As the abridged resumé of Maili Wong pours into my digital recorder one over-achievement at a time, somewhere between “school valedictorian” and “first vice-president investment adviser for CIBC Wood Gundy,” I drift off and wonder how “astronaut” got away.
There’s still time, I guess.
I am meeting Ms. Wong over drinks at the Fairmont Waterfront. We are here to talk about her book. Yes, she’s an author, too. A best-selling author, in fact. Smart Risk, subtitled Invest Like the Wealthy to Achieve a Work Optional Life is No. 1 in its category on Amazon.
What I know about investing can fit in a thimble and still leave room for my net worth. A man sophisticated in the ways of money, I am not. That said, I’m not here to put the paddles to the lifeless corpse that is my portfolio, I’m here to appreciate the magnificence of Ms. Wong, as I said, one over-achievement at a time.
The serious business of being perfect began for Maili at Alpha Secondary in Burnaby where she managed to, um, out-alpha everybody. By her own admission, the pre-med track was obvious to the point of cliché.
“It was my dad who said, ‘Why don’t you forget this whole med thing and consider a career in business. I thought that he was nuts.”
Her dad, Terry, has been advising clients on investing for 45 years. At the time of this counsel, he probably wasn’t suited to evaluate his daughter’s acumen in the field of, say, brain surgery, but he knew he could help her help others make buckets of money.
Long story short, she fell in love with high finance and, well, high finance fell in love with her.
In 2001, after graduating UBC as “the most outstanding female graduate,” and with a bachelor’s of commerce in finance with honours, Merrill Lynch called to offer a position on the trading floor in the options and derivatives side, a rather new area of investing that required, among other skills, a deep knowledge of global events and their impact on the global economy.
One of those events, and its impact on the global economy, happened on Day 2 of her freshly minted career in New York on Sept. 11, 2001.
“Coming out of a morning meeting around 8:30, everybody was staring at these giant TVs on the trading floor. The message was ‘everybody get back to work. Don’t worry. Two idiots must have been drunk and flew a Cessna into the building. The market opens in 45 minutes.’ ”
The Merrill Lynch trading floor was connected to the second tower.
“Fifteen minutes later, the second tower was hit. Our building shook. A friend said, ‘Maili, let’s get out of here … When we got outside, one of my colleagues started to lose it. I put my hand on her shoulder and said, ‘Are you OK?’ She said, ‘No, I just saw two people jumping. They were holding hands. They were on fire.”
Maili articulates the story of her minutes, hours, days, weeks and months that followed 9/11 in a breathless staccato rhythm.
“September 11th put a lot of life in perspective for me … In 2006, I knew something was missing. I had this great job with this great title and other flashy stuff. But something was missing.
“I decided to quit my job and move back to Vancouver.”
And so began the latest chapter in what has become, in the end, a magnificent father/daughter story. Together, Terry and Maili formed the Wong Group within CIBC Wood Gundy. He had decades of experience with clients in Vancouver; she knew what worked on the trading floors of the world’s most progressive financial centre.
The student, you see, had now become something of a mentor.
“Initially, our relationship with clients was recommendations-based investments. As the trust blossomed, it transitioned into helping investors develop a plan whereby we make the day-to-day decisions on how to make their plan work.”
This fresh approach to portfolio management required dad go through the same journey as his clients in order to be fully vested in his daughter’s progressive ways.
And that brings us to today, and the book.
“Smart Risk is about creating and starting conversations about how people think about risk and helping people understand that sometimes it takes a mindset shift in order to really get to financial empowerment and freedom.
“This is a really interesting time for Canadian investors. I’m really excited to start this revolutionary financial conversation. What started out as just this book is evolving into something of a call to action around social media, around a smart-risk revolution — not only in investing but in how we look at our careers and how we teach our children to build careers.”
The woman radiates. NASA really ought to give her a call.
Wayne Moriarty is editor-in-chief of The Province. His financial portfolio is a fairy tale. Grim. Smart Risk, Invest Like the Wealthy to Achieve a Work-Optional Life is published by Advantage Press. More information available at SmartRiskInvesting.com.