By Kathryn Furtaw Keuneke, CAE
Natural curiosity drives Clay Gillespie, CFP, CLU. The 22-year MDRT member from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, has achieved success, marked by one Court of the Table and 19 Top of the Table qualifications. Yet, his inquisitiveness pushes him to explore the various ways his peers around the world do business and incorporate new ideas in a measured and methodical way. With a focus on strengthening his knowledge and examining other perspectives — especially those that feel uncomfortable or test his assumptions — Gillespie is positioned to join the Executive Committee as Secretary on September 1 and help guide MDRT through its journey in a changing world.
The early years
When Gillespie was in 10th grade, a meeting with his high school guidance counselor ended with disappointing advice: Take an industrial arts class — you won’t make it through university. Gillespie handled it as any headstrong teenager would; he ignored it. A few years later with a finance degree in hand, he landed his first professional role at Rogers Group Financial, run by James E. Rogers, CLU, CFP, a 50-year MDRT member who would later serve as 2008 MDRT President.
Gillespie’s degree provided the foundation for a career in financial services, but it would take a few years of on-the-job training in an administrative role to understand how the profession worked. Half of his time in those early years was spent in client services, with the other half working directly for Rogers’ advisory practice. He also immediately began studying to obtain the designations that would strengthen his knowledge and prepare him to be an advisor.
Gillespie credits Rogers’ commitment to serving as a mentor — not trying to be his friend — by helping him learn through constructive feedback. Over time, Gillespie earned the senior advisor’s trust and took on more responsibility. “I ended up doing significant work on Jim’s files because he could see I could do it,” he said.
Advisor vs. salesperson
After a couple of years of work, Gillespie was evaluated by the firm’s industrial psychologist, who bluntly told him he would be better suited in another line of work. Thinking back to the high school counselor’s advice now, Gillespie suspects he didn’t apply his talents enough in school. As for the psychologist’s evaluation, he acknowledges that he isn’t — and never has been — a good salesperson in the traditional sense. However, Rogers saw that his potential as an advisor focused on client outcomes and told Gillespie, “For some reason, people trust you. You’re going to do fine.”
Once he was able to operate his own advisory practice, Gillespie stayed connected with Rogers on some big files, and he eventually bought out shares of his practice as Rogers retired. This process of bringing in new advisors and enabling them to eventually run their own practices is the way the advisor-run firm sustains itself.
Today, as managing director of the same firm where his career started — now known as RGF Integrated Wealth Management — Gillespie grows by being open to new challenges and continuing to pursue education.
“If you ever quit learning, you shouldn’t be in the industry,” said Gillespie, who holds eight designations and used some idle time during the pandemic to earn three of them. “If you quit learning, you fall behind and are no longer useful.”
For Gillespie, building his education is a self-improvement challenge, and strengthening his expertise is imperative for serving his clients.
With a focus on retirement income planning, Gillespie targets prospects who are five years from retiring, and his best clients are enjoying a comfortable retirement thanks to his planning and portfolio management.
When Gillespie meets a prospect, he puts them at ease by explaining that while they are planning for their only retirement, he plans for individuals’ retirements every day. During the second or third meeting, Gillespie tells clients that his role is not to be their friend. “Friends and family give you well-meaning, bad advice because they’re giving advice from their perspective,” he said. “My job is to give you information you can use to make an informed decision.”
Gillespie sets expectations for investment performance over the long term with clients, explaining that they’re going to feel very differently about him when the stock market goes up and down. “We know what’s going to happen, so we build the strategy around that.” He prepares clients emotionally for those downturns and helps them understand that it’s temporary and their plan was built to anticipate and weather the volatility.
This bit of scripting that Gillespie has mastered becomes the reassuring mantra that comforts clients throughout their retirement years.
If you ever quit learning, you shouldn’t be in the industry.
Delegating for business growth
Client work and running his own advisory practice account for about half of Gillespie’s workweek — his team includes two advisors and three support staff — and the other half of his time is spent on his duties as managing director of RGF. The latter role includes overseeing the 12 members of the corporate team, meeting with them weekly on an individual basis and with the entire staff of 69 monthly.
His role as managing director might take away some focus from his advisory practice, but Gillespie said he benefits from the intellectual stimulation of focusing on both the micro and macro perspectives of the business.
The added role requires Gillespie to free up his time by trusting his team with much of the client work. “A mistake people make is they only delegate menial tasks. That’s not the way to delegate,” Gillespie said. “When you start delegating client relationships, the client will call someone other than you. Your drive is to make yourself less important, but that’s hard for people to do because they’ve built those relationships. It’s tough to pass that off, but that’s the only way to get past the plateau and grow.”
Developing his team’s full potential by delegating meaningful work, including client relationships, is the way Gillespie ensures the future of his own advisory business — and it’s the way RGF develops the next generation of advisors and leadership.
This method of bringing in new advisors and allowing them to develop into future leaders has sustained the advisor-led firm for 50 years. Gillespie said RGF follows this process to remain an independent firm whose leaders can control their own working environment and make decisions that are not solely based on profitability but on improving the client experience.
A current RGF project is enabling clients to customize their experience through options such as digital appointment scheduling and communications. “Instead of us telling the client how we’re going to deal with them, they’re telling us how they want to deal with us,” he said. “We’re trying to tailor the relationship based on what the client wants.” Gillespie believes this level of customized service differentiates the experience his firm provides from how a large institution might serve clients.
These kinds of distinctions come from the perspective of being a business owner rather than a salesperson. “We’re a sales profession, but not the way you think,” he explained. “It’s about selling what is the best right thing for the client to do. That may or may not be a product set, but at the end of the day, you’ll be significantly more profitable. The referrals that came from this approach give you long-term success.”
Leadership in MDRT
Growing his career in a firm alongside longtime MDRT members meant that getting involved with the organization was an expectation for Gillespie. He volunteered for the Program General Arrangements Committee at his third Annual Meeting and quickly began meeting other members and building what would become long-term friendships.
As one volunteer assignment led to another, Gillespie found himself moving through various committees, serving as Advisory Board Chair for Top of the Table in 2019 and Global Council Member of the Finance Division currently. These roles increased his exposure to more members of the organization from around the globe, which has given him an opportunity to hear new perspectives about the profession. “I don’t think anybody is a visionary; all you’re trying to do is figure out what’s changing in the world, and the only way you can do that is by talking to other people,” he said. “See what’s going on out there in other jurisdictions, other rules, what other people are doing.”
Gillespie’s curiosity leads him to seek differing opinions. “If you go to people you agree with, you’re not learning anything,” he said.
New concepts are carefully weighed — not carelessly implemented. Gillespie collects the ideas throughout the year and pulls them all out for consideration when he sits down in October to write his personal business plan for the following year. “Then I’m able to decide which advice makes sense within the framework of running a practice, rather than what I got excited about at the time,” he said.
Gillespie’s drive toward growth and change — balanced by a need to consider and implement only select new ideas — positions him well to guide MDRT. With different consumers in each geographical area and different technologies at play, he knows this profession doesn’t look the same everywhere — and that’s an advantage for MDRT. Gillespie believes that having the opportunity to hear different perspectives can only help the organization find the best way forward, and he sees his role as a member of the Executive Committee to be ready to provide his perspective alongside his peers. “I’m there to give a diverse opinion,” he said. “When the Executive Committee gathers to make decisions, we are each there to make sure there are no blind spots.”