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Ingredients of a scalable practice

MIJ conversation with Steve Lowrie ranges from traditional mutual fund sales, transaction fees, scaling with value, discovering scientific investing, transitioning a traditional book to quant, the ingredients for practice success and how to leverage social media.

Podcast highlights

2:50 The disillusionment of a young broker

4:15 The wake-up call

7:45 Deep value

9:00 Scaling price

13:40 The slow transition to quant

14:45 The benefits of a study group

16:00 The cornerstone of a thriving practice

18:20 Ingredients for practice success

21:10 Transactions make you rich

24:00 Long termism

24:45 Tips for social media

27:00 Curiosity, humility and value added services

About Steve

Steve Lowrie thumbnail.jpg

BCom, Queen's University | Chartered Financial Analyst 

After years of frustration, I began independent research and adopted an evidence-based approach to personal finance. It’s based on decades of academic research by some of the leading minds in finance and economics. I’ve never looked back.

Beginning in 1995, I dedicated over 1,000 hours of rigorous study and more than the four required years of professional experience to earn the distinction of Chartered Financial Analyst®. All charter-holders are required to annually attest to the CFA Institute Code of Ethics and Standards of Professional Conduct.

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Transcript

Rod: Hello and welcome to this episode of The Modern Investor Journey. My name's Rod Heard and I'm here with my co-founder partner, Art Johnson. Today we're delighted to be hosting a longtime friend of Art's. A gentleman named Steve Lowry. Steve's a portfolio manager at Lowery Financial. He's a prolific blogger.

He writes a monthly blog at www.loweryfinancial.ca. And he runs a wealth management firm that is a mixture of investment management and financial planning. Steve, it's super excited to have you on our show today.

Steve: Yeah, thanks. Nice to be here.

Art: Yeah. And I'll chime in cause Steve's one of my longest friends in the business and not necessarily why he's on the podcast. It's really because he's fantastic at what he does. He also has a tremendous blog. I think that has wonderful advice for people. Steve was instrumental with some other Canadians and kind of bringing up, I think one of the original quant shops called Dimensional Fund Advisors. It's where Steve and I met, but we actually also came from the traditional brokerage firm.

We're trying to get people to understand is there's been a large change in the landscape of the business. And yet in a lot of ways for a lot of customers a lot of the ideas that we pioneered and are taking over the world haven't sunk in. And we're really trying to make sure that we can be one of the loudest bull horns in Canada, because not only do we think these ideas are sound, but they're also tremendously helpful to get outcomes that the client's need and various things like that. And they're significantly cheaper. Maybe we'll start with just kind of your background in finance and a bit of your transition. And then we'll have some fun.

Steve: Okay. I graduated in 1990 in, you know, the recession. So like, you know, went off and did various things. Traveled backpack through Europe and stuff like that.

And then I kind of broke down and, but I needed to get a real job. And I just happened to know someone I went to university with was working at Midland Walwyn at the time. I kind of fell into this business kind of by mistake and just because I needed a job at that time. I started off, they'll say kind of traditional firms, traditional brokerage firms. Downtown Toronto and the big ivory towers for the first 12, 13 years of my career. And it was after the frustration, once I realized what was going on, that I made an effort to see that there's gotta be a better approach. And that's kind of where our paths crossed for a second time. But I didn't realize. I think when we met through Dimensional in, I think it was 2004, that we both worked at the same firm back in the late nineties, but we didn't know each other then.

Rod: Steve you mentioned you were investigating, reaching out. You felt a little bit disenfranchised, but what did your search look like?

Steve: I think I was just frustrated. It was just kind of the whole environment in the way it's set up. The firms are set up for their own interest. You could have a, like an advisor can have a wildly successful practice, which translation means they make a lot of money for themselves and make a lot of money for the firm, but their clients could make no money.

I found that kind of frustrating. I thought there's gotta be a better approach, both on the investment management side and also on the practice side of things.

Rod: So where did you, where did you start to look for the right path forward?

Steve: So I was at kind of traditional brokerage firms and I went to a, like an independent. The agreement was is that you can kind of control your own destiny at the independent firm I went to. So that was around 2003 and it's still being in Toronto. And in what it was I just went to a couple of conferences. The one that stood out and it's interesting, cause it was called the Canada Cup of Index Management. What was interesting it wasn't anything about indexing per se. It was more about using index tools to actively manage. So they had like Abby Joseph Cohen from Goldman Sachs, who was, you know, big investment strategy.

You know, she is up there with their charts and darts and, you know, talking about, you know, how you can trade these things to try and generate alpha. And at the session at the end of the day was Eugene Fama, Jr. Gene junior is brilliant. But he's like a surfer dude, you know, he's got long hair...

Rod: Meb Faber.

Steve: Not what you'd expect. But he's absolutely brilliant. And he got up in the presentation and basically said, everything you heard today was kind of BS. Here's a whole different approach. And I was kind of blown away. I thought, wow, this is like, I've never heard anything like this. He was working at Dimensional Fund Advisors at that time. You know, I made contact with Dimensional, started talking with them and that kind of opened the flood gates of finding there's a whole different approach. And I think what the biggest thing was looking beyond the product manufacturers and actually looking into the academic world.

Rod: Yeah. There's thousands of people on the planet that are studying markets and trying to identify ways that statistically improve your odds of success.

Steve: Exactly. And there's no, with the academic community, there's no, I mean, the academics are looking for tenure and they're not any vested interest. They're not trying to sell products. And you can just go and get unbiased research.

Rod: We had our partner Wes Grey on a couple of podcasts ago, and he was actually going one step further with the academic community and that they try and beat the crap out of each other. So ideas too, you know, keep people down and not get published in the greatest paper. So if you actually do get published, you've had a lot of peer review and challenge and scrutiny around your thinking and the stats and the math.

Art: Yeah. Their motivations are so different from what you would have in an asset management world. Their motivations are purely to get their kind of ideas out. You go into this academic world and all of it for free and available. They would, you know, talk to you for five hours if they could just to get their idea out, as opposed to a culture where we come from. It's if you have a crumb there are 10 people fighting over trying to kill themselves. So it's a fascinating juxtaposition.

Rod: Steve, you mentioned one conference and Gene Fama Jr's presentation. Was that sort of like the TSN tipping point? It was one shot you're kind of bought into the whole quantitative thesis, or how did that journey go to enable you as a portfolio manager to want to shift your business, do all of the hard work and heavy lifting to learn a new aspect of investing?

Art: Well, I think Steve had to meet me first.

Rod: Of course. Yes. The Johnson Effect.

Art: You know, get comfortable that someone of my stature would be involved in it.

Rod: Well, that's exactly what worked for me, Art, when you called me in 2017.

Art: I just want to ask you a question too. Had you got your CFA during this process?

Steve: Yeah. The presentation from Gene Jr at that conference opened the flood gates.

In terms of me just saying, wow, there's another approach. And just like Art at this time, there's not a lot of information out there. So I spent hours and hours and hours reading papers, like reading the original Fama French: Three Factor Model paper. If I step back just when I was at the, you know, call it kind of the traditional, you know, brokerage firms, one of the smart things I did was to get my CFA designation. And especially when you're working full time it's a big, big commitment. So I got that. But one thing I realized when I did that is the actual analytical side. It was such a learning experience that you kind of realize your own limitations in the sense that I think I'm a smart guy. But I also realize there's people who've got, you know, Wes Grey's of the world are just at a different level.

Rod: Yeah. And we're sticking our toe in the pond where the ocean is pretty deep.

Steve: Yeah, exactly. So I've, you know, be trying to rip apart a balance sheet to try and find some sort of nugget. It's just, it's never going to happen. I knew enough about it, but I also knew enough about that to look for an approach to sort of piggyback on the smarts and research of other people.

After theat I did my CFA. I had kind of an investment philosophy, but it was deep value. So that kind of really struck a chord was a deep value, but having a deep value factor bent in the late 1990s was, for investments, that's kind of painful. It's like now because there was such a tech boom. Returns

were okay. But just lagged behind everything else.

Rod: Was it a deep value from a quantitative perspective or was it more of a Warren Buffet deep value stock picking at that stage?

Steve: I knew enough that I wasn't picking stock. So I was just using, essentially the tools that you could use were just mutual funds. So like, you know, value mutual funds. The overlying factor was that they all looked at price and then did their stock selection from there. But I still always had a value tilt. It always had kind of intuitive appeal to me, but then also you know, kind of running through the late nineties is like, wow, you can be kind of one factor. You can really be out in the hinterland for a couple of years.

Art: You talked about this concept of scaling price. And I don't think that's intuitive to a listener to even think about how they would think a portfolio manager would pick stocks. The more successful even mutual funds back there were taking something as simple as the price of the stock and scaling it to some type of metric.

It's a quant strategy. It's a very important thing. It was interesting, and I don't want to go too far down this hole, but Wes had built this tool the other day. What it does is take EBITDA total enterprise value, which is what an accountant would look at if he was trying to figure out operations in a company. But he also showed how many other things actually that we use in quant: cashflow, PE, have a super high correlation to just scaling. Like, you know, it's kind of amazing. And I think this is one of the things that when you start to do, when you come out of the brokerage world and you start to be a PM, you start to figure out how you're going to invest in.

You think it's about running around and talking to companies, but then you figure out scaling is really important. Was that important to you?

Steve: For sure. Just kind of anecdotal comments about price of a stock. Amazon's at $3,000 and well that really doesn't mean anything, you know. If they have two shares outstanding, it's the comfort of the whole size of the company is not that big. So if you've got to look at, I would think kind of market cap, like if you take the number of shares outstanding by the share price, then you get the size of the company. But then in terms of does it make it a good investment? You've got to scale it by some sort of metric, you know, so the late 90s in the .com, the internet companies. And there were some very big, hugely profitable companies in the late 90s. Nortel, before it went bankrupt, it was very, very profitable.

It deserved a high valuation because it was very profitable, but there's also a lot of companies that had nothing. Like there was no earnings.

Rod: All sizzle no steak.

Steve: Yeah. And then, then you start getting the games of where the were like scaling price to number of engineers or scaling price to, like, you know, hits on their website and just ridiculous things that there's no academic research behind that would work.

It's just kind of making up stories. So it's really where you look at the research from the academic world and they'll look at things like, you know, book value or cash flow or EBITDA, as you've referred to Art. You know you can have a great company but it can be a bad investment. You can have a, you know, like a mediocre company, but the price is not that high using the scaling. It can be a great investment. I find individual investors miss this and I think a lot of advisors miss it as well.

Art: It's a huge thing, I think, yeah. People look at so many different things, but they don't really think about stocks as a business in a sense. The academic work, uh, you know, you would think that sounds very arcane or kind of weird. But really is just as like, what is a business and how do you look at cash flows?

Rod: It's comparitors, right? It's not just a business. In the universe of all the businesses that are on this market how are stacking up against each other with the financials?

Art: That's a great point. Yeah.

Rod: Different aspects. It's a rear view mirror. It's not trying to forecast the future, but I want to steer us back to Steve. You know, from the dark side into the quant space. So I think he left us off somewhere in looking at stocks. And then how did that journey unfold after that?

Steve: Like, I always had kind of a value tilt just because intuitively it made sense, but I also realized that it could be periods of time when a single factor doesn't work. You can have the best strategy in the world, but if people aren't going to stick with it, It's not going to work. So I think what I was looking for was a better approach. And then the conference opened up the flood gates. And then I, you know, I started talking to Dimensional Fund Advisors and we got invited to a conference in Chicago and that's where I met Art for the first time. But it was just, it was something different. Like the thing you'd see in downtown Toronto, downtown Calgary, or the rubber chicken lunch with a portfolio manager up there talking about anecdotal stories about individual stocks.

Rod: The pitch fest.

Steve: That was it. You go to the Dimensional conference and you had Eugene Fama out, you know, actually this would be a, believe it or not, with an acetate, like a projector, you know, 10 French academics. And it's like, wow, this is totally different than anything I've ever come across. And then I started working with dimensionals and using some of those strategies. That was the point where I said, okay, this is something that I think this strategy philosophy is something I can. Really work with, so I made the commitment and this is going to be at going forward and transitioned the investment strategy over.

Did it take you to get your book from what it looked like before? Into something that you felt comfortable with. How did that work in and how did your clients react to this new found idea that you're you're approaching them with?

The reality is it was a bit slow. It took a few years. If I compare the, what, the, what the, the tools are available today, you know, the actual investment tools actually, you know, best and strategies. Have improved a lot over the last 10, 15 years then. And the other thing too, just on the other side is just a, well, I guess three things, my own belief in things. And then also just, you know, the practice of kind of telling people, this is the way to go and, you know, kind of your confidence and belief in 2005, 2006, and Art will attest this as well. We're kind of on our own.

Art: Oh, there was no one in Canada talking about this.

Steve: No one doing this. And I organized, and this is a great tip for other advisors, is we organized a study group of other advisors in Canada. Art was one. Three or four investment centric guys, and then three or four planning focus guys. And they learned a lot from us. We learned a lot from them. But that was really helpful because, you know, here's other guys that were other people in practices doing the same sort of thing at the same time. So it was really helpful cause we shared a lot of information on how this is working. The right or wrong way of going about things.

Rod: Did you develop a secret handshake?

Art: No, we developed the cat ski trip, though.

Steve: Our study group became famous because we would actually do a day of meetings. And then do a really neat trip, like a snowcat skiing or helicopter skiing. So I can't remember what we said. We had like a study group with like a heli-skiing problem. And there were other study groups and they were all like gung ho, but we would do a heck of a lot of work. I was still in the brokerage world. There's another guy in the brokerage world. And we, you know, you're in a world that is just so diametrically opposed to what we were talking about. And then even the independent guys, I mean, they were up against all the mutual fund sales guys who are chasing returns. And so to have this group of guys that you could absolutely trust and rely on and help buttress your beliefs and just hone your craft with was totally amazing.

Rod: You guys are outliers in the early days. You're now probably the longest running group in Canada that's been running quant portfolios and building businesses around quant strategies and wealth management. What makes it better for you?

Steve: So on the investment side of things, you got to have a philosophy and have an investment philosophy. And I think what my observation is most advisors don't have a philosophy that do one thing for one client and another for someone else from a business side, a practice side, it's hard to have a business if you don't have a common investment philosophy. Like actually when we first started off in the mid-2000s the value factor was doing tremendously well. You know you're not jumping up and down saying look how smart I am. Look at all this alpha. It's no, just 'cause the value factor is really strong during that period of time.

And we know that it will add value over time, but it's not going to add value every year, like or all the time over time versus all the time.

Rod: Art is the exact same. You guys have very deeply embedded principle-based investment philosophies. How did that help you with your client base? Was it necessary for them to evolve their value system towards you?

Steve: The clients that I've, I find work well with me are what I would call delegators. In the sense that they want to understand the philosophy. But know they can't do it themselves, or they're busy. They're running a business and they just don't have time to do it. So they understand the kind of the big picture .They hire you as an advisor to help them with that. You learn these kinds of things through experience that you can't be all things to all people. Like earlier in the career. I think every advisor makes this mistake because, you bring on, like anyone can become a client. But I think if you have this strategy is that you want to make sure that people understand it and then believe in it. But if they don't, they're probably not a good client. Because they won't last. It's funny, I'll quote Nick Murray, he calls it, like, you know, clients putting on your Ark. You said you want to make sure there's just clients who understand what you're doing. Those are the only people that get on the Ark and everyone else they're just not a right fit for you.

Art: To your point, Rod, I think of our study group, we had a bunch of planning guys. And we had us who Steve and I kind of where the investment centric guys, and there's usually like a divide there and we kind of don't respect each other as much as we probably should.

But over time it was fascinating. We learned so much from them. The one thing I think this business gives you a unique ability to do that people don't really understand is that a lot of times planners are not good money managers. And I think that really affects their ability to actually get the returns for their plans. Or investment center brokers are not good wealth managers. What this ability, practice, and what this style of investing allowed us to do was to be actually high-end professional money managers and high end wealth managers. It's the only business model that I've seen that is complimentary to that. Because once you start to do factors and systematic processes, you're not in like grinding away in the sausage factory. And that frees up time to become a better wealth manager.

Steve: That's kind of the benefit of having a study group, as Art said we had the, you know, being one of the investment centric guys and then planning focus guys and over the years we all kind of met in the middle. But I also think from a practice management side, you gotta be realistic.

Where are you going to add value? So I think there's kind of three things. There's, you know, investment management, financial planning, and behavioral management. For client success you got to make sure you got all three going. So the investment management side of things, you just have to, I think you have to have a philosophy and stick with it.

I think there's so many advisors out there just, you know, trying to promise things they can't deliver, you know, like the big hat no cattle. Like, you know, I've got, you know, I'll be able to predict the future and, you know, go to cash in January before the pandemic. You know, those sorts of things which don't stack up over time.

And I think if you just capture the returns that are there for the taking, you know, you're ahead of 90% of the other investment options over the long run. You know, it's a rules-based, here's the rules, here's the processes, we follow the philosophy involved. And when you do that, that allows more time to focus on value added planning. A good value added financial planning can be more alpha than you can get on the investment side. And the third leg is the behavioral management. You can have the best financial plan and invest investment strategy in the world. But if someone's not going to stick with it, it's no good. So you've got to be able to manage client's emotions and emotions can be raised on financial stuff. And especially when you have volatile markets and what we've been going through this year, like a health crisis.

Rod: Our fear of loss.

Steve: Exactly.

Rod: It'd be fun to get you guys riffing on some of your crazy stories.

Steve: Yeah.

Rod: You get foreshadowed it. So the audience is waiting for something there. We need to get back to it for sure

Art: So

I'll set it up. And then Steve can finish. We're both young kids and we're working at this brokerage firm. We hadn't met each other yet. It was a very unusual for this brokerage firm to hold a national convention, because it was a smaller brokerage firm. I mean, we get these invitations, like we're a big firm and we all fly off to Vancouver. And so in the big sit down dinner and they start to hand out awards, but they hand out to the top advisors.

Steve: Yeah it's funny because we didn't realize it. I told this story and Art, like years ago, said I was in the room when that happened.

And we didn't realize that. The other thing just to kind of set it up when you entered it like an order, it wasn't electronic. You actually had it. There was trade tickets. So like a buy was a blue ticket and you wrote in pen with the client account number. And you ran over to the trade desk and timestamped it and gave it to the trader and he punched in the order. And then a sell ticket is red. Oh, pink! So this is an annual conference and I had won an award. So I was up at the head table. And then there was there's two Rons. One in Toronto, one in Calgary, who were always competing for the top advisor. So, Ron is up at the head table and is like fiddling around with something in his pocket. And then he opens up and I realize he's got trade tickets in his pocket. And I was like, what did he got trade tickets in his pockets for? And chairman of the company got up and said, congratulations to Ron, the top producer Ron White. Why don't you come on up here and tell the troops what your secret sauce is. And so Ron gets up and he's, you know, kind of what you'd expect from a big brokerage guy from Calagary. He gets up and he said, the secret is when everyone here does one trade at a time, I do two trades at a time. He said what you have to do, and he pulls out a pink sell ticket. And he goes, when you have a sell you gotta have a buy! You never have cash. Sell, buy, sell, buy. And then sat down. That was it.

Art: And the whole room goes nuts! Like you would expect from The Wolf of Wall Street.

Steve: Brilliant. Everyone was cheering and it's like, this is surreal. Did that really just happen?

Rod: Well, and that's back in the day when all the brokers commissions were based on trading too, so it's very telling.

Steve: A hundred percent transactional. So in some respect he was right.

Art: He was absolutely right. And it was such a disconnect. And this is where the journey has changed. The industry has gone from that industry to actually advisors now are tasked with actually running money long-term.

And so a lot of the disconnect that Steve and I saw in the early days, which still exists, is this tension between the old industry, which was even if you've gone from a transaction guy to a fee base you still got this transactional mindset. That's unfortunately still embedded and it doesn't actually align with what you look at the academic evidence of how to have long-term success. And that's one of the real problems in Canada. We still haven't broken out of that the way the Americans have.

Rod: So is there anything that you'd like to comment on in the last couple of minutes, Art?

Art: Yeah, I just I'd like to talk briefly about your writing. What impact has that had?

Steve: I do a monthly blog.

I've been doing it for like over 10, 12 years now. I find it really helpful just to keep a consistent message to my clients. And what's gratifying is I'll be in a client meeting with someone and they'll repeat back something I've said in a blog. It's like a conversation. I enjoy writing them. And for benefit for clients I think it's great. In terms of getting your message out for prospective clients as well. You know, the typical way that people find out is they get your name and I would say 95% of the time will do a Google search and find your website and read about you and skim through the blogs and read the philosophy. And that's been great.

Rod: As you sit down, putting pen to paper every month, I'm just thinking about other advisors that are thinking about engaging in social media or starting a blog or a newsletter or whatever it might be. Are you sitting down writing to your clients? Is that sort of the voice that you have in your head or are you writing to the general public? Are you thinking more about your prospects? What sort of mind frame do you put yourself in?

Steve: I try and do double duty. It's kind of like, you know, with apparently the way car manufacturers advertise is they're more advertising to people who have bought a car. To make sure that people bought Ford or whatever, you know, feel good about it. As opposed to new people that, you know, I write it with clients in mind and I get ideas from asking clients or just conversations I have, and just being aware of what's going on. Like a topical thing that would be on people's mind. And that will be the focus on it. So client focused first, but then it's broad enough that anyone can read it.

Rod: That makes perfect

sense. Is there anything else that you wanted to talk about?

Steve: Art and I have been doing this for a long time and for people who just kind of looking at this kind of quantitative practice wealth management practice it's really in the best interest of clients. So I think the more that we can get the message out and I think it just serves the general public in a great way.

Rod: If I'm summing up what I think I heard you say there was a couple of ingredients along your journey early on in your career. You were a bit disenfranchised why brokers in the businesses were making money, but not necessarily always clients. So you've always had a win-win from the end client user perspective. But

it seemed to me that your curiosity of this other way was an important ingredient to make the journey. And there's another theme that we hadn't really talked about at all today, but it dawned on me when we had that conversation about, you know, dipping your toe in the water. The lake's really deep with the guys like Fama and you said it again, actually, in talking about clients who want to delegate to someone who has that expertise. So obviously there's various levels of expertise, but the theme that's interesting to me is this humility. This piece about self recognition that you don't have that expertise or that depth in certain spheres and the willingness to give up control of that component of it. To let those that have been in the academic sphere really take control of the investment side of things. Obviously there's a lot of work that goes on to manage tax and build models and, you know, structure your business appropriately. But those three things really kind of stuck out for me, Steve. It's been a super pleasure having you on board. My name's Rod Heard. Today we've been talking with Steve Lowry. Steve is portfolio manager at Lowry Financial and he's got 25 years of experience. His wealth management business is kind of a three-pronged service. It's an investment service. It's a financial planning service. And as we discovered through the podcasts, there's a lot of behavioral coaching that goes along. Thanks so much. We've really enjoyed having you on this episode of the Modern Investment Journey.

Art: Yeah. Thanks very much, guys. This was great. It's wonderful to have you on. And it's great to see Rod getting not just my reinforcement around these ideas, but yours as well. So that's really, you know, it's been a wonderful ride.

Rod: I suspect you boys missed that study group.

Art: Yeah. Yeah. Well, they missed me.

Rod: Well, someone was kicked off the Island. Oh, you're an asset manager now?

Art: They miss the fun. I brought to the group.

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