Column

A voice for the little guy

Canada needs an advocate for small investors— whether it needs Stephen Handler is another matter

Ross Laver June 22 1998
Column

A voice for the little guy

Canada needs an advocate for small investors— whether it needs Stephen Handler is another matter

Ross Laver June 22 1998

A voice for the little guy

Canada needs an advocate for small investors— whether it needs Stephen Handler is another matter

Column

Ross Laver

As he slides into his seat in a midtown Toronto restaurant, Stephen Handler slaps a thick sheaf of press clippings on the table. The 30-year-old founder of the Canadian Alliance of Individual Investors is fiercely proud of the media coverage he has received while waging guerrilla war against the fat cats of the corporate establishment. “It shows I’m having an impact,” Handler says. “The big guys are forced to sit up and take notice.”

Indeed they are. But what exactly is Handler trying to achieve? And why on earth is he carrying around a copy of the 1996 annual report of Playboy Enterprises Inc.?

The short answer: self-promotion. If Andy Warhol was right that in the future everyone will receive 15 minutes of fame, Stephen Handler is walking, talking proof that some people already get more than their share.

The trick is knowing how to attract attention. Handler’s moment of revelation came two years ago, when he decided that Canada needed a grassroots organization to fight for the rights of small shareholders. He established the CAII, installed himself as executive director and began publishing a bimonthly newsletter. His targets include the mutual fund industry (for charging excessive fees), big brokerage firms (for favoring institutional investors over individuals) and many of Canada’s best-known financial advisers (for alleged conflicts of interest).

The CAII’s letterhead carries a Bay Street address, but it’s actually just a rented mailbox next door to a Tim Hortons donut shop. “It’s important to make a good first impression,” says Handler, who lives with his parents in suburban Toronto. The CAII is a shoestring operation with no office, no staff and—according to its founder—only about 400 members, who pay $24 a year. It’s impossible to verify his membership claim, because in two years the alliance has not organized a single meeting.

It hasn’t had to. On his own, Handler has managed to generate more publicity than many better-established organizations receive in a decade. He’s been quoted in The Globe and Mail, The Financial Post and several other papers. Last week, he was inter-

viewed by Toronto’s City TV, which wanted his reaction to the six-month trading ban handed out to fallen mutual fund manager Frank Mersch. Handler’s view: compared to some of his industry colleagues, Mersch is a saint.

To Handler, all the attention proves he is on the right track. Others might argue that it shows how desperate some journalists are to find people who will take potshots at the high and mighty. Give a man a title and an organization to represent—even one he invented himself—and the headlines are sure to follow. Rarely do reporters bother to find out exactly who is doing the talking, and why.

Which is a pity, because Handler is happy to discuss his background and motives. After dropping out of university in the first year of an undergraduate arts program, he worked as a cook while pondering how to break into the financial services industry. He twice failed the Canadian securities course, then passed and spent a month as a salesman in a pennystock brokerage. Most of his experience in the markets comes from investing on behalf of his father, a retired dentist.

More than anything, Handler wants to be a player. He calls the CAII a “quasi-nonprofit organization,” adding that his aim is to be invited to sit on one or more mutual fund advisory boards as a representative of small investors. Either that or he’ll try “the Wealthy Barber thing”—writing how-to books on investing. “I don’t want to be seen as a tree-hugger,” he says. “I want to show you can be ethical and still make money.”

And the Playboy connection? Handler, it seems, has a beef vrith Hugh Hefner’s magazine company, something about the poor performance of its stock. He consciously set out to annoy the company by infringing on its rabbit head logo, which prompted Playboy to file a statement of claim in the Federal Court of Canada. Handler apologized, but continues to pass out copies of the annual report with his press releases. “I play up the sex because it gets me attention,” he says. “I like to cause trouble, because that’s the way you accomplish things in this world.”

Yes, Canada does need a strong advocate for small investors. Whether it needs the CAII is another matter entirely.