Welcome back to the 130th episode of Financial Advisor Success Podcast!
My guest on today’s podcast is Ashley Micciche. Ashley is a partner and the CEO of True North Retirement Advisors, an independent RIA near Portland, Oregon that oversees nearly $200 million of assets under management for nearly 300 clients and small business retirement plans.
What’s unique about Ashley, though, is the way that she’s managed to grow her practice and her credibility despite the challenge of starting out as a 22-year-old, and the way that she’s been able to both grow a family practice jointly with her father and also grow her own family and take 2 maternity leaves along the way, in a world where so many financial advisors still struggle to find time to grow and sustain a practice while also starting a family.
In this episode, we talk in depth about how Ashley built her career in the early years. The way she started out cold calling for two years with a traditional regional brokerage firm and then ironically found it more successful to start cold knocking small business owners for their retirement plan business instead, the way she took advantage of an opportunity to get published in her local business journal, not to get new prospects directly, but to use reprints of the article to get credibility with her current prospecting efforts, and the successful way she figured out how to open the conversation with small business owners to quickly get their interest for a follow-up meeting.
We also talk about how Ashley tried to find the balance between growing her practice and taking time off for maternity leave as an independent advisor. Why developing a recurring revenue stream was so crucial to create the personal financial stability to be able to take maternity leave, the arrangement she made with her father to be the backup advisor or cover with her clients if an urgent issue did crop up, and the way she communicated the news to clients that the baby was coming and that she was going to take time off, and the one thing that she’d do differently in the future, returning to work more gradually over time rather than going from months of being all out with maternity leave to suddenly being all back in when it was time.
And be certain to listen to the end, where Ashley talks about both the benefits and challenges of going independent as an RIA. From the flexibility to be able to do more with small business owners than she could at her prior broker-dealer, and the stress that came in realizing that as an independent, she has to make decisions about absolutely everything, right down to which kind of business printer they’re going to use in the office and whether to buy or lease it.
What You’ll Learn In This Podcast Episode
- How Ashley Got Her Start [18:18]
- How She Transitioned Into The 401(k) Space [25:43]
- How Ashley Established Her Credibility Early On [39:34]
- What Her Practice Looks Like Today [48:57]
- How Ashley Managed To Continue Building Her Business While Starting A Family [54:47]
- How She Communicated With Her Clients About Her Upcoming Leave [59:27]
- How She Made Sure Things Kept Running Smoothly While She Was Out [1:03:48]
- What It’s Like Running A Practice With Her Father [1:11:08]
- What Surprised Her The Most [1:20:33]
- Why She Left Stifel [1:21:58]
- Her Advice To New Advisors [1:39:01]
- How She Defines Success [1:42:55]
Resources Featured In This Episode:
- Ashley Micciche
- True North Retirement Advisors
- Taking Maternity (Or Any Extended) Leave As A Financial Advisor Without Losing Your Clients
- Off Balance by Matthew Kelly
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Michael: Welcome, Ashley Micciche, to the “Financial Advisor Success” podcast.
Ashley: Thank you, Michael. I am so excited to be here.
Michael: I’m excited about this episode because you…I feel like this is sort of an extension now. You had done a guest post for us on the blog earlier this year talking about one of these topics I feel like is incredibly ubiquitous in the financial advisor world yet nobody talks about. Which is, what happens when you want to start a family as a financial advisor and you need to take maternity leave but you’re the advisor and they’re your clients and you’re going to kind of like not be there for a few months when clients need to be served and you kind of want to make sure you’ve still got clients and a business when you come back to it?
And you were so kind as to share that story and talk about what you did and what you’d gone through. And it was incredibly popular on the blog with a zillion people sharing it out, of just talking about what that dynamic is like. And to me, it’s really, I don’t know, it’s sort of a statement about a broader challenge as well in the advisor world today of just, when we make these independent practices and we’re trying to build on our own, I don’t know, just it’s one thing to talk about work-life balance, and then it’s another to say like, “Oh, no, no, my work-life balance isn’t just, ‘Hey, I want to have some time to hang out with my spouse and my kids when I get home,’ it’s, ‘Hey, so how do we handle, I’m trying to grow my business, but I kind of need to go away for a few months on maternity leave and I want to make sure I still have a business?'”
I love what you were willing to share around that. And I’m looking forward to maybe talking even more about it today, of just how…I don’t know, how do you find that kind of work-life balance in the real advisor world today?
Ashley: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting. I think what I had shared in the article, what I still kind of struggle with is that work-life balance, it’s almost… I read an article recently where someone says that that term should just go somewhere and die, because it is so hard to achieve, and it sets up this really difficult standard to achieve. And actually, what we want instead is work-life satisfaction.
So it’s really hard. It’s really hard to find that balance because, like right now, I’m at work and I’m talking to you and my kids are at home with my mom. And so, no matter where I am, whether it’s here at work or at home, I always feel like pulled in another direction. And I don’t think that that really ever goes away. And I think maybe part of the challenge is sometimes we think that if we just get it just right, we’re going to be perfectly happy and perfectly satisfied and everything is going to fall in place and my business is going to be successful and I’m going to have everything I want. And it’s just, it’s hard. You might have moments of that, but I feel that it’s very challenging to maintain over an extended period of time.
Particularly as a woman, like you were saying, maternity leave, this business is difficult for anybody who wants to grow their business yet has other priorities outside of work. And so when you’re faced with keeping a newborn alive for a few weeks or months and you need to take that time off, it’s challenging to do. So I’ve taken maternity leave twice now and both times, both maternity leaves were very different. And I feel like whenever I have my next child, it’ll be like, I’ll try something different and see if that works. And then by the time I’m done having kids, I’m sure I’ll figure out how to take a proper maternity leave.
Michael: Once you’re done.
Ashley: Once I’m done. Yeah. Yeah. And then I’ll rewrite the article and…
Michael: Yes, absolutely. Like, “Here’s what I actually learned now that I’ve had multiple children and found out all sorts of wrong ways to do it. Here’s what you should do.”
I do love that comment, though, of, I don’t know, retiring the label “work-life balance” or trying to find a new one. I like your term for it, “work-life satisfaction.” The other one I’ve heard bouncing around more lately is a concept of work-life harmony. That they’re never going to be in perfect balance with each other. And as you said, even if you do get them in balance, it doesn’t stay that way for a long then life happens and it’s out of balance again. But that you can try to at least search for work-life harmony, or at least they work together, right? That they’re not just in constant outright conflict to each other, but that this perfect balance like, “Oh, I spend exactly 39.9 to 40.1 hours at work and no more and no less and then I go home and I do all the things that I want to do with my kids and the precise amounts,” like, just life doesn’t seem to work that way. It never really quite does. And even if you get it there, it doesn’t stay for long.
Ashley: Yeah. Actually, where I got that concept and that phrase of work-life satisfaction was, I was actually so out of balance and so just aggravated with not being able to figure out like, “What am I doing wrong? Because I’m not happy here with my work situation, what I’m doing, I’m not happy with my home situation.” And my daughter, this was before my son was born, so my daughter was I think maybe two at the time, and I read this book by Matthew Kelly. It’s called “Off Balance.” And the whole concept of the book is talking about work-life balance and how that’s not actually what we want. We actually want work-life satisfaction. So that’s where I got the phrase from.
But what’s interesting about his book and what I really…I’m not being paid to endorse his book, by the way. But it was a life…it was one of those rare life-changing books because what he laid out in the book is this process for prioritizing what’s most important to you, and then spending most of your time and energy on those things. Because, yeah, our health is important, work is important, our families, all of these things, but we need to actually rank order these priorities and then give the proper due to these things.
And so what was happening was, back in 2016, I was…that year I ran three half marathons. And I was running all the time, I was training. I was doing all these other workouts to try to help myself stay healthy, because I was getting injured and stuff if I just ran all the time. And then when I ended up rank ordering my priorities, out of like the top seven, health was actually like six or seven. And I thought, “Well, why am I doing this? I don’t even actually like running that much.”
Michael: You ran three half marathons to realize like, “I don’t actually like running that much.” That’s an interesting moment of realization.
Ashley: Yes. So almost instantly I stopped running, and instead, I was like, “Well, I can just work out for 20 minutes a day and be good enough, and I don’t need to spend 2 hours twice a week on a training run. I can scale back and do it.” And health is always a priority, but I feel like it kind of ebbs and flows. If you’re having a health issue then it’s number one. If you’re relatively healthy and you’re eating okay and you don’t really have anything going on, then maybe you only need to work out 3 days a week for 20 minutes or something like that. So I just realized my own personal life, there were other things that outranked that, and so it forced me to reevaluate how I was spending my time and what I was doing.
Michael: So I’m fascinated by just this idea of literally sitting down and just starting to articulate what really are your priorities or your items in life. Out of curiosity, if you remember, as you were going through this, what else were you putting higher on the priority list? Do you sort of remember what this list looked like as you were writing out these things and then realizing that health and running half marathons was not actually that high on the list?
Ashley: Yeah. Well, like hobbies, that was another thing. So hobbies is a tough one because we all kind of need to have some time for ourselves. But if I was lumping in like running and those kinds of self-care-type things into that same category, I also realized that I love playing golf and I love doing these other things and hanging out with friends and going to this or going to that.
And so what ended up happening was I said no to more things because I realized that hobbies and health, which was like working out and stuff like that, those were lower on the list. And actually, the hardest part about that is struggling between…like work and family were two…work was three, family was two. I’m a very religious…God and living for eternity was number one. But it’s, my prayer life and my faith was one, then family was two, and then work was three. But then the struggle between all those things is, “Okay, now I have my top three, so how do I allocate time in a way that’s consistent with where these priorities are in my life?” And that was a real wakeup call because how I was allocating my time was not consistent with what I said was the most important to me.
Michael: Yeah. This whole phenomenon of just really being conscious about allocating time to fit your priorities, well, I guess first, as you said, sitting down and really thinking about what truly are your priorities, and then sitting down and looking at your time and saying, “To what extent does my time actually match my priorities?” I know Ron Carson’s actually been out there lately with this comment I’ve heard him make now at a couple of conferences, a couple of sessions talking about this dynamic. And I’m paraphrasing him slightly, but the point he essentially makes is like, take every time in your life when someone asks you about doing something and you say like, “I can’t. I don’t have the time,” which we…most of us pretty much say all the time, right? Because life is busy these days. So take every single time that you say, “I don’t have the time,” and instead say, “It’s not a priority.”
Because that’s really what’s happening. We all have the same fixed container of time. There’s no magic version where someone gets more time than someone else to do all the things that they want to do. We’re all struggling with the same fixed container of time. We all have to allocate it. Any time you say yes to something, you have to say no to something else, because the time container doesn’t expand, so literally, if you do too much of one thing, you won’t have time to do anything else. And so if you find you constantly don’t have the time to do things maybe that you want to do, it very literally means you’re not making it a priority over everything else.
And so the thing to me that’s powerful about Ron’s statement in making this point is, not just to think about where you spend your time in terms of priorities, but if you actually force yourself to stop using the words “I don’t have time” and start using the words “it’s not a priority” and then actually see when you’re saying it, you may suddenly very quickly find that you want to go through some adjustments in your priorities.
I know someone that went through a version of this and they actually tried it, and he told me like, the first time…he was, like, two days into it, the first time his daughter asked to play with him and he had to say, “It’s not a priority,” he realized he needed to change everything in his life. That’s what happen, right? The kids want to play, “I’m sorry sweetie, I don’t have time right now. Daddy’s got to do something”. And so when he wasn’t allowed to say, “I don’t have time” and you have to say, “It’s not a priority” and you say that to your child, it really forces you to take a hard look at what exactly in your life you’re prioritizing and what you’re not.
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah, that’s good. I think the key, though, is, then how do you tell somebody that in a tactful way? See, that’s what I always struggle with. Because I would just go up to someone and be like, “Sorry, you’re not a priority.” I need to figure out a better way.
Michael: Well, and I hear you, but there’s also a part of me that just wonders like, is that really the worst thing if that’s what it comes out to? I don’t know. Maybe there’s a tiny bit of a softer way to say it to someone and then literally say like, “No, I’m sorry, I’m not going to do that. You are not a priority.” Which is a little bit demeaning. But I think we all get it. Any time we ask someone else to do something for us or with us or as a favor to us or whatever it is, everyone’s got limited time. So if we want to keep saying, “Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t have the time” because that’s just the gentle euphemism for “I’m sorry you’re not a priority,” I guess we can keep doing the “I don’t have the time thing.”
But there still to me is a distinction or I guess an interesting psychological effect to us that, look, if you want to gently say to someone, “I don’t have the time” because that’s more accepted way of saying it than, “I’m sorry, you personally are not a priority to me,” saying it to yourself, you’re not allowed to say, “I don’t have the time,” you have to say, “It’s not a priority,” when you think about or reflect on who you’re actually saying that to, you may have some realizations.
Ashley: Well, plus, it’s a more honest response anyways versus, “I don’t have time.”
Michael: So I guess if anybody is listening and has just actually figured out how you say this well or if you just outright say to people, “I’m sorry, you’re not a priority,” write in and let us know. I’m just terribly curious to know how that conversation goes if you’ve figured out how to tactfully say that to someone. I guess if you want to do the gentler version, at least in your head, whenever you say it, whenever you say, “I don’t have time,” say, “It’s not a priority,” and evaluate what you’re saying it to. And just you may find you want to change a few things.
So speaking of priorities and figuring out priorities, and as you said, religion was number one, family was number two, work was number three. So you decided to start a family because it was higher than work, which meant taking time off from work. So I do want to just kind of delve into this a little bit further about just how you do this, how you navigate this. But I think maybe as a starting point, though, we need you to talk a little bit about just the advisory business you’re in so that people will have a little bit more context sort of the business you are in, what you were taking maternity leave from, what your constraints were. So talk to us a little bit first about the advisory business.
How Ashley Got Her Start [18:18]
Ashley: Sure. So I started back in 2007. I actually started straight out of school. I was 22 years old when I got licensed and started cold calling people, asking them to give me their money.
Michael: And you were like, you actually started back in cold calling world as a recent college graduate.
Ashley: Yes. So I came out of school, I joined my father, but he… So he’s the type of person where like when we would play Chutes and Ladders when I was five, he would never let me win at anything.
Michael: Okay. So, like, competitive out of the gate, always got to gain face on.
Ashley: Oh, yeah. In fact, so he’s a pretty good golfer but I’m a little bit of a better golfer than him. And so when we play golf and he beats me, which happens occasionally, more than I would like, he will not let me…he will talk about it for months. And I have to play him again and beat him before he’ll be quiet about it. So he’s very competitive. And never was the type to ever hand me anything. I always had earned anything that I had. And so I think that helped a lot when I came into the business. Because when I came in, he had a lot of clients and he had clients where I was able to come in and go meet with them. And the goal was to develop deeper relationships and maybe I would find rollover here or there, some additional assets.
But he basically sent me to the wolves, and I didn’t have a book that I was starting with. I had to go out and find my own clients. And so because I’m 22, I have no network. All my friends are broke just like me. So I started cold calling. And I actually cold called for about 2 years, and over that period of time, I made like 25,000 phone calls or something like that. It was crazy. But I spent…I beat my head against the…yeah, I didn’t know. That was after the Do Not Call list.
Michael: I was going to say like, this is in the Do Not Call era, so didn’t accidentally rack up $100,000 of FCC fines hopefully.
Ashley: No, no, no. They had a pretty good system for making sure you were only calling people on the Do Not Call. You had to call through this weird network thing before you…every time you made a call. So it was very compliant. But you basically sat down with your list and all day long you just made calls. And so what I found is that the only people who are on the Do Not Call list anymore are people who just really want to talk to somebody.
Michael: So they’re home and they’re lonely and you called, so they can chit-chat.
Ashley: Yes. And so I’m like, “Can we set an appointment or not? Because if not I’ve got to go.”
Michael: I’ve just got to imagine how many of them are sitting there like, “Yeah, I’ve got nothing going on today, so I think my only goal is, I’m going to wait for a cold caller and then I’m going to see if I can keep on the phone until they hang up on me.”
Ashley: Although, yeah, I don’t know that I ever did that. So that was challenging. And because I know how many calls I made, I knew what my numbers are. My numbers were terrible. And honestly, I didn’t think it was because I was a bad cold caller, just I think it was just something that the Do Not Call list kind of destroyed this opportunity. Because my dad, so my dad built his business cold calling on municipal bonds. And that’s how he got the momentum that got…and here he is 30 years later almost. So he was like, “Yeah, cold calling works. You should do that.” Well, yeah, cold calling works in the ’80s and ’90s but not in 2007 and 2008.
Michael: Yeah. That was the heyday of cold calling was kind of really the ’80s in particular, I think. Although I guess that even there was some of it back to the ’70s. All the movies about stockbrokers cold calling people and making money, it’s all the era when your father was getting started. That’s when it was the thing. You could do it at work and you actually got paid enough per stock trade or per bond trade that you could make a living off it with a moderate number of cold call successes.
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah, that’s changed for sure.
Michael: So what were you selling when you…? I’m just so curious. What were you selling when you were cold calling to sell? I started in 2000, so when I was cold calling, I was cold calling VUL, variable universal life insurance because that was the thing at the time. So what were you cold calling with when you’re calling?
Ashley: Good old-fashioned muni bonds.
Michael: Oh, so you were like, you were right back to your father’s path. Like, “Hey, are you paying too much in taxes on your bond portfolio? Because I’ve got something to help.”
Ashley: Yeah. And you know, so in 2007, rates on munis were pretty good. And in Oregon, where I live, you have state and income tax, federal income tax. So there was a really good…there were some good opportunities out there. And I was calling mostly retirees, so it kind of fit in well. So that’s usually what I would…
Michael: Yeah, the only thing better than bond income in retirement is tax-free bond income in retirement. So you started, you were cold calling muni bond sales for the first two years. And was this under the umbrella of your father’s business? Did you come into the business, he just wasn’t going to hand you any clients and said you had to go do it on your own or did you go start entirely independently just in the business your father also happened to be in and he’s giving you suggestions?
Ashley: No, no, we’ve always been a team from day one. So we’ve always had revenue sharing. And that was usually based on… Like today what we do is True North’s revenue is X, and his payout and what he gets and his profit distribution is based on what revenue is attributed to him and his clients, and then my split is from myself and my clients. So in the beginning, I had a…they still gave you a salary, although it wasn’t great.
Michael: Okay. Our salary standards are pretty low when we’re 22. So, “Oh, my God, they pay you a salary. This is amazing.”
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah. And I did have a salary. I remember, it was a long time, like AG… I started at A.G. Edwards, and their training program is pretty robust. And they’re pretty generous. They gave you a long runway to get your business going. So I remember I had a salary for quite a while. And then that kind of tapered off. And then in ’09, after Wachovia…after A.G. Edwards sold to Wachovia and then Wachovia was purchased by Wells Fargo, there was a lot of changes with that transition, and it wasn’t the same company anymore.
Michael: Yeah, you go from like regional brokerage firm, that small family environment to like, “Welcome, you’re now 0.2% of Wells Fargo,” or whatever the size was. You went from local, regional broker to sort of assimilated into mega-national wirehouse.
How She Transitioned Into The 401(k) Space [25:43]
Ashley: Yeah. And that culture shock was huge. There was a pretty large exodus from A.G. Edwards brokers who had been there for many, many years. And, oh, actually, a lot of those advisors ended up going to Stifel. We left and went to Stifel in ’09, my dad and I. And most of our office that started this Stifel branch where I was had come from A.G. Edwards. And then I’d go back to the conference every year in St. Louis where Stifel was located and I’d run into all these ex-A.G. Edwards people. And it’s like, “Jeez, where did you guys come from?” So culturally, there was a lot of similarities between A.G. Edwards and Stifel. And so it was an easy transition to make because we could switch firms and move over without this big, massive culture shock. In a lot of ways, it was very similar to what we were used to at A.G. Edwards. So that was kind of what happened.
And then we were able to negotiate as part of that change that they would extend my salary for even longer. So I had even more of a runway to get going. And then actually around that time, I stumbled into a 401(k) plan. We had a client, she’s still a client today, but we were doing her personal wealth management and then she had asked like, “Hey, can you take a look at my 401(k)?” And I was like, “Sure. Yeah, I have no idea what I’m looking at, but I’ll look at it.” So I ended up…we ended up getting the 401(k) plan, and then I realized…I went out and did an education meeting with the employees and I realized at that first education meeting with that first 401(k) client, I was like, “I love this. I love being able to meet with these people and help them and work with them.” Because you can’t do that as a…you can’t work with people individually who have $100,000 in student debt and a $5,000 IRA and they’re saving 1% of their income a year. It’s hard to survive as an advisor. You need, like, 100,000 of those clients. And then you can’t serve them well because you need too many of them.
So what I found through the 401(k0 plan is that I absolutely love it because I was able to profitably serve an underserved market and be able to make a meaningful difference in their financial life. And I would come out every year and I would get to know them a little bit. And I’d make notes about them and I’d be like, “Hey, Michael, how are you coming on the student loan repayments?” And so just helping them make progress. And it was like, that was like my drug. And so I transitioned into specializing in the 401(k). And that kind of shifted what I was doing for marketing and prospecting. So I went from cold calling on the phone to cold calling door-to-door. And actually, that was very, very effective.
Michael: Interesting. So the decision to start specializing into 401(k) plans just gave you a, I guess at least, a different and more targeted path to go after people cold.
Michael: So what was the secret to cold calling door-to-door and why it was different? Because I think for most advisors, frankly, the only thing that sounds worse than cold calling is cold knocking. And you’re talking about this as a positive progression. So what was going on with cold knocking door-to-door that this became effective?
Ashley: So the interesting thing about 401(k) plans is, because the 5500 data that…the tax filing form for 401(k) plans is public data. So you can pull up, like let’s say I do a zip code search and I can find all the 401(k) plans. I know exactly how much in assets they have, and I know who the signer on the 5500 is. And whoever that signer is, a lot of times that’s the decision maker. Particularly in a small plan. The plans I was going after were in the $1 million to $10 million space, which is a largely underserved market anyways. I would target them and then I would kind of build a list. So I was being efficient with knocking on doors and not driving across town.
And then for about, gosh, I want to say a year and a half to two years, I actually stopped doing it because I had so many plans, new plans in a short period of time. It’s the only time in my career I’ve had so much business I didn’t know what to do with it. And so I stopped because I couldn’t handle and properly serve the new plans that I was having. But then I never went back to it. But it’s nice because now I know if I ever get in this funk, I can always go back to it because I know how to do it. And there’s no…nobody else is doing it, because, as you said, it’s not palatable at all.
Michael: But so the core to this mean just literally like, look up the 5500, find out who the signer is and then just go to that business and say like, “Hey, I’m just wondering if I can talk to Jim for five minutes about your company’s 401(k) plan?” What does that conversation look like?
Ashley: Not quite. So, I actually wrote an article around this time about 401(k) plan fees. And so I would go in. And I got reprints of the article. And by the way, this was in, like, 2010ish. So I’m 25 years old when I’m trying to convince people to give me their $5 million 401(k) plan to manage. So I knew I needed something to establish credibility. So I wrote an article about 401(k) plan fees, and then I got…it was published in the “Portland Business Journal.” And then I got reprints of it, and I took reprints and a business card and my bio. Because I have a name I’d walk in and I’d say, “Hi, my name is Ashley Micciche. I’m here to see Michael Kitces. Is he available?” And usually, that disarms the gatekeeper because you’re walking in and you know who you’re asking for. You’re not asking for like, “Can I speak to the business owner, please?”
Michael: Right. You’re going in with name, like, “Oh, they said the person’s name and they said it confidently, I guess they actually know who they’re going after here.”
Ashley: Yeah. And also, I would say I was at a pretty distinct advantage being a young female because that in itself is…
Michael: You don’t look like a stockbroker in a suit.
Ashley: Or just some…I don’t know, it’s a little bit just more disarming in general. And I was always friendly. So anyways, I would come in and I’d bring in this article and my bio. And then I would say 90% of the time they either weren’t there or I couldn’t see them. And so I would just leave it with them. And then I would usually follow up with phone call and email. And a lot of times it led to conversations even after the fact, even if I didn’t see them. But I had one client in particular who is still a client today who he says, “I can’t believe you came in that day.” He’s like, “I don’t know what…” Because I just walked in and I was like, “Hi, can I speak to so-and-so?” So I think actually, part of the reason why he ended up paying attention to me and listening to me and having that conversation was because I kind of broke the pattern and walked in the door.
Michael: Interesting. So in this whole world, like, because everybody else cold calls, the fact that you showed up was like, “Oh, this is new. This is different.” Like, “Okay, let’s have this conversation with this stranger who wants to talk to me about the 401(k) plan.”
Ashley: Yeah. And I would usually…because I brought this article about fees, and I found that that was an effective tactic. Who doesn’t want to save money or reduce their costs? So that in itself was effective. And I would say, “Do you know…?” If I happen to be able to speak with them face to face, I would say, “I just came by to drop off this article on 401(k) plan fees. Do you happen to know what you’re paying in your 401(k) plan or what it’s costing you?” or some variation of that question. And sometimes they would say, “I don’t have time to talk about this. You can leave now.” But then other times it would lead to this conversation.
And so usually…it was the same thing as the cold calling. I was just trying to schedule a time when I could come back and have a more in-depth conversation versus just ambushing them on the spot. So if they were interested, I would just usually say, “Well, let’s schedule time. Why don’t I come back for 20 minutes next week and I can show you how I…” Basically, what I offered is a free benchmark report. I’d compare their plan fees to what they should be paying for a plan their size. And especially for small plans, I’d say 9 times out of 10 I could do better, reduce their costs and probably improve their plan versus what they had.
Michael: Well, and I think you make an interesting point there of just, the world of cold calling or cold knocking or cold any of it, the truth even in those environments, well, I guess all the way back in the early stockbroker days there were probably the times of, I cold-called a person, they literally bought 100 shares of the stock that I’m trying to sell right there on the phone. But most cold calling, even when it was successful, you weren’t trying to close for a sale on the call, you were just trying to close for a follow-up meeting. A chance to actually get in there, often in person, and connect with the prospect more directly and show some value and try to build a relationship so that you could do business.
And so I think it’s an interesting point here that, again, you weren’t trying to walk into the person’s office and literally grab, “Hey, in just an hour that you don’t have, I will tell you all these things about your 401(k) plan that you probably never knew and didn’t care about.” No one is going to connect to that. You’re in there with a much more short and direct, like, “Hey, do you know what you’re paying in your 401(k) plan?” “No, but maybe I should know.” “Great. Can I do a follow-up visit with you next week? We will benchmark your fees and just let you know whether what you’re paying is actually competitive.” It’s like, “Oh. Okay, that’s pretty easy. You’re not asking that much of me.” As a business owner I can say, “Yes, I’ll do that,” and then I can get out of this conversation, but now I’m on the hook.
I think it’s an important point around what business development and a sales and the closing process looks like, that you don’t have to get the person to agree to do business with you or give you your life savings or their 401(k) plan or whatever it is on the first meeting, in first interaction. You’re just trying to get your foot in the door to have a second interaction. So don’t sell more than you need to.
I do have to wonder, though, like, I don’t know, I’m just… Because I remember, this was a version of what impacted me one of the first times that I was cold calling is like, I had my little script, and as you pointed out, 90-plus percent of the time, no one wants to have the conversation or they don’t have time, or on the cold calling world back then like, or they yell at you and they’re angry and they hang up on you.
And I still remember the thing that threw me off the most was the first few times. I would do my little script and then ask, “Would you like to talk more about that?” And they would say yes. I’m like, “Oh, God, what do you do now?” Did you have similar moments? Was there some point where you went in cold to a business and said like, “Oh, can I meet with Jim Smith, the business owner?” and the person’s like, “Oh, okay, Jim Smith will see you now.” And you’re like, “Oh, crap, wait, I’m actually going to meet him?” Like, “Oh, my God, what do I do? I’m going into the business owner’s office and they said yes. And now I have to meet with them.”
Ashley: Yes, there are definitely. But you know what? That happens on the first time you do it. So once it happens, it’s like, “Okay, well, it’s fine now.” But I know exactly what you’re talking about because when I would…this happened more on the phone, when I would ask for the appointment, because you’re expected to get an objection that you’re going to have to overcome if you want to actually schedule the appointment. So I remember several times I asked like, “Hey, can we meet next Wednesday at such-and-such time?” And they’d be like, “Yes.” And I’d be like, “Wait, what?”
Michael: “Okay, then. Great, let’s move.”
Ashley: Okay. And then I’d be like, “Okay, you got the appointment. Don’t screw it up. Don’t screw it up. Just be cool. Be cool.” And so yeah, there’s definitely several times where you’re just caught off guard. You have to play it off as if you…that’s how it always goes.
Michael: But the…it sounds like the credibility builder for you was trying to get an article published and then using the reprints of the article as a piece for credibility. Can you talk about that a little bit more? Like, what did you do? How did that come about? Because to me, it’s just, it’s an interesting angle for someone as a younger advisor about how you try to get some credibility when otherwise you’re working with business owners or retirees that are looking at you like their kids or the grandkids, which is…
How Ashley Established Her Credibility Early On [39:34]
Ashley: Yeah. And I honestly…I’m not sure where that came from, but I’ve always been interested…I’ve always liked writing. And I ended up…how this particular article happened was, I was at a networking event at the “Portland Business Journal,” and they were hosting…they had their writers and editors and publishers, and a bunch of people in the community were there. And I met the editor of the “Portland Business Journal,” his name is Rob Smith, and he’s at a different business journal now. But I had a conversation with him and I was like, “Hey, are you looking for guest contributors from time to time? I have some ideas or some articles that I think would benefit your readers.” And so I had a couple in mind and one of them was about 401(k)s. And then there was another one, I forget what it…it was on some other business…financial business-related topic. But he was interested. So he was like, “Send me an email and we’ll talk.”
And so we ended up talking a little bit. And then he was receptive to receiving an article. So I wrote an article, got it approved by compliance, sent it off to him, and he published it. So it was just this chance meeting that turned into a regular thing because he left maybe a couple years after I started writing. So that relationship was sort of severed. And I haven’t published anything in that publication since he left. But I probably had four or five guest pieces that were published.
But it is…I think it’s an important way to establish credibility because it’s this third party, especially when you can’t use testimonials. It’s this third-party affirmation that you actually do know what you’re talking about. I don’t think it’s as difficult as people think it is to get published. You don’t necessarily have to be in “Forbes” or “Wall Street Journal.” There are a lot of local business publications or regional business publications or…whatever your target market is. Or even guest posts on blogs. Like, this transpired because of a guest post about maternity leave. So there are a lot of opportunities in there, a lot of people out there who are looking for quality content for their blog or their newspaper or their magazine or whatever it is. So all you need is one of those and then you just get reprints and there you have your credibility.
Michael: Yeah, it’s, well, A, just I love that. Like, how did it come about? Well, you met a person that would give you the opportunity and you asked for the opportunity and he said yes. I love those…to hear those stories, that, I don’t know, there’s sort of this, how do you…? Like making your own luck sort of thing. That yes, it was a chance meeting that you hadn’t necessarily set up that created the opportunity in the first place, but then you took an action and did something to try to create that relationship and establish that opportunity. And you did it and it actually worked.
And not that they always work, but… I’m always fascinated that when I talk to a lot of people that seem to have had these good luck opportunities that befall them, that there’s often this intersection of like, “Yeah, it sort of kicked off with this random chance encounter, but then I actually did something in the moment to move that opportunity forward,” instead of just, “Oh, yeah, I was at a party once with the publisher of the magazine, but it was the weirdest thing. We were at a cocktail party and he didn’t just ask me to contribute an article to his publication.” It’s like, “No, you kind of have to ask for it at some point. You’ve got to ask for those opportunities. People who publish magazines don’t just walk around asking random strangers to submit articles.” You might have to offer it, but sometimes you’d be amazed if you offer it that occasionally people say yes.
But there’s also, to me, an interesting aspect that I see so many people, so many advisors say they try to do a lot with sort of media and PR and then get very frustrated like,” I got myself published in 6 articles in the past 12 months and I only got 2 prospects and neither of them were very good.” And sort of get this frustration like, “I did this media PR stuff and I didn’t get any business out of it.”
And what’s striking to me about your story is, it’s not like you did an article about 401(k) fees in the “Portland Business Journal” so that people who read the “Portland Business Journal” would call you up and be like, “I read your article about 401(k) fees. I want you to manage my 401(k) and save me money.” That the point of the article was, “No, I just want to get one article out there so that I had a credibility thing in my hands so that I could take the reprint and walk into a person’s office and show them that I’m more credible because I’ve been published in the Portland ‘Business Journal'” And that you leveraged it by putting it in front of your prospects, as opposed to hoping the article would be the thing that produced the prospects.
Ashley: Yeah. I’m not a prolific published author. I’ve had some articles published, not a lot, but I’ve never once, not that I can recall, I’ve never once had a prospective client call me and do business with me because of something that they read. It happened where I opened the door through maybe another way, but not through direct new business. So I think you’re right. It’s just, how can I repurpose this and how can I use it in a more active way that’s going to help me rather than sitting here and waiting for my phone to ring? Because that may never happen.
Michael: So you started down this road of cold knocking, “I’m going to look up 5500s. I’m going to find 401(k) plan, business owners in my local market. I’m going to go knock on their doors walking with by reprint, try to get past the gatekeeper. If I ask enough of them, a few of them actually say yes, if only because I’m the only person that call knocks anymore because everybody else cold calls and just get screened out by the gatekeeper.” So you broke the pattern and got in the door. What happened next in the growth of the business?
Ashley: Yeah. So about maybe a year, year and a half into doing that, I had, like, six new plans at one time all at various stages. A couple who had just come on, a couple that were in transition. Because 401(k) plans, especially if you’re doing like a record keeper change or something like…it takes three months. So it’s a long process. It’s not just, sign the ACAT form and the assets will arrive in two weeks. It’s very involved. So there was a lot going on. And so what ended up happening is I got enough momentum where I got to like maybe 10 to 15 plans and then I had this huge bottleneck of all these plans that were coming in at the same time and I stopped cold walking altogether. And I thought, “Well, I’ll go back to doing that at someHow Ashley Established Her Credibility Early On [39:34] point.” So I had these plans. Because my goal when I started was I wanted to get to 50 plans. I thought, “I can manage 50 plans, and that’s a good number.” That was my goal.
Michael: And was that because of a certain assets, size, revenue or just like, “Got to have a number to shoot for. I think I can handle 50 of them, given how much time it takes me to do each plan and support them?”
Ashley: Yeah, it was the later. Because it’s…with 401(k) plans, you might have a plan that’s an…especially if you’re in the smaller market like I was operating in, it was…I might have a plan that half a million or $1 million, and you need a lot. I need more than 50 of those because you don’t get paid…you get paid half or even less than what you get paid on traditional wealth management. So you need bigger assets and more assets if you want to be on par with certain revenue goals that you would want on the wealth management side. So if I was going to have 50 plans, I needed 50 plans that were in the $3 million to $10 million range in order to make that work. But it was just something like, “I think I can get to 50. I’m not going to stop cold walking and prospecting and doing this until I get to 50.” And that didn’t happen because then I got to like 20 and I was like, “Man, these are a lot of work.”
So I don’t…I actually don’t know. I got to like 25 plans and right now I’m at…when we left Stifel in 2018, in January of 2018 and started our own RIA, I’d left a few plans behind. So that’s where I’m at today. And I’m actually…I’d like to grow more and have more plans, but I think 50 is too much unless I want to bring somebody else on to help with that. And I’m not. I haven’t figured that piece out yet. So I’m not sure what will happen going forward with the 401(k) plans.
What Her Practice Looks Like Today [48:57]
Michael: So what does the practice look like today in terms of who you’re serving and, well, I guess how you measure? I don’t know if you look at that by total plan assets, revenue or however you measure it. What’s the state of the business today?
Ashley: So still the primary clientele that we work with is on the wealth management side. So we do traditional financial planning, retirement planning, investment management. And then there’s this 401(k) piece that has been a part of the business for many years now.
And actually, an interesting thing happened in 2013. One of my 401(k) plan clients, it was a pretty small…well, medium size. Small business but there’s probably about 30 employees as a manufacturing company. And the business owner was third-generation business owner. And he died of a heart attack suddenly. What ended up happening is, over the course of the next couple of years, his business actually stayed afloat. His wife came in, his grieving wife, who was a retired school teacher, knew nothing about the industry, nothing about running this business, she came in and ran the business for a couple of years and then they ended up selling to a competitor who in very short order eliminated all the jobs except for a handful of jobs because they were repetitive.
So I kind of watched all this happen as a fly on the wall. Looking back, I never had a conversation with him about anything outside of the 401(k) because I was just managing the 401(k). I never talked to him about, “What happens to your business if something happens to you? Or what does your exit plan look like?” Because most people aren’t going to die before they retire. And so, that experience was really the catalyst that kind of shifted this niche where we’re really focusing on working with business owners, in particular, doing exit planning for them. So whether they want to transition their business to a family member or inside employee or they want to sell their business. It’s like financial planning on steroids because it’s specialized towards the needs of making sure that that transition is successful.
Michael: And so, you’ve mentioned that you still have this split with your father. He’s got his clients and paid on his revenue, you’ve got your clients and paid on your revenue. So is there a split in the firm where he gets the wealth management clients because that’s his thing and you’re doing the 401(k) clients because that’s your thing or are each of you now ending out with a mix where he’s got some wealth management and 401(k) clients and you’ve got some wealth management and 401(k) clients and just you’re each getting your own clients and doing your own thing with your own mix?
Ashley: Yeah, 100% of the clients and what he does for them is on the wealth management side. So the 401(k) and the exit planning with the…that’s all me. Because the 401(k) is challenging. You really have to…because you’re playing with fire sometimes if…you kind of have to understand the ERISA rules and all the special rules and everything that comes with doing 401(k) plans because you don’t want to mess that up or cause a serious problem or do more harm than good
Michael: And so now you’re trying to shift into doing more direct business advice for the business owners?
Michael: And that’s like a separate fee structure or that’s just a value-add for doing the 401(k) business, “Hey, I’ll also help you with some other business issues?” How are you approaching it from the business end?
Ashley: It depends on the complexity. So sometimes if we’re just having conversations, it’s a value-add service. It’s nothing extra. But what I’m trying to transition to more and more is similar to what I was doing with the 401(k) is targeting and specifically doing business with new clients and doing the exit plan with them, where it’s more of a fee for doing the plan itself. Similar to like a financial planning fee, it’s a fee for doing the upfront plan and then it’s a retainer fee for helping to implement that plan and making sure that that all goes smoothly for whatever that timeline looks like.
Michael: And the focus is all specifically around exit planning? Does that mean buy-sell agreements and that kind of stuff, or what are you delving into with them?
Ashley: Yeah. So that kind of gets into where you need to get an attorney involved, too. So I’d like to think about it more as like the project manager. And you should involve the attorney. Sometimes you’ll need to involve a business broker or a M&A advisor and the CPA. And so, how I view my role in that is I’m looking at the big picture of the plan and trying to herd all these different cats.
Michael: Okay. So similar to how we talk about a lot of financial planning. Like, “I’ll be the quarterback and I’ll pull in the rest of the team. I’ll pull in the estate planning attorney and your accountant and your insurance agent and all the other pieces.” You’re framing a similar model but specifically to business owners and specifically around the exit planning theme as opposed to financial planning and the retirement, estate, insurance theme that we do in traditional planning.
Ashley: Yeah, exactly. And I find that a lot of business owners, they just…they don’t have any…because each person kind of manages their piece and they don’t have anybody who is guiding the big picture, which is the natural fit for financial advisors and planners to do because we’re used to doing that anyways.
How Ashley Managed To Continue Building Her Business While Starting A Family [54:47]
Michael: And so you’re on this journey of collecting your plans and building up and then decide, “Hey, I want to start a family.”
Ashley: Big momentum killer, Michael. I’ve got to tell you.
Michael: So yeah, talk to us about this. Where did it come in the growth…in the stage of building the business and the growth cycle for you, and I guess just what’s going through your head as you’re trying to build the business, starting to get some momentum and then staring down the possibility of starting a family and taking a step back from all this business development stuff that you’ve been working on?
Ashley: Yeah, that was really hard. And looking back, if I thought about it or overanalyzed or planned too much, which is against my nature, but I knew if I sort of overanalyzed it, I would never have any kids at all because it’s never the right time. My daughter was born in 2014. So I had already been in the business almost seven years when she was born. So by that time, I felt comfortable with the revenue I had. I could leave. I still had a lot of recurring revenue. So I could be gone for 3, 4 months and I could still bring home a paycheck, which is not what 99% of the population could do if they want to take more than, say 8 weeks or 6 weeks or whatever the mandated paid leave is.
So I felt very fortunate in that regard, that this industry, if you have recurring revenue, allows for you to take an extended period of time while still receiving a paycheck. So that actually…looking at it from that perspective helped me to say, “You know what? This isn’t going to be bad. It’s not going to kill my every…all my momentum. I’m not going to lose all my clients.” And part of the reason also was because I knew that anything that came up while I was on maternity leave, our assistant could handle, my dad could handle if it was an investment or… And the challenge was, because he doesn’t specialize in the 401(k) plans, he’s very limited in what he could help with if there was some issue there. But I was always accessible. So I didn’t have any issues. I was actually a lot more nervous about it.
And then, in reality, I find that when you are not calling your clients a lot of times, especially if they know that you’re gone, they’re not necessarily ringing your phone off the hook or…it’s manageable. Last month I was gone for two weeks. I was out of the country and totally unreachable and hardly anybody called. And the people that did call, the support staff took care of it. And I was just joking like, “Oh wow, I guess I’m not as important as I thought.”
Michael: Very humbling experience when you’re so afraid to go away from your business because it’ll all fall apart, and then you finally go away and it doesn’t fall apart and it’s like, “Oh, I guess I wasn’t actually that important after all.”
Ashley: Yeah. If I’m reaching out and I’m calling clients or I’m emailing, you’re kind of the…you kind of cause a lot of your work in that regard. And then a lot of times when clients call it’s because they need money or they need some sort of administrative task that somebody else could take care of anyway. So I think a really rough time to leave would be if the markets or the economy were in free fall and you had a lot of panicked clients calling. But that happens a couple times in a career. So you just kind of have to cross your fingers and pray that it doesn’t happen when you decide you want to take an extended leave. And fortunately for me, it didn’t.
Michael: So don’t worry too much about maternity leave, but if the once-a-decade bear market happens on your baby watch, it might still get a little stressful.
Ashley: Yeah. And even then, it’s like, if you just allow yourself to be flexible, like, “I will be…it’s okay to contact me for these reasons.” And you kind of lay that groundwork with your staff so that they know that they could still call you if someone is truly panicking or they’re going to…they’re yelling and they’re saying, “I’m going to transfer my account unless you send…you have Ashley call me back or…” But that’s rare. People don’t really…I find don’t, at least my clients don’t. They don’t act like that.
How She Communicated With Her Clients About Her Upcoming Leave [59:27]
Michael: So how did you actually communicate this? Did you tell them, “Hey, I’m going to be disappearing for maternity leave here?”
Ashley: Yes. So we put it in our newsletter. A few months prior I sent out a card that was, like, a cute little picture of me and my husband and talking about how the pregnancy was going. And people loved that. So I think if you can humanize it as much as possible and just be candid. The other thing, especially because it was my first child, I had clients, whether they said it or not, some of them were brave enough to say that…they’d be like, “Are you coming back? We’re not sure. Are you going to come back?”
Michael: Oh, sometimes people step out of the workforce to have family and then stay out.
Ashley: Yes. So for me, it never even crossed my mind that I would not come back to work. So, that was very easy to debunk and saying, “Oh, no.” After a couple of clients asked that once or twice, I was like, “This is on people’s minds. I need to be a bit more proactive in bringing this up and assuring them that no, I’m not leaving permanently. I will be back after three and a half months,” or I think it was…yeah, it was about three and a half, four months.
So I set this date, too. So I said, “Okay, I’m going to be gone. My due date is in mid-July, so I’m going to be gone from about mid-July until X date.” And I had set that date at the very beginning of when I would be coming back. So I could kind of say, “This is when I’m going to be gone.” And I think that also helps to assure people that this is a temporary thing and not a permanent thing. But then just communicating. And so as it got closer, as I would talk to clients on the phone. I tried to meet with a lot of clients. So I was very busy in the two, three months prior to when I started maternity leave because I was trying to take care of all the things that were sort of outstanding.
Michael: And so that means like, you’re getting this busy flurry in late-stage pregnancy? So at six, seven months you’re doing these intensive volumes of meetings?
Ashley: Yeah. But it’s a desk job. I would drive in my car places, but it wasn’t physically taxing. I don’t recall being exhausted or anything like that. I would probably extend that a little bit more. Because I had a scare towards the end. I actually thought I was going into labor about a month prior. So I was like, “Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no. I still have so much to close out workwise before I can leave. Like, you stay in there, you cannot come out right now.”
Michael: Hopefully not in a client meeting. Like, “Hey, can I step out of this meeting? I kind of need to go to the hospital and make sure I’m not having a baby right now.”
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah. No, that didn’t happen, fortunately.
Michael: I guess just looking back, I’m curious, what else made it work for you? You’ve highlighted the…what I think is a really important dynamic, which is just the power of actually having a recurring revenue business, whether it’s ongoing AUM fees, ongoing planning fees. You had ongoing fees from the retirement plans. Like, when you’ve got recurring revenue, you’ve got more flexibility to say, “Hey, okay, for the next few months, we’ll still do the service work for the clients, but I can have other team members do the service work. I cannot be here for a little while.” And the core things that need to get done still get done and there’s still recurring revenue to pay for those people. And the thing works in a way that it doesn’t when you’re on a more transactional or commission-based model and the minute you stop showing up for work, all the income stops, or almost all the income stops aside from a handful of trails because you’re not getting those upfront transactional payments anymore.
Ashley: Yeah, those are…I think those are key. It would be really hard to leave, like you said, if you were a transactional-based like stockbroker. Or if you were truly solo and didn’t have any support staff at all, that would be hard to step away for an extended period.
How She Made Sure Things Kept Running Smoothly While She Was Out [1:03:48]
Michael: So what was your staff support? What did you have in place that made it work?
Ashley: So I had my dad. So he could handle all the stuff that I was…like if someone needed advice about something or they were panicking and needed to be talked down from the ledge or…
Michael: Okay. So the high level, like, another advisor to be backup happened to be one who would really like to be backup because he wanted grandbabies. But in general, have another advisor who can be backup to urgent client issues?
Ashley: Yeah. And actually, even if we weren’t officially partners, I had other advisors in my office that I could have definitely said, “Hey, I’ll cover you, you cover me.” So I think that in a variety of circumstances, there’s often times some form of backup that’s another advisor who you trust, who maybe has similar theories or philosophy about investing, who won’t lead your clients astray.
Michael: I had talked to an advisor once and I wish back then I’d asked more questions, but she basically said she hired another advisor just to be the fallback. I have no idea what the arrangement was. I don’t know if she was like, “Hey, I’m going to give you a couple thousand dollars a month and if any of my clients call, just do your best to service and support them so they don’t fire me and leave.” But she actually just went and hired another advisor to be her backup because I guess she wasn’t in a partnership where she had another advisor in the office to do it. But just, that was her solution. “Clients are going to be paying me ongoing dollars anyways. I’m not going to be there to do the work, so I’m going to take a portion of the dollars and just hire my advisor backup to help out.” So another advisor to answer, I guess the pressing client issues. You had, it sounds like, some admin staff in place as well.
Ashley: Yes. At that time, we had one assistant. And she was very competent, very good at her job. So I trusted her enough to leave and know that things wouldn’t fall through the cracks. I wouldn’t have to babysit her or anything. So I think good quality support staff is essential to that as well.
Michael: Okay. Okay. And any other things as you look back, I guess either stuff you did that worked that you’re glad you did or anything that you’re like, “Hey, things I learned from the first two pregnancies that I will not do next time if I go down this road again?”
Ashley: Well, actually, yes, a lot of what I learned, I learned by making mistakes. Like when I came back from my first maternity leave, I went from…and I think I took…I was probably close to about four months off. So that’s a really long time. And I did no work. I turned off pretty much completely. I was still accessible, but I did nothing for four months except just pay attention to this child and figure out how to be a mom.
Michael: Yeah. Keep it alive, all those pesky things. Yes.
Ashley: Yes. But what I did when I came back to work, I went from… I worked four days a week until she was a year old. But when I went back to work, I went back, aside from taking that extra day off every week, I went from being off completely to full-time pretty much right away. And that was extremely stressful because when I went back to work, I was still nursing. And so I had to figure out the schedule and the…I was pumping in the server room where they keep all the server. It was just madness. So that was a very stressful time because you’re just adjusting to figuring out what’s working and what doesn’t. So what I would have done differently is go back gradually where maybe in the first week you just go for like a day and then week two you’re there for a couple of days.
Because it’s different, when you go back from maternity leave, it’s different than being gone on vacation or something where you can just kind of dive right in and nothing much has changed. But there’s so much that you’re just trying to juggle and figure it out that having a more gradual comeback after maternity leave would be ideal, especially when you have a flexibility to do that. And so I kind of put that pressure on myself, like, “No, I’ve been gone for four months. I need to…when I come back, I need to work and work full-time.” But that was very stressful and very challenging.
Michael: So does that mean, in retrospect, you wish after four months you’d ease back in or that you wish you’d only taken three months off and then done a month or two of half time and just same total timeout might have been the same but you just would have ended the all-out earlier and started the transition in more gradually?
Ashley: That’s a really good question. I haven’t thought about that. You know, because I had the flexibility to stay out for four months and then I could have transitioned in, I guess I just wish that I would have thought about it. Because I do not regret, and I probably would have regretted taking a shorter maternity leave. Because that’s actually what I did the second time, not by my own choice.
So we launched True North when my son was three months old, and I spent my “maternity leave” touring office space, having conference calls, doing all of the last-minute finish line planning to get ready to launch our firm while I was on maternity leave, which was incredibly stressful. And that I didn’t have a lot of control over because the wheels were already in motion long before I was pregnant. And our CFO found out that we were leaving about a week prior to when we had just…we were going to launch. So we were kind of forced to leave earlier than we planned to anyways.
Michael: Oh, so you actually, like, they found out you were leaving and suddenly the wheels were in motion. It was like, “Well, I guess we’re leaving this week and not next week?”
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah. So that was very challenging. But I did learn a lot from the first one. And so, it kind of helped with just setting my expectations the second time around. And actually what I’m doing now this summer to kind of make up for that lost time is I’m going to take a month off this summer as like a little sabbatical and just hang out with my kids and do stuff. Because I love…summers in Oregon are amazing. And I just want to do things that I don’t normally get to do because I work. And so there’s that additional flexibility that I’m like, “Okay, well, I didn’t have the kind of maternity leave that I hoped for the second time around, but hopefully, I’ll have a chance to try it again and transition back in a more gradual way that’s less stressful.”
What It’s Like Running A Practice With Her Father [1:11:08]
Michael: And so just talk to us about what it’s like doing all of this in a firm with your father, other family…. It’s hard enough just getting started in the business and building your career before you add a whole bunch of family dynamics to it on top. So can you share a little with us of just, I don’t know, the path? Why start with your father and not go out on your own? Why stay with your father and not go out on your own? Do you even have thoughts about it or you’re completely happy in that environment? Just, I’ve seen so many pathways of advisors starting with their family, some that go very smoothly, some that don’t. So, talk to us about the journey for you and what’s working or what’s not.
Ashley: It’s interesting. My Dad and I spent a lot of my childhood budding heads. We’re both very stubborn. So it was a gamble when I started. And I actually didn’t have much interest in being an advisor, but I ended up getting a finance degree in college, not because I wanted to be an advisor, but because I actually liked the finance. And a lot of what you learn in finance is a lot of what I’m kind of transitioning to at the exit plans, valuation and just really deeply understanding what drives value and growth in a business.
So, after college…and the last year of college I started to think seriously like, “Maybe I’ll just give this a try. We’ll see what happens. I’ll try it out.” Because there was nothing I was being pulled…strongly pulled to in a different direction.
And then what happened was, is after I started working in the business, very shortly after, I realized…because I wasn’t that interested in, like, stocks. And I think a lot of advisors become advisors because they have some story about…like my dad had a school teacher, he was in high school and he had this teacher that was fascinated with stocks and kind of taught about stocks, and it piqued this interest in my father. And that was kind of what drove him to want to do this. So it started with the stock market. And I feel like that’s where it starts for a lot of people. And I was never really…my dad tried to get me interested in it. Like I remember he bought me Disney stock when I was 10 for my birthday, and I was like, “Okay, cool. Thank you. What am I supposed to do with this piece of paper?”
Michael: “I can’t play with it like the rest of my toys? Where are you going with this?”
Ashley: I’m like, “We’re going to Disneyland?” “No, no.” “Oh, okay. Never mind. Thank you.” But then I realized it’s a relationship business. And then I realized too that like, every situation, every client, their lives are different. And I love what I’m doing 12 years later because every day is unique, every situation is unique, and you develop these deep relationships with your clients, and you’re involved in everything from birth and death and everything in between. And so it was definitely…the reason why I’m still here and why I love doing what I’m doing has absolutely nothing to do with what I thought it would be when I first joined my dad.
But as far as working with my father, we get along pretty well. And actually what I think is unique about a family business where there’s trust there is that you can have these like knock-down, drag fights, arguments about stuff where you’re really trying to hash out these things and your disagreements, but at the end of the day, it’s like, at the end it’s like, “Let’s hug it out. I still love you no matter what.” And that’s what’s unique about a family business where you have a… Now, if you have an unhealthy, dysfunctional relationship with your parent or the child or whoever it is, then that, I think, goes out the window. But that’s what kind of keeps it intact is that you know that no matter what happens and what you disagree about, it’s not going to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. You’re still going to come back the next day and everything is going to be just fine.
Michael: And so how do you manage the dynamic of just, I don’t know, I’m imagining from the younger person’s end, from your end just, “Dad, I’m an adult now. I’m not still daddy’s little girl.” I’ve got to imagine, or maybe not, but that there are points where you’re trying to make a business decision or do something in the business or do something with clients and he’s still treating you like the 10-year-old that he gave the Disney stock to. Was that just not a challenge for you guys or were the things you had to do to try to, I don’t know, assert your adulthood for someone that’s spent most of his life not knowing you as an adult, knowing you as a child?
Ashley: Honestly Michael, that has never been an issue. He’s always treated me like an equal business partner, not as a parent-child…and that doesn’t apply across all….it’s like, you wear this certain hat, but at work, we are equals. And actually, I remember really early on we’d be sitting in a meeting with clients and he would turn to me and say, “Ashley, what do you think?” Which, that is hard to do. And I think that’s probably not the norm, but I was very fortunate that I never felt like I had to puff my chest and say, “Hey, I can contribute. I want to do this.” He readily gave me anything that I asked for and then even more to kind of say, “Well, let’s see how you do.”
Michael: So even more of a like, “Oh, you want to be in this business? Here’s the deep end. I’m just going to give you a little throw.”
Ashley: Yeah, pretty much. Yeah.
Michael: And so does that get reflected out in conversations to clients as well? Is there a parent dynamic there or does it not even come up in conversation to say you’re a father-daughter practice?
Ashley: No, it’s definitely a part of conversations. And a lot of times we’ll sit in meetings together. So there’s conversations. Because I think one of the important things that we want to make very clear to our clients is that when he retires, that’s not it. I’m still going to be here and there is a succession plan in place. And so we do try to articulate that there’s going to be a continuity in this relationship. Although he doesn’t plan to retire anytime soon, but he’s 60-, let’s see. He’ll be 66 this year. Yeah, he’s bragging to me the other day about how he’s collecting Social Security in August.
Michael: “Excellent. Hit full retirement age. No more earnings test. We can do this.”
Ashley: Yeah. So he’s bragging about how he’s getting what’s coming to him.
Michael: And is the idea of being his succession plan, was that part of the deal or the plan upfront or all along or just, “He just tried to bring me in the business because this is a neat opportunity” and you came in because you thought it was a neat opportunity and then it may or may not turn into succession planning later?
Ashley: Yeah, I don’t think…there was never, like, a strategic plan around succession. Which it pains me to say that because these are the things that I talk about with clients all the time. But only in the last…
Michael: Right. You are doing business exit planning with your clients about how to make sure your business transition smoothly and not suddenly.
Ashley: Yeah. So only in the last maybe three to four years have we become much more strategic in planning that sort of succession. But the other thing that makes it challenging is that he really doesn’t have a timeline. His only timeline is what…if he can no longer…mentally he doesn’t have…something like that.
Michael: Yes, whatever God deigns will be his path is about the only exit plan that’s in place for him?
Ashley: Yeah. And so it’s more about like sort of contingency planning. So if this happens then I’ll still be here. However, the challenge, though, right now is that we do really need to bring in another advisor, because even if he were not to retire, we’re pretty much at capacity. So the succession plan only works if you don’t have…because if I all of a sudden took on all of his clients or he decided he wants to retire in two years, we still have to bring someone else in because I can’t service all these clients in the way that they deserve. So there still needs to be some more… It’s part of our strategic plan to hire an advisor in the next couple of years, but we need to continue down that path and make progress towards doing what we need to do so that we can do that.
What Surprised Her The Most [1:20:33]
Michael: So as you look back on the journey here now, what surprised you the most about trying to build your own advisory business?
Ashley: The 1,200,862 decisions that you have to make. It’s very…
Michael: Which you then made worse for yourself by going fully independent.
Michael: Just in case you didn’t have enough decisions on your shoulders, “Let’s be a completely independent RIA so we have to make all of our own decisions.”
Ashley: Yes. So, just as a perfect example, two months ago…we have two printers and they both started failing at the same time. So just making a decision about printers, do you lease? Do you buy? What’s the price range? What’s the budget? And so that one little decision alone is like, that has nothing to do with what I feel like I should be spending my time on. But when you wear that business owner hat too, you have to make those decisions. And I kind of knew that, but I didn’t fully appreciate the extent and the frequency of which you have to kind of make these decisions all the time.
Why She Left Stifel [1:21:58]
Michael: So then I do have to ask in that context, what led you to move away from Stifel and go out on your own into the independent RIA world? Did it come down like, “Hey, we want more control over our decisions, we want more independence than where we have?” And is that what drove you or were there other factors that were driving you to switch channels in the first place?
Ashley: Yeah. It was a variety of things. One of which was just, transitioning more into specializing in working with business owners specifically, it’s very challenging to do from the broker-dealer compliance perspective. And like for example, one of the pieces of technology that I’ve been able to implement that I wouldn’t have had access to before was the ability to do business valuation estimates. So if a prospective client or even a client comes in, one of the first things that we’ll do is we’ll sit down and we’ll get a ballpark. It’s a pretty good estimate of what their business is actually worth, because that drives a lot of the other decisions that happen.
Michael: And what are you using to do the business valuation estimates?
Ashley: A software tool called BizEquity.
Michael: Okay. And so you didn’t have the option to do a platform like BizEquity in the past. I’m imagining it from the broker-dealer end, like, “You want to do what? You’re going to give them a business valuation but you can’t guarantee that business valuation. So that would be overpromising. So now we’re going to shut that down.”
Ashley: Yeah. Just like, you’re given the technology at any big firm, like, “This is the technology that you have access to.” So you can’t just piece together the different tools that you need when you’re sort of just set with whatever they provide to you. So that was actually part of it too, is the technology piece and being able to customize, “This is what we value. This is what our clients value. This is what we want to spend our money on.” And there’s certain things. Like, my world has been opened up. Like, I use Calendly for scheduling a lot of appointments with people. And it’s like, “Wow, how did I not…how did I get anything done without these specific tools?”
Michael: Some of the dark ages when you actually had to just correspond with clients to find a time to meet before these amazing tools like Calendly?
Ashley: So it was that. It was definitely the independence and feeling that, for what we wanted to do for our clients and in the way that we wanted to do it, it was very challenging because I was told no all the time. “You can’t do this. You can’t do this.” And I know you’ve talked about this because a lot of the larger firms out there, they have to write their compliance policies for, it’s like the lowest common denominator for the bad apple.
Michael: Yes. I call it LCD compliance, the lowest common denominator. And again, I’m not trying to bash firms around it, it just, it’s what happens when you end out trying to run compliance with a huge firm, which today is often broker-dealer platforms because they’re so large. Like, if you’re the chief compliance officer, you can get sued and fired for whatever the one biggest idiot in your entire broker-dealer rep group can possibly do. So you have to write your compliance rules to prevent whatever the one biggest idiot in the entire organization might possibly do. And then everyone else in the organization gets dragged down to these compliance rules written for the one biggest knucklehead.
And since, unfortunately, a lot of broker-dealers have fairly low standards on the minimum requirements, where you’ve just got to pass a Series exam or two, no actual training or experience is required, if you hire people with no requirement of training or experience and then you write compliance rules based on people who have no training or experience, you end out writing some really restrictive, unpleasant rules for advisors who actually have training and experience and know what they’re doing but constantly feel like they’re being treated like they don’t because the rules were written for the one lowest common denominator. And so that just compliance sort of department of no effect it sounds like became a pretty big driver for you?
Ashley: Yeah. And the attractiveness of moving away from FINRA into more of the SEC compliance, which it’s still heavily, as anyone listening knows, is very heavily regulated no matter what. But it’s like, “Okay, well, the SEC is more this principles-based…there’s still plenty of things we can’t do, but now I have a lot more flexibility to market my business in a certain way. And I don’t have to…” Like even just coming on this podcast interview, I wouldn’t have been able to do that previously. So just the flexibility and freedom that comes with truly independent RIA. And that’s really what drove the decision is we wanted to move away from FINRA and the broker-dealer world altogether and be able to truly, truly be fiduciaries to all of our clients in every single circumstance. I feel like that’s the way things are moving anyways. So it’s not as much of a differentiator as it used to be, but it’s still an important aspect of being an RIA.
Michael: Is there anything that you know now having made the transition that you wish you could go back and tell your former broker-dealer self? I guess either good things or bad things. What do you know now that you’d actually wish you’d known about then when you were getting ready to make the transition?
Ashley: I think I would really emphasize, and I had somebody helping me who kind of pointed this out to make it a little bit easier, but there are certain decisions that you make, particularly when you make your portfolio…decide on a portfolio management system and what you’re going to use, if you make a bad decision or you don’t like what you picked, you can’t just switch providers overnight. We had a similar experience with the CRM that we picked, where we finished the migration and we did all this. Found out shortly after we started using it that, “Wow, this was not what we expected. This is not what was presented to us.” Because I had done demos. So that was the hard part.
Because, from the very beginning, my dad…we made all these big decisions together. Like, “Are we going to move to a different firm? Are we going to go independent? If we go independent, are we going to go on a broker-dealer? What are we going to do?” And so we kind of made these big decisions along the way together. But what pretty much happened is I said, “I think we should do this,” and I would state these reasons. And, “Here’s the pros and the cons of this, and what do you think?” And kind of, that’s how we went down that path. Because he said, he’s like, “We can do this. We can go independent and we can start our own firm, but I don’t want to run the business.” He was very smart in saying that. He’s like, “I just want to keep working with clients and serving clients and being an advisor, and you can…”
Michael: Well, that’s why he was in that system in the first place, right? I find there’s sort of this piece that gets missed from a lot of advisors that are on the independent end that do the independent thing and make all their own decisions and love the flexibility and the control and make all their own decisions and then I think sometimes forget, there’s a whole world of folks that say like, “I don’t want to deal with all that crap. I just want to do my thing and serve my clients. And that’s why I’m on a platform that does all that other stuff so I can do my thing and serve my clients.” And if you’re going to choose to not run all that stuff directly, you have to accept some tradeoffs. Like, you’ve got to use whatever the home office tells you to use for certain tools and systems, but it also means you don’t have to make all those decisions. You can just spend your time on your clients.
Ashley: Right? Yeah. And if anybody is inclined that way, I would say…because I feel like the independent…the truly independent business owner/advisor is…it’s only for a certain group of people. And there’s a lot of advisors out there who would probably be very unhappy making all those little decisions. Like, “Seriously, do I really have to figure out what printer we’re going to buy? I don’t even want to do that.”
Michael: Yeah. Like, “Yes, you really have to figure that out because things need to be printed and you own the business, so no one else is going to make this decision.”
Ashley: So I guess if I were to do it again, though, well, first of all, I would 100% do it again. I’m very happy, and my dad is too that we made this move and we’re independent. But I think because you have to make so many decisions… I talked to somebody just last week. It’s a three…three guys in partnership together. And so he was asking about transitioning to independence, and I suggest, I said, “Try to have…get involvement. Now, it’s going to take longer and you’re probably going to have a lot of disagreements along the way, but there should be someone who’s the project manager who’s responsible for making sure that things are moving along as they should, and they’re the ones who are demoing all the technology and they’re the ones who are you checking the boxes and we’re doing this and this and making sure that your LLC is set up.”
But then I would have really benefited from additional help in making the decisions, particularly when it came to technology and things that we were going to adopt. Because, in retrospect, I made a couple mistakes in that area, and then that all falls on you, too. And some of those mistakes can be very damaging or really slow things down in your business, depending on what those are. So having another decision-maker or at least someone to be involved in that would have been helpful.
Michael: Yeah. Well, I know there’s some folks out there now that are trying to start building consulting practices around people that are breaking away and making those transitions just to at least help focus or narrow the sheer volume of questions that you otherwise face.
Ashley: Yeah. And if I would have known about that, I would have paid a lot of money for that.
Michael: Well, note to anyone who’s building a consulting practice. Here’s an opportunity right here.
So what was the low point for you in the career journey so far?
Ashley: Actually, the low point was shortly after we launched True North. So we started True North, it was my dad and I, and then my father-in-law, who’s very…he’s very part-time. So it was the three of us. And then we had an assistant that we had brought over with us from where we were. And about two weeks in after we had launched, she unexpectedly left. And so we had no support staff. It was the blind leading the blind. And this was when we were…we had received all…we had stacks and mountains of paperwork that needed to be processed.
Michael: Oh, God, right? Because you’re transferring everyone.
Ashley: Yes. And so that had started to flow in. So we used Schwab as our custodian, but Schwab didn’t send their two people who were basically managing. They sent two people to come out and they stayed here for a couple of weeks to process all that paperwork, they had not yet arrived. And so I was, like, CEO, receptionist, paperwork guru. I wore all these hats. And that was a very low point because it’s so stressful moving your clients over, to begin with, but now I have…but I have to almost…I can’t drop that because that’s critical. But then, I don’t have a support person. How am I going to post a job, hire somebody? I thought, “Wow, this was a bad decision. True North is going to crash and burn before we even get going.”
So the low point was a couple of days after this had happened and I had really started to process the gravity of what we were going to have to…what we were up against with not having any support staff. I was rocking my son to sleep one night and his room was dark and his little nightlight was on. And he’s fast asleep and peaceful and I’m just sobbing and I’m thinking, “What have I done? This was a huge mistake. I’m not ready for this.” Well, I’m 34 now, but at the time I’m almost 33, 32 years old. Like, “What the heck did I just do? I just blew up this cushy job that I had and went out on my own and now everything is falling apart.”
So that low point, that was very temporary because there was an assistant that had worked for my dad and I when I had first started and she had two kids and decided after she had kids that she was going to be a stay-at-home mom. And so my dad had stayed in contact with her over the years, and he called her and he says, “Michelle, we need you.” So we were basically floating a rudderless ship for about, oh, I don’t know, a week or maybe even less before she agreed to come on. And then she basically saved our bacon. So I am forever in debt. It’s just a lesson, no matter what, always…never burn bridges with anybody ever, ever, ever because you lean on people pretty hard. And she really did save us. And she still works part-time for us too. She does little projects here and there. She didn’t want to come back and work full-time, but she was able to get us through the storm and we came out on the other side okay.
Michael: It’s always, like, the Schwab support transition team got out there and kind of helped you start processing all the forms that were kind of rolling through?
Ashley: Yeah. But they were only there for a couple of weeks and then we were a rudderless ship all over again.
Michael: And so I’ve got to ask, what happened with the original assistant? Just wasn’t actually so on board with the breakaway transition that you were doing or just surely, unrelated life circumstances happened to happen?
Ashley: It was a perfect storm of life circumstances that I can’t fault her for. So it was just a really unfortunate sort of span of events.
Michael: So what comes next from here for the business?
Ashley: I don’t know. Well, one of the things that I’m really happy that we did last year was really dial in on a very specific strategic plan. And we had done that over the years but not in the kind of in-depth way that we needed to. And so that I feel has really helped to narrow our focus and prevented me personally from chasing shiny little objects, which is what I tend to do. And so that’s really helped. So that’s driving decisions behind a continued and deeper focus in working in the business owner niche and hiring an additional advisor, and systemizing more of the processes and what we’re doing so that we can be more efficient and we can grow and still serve our clients very well. So that’s next, is really just going deeper into this niche that we’re specializing in. And I think there’s an underserved business owner market that can really benefit from some more strategic and exit planning-specific services. So I’m really, really excited about making that more of a primary focus of the business.
Her Advice To New Advisors [1:39:01]
Michael: And so for other advisors who are out there, young folks starting today, as you were back in 2007, what advice would you give young advisors today looking to start their careers, start a firm, start a business?
Ashley: One thing that I think is important, there’s always the technical side. You need to be knowledgeable and getting designations and establishing credibility through knowledge and what you know. But I think what really helped me and what I always continue to focus on throughout my career but especially in the beginning was learning how to sell. And I think that advisors…because you can’t do financial plans or investment management or wealth management for people if you can’t find any clients. So being able to appropriately uncover someone’s problem and make sure that they’re a good fit and make sure that you’re properly speaking to the problem, and just going out and finding those people to talk to you, that’s the…in my opinion, that’s the hardest part of this business, is finding and continuing to find people who need you. And then when you do find those people, how do I convince them that I can help them?
So that’s what I would tell my younger self, is to focus and really pay…focus just as much on convincing other people and the sales skills and the prospecting as you are on the knowledge, and growing that. Because you’re trying to do both at the same time and it’s really hard. And it’s just like drinking out of a fire hose. That and I think a lot of… When I was starting, I looked very young. In fact, somebody came up to me. I was on the driving range yesterday hitting golf balls and some guy asked me what school I went to, and I was like, “Oh Lord. Lord, no.” I was like, “I’m 34.” So I look very young, and I’ve always looked very young. So I used to joke that I was going to start smoking, chain-smoking and wearing glasses and do everything.
Michael: So you can age yourself very quickly?
Ashley: Yes, quickly and permanently. So that’s…I feel like that’s a temptation when you’re young, is to…like, “I have to prove myself. I have to show the world that I know what I’m talking about.” And so I see young advisors sometimes and…but what I don’t see is this, like, authentic. Like, who are you really? And I want to see, if I’m a potential client, I want to see who you are as a person and not just who you’re trying to portray yourself as this smart, successful, young person. And so just being…the advice that I would give to younger advisors is just, be your authentic self and do everything you can. Yes, be professional and all of that, but it’s, people want to do business with people they know, like, and trust. And the only way they’re going to figure that out is if you allow them to kind of get to know who you really are.
Michael: That’s a good way to frame it. That people can only decide whether you’re someone they know, like, and trust so that they get a chance to know who you really are.
How She Defines Success [1:42:55]
So as we wrap up, this is a podcast about success, and one of the themes that always comes up is just the word “success” means different things to different people. So you’re on this successful career path and building plans and now going deeper with small business owners. You’ve survived two rounds of maternity leave. But as you look forward from here, I’m just wondering, how do you define success for yourself?
Ashley: I’d say primarily how I define success is through growth. And not necessarily business growth, but just, am I becoming a better version of myself? Am I becoming less selfish? And am I becoming more generous and caring more about other people versus turning in on myself? Both character and learning. So I define success as sort of always moving in that direction, because I feel like you never finish. And I feel like I’m being successful as long as I am turning away from the sins of my past, so to speak, and moving in a direction of a better person, a better mom, a better wife, better business partner. And that’s so hard to do, and it takes constant reflection and practice and biting my tongue. So I’m just on this journey to just be the best version of myself that I can be. And hopefully one day I’ll look back on my life and say that I did everything that I could.
Michael: Very cool. I love it. I love the journey and just the…I don’t know, as you said, it’s more about moving in the right direction because you never actually finish. You never get there. That journey doesn’t end. You’re just trying to keep pointing yourself towards that growth direction and hopefully finding a little work-life satisfaction along the way.
Ashley: We’ll see. I’ll let you know if I ever figure that out.
Michael: All right. Well, you let us know. I think we would all love to know the answer to that formula.
Thank you so much for joining us, Ashley, on the “Financial Advisor Success” podcast.
Ashley: Thank you, Michael. And thank you for everything that you’re doing to build up and grow the advisor community. I’m just in on and so happy that you’re doing what you’re doing for all of us.
Michael: Oh, well, thank you. My pleasure. I think that’s part of my journey and path.