Kenyan mangos don’t make it to market

Maina saw an opportunity to pivot her firm in the face of these rules, and the uncertainty about future access to the UK due to that country’s Brexit plan to leave the European Union.

Farmers producing fruits and vegetables see up to 41 per cent of their mangos being wasted “year in and year out,” because they don’t make their way to market. Of Kenyan mangos that do make it to market, almost all are consumed domestically. The country imports most of its pulp for mango juice, and there are only six pulping plants in the country.

“The need for pulp was very clear,” she said, noting that as consumption of carbonated drinks dips, demand for fresh juices is on the rise.

Fruit pulping, primarily for the domestic market, is the value-added goal of the next phase of Vert’s evolution. “It’s mostly guided by the realization that we are over-relying on the European markets.”

Mango pulp is taken from second-rate fruit that cannot be sold fresh. Unlike the highly perishable raw fruit, mango pulp has a shelf life of up to 18 months.

In April, Vert will move to a new plant in Machakos, about an hour southeast of Nairobi, that is four times the size of the current 10,000-square-foot (932-square-metre) operation. One side of the plant will replicate its existing vegetable packing operation.VERT WOMEN WITH SNOWPEAS BEST

Vert shipped 1,300 metric tonnes of snow peas and beans in 2017.

A larger building will be dedicated to pulping mangos and passion fruit, as well as drying a variety of fruits, including mangos, pineapple and banana. Some of that dried fruit may make its way to North America later this year, once direct flights start from New York City to Nairobi. Vert has landed a private label contract for dried fruit with a major US retailer.

The biggest challenges for mango growers is the middlemen, who want to take the fruit before it reaches maturity, she said “If the farmers take on and sell the fruit (then), it means they will have less than optimal production.”

Middlemen often purchase mangos for five Kenyan shillings, (about five cents US), then turn around and sell them for 15-20 shillings, she said. “We seek to cut out the middleman.”

Doing this will allow Vert to control quality and improve margins both for Vert and its growers.

Matching grants offered by MEDA are very important to this project, as they close gaps that Vert could not do on its own, she said. Training of farmers to attain organic certification and maintain good agricultural practices that allow for full traceability of produce can be an expensive task. Without MEDA’s help, attaining annual renewable certification would cost more than either Vert or the farmers could initially afford.

“The fact the grants take care of this training cost for us is invaluable. We are then able to go in and provide the training with the support of MEDA, and make sure the farmers are using good quality produce, and we are then able to use these products, either for our drying line or our pulping line.”

Over the next three years, Vert hopes to work with 5,000 new farmers in addition to the 1,726 vegetable farmers that they currently have contracts with. They will also hire another 88 workers for their processing plant. Vert has consistently strived to engage women, both by requiring that groups at the farmer level select one female leader and practicing gender equality at all levels in its factory.smiling snow pea packer

Vert practices gender equity throughout its factory

Many of the farmers that supply Vert have plots of land of only one to two acres, including their home and the area where their animals graze. A mango farmers co-op that a group of MEDA supporters visited in January claims almost 470 members, a slight majority of whom are women.

Members of the group admitted that they need help with marketing, caring for trees and financing inputs for production.

Vert has had its own struggles when it came to financing growth. Local banks were not receptive to lending for Vert’s new expansion project, which cost $2.75 million US.

“It isn’t a very easy thing,” Maina said.

The firm needed patient investors for the expansion. Because Vert has earnings in hard currency, it could get equity investments from Belgian and French social investment firms. Equipment for the new plant is being debt-financed from a third European social impact investor. The company hopes to repay those lenders within seven years.

Maina’s life and business partner in Vert is her husband Maina Inderito. “We tend to stay as far away (from each other) as possible,” she said with a smile when asked about how they divide responsibilities at the company. He focuses on construction and getting increased production from farmers. She does finance, administration, operations and contracts with retail customers.

In the past four years, the number of women-led food processing firms has increased greatly. About 40 per cent of company heads in her industry are women, particularly among medium-sized firms.

She is quick to respond when asked what motivates her desire to work with more farmers. “Being able to put products out that are safe, that I know where they have come from, and by who they were touched,” she said. ◆


Lives transformed through job creation
March 19, 2018, 2:18 pm
Filed under: Charitable Giving, Investing, Theology, Work

Here’s an article I wrote about MEDA, and why we focus on creating business solutions to poverty in 60 countries around the world. The article first appeared in the March issue of Faith Today magazine: http://digital.faithtoday.ca/faithtoday/20180304/MobilePagedReplica.action?pm=2&folio=24#pg24


Where did all the money go? – old stories from the late 90s
September 4, 2014, 2:03 pm
Filed under: Business, Financial Management, Fraud, Investing, Uncategorized

Copy of K-W Record article, March 29, 1999 – front page, A1.

Shareholders left to wonder where money went

Mike Strathdee
Monday 29 March 1999

Former executives of Struthers Inc. admit that they broke Ontario securities laws when they sold shares in a controversial swine-breeding company that is millions of dollars in debt and has left hundreds of area investors with virtually worthless shares.

“There’s clearly infractions,” Jason Struthers, son of company founder Ron Struthers, admitted in an interview with The Record.

Struthers Inc. is one of a handful of companies started by Ron Struthers to commercialize swine breeding and embryo transplant technology. Building on his father Stan’s breeding business, Struthers had offices in Guelph until last fall, until he was evicted for non-payment of rent.

Struthers Inc. is now largely based in South Carolina. Its Canadian presence consists of space in a lawyer’s office in Mississauga.

Jason Struthers, formerly the company’s secretary/director of international business development, and colleague Paul Allcock, who served as director of corporate affairs, say they ran afoul of securities law after receiving bad advice.

Under provincial securities law, a company must clear a prospectus, a detailed offering document, with regulators in order to sell shares to more than 50 shareholders. The Record has obtained a shareholders list which indicates that shares in several Struthers companies were sold or issued to more than 1,200 people, including 300 in Ontario and close to 200 within the Waterloo Region-Wellington and Perth County area.

Investors paid tens and in some cases hundreds of thousands of dollars for Struthers shares, which were sold at various times for $1, $3 and$4.50. Struthers Inc. stock began trading on the U.S. over-the-counter bulletin board at $6.50 a share last June, but quickly fell to only a few cents and never recovered. The shares last traded for 1.5 cents each, earlier this week.

At least two regulatory bodies — the Ontario Securities Commission in this province, and the Securities and Exchange Commission in the U.S. — are investigating the Struthers companies, The Record has learned.

The OSC has sent a five-page questionnaire to investors asking them about their investment knowledge, how they became aware of the Struthers companies, what information “were you provided with that induced you to make your investment,” in which Struthers business the investment was made, and who sold them the investment.

And the RCMP has interviewed a number of people in an effort to determine whether it has grounds to launch a criminal investigation. “I’ve been co-operating with the RCMP on this,” a haggard-looking Ron Struthers told The Record.

Struthers says he has met with RCMP officers a handful of times since an initial, four-hour interview two months ago. He wouldn’t comment on what the RCMP or securities regulators are looking into.

He did confirm when asked, however, that Revenue Canada has been looking at the books of the Struthers companies for the past three months in connection with money owed for employee payroll deductions.

“I don’t have the books, I don’t have access to the books, but I do know Revenue Canada has been in and done the audits.”

The OSC can ask a court to force a company to file financial statements and a prospectus. The agency can also seek an order directing a person to repay any part of the money paid by a security holder for securities.

Struthers raised at least $6.5 million US through the sale of shares over a period of several years. Shareholders have never received financial statements for the company, and only received share certificates early this year.

“You’ve got to understand something,” Jason Struthers said when asked about why the company didn’t comply with regulatory requirements. “When Ron started this company, he had zero knowledge of how a public company functions. We relied on counsel to do this; now it turns out that the information which counsel gave us was dead wrong.”

Allcock also pointed fingers elsewhere when asked about why proper procedures weren’t followed when shares were sold. “We were always advised that we didn’t need it (a prospectus),” he said. Our advice has been the pits. We could’ve gone to the variety store and got better advice.”

Jason and Ron Struthers were removed from the board and management of Struthers Inc. in a December restructuring.

Allcock, who said he and Jason raised the first $500,000 for the company, claims to have left the firm earlier in a dispute over the best way to raise money.

© Copyright Kitchener-Waterloo Record 1998

Copy of K-W Record article, March 29, 1999, business section, page C1.

Guelph contractor sues U of G

Unpaid renovations at SRI office prompt Van-Con’s $130,000-plus claim
By Mike Strathdee

A Guelph contractor is suing the University of Guelph to recover payment for renovations he did at a university research park for swine breeding companies formerly operated by area businessman Ron Struthers.

Van-Con General Contractors is seeking more than $130,000 plus costs for renovations done to an office building at 150 Research Lane between October 1997 and January 1998.

The company, operated by Ike Van Soelen, received a judgment last July against Struthers Research Inc. (SRI), one of several companies started by Ron Struthers, a Cambridge businessman and former Pentecostal minister.

But after being told that SRI has no assets, Van Soelen decided to pursue a claim against the university, which has since rented the research park space he renovated to a Guelph marketing company.

Ironically, that firm has also received a court judgment against a Struthers company for work it never received payment for.

The university, in its statement of defence, denies any liability or responsibility for work done by Van-Con. In a cross-claim, however, it seeks to hold SRI and Struthers International Research Corp., another associated firm, responsible for any amount it is found to be liable to Van-Con.

It also seeks a judgment for $100,000 against Struthers “as damages for breach of contract regarding the agreement to lease between the university and Struthers IRC.”

Van Soelen says the university is benefiting from work he did in the building. He has also placed a lien against the property.

In its statement of claim, Van-Con alleges that a university official approved drawings and specifications for work done at the building, but at one point, expressed concerns about the financial viability of Struthers and instructed Van-Con to cease work.

The statement of claim goes on to allege that, subsequently, the official said the university “no longer had any financial concerns about Struthers,” and that Van-Con could proceed with its renovations “since everything was now in order.”

Van-Con also alleges that university officials “inspected the quality of work from time to time during the course of its progress,” and that Struthers was indebted to the university “for the rent of facilities elsewhere, in the amount of $148,946.00.”

A letter sent by a university lawyer to a former Van-Con lawyer indicates that Struthers’ tenancy in the research park “was terminated on March 4, 1998, as a result of arrears in the payment of rent.”

Earlier this month, a few days after the university filed its statement of defence in connection with the Van-Con lawsuit, the office of research issued a brief press release distancing itself from Struthers.

“In 1994, Struthers Research began investing in swine embryo research at the University of Guelph,” the announcement stated. “The University of Guelph no longer has a research contract nor any research involvement with Struthers Research and parties related in any way to Struthers Research. The University of Guelph does not have a licensing agreement with Struthers Research or any other Struthers entity.”

Larry Milligan, U of G’s vice-president of research, said in an interview that the university is “quite deliberately declaring that there is no linkage, that there is no licence for the technology in place.”

But more than a week after the announcement was made, a share-offering document available by fax from the South Carolina office of Struthers Inc., the U.S. parent firm of the companies named in the lawsuits, still indicated that the company “intends to take full advantage of it’s (sic) strong working relationship with the University of Guelph, a
world-renowned leading animal science institution.”

Doug Beatty, vice-president of operations for Struthers Inc., brushed off the U of G announcement. “They can say whatever they like,” he said.

“There’s things happening behind the scenes here. It’s unfortunate. They pushed Struthers out of Canada.”

Company founder Ron Struthers broke his silence on the events Thursday, and provided the Record with a copy of a 1994 contract between U of G and Struthers Research.

Money owing to U of G is for subsequent, related work, and doesn’t affect Struthers Inc.’s ability to commercialize the embryo-transplant technology, he said in an interview.

“Basically, the technology is basically there for the use of this corporation (Struthers Inc.),” he said.

U of G moved to dissociate itself from the Struthers companies following months of talks because “we’re not getting anywhere in clearing up the back debt” of more than $200,000 owed to it by Struthers, Milligan said.

Milligan said he has received a legal opinion which suggests that the swine- embryo transplant technology “is owned by the university.”

U of G hopes to recoup its losses by commercializing that technology, possibly through a licensing agreement with another firm.

Struthers Inc. has not publicly commented on its view of the millions of dollars in debts run up by Ron Struthers and other firms which bear his name. The company said in December that Ron Struthers no longer holds a management role with the firm.

A November share-offering document for Struthers Inc., which has shares quoted through the U.S. over-the-counter bulletin board, claimed that the firm is “not presently a party to any material litigation,” and that its liabilities totalled $1,510.

The document doesn’t refer to litigation or liabilities involving its subsidiaries. Struthers officials have not responded to written questions submitted earlier this year to Richard Lane, their New York-based lawyer.

Beatty said this week that “Struthers Inc. is a debt-free organization.”

He wouldn’t say whether Struthers Inc. has any responsibility for debts run up by its subsidiaries or Ron Struthers. “You’ve sort of blindsided me. I don’t know.”

Ron Struthers says company officials verbally promised him, when he relinquished control of the firm in the fall, that all of the millions of dollars in debts run up by Struthers corporations and promissory notes to shareholders signed by him would be taken care of. “I’ve been told that they (Struthers Inc. officials) have a block of shares set aside for repayment of debts,” he said.

But he can provide no proof that any such agreement exists, as he didn’t get anything in writing. “No. I didn’t. Just trusted them.

© Copyright Kitchener-Waterloo Record 1998

Copy of K-W Record article, March 29, 1999, business section, page C2.

Newsletter to Struthers investors long on predictions, short on details

By Mike Strathdee

Struthers Inc. has a bright new future ahead, the company’s latest newsletter to investors says.

The pork biotechnology company plans to train a team of surgeons in embryo-transplant techniques at a major United States university and announce contracts with major swine breeders, the newsletter states.

But the four-page document, which can also be seen on the Struthers Web site, is long on predictions and short on specifics.

Titled “the Rooter’s News,” the newsletter refers to several upcoming developments without providing any specific details.

“The commercialization of the embryo-transfer technology, through relationships already formed with leaders in swine genetics in North America, will represent a positive cash flow situation for the company and will allow for future growth and expansion,” the newsletter states.

Doug Beatty, vice-president of operations at Struthers’ Charleston, S.C., office, said the company won’t be able to identify any of its partners nor the university where the surgical training will take place, until after April 2.

Struthers has had to sign non-disclosure agreements with the universities involved, as “they don’t want a slew of people calling,” he said in a telephone interview.

“Unfortunately, we couldn’t (identify partners) in that newsletter,” he said.

”We wanted to, but we couldn’t.”

Contracts will be solidified and signed when company officials visit Iowa, Missouri and Illinois in coming days, he predicted.

Company president Don Bowden, a veterinarian from Iowa, is handling the negotiations, the newsletter stated.

The company also plans to purchase a mobile operating theatre, a surgical trailer, from Alpha Omega, an Indiana company which builds mobile CT and MRI scanners, Beatty said.

Struthers plans to have a six-metre (20-foot) surgical trailer based in Canada as embryo-transplant work progresses, he said.

Company founder Ron Struthers, who has not had a management role with the company since a restructuring last fall, told the Record last week that he is “pretty happy with the guys in the States” and the way efforts to commercialize embryo-transplant technology are proceeding.

He remains interested in working with the company which bears his name.

“My offer to the company is that anything I can do to take the company forward, any knowledge I have, I will give it to them.

“I’d like to help grow the company if it’s possible, if there’s a place for me to be there.”

Struthers said that when he handed over control of the firm late last year, he planned to go to South Carolina and work out of the Struthers office there with current management.

But poor health, including several operations related to kidney problems, have kept Struthers in Cambridge. “At this point, it’s not certain whether they want me there (U.S), ” he added.

© Copyright Kitchener-Waterloo Record 1998

HEADLINE Company ex-president has ‘no idea’ where close to $4 million has gone
BYLINE Mike Strathdee
DNOTE Ran with related story “Shareholders left to wonder where money went: Former executives of Struthers Inc. admit they broke securities law” Page A1 “Guelph contractor sues U of G: Unpaid renovations at SRI office prompt Van-Con’s $130,000-plus claim” Page C1 and “Newsletter to Struthers investors long on predictions, short on details” Page C2

There are a number of mysteries surrounding events involving Struthers Inc. over the last year.

Shareholders who have contacted the Record wonder how shares in Struthers Inc., which began trading at $6.50 each last June on the U.S. over-the-counter bulletin board, quickly fell off to only a few cents in value, and never recovered. The shares last traded at 1.5 cents on Friday.

They also wonder why, if the company’s new management wanted to assure investors that Ron and Jason Struthers no longer held any management positions in the company as of early December, the share certificates which were issued to shareholders Dec. 29 were signed by Jason Struthers, secretary, and Ron Struthers, president.

The certificates were printed before the management restructuring occurred, Ron Struthers told the Record this week. “Maybe it’s even prudent,” he said. “Why waste another $15,000 to $20,000 (to print new shares)? Use up the (old certificate) stock.”

It is unclear why Ron Struthers agreed to relinquish control of the company without having a detailed, written agreement as to the royalty stream he is to receive for his past work. Ron Struthers says he trusted his longtime advisers to take care of his interests.

Struthers Inc. documents suggest Ron Struthers will receive royalties, but don’t specify the amount. “It’s never been flushed out,” Ron Struthers asked when questioned on the subject.

“I’m not (financially) in a point where I could go to a lawyer, or even hire one.”

Another unanswered question is the issue of what happened to the millions of dollars raised by the company, given that scores of creditors, large and small, weren’t paid for services rendered.

A Struthers Inc. offering document available to prospective investors through a fax-on-demand service states that the company had total assets of $2,824 as of Nov. 15.

Ron Struthers insists that all of the money raised from investors — at least $6.5 million US, by some accounts more — was used to pay expenses related to research and market development efforts.

But The Record has obtained a copy of a draft, unaudited consolidated balance sheet that states it was prepared for the management of Struthers Inc., dated July 31, 1998, months before Ron Struthers stepped aside from the management of the company.

That document, which investors have never seen, stated that the company had cash of $3,933,191 at the July 31, 1998, end of year.

“I have no idea,” Ron Struthers said Thursday when shown the statement and asked about the discrepancy. “I’ve never seen these documents (before).”

If the company had that much money last summer, “we would not have been in problems,” he insisted.

Companies which have stock quoted through the over-the-counter bulletin board in the U.S. are not required to make the detailed filings of their financial statements with regulators which other publicly traded firms must do.

Struthers Inc. is in the process of having its financial statements examined by auditors, company spokesman Doug Beatty said. “When they’re ready, we’ll post them” on the company’s web site, he said.

One of the reasons that the financial statements are being changed is because the company’s asset base is changing, he said. “There was a lot of stuff that went missing.”

Beatty did not elaborate.

Ron Struthers denied that any assets of real value remain unaccounted for when the company was evicted from a leased research farm south of Guelph in October. “Nothing’s gone missing that would influence those books by more than $5,000 or $10,000,” he said.

“There was no assets you could pick up and walk away with.”

Why Business Matters to God – And What Still Needs to Be Fixed
January 9, 2013, 9:50 pm
Filed under: Business, Environment, Generosity, Investing, Theology, Uncategorized, Work

Why Business Matters to God (And What Still Needs to Be Fixed)
Jeff Van Duzer Inter Varsity Press, 2010, 201 pages
For Van Duzer, business is about much more than the bottom line. “Business is intended to serve the common good by providing goods and services that enable the community to flourish and by providing opportunities for individuals to express aspects of their God-given identities through meaningful and creative work,” he writes in Why Business Matters to God.
The author is a lawyer and Dean of the School of Business and Economics at Seattle Pacific University. His keynote address at the opening of the 2012 Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA) convention of in Niagara Falls in November was by far the highlight of the event.
Van Duzer’s reflections on business and why it does matter as part of God’s redemptive plan for humanity encompass the scope of the biblical narrative – creation, fall, redemption and consummation. His incisive analysis will give pause to entrepreneurs and church leaders alike, for a variety of reasons. He persuasively explains why the cherished notion of the free market, for instance, is a post-fall construction, given its dependence on scarcity. His analysis touches on the role of a providing a living wage and care of the environment in conducting business, among other considerations. “Business must concern itself with redemptive as well as creative work.’’
The even-handed approach that he brings to this work is shown by the fact that early reviewers – business people and theologians, all found something different to pick at. “Business associates criticized the text as being too negative about business… My theology friends, however, argued just the opposite.”
I often read while traveling, but have never been asked by strangers about what I am reading. This book elicited questions from several people curious about its message. Well worth taking in at several sittings and pondering at length.

Full-time pastors on the decrease – What can congregations do to reduce turnover and attract strong leaders? -published in Sept. 2011 Christian Week Ontario
September 26, 2011, 2:29 pm
Filed under: Charitable Giving, Communication, Financial Management, Generosity, Investing, Work

Several media outlets had a field day this summer after learning that top staff at some Canadian charities earned six-figure salaries last year.

No effort was made to provide context in terms of the responsibilities and workloads of those people, nor how they compare with private sector counterparts.

They also focused on a small minority. The vast majority of registered charities in Canada operate with budgets equal to or less than the salaries paid to CEOS, presidents and fundraisers at the few large institutions whose Canada Revenue Agency filings formed the basis of the stories.
Reading the story, my thoughts went in a completely different direction than worrying about what the movers and shakers are earning.

I started wondering about part-time pastors.

Our church recently said goodbye to a talented young man who was a part-time associate pastor for an all-too-brief four years. I can’t blame him, as a recently married 20-something, for looking to focus on one job. He has already started a new full-time role with a relief and development charity that he was working for part-time alongside his pastoral work. Their gain is our loss.

His predecessors served a single term in the same position at our church. That says more about the demands of the job than any of the people involved.

Over lunch, Darren reflected on the challenges of juggling a couple jobs, and told me that churches need to offer as close to full-time as possible to minimize turnover and avoid burning out staff.

Unfortunately, the trend is in the opposite direction. Research by Rick Hiemstra of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada found that between 2003 and 2009, Canadian evangelical churches, both urban and rural:

  • tended to reduce their full-time staffing complements.
  • tended to add part-time staff.
  • converted some full-time positions to part-time ones.

Hiemstra studied tax filings by more than 5,400 congregations. He found that 50 per cent more congregations had no full-time staff in 2009 than was the case in 2003, even though congregational income generally rose over that time period.

“It is conceivable, if current trends continue, that a decade from now half of rural congregations will be without full-time staff, and most will be reduced to just one,” Hiemstra wrote.

Some of the change can be explained by churches moving from hiring full-time generalists to hiring part-time specialists, recognizing that it is a rare individual who has all of the gifts that a congregation is seeking. But Hiemstra also notes that “rural congregations appear to be having trouble attracting and retaining staff.”

As a father of adolescent children, I’m gradually cluing in to the primary importance of lasting relationships in faith formation. When I asked Darren what it might take to improve the chances that his successor will stick around longer, he suggested churches may have to stop looking to “20-somethings” to fill youth and young adult pastoral positions. The average university grad will change jobs a couple times before turning 30, so churches should be seeking out older candidates, he said.

But that would involve paying more, a tough sell in today’s climate.

Finding a fee-based financial advisor isn’t always easy
April 28, 2011, 6:41 pm
Filed under: Investing | Tags:

Originally published in Christian Week Ontario, March 2011, Your Money Column

As more people take the time to educate themselves about investments, there is growing interest in paying advisors for financial advice instead of paying ongoing fees for products such as mutual funds.

Part of this trend may be due to the fact that the salesperson’s interests aren’t always in line with the investor’s. The salesperson who sells a typical mutual fund gets the same one per cent commission – known as a trailer fee – year after year, regardless of whether the investor made money or suffered a loss. (Investors with large portfolios can often get a better deal by investing in F class funds, which charge much lower fees).

But increasing choice in low fee exchange traded-funds, which often deliver better returns than mutual funds, often at a fraction of the cost, has led many folks to want to try the “do-it-yourself” route. They want to make their own choices, then pay a professional for occasional checkups and suggestions on tweaking their investment mix.

The Financial Planners Standards Council (FPSC) licences certified financial planners (CFPs) in Canada and promotes awareness of the need for financial planning. About 80 per cent of the calls from consumers that come into their office are people looking for fee-only financial planners, an FPSC spokesperson told me.

Those people may have to look hard to find a fee only planner that fits their needs, let alone shares their values.

Under 1,100 of the 18,000 certified financial planners in the Financial Planners Standards Council database across Canada identify themselves as being fee-only planners. Another 1,600 say they work on a fee plus commission basis.

That may seem like a lot, until you realize that there are as many as 75,000 mutual fund sales reps in Canada, and 25,000 people licensed to sell stocks.

There are several reasons for this situation. Some planners say it is difficult to get people to take the time, share all of the necessary information and spend the money required to develop a complete financial plan. Some firms quote fees of $3,000 to $5,000 for preparing a full plan, and $400 and up for annual meetings.

And in some cases, advisors aren’t trying to do much convincing. “Advisors may not want to take the time to convince a client to write a comprehensive plan if they have the prospect of placing product (and getting a commission) without it,” an FPSC staffer admitted.

But as more accountants, who have traditionally worked on a fee-for-service basis, get their CFP designations and enter the financial planning field, this may change.

To find a list of fee-based financial planners in your area, search the FPSC website at:  http://www.fpsc.ca/find-cfp (click on advanced options)

For further information, the website Unbiasedportfolio.blogspot.com is a collection of thoughts from a fee-based advisor that is worth reading.

Warren Mackenzie’s book The Unbiased Advisor – 108 ways to make more money, achieve financial health and avoid costly investment mistakes is a good reference guide if you already have a reasonable understanding of investment concepts.

Higher fees the price paid for not learning about investing
January 21, 2011, 10:17 pm
Filed under: Investing

published in the January 2011 issue of Christian Week Ontario, Your Money column


How can I avoid paying such high fees on my investments?

This question is increasingly common at financial literacy seminars.

Canadians are not that financially literate. We also pay some of the highest mutual fund fees in the world.

Getting a better understanding of your investments, and whether you are getting good value for money invested, would be a great New Years’ resolution. It will have lasting impact on your financial future.

Excessive mutual fund fees are the price we pay for  not educating ourselves about investing. We pay too much because we naively expect someone else to look out for our best interests.

Ratings agency Standard & Poor’s regularly studies how actively managed mutual funds perform compared to the index for various fund categories. (An index is a measurement of the ups and downs of a particular market by monitoring a group of securities over time).

S&P gives failing grades to the mutual fund industry.

In the first three months of 2010, six out of every 10 Canadian equity funds did worse than their index. The same results were found for funds made up of smaller and medium sized companies (Canadian Small/Mid Cap equity, in industry jargon).

Some types of mutual funds did better than their index during the period studied. But over a longer period of time, the poor record of most mutual funds looks even worse.

In the three and five year periods ending March 31, 2010, only 10.9 per cent and 3.3 per cent of actively managed Canadian equity funds  did better than the S&P/TSX Composite Index.

The picture isn’t much different for actively managed foreign mutual funds. Less than one in 10 International equity or U.S. equity funds did better than their respective indexes, S&P found.

Author John Lawrence Reynolds’ “The Skeptical Investor – How to Grow and Protect Your Retirement Savings” is a good start for people who haven’t thought much about the fees they are paying, and what possible alternatives might be.

For people who have a bit more understanding how the markets work, there are lots of places to go for ideas.

Two of my favourites are the Money Smarts blog, www.moneysmartsblog.com/, and Money Sense magazine.

Mike Holman, a Toronto-based writer who pens the MoneySmart blog, worked in financial services for several decades. His blog combines articles written from his own experience and links to insightful pieces on various topics related to investing and personal finance from a number of other blogs and websites.

Money Sense magazine, and its www.moneysense.ca website, provide lots of ideas of cost-effective ways to invest.  For people who want to deal with a stock broker or set up their own self-directed account, their “couch potato” approach is worth considering.

For people with smaller portfolios, at least one major bank offers e-series index funds that are much less expensive than regular mutual funds. But you won’t find it prominently advertised, as other products make them bigger profits.

Another alternative is to hire a fee-only financial planner to evaluate where you are at and what a suitable investment mix would be for your age and stage of life. More on that in my next column.