The Inspirational Power of Knowledge

Knowledge First Financial’s Cherisse Norman shows how she equips families with the tools to keep student budgets balanced

Post-secondary education is a challenge on many levels. Perhaps the most common challenge is finding the funds to pay for that education. Even for families who are able to put money away for a child’s education, knowing how to make those funds grow to tuition-level by the time their child graduates high school can be just as stressful.

Fortunately, Knowledge First Financial has the tools to help.

Knowledge First is an administrator, distributer, and investment fund manager of education savings plans—offering plans that help Canadian families save for their children’s post-secondary education. The company works with active money managers whose primary role is to monitor the market and make sound investment decisions that will generate the best return within specific risk levels. The dedicated money managers are a key part of Knowledge First’s services, as many investors don’t have the time or expertise to do it independently.

“It’s a key value-added service that we provide,” says Cherisse Norman, Knowledge First’s vice president of finance. “The deposits our subscribers have made are combined with others in the plan and invested in the market.” A total of $3.6 billion works for those active money managers to generate the greatest return while preserving the capital invested. “The knowledge we provide offers our customers peace of mind for their savings, as that money will support our Canadian children and help them achieve a post-secondary education.”

In her role, Norman is responsible for the financial accountability of the organization. In addition to long-range planning and financial reporting of results, she also provides operational advice on how strategy and business development will impact the business. Given the company’s focus on education savings, her most pivotal role is the ownership of Knowledge First’s investment strategy.

“With that investment size, my role includes development of the investment strategy, the performance of those strategies in the market, and then managing all of the relationships in the process, with the objective of providing increased savings for our subscribers,” Norman says. “As part of the executive team, I’m involved in making ‘go/no-go’ decisions for implementing and evaluating the success of all our initiatives.”

With a background in the financial services industry, Norman found Knowledge First to be a natural fit. Those previous job experiences helped her develop a strong technical base in financial management before she began pursuing opportunities for growth, like those she found with major life insurance companies and a top-five chartered Canadian bank. The experiences gave her a good strategic and operational focus by the time she came to Knowledge First four years ago.

“I learned to be part of the business as a financial person and not any kind of roadblock,” Norman says. “I realized long ago that, as financial executives, we need to be innovators and consider how to make ideas work and help the business grow. That really came together through prior experiences, and I’m definitely honing it and putting it to good use here.”

As financial executives, we need to be innovators and consider how to make ideas work and help the business grow.” 

It wasn’t just Norman’s experience and business acumen that made her a good fit for Knowledge First—the company’s culture and commitment to helping its customers made the company a good fit for her.

“The Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP) industry is quite niche and is complicated to understand and administer,” Norman says. “I found that the head office staff and the entire sales force is very committed to helping customers obtain the most financial benefit from their savings plan, so that niche focus and ability to provide service to help Canadians save was something that attracted me to Knowledge First.”

Another element that drew Norman to the company is its “never accept the status quo” mentality. Knowledge First may be in its fiftieth year, but it shows no signs of slowing down—in fact, the company is doing the opposite. Focused on innovation and change, Knowledge First is continuously striving to enhance its current products or create new ones.

“The entire executive team and staff are all engaged in those initiatives,” she says. “It’s very inspiring.”

Now, the organization is focusing on introducing more flexibility in formal investment and product rules. On the investment side, Norman and her team are exploring strategies to help optimize the returns on investment as well as balancing those returns from different asset classes, sectors, and industries, both in Canada and the United States.

Knowledge First also plans to expand its sales footprint in different geographical areas since little more than half of Canadians have RESP savings—meaning there are a lot more people in the country it can reach and help save money.

Norman has been a key voice in initiatives like these since she joined the company, and it’s her goal to continue to do so.

“I’m a strategic partner, and I’d like to continue that role and be seen as part of the business,” she says. “I want to make sure we move that vision of the financial executive beyond the [stereotype] to enable the business to grow, work with stronger operational partnerships, and be seen as a valued advisor and decision-maker.”