Welcome back for the sixth episode of the Financial Advisor Success podcast!
This week’s guest is Eleanor Blayney, one of the founding partners of Sullivan, Bruyette, Speros, & Blayney – now known as SBSB – an early leader in the world of independent RIAs that quickly grew to a billion dollars under management in the early 2000s before it was sold to Harris Bank. Eleanor is also an author, and currently the CFP Board’s Consumer Advocate.
On this episode, I talk with Eleanor Blayney about the challenges of growing an independent RIA as a woman in a male-dominated industry, starting with how she first learned of the world of financial advice by reading about it in MONEY and Washingtonian magazines, and then cold called well-known advisors in the DC area until she found her way to her first job… and followed a path that ultimately led to her to becoming a partner at the firm despite not bringing her own book of clients.
From there, Eleanor talks about how SBSB grew its first billion of AUM so rapidly, by providing a combination of financial planning, investment management, and tax preparation services and forming a niche specialization advising on stock options for tech companies during the 1990s tech boom, and what it was like to sell the firm and transition into her current role as an author and industry advocate.
And be certain to listen to the end, where Eleanor weighs in on the controversial question of whether women should be considered a “niche” in financial services, and her advice on how to survive as a woman in a male-dominated industry (and what male advisors could do to be more supportive of industry diversity!).
So whether you’re a woman trying to find your own path in the world of financial planning, or simply an advisory firm owner looking for inspiration on how to carve a path to a billion dollar firm, I hope you enjoy this latest episode of the Financial Advisor Success podcast with Eleanor Blayney!
What You’ll Learn In This Podcast Episode
- How Eleanor transitioned from an English major into the world of financial planning. [1:57]
- How she cold-called financial advisors in a magazine to find her first job as a financial planner, and joined Toastmasters to build her self-confidence as a public speaker. [6:15]
- Advice for young advisors who are looking for jobs other than those in sales and broker/dealer environments. [14:15]
- How SBSB found breakout growth and rocketed to its first billion of AUM by focusing into a niche. [30:30]
- What led the founding partners to decide to sell the firm to Harris Private Bank despite its ongoing success. [34:16]
- How Eleanor defined client expectations and determined when and how to fire clients of the firm. [42:04]
- An exercise with the back office staff that evaluated a client’s PITA factor that helped give staff input in shaping the firm and and say in which clients the firm was willing to service. [42:04]
- How Eleanor began to focus on the financial needs of women which the profession wasn’t servicing after Harris Bank bought SBSB. [49:35]
- Why women advisors should be intentional about connecting with professional groups that are exclusively women-centric. [59:43]
- Whether Eleanor thinks that women should be considered a “niche” or not. [1:03:57]
Resources Featured In This Episode:
- Women’s Worth by Eleanor Blayney
- Sullivan, Bruyette, Speros, & Blayney (SBSB)
- CFP Board Women’s Initiative (WIN)
- Prior Nerd’s Eye View blog post on scoring clients on PITA factor
- Prior Nerd’s Eye View blog post on finding a mastermind group
- Kathleen Rehl – A leading authority on financial concerns of widows.
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Full Transcript: Eleanor Blayney On Improving Gender Diversity in the Financial Services Industry
Michael: Welcome. Welcome to the Financial Advisor Success podcast. On today’s episode, we talk to Eleanor Blayney, one of the founding partners of Sullivan, Bruyette, Speros & Blayney, an early leader in the world of independent IRAs, that by 2003 had already grown to nearly a billion dollars of assets under management and was ultimately sold to Harris private bank.
I was excited to have Eleanor join us and share her perspective of growing a successful financial advisory firm, not only for the success of SBSB itself, but frankly also the challenges of doing so as a female financial advisor in a very male dominated industry. In this episode, you’ll hear everything from how Eleanor cold-called advisors she found in a magazine to find her first job, how she got pushed by an early mentor to be willing to stand up and speak out and ultimately joined Toastmasters to find confidence as a public speaker, as well as the details of how SBSB grew, in large part, by forming a tax-focused niche around working with tech company employees in the 1990s. Be certain to listen to the end where Eleanor shares some of her thoughts on what it takes to improve gender diversity and bring more women into the financial planning, her advice to survive as a woman in a male-dominated industry, and in particular, her advice to younger, newer planners coming into financial planning today.
So with that, I hope you enjoy this episode of the Financial Advisor Success podcast with Eleanor Blayney.
Welcome, Eleanor Blayney. Welcome to the Financial Advisor Success podcast.
Eleanor: Well, I’m delighted to be with you, Michael.
How Eleanor Transitioned From An English Major Into The World Of Financial Planning [1:57]
Michael: We’re here today to talk about some of the path that you took as a financial advisor and a business owner. You were involved in a firm for 20 years that got built, that ultimately got sold. You’re now working in a capacity with the CFP Board, so I want to talk about all of that – the building and the growth of an advisory firm and the transition out of it to another role within the profession.
But take us back to the beginning of how you get started. How did you actually find your way into this thing called . . . I was going to say called “financial planning” but I guess I don’t even know if we talked about it as financial planning then. We talked about it as financial services. What was your start to this financial advisor, financial services space?
Eleanor: Well, in fact when I came into the profession, I think financial planning in and of itself was in its adolescence, so it still didn’t quite know what it wanted to be when it grew up, nor did I. I was an English major. I spent my college years reading Shakespeare and James Joyce, and went from college to University of Cambridge where I did a lot more English literature. But circumstances and the facts of life, I was a young wife and a mother, I had to get practical because my husband was as impractical as I was and very involved in teaching literature.
So I decided to go to business school. He was teaching at the University of Chicago, I could get an MBA at half-price. That sounded like a deal to me. And I had always, in between all the French and English lit courses, I had taken a lot of economics and I really enjoyed it.
So I went to business school and I got out of business school, came to Washington, was hired as a management consultant, as business school grads often are. I was working with the government primarily, so this was a true Beltway bandit type of consulting firm that basically helped analyze economic impact of regulations and write the regulations and the public impact statements and all that. We were primarily working with the EPA. It was a great job. I had a lot of upward mobility, interesting people, interesting projects, but I hated it.
Michael: And when was this?
Eleanor: This was back in the ’80s, okay?
Michael: Okay. So this is Reagan era, I guess actually a good amount of deregulation going on but figuring out what the impact is of all these regulatory shifts.
Eleanor: Absolutely. The Reagan part is very pertinent because, under Reagan, a lot of the work of government was outsourced to the private section, hence the Beltway bandits. They all popped up because they were doing all the work of the regulatory agencies.
It was a good job and I was on track to move into project manager and from there and so forth. There was one small problem and that is I simply hated it.
Michael: Just you hated the work of doing it, the consulting thing?
Eleanor: Yes. What I hated was . . . great people but I’m working for an agency and you can’t make eye contact with an agency. In other words, there was no personal dimension. We would write reports and they would be circulated to all three branches of the government and you get comments and the report would come back and you would rewrite it and there was just this endless churning of ideas and paperwork that I felt really never kind of got anywhere.
But I liked the idea of advising, giving advice, and I had always been interested in investments and markets and started to read Money magazine, of all things. And I still do, by the way, I’ve got to say. Maybe it’s a soft medium or not exactly financial porn but pretty easy stuff, but I’ve always learned something from Money magazine. And I heard about this profession.
How Eleanor Cold Called Advisors To Get Her First Job As A Financial Planner [6:14]
Michael: So you learned about financial planning from Money magazine?
Eleanor: Well, I started to hear more about mutual funds and choosing them and then actually I learned more about financial planning in the Washingtonian because they did a feature, as they have probably done for every year since, but back then they talked about this fledgling profession and they named all the financial planners in the Washington area. So I decided to go and interview every single . . . not every single one of them, but I probably interviewed about . . . there were maybe, oh, 15 listed and I interviewed easily 10 or 12 of them because I wanted to know what they did. It sounded intriguing. I loved the idea of working with individuals and families and loved the idea of advising on personal finance and that’s how . . . I talked to everybody I could.
Michael: So how do you approach people? I was going to say, you don’t set up an email because we’re in the mid-1980s.
Eleanor: Yeah, we didn’t have . . .
Michael: You give a cold phone call and get someone’s secretary and say, “I’d like to schedule a meeting with so and so to learn more about his business”?
Eleanor: I did. The original cold call was not about selling insurance or mutual funds. It was, “Can I come and talk to you?”
Michael: You cold-called financial advisors to get to talk to them.
Eleanor: I think I did have a cover letter but actually I found that they were very receptive. Most of them gave me an interview. I did go to the FPA meeting. Somehow I discovered that there was a membership organization and went there and I will never . . .
Michael: Back then it was . . . was that an IAFP chapter or an ICFP chapter?
Eleanor: Oh yes. It was an IAFP chapter, yes.
Michael: Okay. So for those who aren’t familiar, IAFP was one of the two predecessor organizations to the current FPA and, hopefully not mischaracterizing, kind of had a little bit more of the roots of being a little bit more of the sales and product side of the membership association groups at the time.
Eleanor: Yes. Absolutely.
Michael: So you went to IAFP meeting.
Eleanor: I went to an IAFP meeting. I met an icon of our industry who’s no longer with us, Lynn Hopewell, and I introduced myself to him, and I believe he had a Harvard MBA. I think he had his MBA from Harvard.
Michael: I believe so. He did and I think Glenn Kautt did too. That was their connection.
Eleanor: Right. I went up and introduced myself and I said, “And I have an MBA from the University of Chicago and I’m interested in this profession.” He looked at me and, as you know, Michael, I’m not a big person. I’m kind of small and I felt much smaller because he looked down at me, and he was not a tall man but he was a big man, and he looked down at me and he said, “You MBAs are all alike. You just want to get in this profession and make a lot of money.”
Michael: So you were in the MBA bucket at this point.
Eleanor: I was in the MBA bucket but I will tell you, I was nonplussed really. But I will tell you, I took his advice and I went back and rewrote my letters. I remember re-crafting my letters and making it clear to everybody that I didn’t expect to come in and get paid a big bundle. I wanted to learn the profession. I would apprentice, whatever. In other words, I eliminated that objection before they could even voice it because of what I learned from Lynn Hopewell.
Michael: So I’m curious, as you were doing some of these interviews, reaching out to advisors that got profiled in the Washingtonian and going to an early IAFP meeting, were all of the advisors you were talking to men at that point?
Eleanor: No, they were not. They were primarily. But there were two advisors that I spoke to who are still well-known, well regarded, have been leaders in the profession. I think in Washington we really have quite an incubator for talent here. I spoke to Alex Armstrong and I spoke to Patty Houlihan.
Michael: Both of whom are still practicing here in the DC area.
Eleanor: Yes, indeed. I’ll tell you a couple of funny stories along the way. Patty, she had a male partner and working in Rockville, and I went and talked to her. I really liked both of them a lot, felt that I could learn. Oh, another person I spoke to was Mary Malgoire, as well. So interestingly, I did get some exposure to women right off the bat. I think at that time it never occurred to me that this wasn’t a profession for women. I’ll talk more about that.
Michael: And it’s astounding to me that the three women you found all have, still, as of today, very well-known practices here in the DC area that were very successful business owners. Like I said, just an interesting thing to me that you found and connected with all of them when everybody was still fairly early on in building those practices that are much larger today.
Eleanor: Absolutely. But what I learned from the three of them was the advice side of the business, and that was what attracted me. I remember going on a first interview for a job. I spent a lot of time getting the informational interviews and then I was invited by a . . . I can’t even remember their name. I was invited to come and talk to them about employment and we had a great talk. This was a house on fire. We were doing great and I thought, “Wow, this is . . .” I was excited that I would even be considered, and they said, “Oh, we are really interested in you and we would like you to come back for a second interview.”
Being so new to this whole thing, I was like, “Wow! That’s great.” Then they said to me, “When you come back for your interview, please bring us a list of everyone you know who makes over,” at that time it was over $100,000 a year or has a net-worth of . . . I forget, $500,000, $1 million, I forget. I looked at them and I said, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Michael: The awkward thing is there are firms that still do that today.
Eleanor: They still do that. I said, “There is no way on earth that I’m bringing you the names of my colleagues at my consulting firm or friends.” Back when we didn’t even have privacy laws I was just still so offended by this request. Yes, absolutely I hear it go on today. It was really that that said no, I do not want to get into product peddlers. I was really interested in the financial planning.
Michael: So I guess first message out there for anyone who’s maybe a younger, newer advisor coming into the industry or looking at coming into the industry, when you go to apply for a financial advising job and they say, “Make the list of your friends and family who have money,” “No,” is an acceptable answer that will not end your career before it begins. There are other paths.
Eleanor: Actually, yes. It will put you on a far more productive and live with yourself road. But no, that was absolutely the case.
Michael: So you’re looking around for options and first jobs. Did you land directly with Greg and Jim and Pete out of the gate?
Eleanor: No, I didn’t.
Eleanor’s Advice For Young Advisors Looking For Jobs Other Than Sales In A Broker-Dealer Environment [14:15]
Eleanor: I just want to back up one thing that you were giving advice to people and looking for how to start jobs. One thing I have come across lately in advising young women who are trying to find jobs is a lot of times they may Google “financial planning” and I really recommend if they’re not looking for sales and broker type environment, and they may be, but if they’re not, to Google “wealth management” because I find that wealth management is probably more likely to take you to the realm of the investment advisory and advisory types of practices, as opposed to product.
Michael: That’s interesting. I guess that’s sort of the statement today that I guess, unfortunately, that label, “financial planning”, has been coopted in so many different directions that we need to evolve to different titles and labels to really clarify who’s doing what today.
Eleanor: That’s just one tip I have. I had one young woman look under “financial planning” and she could find nothing but a sales associate.
Michael: So you went through all this cold-calling for jobs and IAFP meetings and getting stared down by Lynn Hopewell. How did you actually find the first job or your first foot in the door?
Eleanor: Well, I bounced around a little bit because I talked to . . . Can we name names?
Eleanor: I guess we have been. Okay, so I talked to Dennis Gurtz and Paul Yurachek and they were very interested in me but a young man got the position and I did not. So I ended up working for a firm in Bethesda for Susan Fulton, which is another name in the industry.
Michael: Oh yes. FBB is still in practice today.
Eleanor: Yes it is. You’ll see I’ve kind of really walked around this town for awhile.
Michael: Yeah. I guess you have an amazing ability to pick sustainable firms. That’s kind of amazing.
Eleanor: Well, I guess so. One thing led to another. I stayed with Fulton for less than a year and Paul Yurachek actually introduced me to Greg Sullivan who was with Durand Associates. Now, that was a pure brokerage with a lot of sales that had this one small department that was run by Greg for financial planning.
Michael: Okay. Kind of back in the day when either financial planning was a product to be sold, so the broker out in the field was like, “I’ll sell you a limited partnership or an insurance policy or a financial plan and my department will make it,” or using plans basically as the prelude to sell those products.
Eleanor: Yes. I often say that financial plans were the toast . . . like you open an account at the bank, you got a toaster. If you went to a brokerage and did commissionable business, you got the toaster equivalent – a financial plan.
Michael: The financial planning toaster, I like that.
Eleanor: Yes. I liked Greg. I liked his philosophy. I liked his approach. I liked his department. There were a couple of women there that were doing some interesting work, one accountant and another woman who was head of financial planning. And it was probably within two weeks I could see the writing on the wall. I could see that Greg was going to leave. It was very apparent to me.
He didn’t say anything but I could just see that he was not happy being this captive little overhead department. They weren’t generating any revenue. They were just kind of the icing on the cake, really.
Michael: Right. The problem with the financial planning toaster model is the entire financial planning division is an overhead expense item for the company and gets managed that way, rather than being a positive revenue generator and the driver of the firm.
Eleanor: I think the breaking point was there was a very, very large client that the whole firm was wrapped around and Greg was sent in as the advisor who could talk about the client’s life and goals and all that stuff. But he was supposed to be selling him one of the many limited partnerships that were on the shelf and he refused. I could see the aftermath.
Michael: Right. That’ll kind of end your job pretty quickly if you haven’t quit already – refusing to sell the company’s core product to the company’s largest client.
Eleanor: That’s right.
Michael: That would probably transition you pretty quickly.
Eleanor: Yes. So I was sitting here, “Okay, now what am I going to do?” Well, lo and behold he went out on his own and took his staff with him basically. Paid us a salary and I don’t know what he lived on. I guess another home loan or an equity out of his home or something.
Michael: Equity line of credit.
Eleanor: I don’t know. He wanted to do financial planning and he wanted to incorporate investment management, and this was investment management for a fee. Now, back then . . .
Michael: What year are we in now?
Eleanor: We’re in about ’86 or ’87.
Michael: So the whole world, half the investment people are still stock brokers in the classic sense, like literally selling stocks from inventory. The “advanced” advisors are now selling mutual funds instead of stock brokering and you’re pushing towards getting paid a fee for investment management.
Eleanor: Yes. We were laughed at and scorned and, “You’re going to starve to death,” because this was the days of 8% mutual funds.
Michael: I was going to say, you were walking away from 8% upfront commissions . . .
Eleanor: For 1%.
Michael: . . . to 1%. So good job, guys, in eight years you’ll make your money back.
Eleanor: We heard that over and over again, yes. Have lots of luck with that. We grew and we grew. Now, I will tell you a major pillar within our practice was tax preparation. Greg was a CPA. Jim was a CPA. Jim hadn’t joined yet but we really got a perch with our clients because we did the taxes. Financial planning they didn’t quite get. The investment management they didn’t quite get, but they knew they needed an accountant.
It put those clients in front of us at least once a year and it gave us such insight as to their financial resources and their investment behavior, all sorts of things. I’ve often said if I can only get one document from a perspective client, give me the tax return and I can pretty well see what’s going on.
Michael: Was Greg a CPA? Were you a CPA?
Eleanor: No, I was not a CPA. I was not. Later on in my career I had a brief stint as an enrolled agent but I didn’t maintain that designation.
Michael: Was Greg a CPA?
Michael: Were you building the whole firm around CPA financial planners basically?
Eleanor: No, we were not. He had one other CPA and then I was the investment person. I was the one that was going to design this new investment management – we called it “portfolio management” – for our clients. And Schwab, we were probably one of the very first firms to sign on with Schwab as a custodian. It was called “Schwab Institutional” or whatever it was called back then.
Every night I would leave the office and go down Leesburg Pike to the Schwab office and turn in the applications for new accounts we had opened that day, all paper.
Michael: Oh, yeah. I think I remember looking back at this recently, the original Schwab financial advisor service started right around . . . in 1987 I think.
Eleanor: Yeah. So we were one of the first adopters and I will tell you that was a major factor in our growth. We worked very well with Schwab. They were very supportive and, to this day, I think they’re major . . . SBSB now is probably one of their largest clients in the Mid-Atlantic region.
Michael: So Greg broke away from his broker-dealer. He took you and a lot of this department with him. When the firm started, it was Greg’s firm and you were an employee or were you a partner with him from the start? What did that look like?
Eleanor: No, I was an employee. I was paid. Not a lot, but I was paid.
Michael: So what was that path for you as the firm grew, because you ultimately became a principle, you ultimately had your name on the door, as it were. What did that path look like? How did that unfold?
Eleanor: Well, we grew the firm for a couple of years and then I can’t remember, but in conversations with Jim Bruyette and Pete Speros, we began to think about a partnership.
Michael: How did Jim and Pete come to the table into this conversation? Were they employees at that point or they were just friends?
Eleanor: No. When we decided to join ranks, we created ownership and we . . . honestly, I don’t know whether I had ownership right away. I don’t think I did. I think it was the three men because it started out as Sullivan, Bruyette & Speros, and then pretty shortly thereafter I was given a stake in the firm as well.
Michael: Okay and it became Sullivan, Bruyette, Speros & Blayney or now abbreviated down to SBSB.
Eleanor: Correct. Yes.
Michael: What was that like as the one woman in a partnership of men? I feel like that’s a challenge I hear from a number of women I know that are looking at paths to ownership about whether male-dominated firms will really allow female owners to become owners, and then what those partnership dynamics are like across gender lines.
Eleanor: Well, I think I hit it lucky. I don’t think this is the experience of many women in the profession, I will say. I can’t give you the keys to my success. I was lucky to find three partners who were . . . I guess they appreciated that I was smart and I was good with clients and therefore they took me on, and this is extraordinary, this was the risk, I did not bring any book of business to the firm.
Michael: When the four of you kind of came together into this entity.
Eleanor: Right. Yes. I supported Greg’s book of business but I did not bring a book of business and they still gave me a share and a management part in the firm. Greg then went off to become the president of the IAFP at one point and was doing a lot of traveling. It was during that year and subsequent years that I began to take over clients, as well as begin to acquire clients of my own, so that is extraordinary.
Michael: That was a couple of years into your work at the firm?
Eleanor: Yes. Our partnership. Yes.
Michael: Okay. I feel like that’s at least a little bit unusual both today even and certainly then to be in a . . . I guess we’ll call it a non-producing capacity initially and becoming a partner in that role.
Eleanor: I would say absolutely. I was given a real chance and . . .
Michael: What were your duties at that time? You’ve said at some points you were supporting Greg’s clients, there was some management work, there was this portfolio management process that you were driving. What did your working world look like at time as you’re going through this growth phase?
Eleanor: Well, just as you described. We were trying to adapt new technology for the portfolio management. I’m almost embarrassed to say, but when we began, we were tracking investments through Excel, on spreadsheets.
Michael: Not Lotus 1-2-3 or Quattro Pro?
Eleanor: No, not quite that bad. Excel, I believe. Maybe it was Lotus 1-2-3, I don’t know, but it was spreadsheet. When every dividend was paid and reinvested, you can imagine the tedium and it was just a nightmare. So we started looking into portfolio management software where transactions would be downloaded to our system and went with Advent at that point and remained. My job was to learn the new software, provide investment ideas and advice to the firm.
Michael: You didn’t exactly have a lot of choices even at the time, did you?
Eleanor: Well, we were primarily working with mutual funds. We were working with no load mutual funds and of course the Schwab platform made that very feasible because Schwab was, at that time, an organization that was very . . . they really held onto their roots as a discount broker. But Chuck Schwab, his philosophy, he would not sell certain kinds of products if he didn’t feel that they could be used well or well understood by the consumer. So it’s a very squeaky clean, low-cost type of product offering.
Michael: So what did the growth trajectory of the firm look like? Can you talk to us a little bit about milestones? You got started in ’87-’88 so what did that look like after 5 years and after 10 years?
Eleanor: Let’s see. I’m not sure. Every Christmas, every holiday we would have a party and we would all write puns. The younger staff didn’t like that but we had great fun with it. I’ll never forget writing a poem about when we went over $100,000 assets under management.
Michael: A hundred million?
Eleanor: No, no, no, no.
Michael: A hundred thousand.
Eleanor: A hundred thousand, yes.
Michael: Okay. So things got started slowly.
Eleanor: Very slowly, but that seemed like a huge . . . because we were . . . Maybe I’ll revise that. Was it a million? I don’t know. It was a small number, no matter what it was. But I remember feeling that was a real milestone.
Michael: Well, when you’re gathering your \$2,000 IRA contributions at the time.
Eleanor: Well, yeah.
Michael: If people could afford to save the maximum.
Eleanor: Exactly, exactly. I remember that being a great milestone. I think by the time we sold in 2003, we were, I think, a little bit shy of a billion under management.
Michael: Which was a huge number at the time. I still remember, I was actually looking back recently at some of the “early” benchmarking studies that Moss Adams was doing back in the early 2000s and the median independent RIAA in the early 2000s had $20 million under management and you were closing in on a billion.
Eleanor: That’s right.
How SBSB Experienced Breakout Growth By Focusing On A Niche [30:30]
Michael: That’s some astounding growth. So where did clients come from? Was it all this doing tax preparation work initially and then turning them into financial planning and investment management clients later? Did that continue to be how you built the business or did you ultimately go in different directions for marketing and business development?
Eleanor: Well, we were at the right place at the right time. There were several factors that I think drove our growth. Number one, we started working with Microsoft both out in Seattle, as well as there was an office here in DC for government relations and so forth. Microsoft was growing tremendously during those years and the major form of compensation to the executives was stock options.
Michael: So both wealth creating and highly tax complex, right? This was the days of big incentive stock options and AMT adjustments.
Eleanor: Yeah. Right. One of our clients was probably in his 20s and he came in and had student debt and he assumed he had negative net worth but we could see the gold in them thar hills and he had these stock options.
Michael: A negative net worth and $100,000 in stock options on Microsoft in the ’90s.
Eleanor: And actually the first round of stock options that Microsoft awarded, and they awarded them, I think, to every . . . you heard about the cubicle millionaires. They were awarded to everybody and those split and split and split. Finally, the exercise price was in the pennies for this stock and it was huge. So we were good at it. We were good at planning and we were good at helping people advise them when to exercise to divest.
It took a lot of work and we’d done it over time. We kept good track of their portfolio of stock options and the tax impacts and then we did the same thing with AOL executives. That was another major . . .
Michael: Of course, because here in the DC area, AOL had the major headquarters in Reston/Herndon, Virginia area, which I know is all of about 5 or 10 miles from your office. So a lot of the business really got built and I guess basically it got a niche around the DC tech industry and all of the tax-related stock options activity that was happening at the time. Is that a fair characterization of how it unfolded?
Eleanor: Yes. And Freddie Mac we worked with, and also a number of law firms downtown. Again, working with attorneys, that’s always a tax issue because they’re paying very high taxes and their cash flow is so irregular that they never seem to have the money they need to make . . . they’re making a huge amount of money.
Michael: Huge money but extremely uneven.
Eleanor: Uneven, yes. Obviously they needed planning and they needed management. So that was a niche for us as well. We were very, very lucky. Since that time, big corporations have ceased awarding stock options to employees.
Michael: Right. It’s much more restricted stock.
Eleanor: Yeah, it’s more likely to be restricted or whatever but that was a major leverage for our growth.
What Led The Founding Partners To Decide To Sell The Firm To Harris Private Bank [34:16]
Michael: So you had this explosive growth of almost a billion dollars in about 15 years from the late ’80s to the early 2000s, and then you sold. What led to the decision to engage in a sale to a bank? So you were bought by I guess Harris Bank of Montreal, Harris BMO.
Eleanor: Harris private bank, yes. Well, I think there were a number of things, but from my perspective, probably the most important was there were four of us and our investment in our company was worth a lot at that point. One impetus for selling, it was a form of risk reduction.
Michael: So a means to take money off the table for those of you that were owners and we can kind of do the math.
Eleanor: Yeah, you can do the math.
Michael: If the firm is a $10 million revenue stream give or take a little and kind of classic 2x revenue multiples, there’s this $20-ish million asset that’s concentrated business risk.
Eleanor: Very concentrated business risk. I think how I can describe that best is I would come in in the morning and come through the sitting room or the open area on my way to my office and for many years I and my partners, we knew every person that was there. We had a good relationship. So you really had a sense of who you’re working with but as we grew, it was becoming more and more we did and I would come in through the waiting room and not know some of these people and the same with our partners.
Suddenly you realized that you don’t have your hands on every relationship. We were creating opportunities for other employees to come up through the ranks and you just realized that you could be one major lawsuit away from a fairly big financial disaster. So as I say, it was risk reduction.
I think too there was the opportunity . . . first of all, banks had money. They could come shopping with bags of cash, as opposed to earn out and that kind of stuff.
Michael: So you could get appealing deal terms?
Eleanor: Can get appealing deal terms. They were looking to get into the wealth management business. I can’t say that that happened successfully, but at the time they saw that that was the future of the kinds of relationships they wanted to create with their clients. They wanted, as they kept calling it, more share of wallet, so they saw the potential.
Michael: A wealth management label but unfortunately kind of a classic banking product distribution label. Like wallet share is the old classic, if the consumer has a bunch of dollars in their wallet, I want to have products that use up as many of the dollars in their wallet as possible, so get more wallet share.
Eleanor: Right. In all fairness, that was what we did as well. We often found that our growth was coming from additional deposits and additional accounts that were being moved over to our supervision and to our advisory umbrella.
Michael: So you were at least validating there actually is expanding wallet share potential, even if that wasn’t the intention per se.
Eleanor: Yes. Often times people came, and I used to hate this, they would put us in a horse race. “Well, I’m working with the folks down the block and working with you and I’m going to see who does the better job.” Of course that better job was always measured in basis points and not in the quality of the advice of the relationship. And I never liked those relationships where you were kind of, you know . . . because if you were taking more of a growth stature and somebody was taking a more balanced, it just was a crap shoot as to who was going to do better.
Michael: Yeah, I think all of us have lived versions of that and getting put in the horse races that we don’t really want to be in.
Eleanor: No, and I think that’s one of the submerged icebergs that I want to talk about a little bit is finding that middle ground where you are pleasing clients but also doing the right thing. I think it’s very hard for people and it was certainly hard for me as a new entrant. You’re feeling brand spanking new if you’re a new CFP of whatever and you’re dealing with . . . back then, believe it or not, there were clients older than me. Not anymore, but they’re difficult, they’re full of behavioral finance heuristic flaws.
Michael: Yes. All those great things that we study.
Eleanor: All those things and you’re trying to do the right thing but you also have this . . . as I’ve often said, if somebody doesn’t accept a recommendation, it can be the best recommendation in the world but it’s not going to help them. I’m also thinking back to the days when we were all using optimizers where you had this algorithm and could figure out these optimal portfolios. Well, it was pretty much rubbish, if you think about it.
Michael: It used to mean various optimizers to determine that your optimal equity allocation isn’t just 60%, it’s 60.1237%.
Eleanor: Yes. Well, you’d get answers like you really should have 60% in gold and the rest in real estate, because they were totally uncorrelated. Finding your advisory confidence and backbone while also being compassionate and understanding how people work, I think that takes a lot of time.
Michael: Do we train that somewhere? Is that just you do it enough times and you go through it with enough clients and eventually we all collectively start figuring out when to push a client to say, “You’re not doing this but you really need to do it and I know you don’t want to hear the message from me but you really need to do it.”
Eleanor: I think so.
Michael: Versus finding that balance.
Eleanor: Sometimes it takes some colossal failures for you to find your true north, as it were. For example, you can make a really bad mistake. I remember a client insisting . . . he was just furious that he didn’t have high tech. I caved in and we bought a high tech fund and this was what, 2002? When was the meltdown of all the . . .?
Michael: Meltdown started in 2000.
Eleanor: Somewhere around there.
Michael: So a client was asking in March of 2000 or something.
Eleanor: And I did it and of course it was a disaster and the relationship was never, never right after that because I caved in because I was tired of arguing with him or tired of offering a countering point of view. So I learned my lesson.
Michael: And did he even blame you for it? I know I’ve seen that with at least a few clients over the years. They push an issue and we keep saying no, and if you ever cave in and say yes and it goes poorly, you still get blamed because it’s like, “Why didn’t you stop me?”
Eleanor: Right. So I learned that. I’ve also learned that there’s times you have to fire clients and that’s hard. I want to share something that I . . .
When Eleanor Would Fire A Client And How She Managed Client Expectations [42:04]
Michael: What would drive you to fire a client?
Eleanor: Well, when it was just draining, it was not a productive relationship. You’re being questioned. Their trust wasn’t there. The ability to get things done, you were being blocked in a number of ways. They were very difficult to work with.
I tried something because I think another part of the story is learning how to manage others, and that can be really difficult. I think particularly for me, as a woman, and I’m not going to generalize to all women, but we like to be liked. I like to be liked, excuse me.
Michael: I think most of us do. I’m good with that too.
Eleanor: Yeah. I wanted to be understanding and likeable or whatever but there are times where you have to set the agenda. I think probably the most important thing is defining expectations for people, and that can be hard because it sounds like you’re demanding something of them but I think it’s actually a boon to make the expectations very, very clear, and I had to work very hard at that.
One thing I did that I found really important, as we were growing and growth creates stress, particularly on your back office staff or your support team and they’re often the ones who take the phone calls of like, “Why did my check not arrive on time?” that kind of stuff. So I took my team at one point and we tried an exercise and it was really helpful. Everyone who was responsible for revenue coming in, in other words, part of the revenue generating side of things, had to rank our clients . . . I can’t remember exactly but let’s just say one to five with one being low revenue or low potential, low referral capability, up to five, which was higher revenue, high potential and so forth. So you were really looking at not the profitability but the revenue generation. Anybody who dealt with that, who was responsible for the client and bringing the money in got to rank the client on that scale.
The staff, on the other hand, they were also given a ranking and, again, it was one to five and I called it the hassle factor. How difficult is it to deal with this client? Sometimes you had staff, I’m sure you’ve had staff, Michael, they come in, they’re crying, they’re so upset because they’ve been mistreated or harassed or whatever or they’re constantly demanding things and so forth.
So we had two numbers and we put the revenue potential generation in the numerator and the hassle factor in the denominator and it completely rearranged our priorities as to who was the best client.
Michael: It’s funny you mention that.
Eleanor: I think I should say that we put . . . you would have to reverse it. My staff, like if it was a really super easy person to work with, you’d put a one, you’d go the other way.
Michael: And the worse they are, the higher the score.
Michael: So you start getting these ratios that, when you score low and you got a bad ratio, low revenue and high hassle, your days are numbered with the firm.
Eleanor: Yeah, so you reset your priorities for how many times you’re going to meet with that person or when you turn them away or so forth. But one of the biggest benefits that came out of that exercise is your staff are now . . . they get input into who they want to work with, or at least shaping the practice. I think that is so important because at the end of the day, clients are wonderful and we live by our clients. But if you’re not recognizing the needs and the assaults on your staff, you can be in real trouble.
Michael: I remember early in my career, the second firm I worked at was kind of a smaller, independent firm with a couple of advisors under an independent broker-dealer and I had joined them. I guess now what we would basically call a combination of a paraplanner and a client services associate, and we had a similar process where clients got basically scored on a couple of dimensions. We looked at ongoing revenue and upfront revenue because this was a fee and commission firm, so we would have a blend of each.
Then all of us as staff got a scoring factor that we controlled that at that firm we actually called the PITA factor, for Pain In The Ass. We got to assign all the clients a PITA score and we got to pick three of the clients that had the worst PITA scores and fire them. Actually, the advisor had to fire them, but we as staff got to pick three clients that got fired every year. It was a sizeable firm so fortunately, firing three clients was not going to blow up the business.
We basically had pretty much unlimited control around who we would get to fire under kind of the presumption that no matter how good of a client it is, and some of them weren’t even that valuable financially either, there’s an instant lift that comes from the . . .
Michael: . . . morale of the staff. I remember being in that position. It was really empowering. I remember one year dealing with a particularly challenging client throughout the year and thinking through most of that fall, “I know what you don’t. I know you’re going to be gone at the end of this year. I’m going to still be here and you’re not going to be a client here anymore.” Frankly, that was empowering as a staff member to get through some challenging times with a very rude, unpleasant client knowing that we were empowered enough that I was not going to have to deal with this client next year. And that helped to keep me on board as an employee.
Eleanor: Yeah. I think that was a lesson I learned and used, absolutely. I know several of the people I really admire, some of the people I most admire in this industry have shared with me that if a client in any way abuses a staff person, reams them out on the phone or in person or whatever, no tolerance. No tolerance for that.
Michael: I’ve ended out with the same attitude as well, having lived through that now of being kind of on the other end of the business owner side that the long run, just considering the long run value of our employees and the dozens or hundreds of clients that they touch is so astronomically higher than the value of any one client just from the pure business sense, rather never mind that I just think it’s a good thing to do as a human being that I have no tolerance for clients or customers that are rude or offensive to staff. Being upset is fine. People get upset and you can voice a little frustration if you’re upset but mean, nasty people we’ll fire them, let them go in a heartbeat. It’s just not worth it.
Eleanor: It’s not worth it, right.
How Eleanor Began To Focus On The Financial Needs Of Women [49:35]
Michael: So you build up to this firm that’s nearly a billion dollars and it gets sold in 2003, so what then? Was this like sell the firm, drop the mic, walk off into the sunset and just vanish? Did you continue after the firm was acquired? What did that transition look like?
Eleanor: No. I stayed on for another four years to make sure the clients were stable and there was continuity and so forth. I think that it was during that time, I was enjoying what I was doing, but I have to say I was beginning to yearn for something else. I had the financial wherewithal, at that point, to consider other options and I really got interested in women. In looking at the experience of women in terms of their financial planning and considering how is it different? Is it different? Are their needs different? Are there ways of thinking about money differently? Are we reaching them where they’re at?
I really felt that as a profession, not so much my firm but as a profession we were not doing a good job. And I could see as many people saw either simultaneously or certainly subsequently that the women’s market was a huge potential for growth. I think the Center for Talent Innovation came out with a study not long ago and estimated that there’s about $5 trillion that’s being held by women that is unadvised and most of it’s in cash. It’s huge, it’s huge.
So there is some reluctance, there’s something going on with women and financial advisors and I felt we as a profession are not doing it. We’re not meeting them. We’re not gaining their trust. They’re not seeking us out and I wanted to think about this. I wanted to think about this. I wanted to look at every research study I could about women’s preferences and so forth and begin to think about it.
I think too that I had grown out of the portfolio management role. I could see that it was more and more something that I could maybe see down the road that this was possibly the least important part of the overall advisory package, given that we were doing a lot of . . .
Michael: So you had an early premonition you were going to be replaced by robo-advisors before other advisors came in to replace you?
Eleanor: No. You know what? I believed then – I guess I can share this. I can hear people screaming in the background when I share this but I really believed that you could do a great job with index funds and you didn’t need to know anything. You need to know very little and you could pick good, solid mutual funds. I’ve used Vanguard funds for myself and for relatives that I know I have to have Thanksgiving dinner with every year. It just works. It works.
Michael: There’s not a lot to apologize for.
Eleanor: Yeah. What are you going to do with the other 90% of your time? I really felt that the real value added, yes, was making . . . we added a lot of value, for instance, when somebody came to us all in cash because we could get them the diversification that they needed. We added a lot of value preventing big mistakes. I don’t want to underestimate that because people, we know from, I think it’s the DALBAR studies, that people, left to their own devices, will underperform indexes. Now, that’s computer. It’s not even a mind that’s choosing those stocks. Underperforms that by a significant amount.
So our job was simply, I felt, to keep people in the game, keep it growing, determine how to get to their retirement goals, but I didn’t see the investing and the choosing of investments to be all that interesting any more.
Michael: So you wound out of SBSB in 2007.
Eleanor: Yeah, 2008.
Michael: Four years after. Okay. So you got out at a good time.
Eleanor: That’s what you say and that’s what half of my mind said. “Woo, I dodged that bullet.” But the other half of me I just sat at home and I worried about every single one of my clients after I left, thinking, “But they need me! They need me!”
Michael: You left just in time to not actually be there for clients that went through that decline.
Eleanor: No. And I had a lot of survivor guilt as a result of that.
Michael: How do you work through that? What do you do to go through that challenge? Because I think that’s true for pretty much any advisor that’s still at the firm or frankly even just transition clients. You can be still in the firm. At some point as we grow you delegate clients to other advisors in the firm and that’s fine when everything’s happy, but then you get to stressful parts and that feeling kicks in, “No one can help this client but me because I brought them and I did it in the first place.” How do you work through that?
Eleanor: Well, I think first of all, I just had to recognize the hubris of assuming that they needed me. I was leaving them in process and with a staff and with a firm that I had built that I really trusted and I knew that they would be cared for. That was all part of the plans. I missed them probably more than they needed to miss me and the transition was smooth, it was comfortable, and certainly my leaving didn’t dent the growth of the firm. It was the right time. It was the right time for me.
Michael: So what came next? You spent 20 years almost exactly I guess, building the first, growing the firm, and then suddenly you drop your mic and walk away and no more client calls? And then what?
Eleanor: No. I had a few restrictions on what I could do. Very short. It wasn’t a big deal.
Michael: Probably a simple non-compete.
Eleanor: Yeah, and I wanted to sit back and think about women and what they needed and how we as a profession needed to address their needs because of this distrust. I remember a major impetus was a study that was released. What’s the big consulting firm in Boston?
Eleanor: Yes. That’s right. Boston Consulting Group. I said it. They published a study about women want more. This was back in 2008. What they did, they did a global study and they asked women all over the world. It wasn’t just in the United States but all over the world. They asked them about all the major industrial sectors and wanted their opinion as to how well these sectors were meeting their needs, addressing their . . . treating them and so forth.
There was retail, there was travel, there was medical, you name it. I think there were 32 sectors and guess which one came absolute dead bottom? It was financial services.
Michael: Oh, financial services.
Eleanor: Yes. And I thought, “This has got to change.” So that was when I wrote my book, Women’s Worth: Finding Your Financial Confidence. But I knew it was as much women needed changing as we needed changing as a profession, so I began to explore more and more, did a lot of speaking to women’s groups, talking to them, trying to understand what women want. Me and Freud, we were wondering what do women really want.
Learned a lot along the way. I partnered with Elizabeth Jetton for quite some time and we created an organization called Directions for Women and we started out working with advisors to help them think about their approach to women clients. Interestingly enough, along the way we found that in working with the advisors, they were primarily women advisors, a lot of their needs and questions and insecurities were absolutely the same as women clients. So we began offering circle retreats.
Michael: So meaning the parallels between women advisors and women clients.
Eleanor: Yes. We’re very similar. So we started these retreats for women advisors and we were teaching them ostensibly how to hold women’s circles to talk about financial issues, but it really worked as an exercise for the advisors themselves to begin to peel the layers of the onion and really see what was holding them back, what they were fighting within a male-dominated culture. It wasn’t male bashing by any means. It was just a very open space where we could talk about what we were trying to do as women advisors.
Why Women Advisors Should Be Intentional About Connecting With Professional Groups That Are Women-Centric [59:43]
Michael: Are there takeaways that you learned from that that you’d share out to either women advisors of the podcast or maybe even a few of us male advisors that want some perspective on how it’s different from the other side of the gender divide?
Eleanor: Well, I think that there were several things but I can speak from personal experience in terms of so often, being a woman in a male-dominated profession, you’re plagued with insecurity. Even if you are smart and a great communicator, a great planner or whatever, you are constantly feeling that you’re being kind of shadowed. It’s just difficult and we always feel that we don’t know enough. We always feel we don’t know enough.
This is a factor that exists for women investors, for women clients, and for women advisors. We feel driven to do and be much more than we even need to do. I think coming to that realization with other women, be that in a client group or be it a network of other women advisors, I really believe in the support that we get from each other.
I would tell your listeners, those women out there who are trying to find their way in the profession, surround yourself with people, with other professionals like yourself.
Michael: Does that mean specifically women’s groups, like women try to organize local women advisor groups to share these dynamics, or can that be any type of group?
Eleanor: I know this is going to be maybe unpopular to some, I understand, but yes.
Michael: “Yes” meaning surround yourself with specifically women advisor groups?
Eleanor: Yes. I will tell you, I’ve been in both types of groups. Both are extremely valuable. I’m not saying to the exclusion of other professional learning study groups. Go for it.
Michael: Right. We’re not saying never have a study group if it has man.
Eleanor: No, no. But the quality of conversation and the honesty and the authenticity in an all women’s group is extraordinary. You get topics that you’re talking about that are not talked about with men and women. So there’s a digging deeper and more sharing and more support and I can’t . . . you have to experience it to really understand it.
Michael: So for any women out there who are feeling isolated in this, find some other women in your area and band together and . . .
Eleanor: What do we talk about?
Michael: Is it like, “Everybody come to my office. We’re just going to kind of sit around the conference table and start chitchatting”? Would you make these more social? Do these . . . like, “Everyone come into my office in the conference room”? How would someone set this up?
Eleanor: Well, you can set it up any way you want. I belonged to a women’s study group for years and years and we get together and talk about Roth IRAs and the Medicare surtax. We talk about the sort of tactical things, but still, there’s also a lot of talk about, “How do I deal with this individual in my firm?” or, “How do I deal with this client?” So there’s a kind of exchange as well about the softer side.
I just think that women don’t feel judged by other women. There’s a more collaborative share than it is in a mixed group. Consider it more in the terms of practice management types of things, which aren’t necessarily all about finding alpha or the more technical parts of what we do. But how do I develop as a professional? Where do I find the resources that I need? Who can I talk to?
Whether Eleanor Thinks Women Should Be Considered A “Niche” [1:03:57]
Michael: So I’ve got to ask then, in this context about both, we need women as advisors, we need women as clients, the unique perspectives that women bring to the table or the unique challenges that they face, or are you in the camp that as advisors looking at clients, are women a niche? Are women a niche for financial advisors to serve and specialize in or is that not a good way to look at it?
Eleanor: I wouldn’t say women are a niche because you’re talking about more than half the world. That’s not a niche.
Michael: Right. My niche is 51% of the population? When 98% of advisors serve the other side, I guess maybe that is . . . you could still have a niche. That’s a majority when the majority of advisors serve the minority?
Eleanor: There are niches among women. For example, I know many women who have created excellent growing practices working with divorcees. That is one area where I know that generally so far we have not measured a preference on the part of women clients for women advisors, but I have also argued that for a long time they really didn’t have much of a choice. I’m of the school that if we get more women into the profession, I believe that the demand for women advisors will go up, but that’s another conversation, that’s another whole chapter.
For some reason it doesn’t make sense to me to make a niche of male divorcees. I think you could get that, don’t you? Can you see somebody creating a practice of men who have been divorced? It doesn’t feel exactly the same.
Michael: No, it doesn’t feel the same.
Eleanor: No. It doesn’t feel the same, and so the need is both for getting things organized and the financial choices that have to be made and talking her out of just keeping the house and having no liquidity whatsoever and all of that. That is a real need out there that collects around women that just is not true of men.
Then we also talk about widows. That is a niche. And let’s face it, there are just a lot more widows than there are widowers.
Michael: Yes. Unfortunately, that’s just demographics, life expectancy reality.
Eleanor: Right. So I think that that works as a niche. That’s not to say that they’re all going to be temperamentally the same but in many cases just that shared experience is very binding, I think, and when it is some of the best women in the field have been those who have gone through something and have turned around and become experts in it. I’ve seen women who have gone through divorces and they now have thriving practices around counseling newly divorced women. I have seen widows, Katherine Rehl down in Florida, who has thrived in advising widows based on her own experience.
I think that this is a very strong trend for women who have come through experience and want to turn around and help others go through the same thing.
Michael: Katherine Rehl in particular, she actually speaks and trains advisors on how to do this as well.
Michael: We’ll make sure we get a link to that in the show notes for people that want to look that up.
Eleanor: Absolutely. There are niches in here that don’t necessarily stand forth for the male population. Maybe they’re all cats, I don’t know. It’s hard to herd them or something into such neat groups. Although certainly there are male business owners or entrepreneurs.
I think another niche is in fact women business owners.
Michael: I know a couple of advisors thriving there, or even particular industries, right? I know a few advisors out there that just specialize in women in tech, which is another challenging space with problematic gender diversity.
Eleanor: I think this reflects a kind of . . . there’s gender imbalance all across just about everything we do. Men have led and women have followed. I think it does set up the opportunity to bring the emotional relating to the financial situation that works very well with women, because I think women can feel very isolated by their situation, where men have . . . oh, I’m going to be in such trouble with all these generalizations, I know, but nevertheless, men have historically and culturally found it easier to create the networks and the connections in the marketplace and I don’t think women have.
Michael: As we get into the tail end here of our discussion today, because I’m curious, if you look back at your career as an advisor, as a firm owner, is there a particular crossroads or a decision where you feel like, “Here’s one thing that I got right, that I nailed,” that really contributed to the business success or to your career success?
Eleanor: Yes, I do. Very early in my career I was encouraged to stand up and talk. I was pushed out there and I will tell you . . .
Michael: Was that a person that did that? A mentor? A friend?
Eleanor: Yes, it was a mentor. I will be honest and I’ll admit to your audience, I was terrified of public speaking when I began my career, just terrified.
Michael: I think a lot of people are actually.
Eleanor: That’s very common.
Michael: I’m not even sure that’s a gender dynamic. Yeah, a lot of us very scared of public speaking.
Eleanor: Very scared. I sat myself down and said, “This has got to go. This has got to go because I can’t get to where I want to go if I refuse to stand up and speak.” I started speaking and I started speaking at conferences and events and I started teaching audio courses for the college of financial planning. I did a lot of writing.
Michael: How do you get started with that?
Eleanor: You just put one foot in front of another. Well, I did go to Toastmasters. Is that a start? That helped me.
Michael: Sure. I think there’s a challenge for some people, just how do you get started? So join Toastmasters and just find any local group of any size that has an audience more than one, so it’s not a conversation now, it’s an actual speech in front of an audience and just do it.
Eleanor: Well, I did. I had some help along the way because I was sort of pushed onto this stage to talk about . . . because we were fairly new at this development of a portfolio management practice and I was so integral to that, I really got pushed at the IAFP conventions and so forth to get up on stage and start talking. And it was terrifying and I got very mixed reactions and I really sensed in many cases that the predominantly male audiences were not entirely comfortable or ready to accept expertise from a woman. That was hard.
Michael: So from the flip side then, looking back, is there any crossroads moment you got to where you really wish you’d done it differently, kind of a career regret? Anyone listening, hey, if you hit this moment, don’t do what I did here?
Eleanor: Oh, I have failed many times. There’s no question about that. Actually, I’m going to turn it around a little bit. I want to encourage, again, women to get good at failing. I think too often we avoid it. We keep it safe to avoid failing but we miss out a lot. There’s a wonderful book. I think it’s called The Confidence Code?
Michael: The Confidence Code? Okay. We’ll make sure that’s listed in the show notes with this episode. Okay.
Eleanor: I believe so. That may need fact checked. It’s by two women. I think it’s Claire Shipman and Katty Kay, I believe. It is a wonderful book about women’s lack of confidence. It’s one of the reasons I subtitled my book “Finding Your Financial Confidence” because I think this is very much a female trait, a female characteristic.
We may evolve out of it, and we will. But right now we’re at a cultural and a historical place where we still feel less confident about what we know.
Michael: So as you look back over the span of working as an advisor and building a business and now you’re doing work with CFP Board as a consumer advocate and part of the Women’s Initiative, so how do you define success?
Eleanor: I guess I could be really corny and say loving what you do or not working a day in your life.
Michael: It’s okay. If you love what you do, it’s not work.
Eleanor: You’ll never have to work a day in your life or something like that.
Michael: Is that what it feels like for you at this point?
Eleanor: Success feels like integrity. When I say “integrity” I mean it in the sort of old derivation of wholeness, integral, when your insides match your outsides, when what you’re doing is what you believe. And it fits well, you’re wearing your expertise like a loose robe. It just works and I think it’s knowing . . . I thought about retiring many times and I just can’t get there because . . .
Michael: What would you do with all this time?
Eleanor: I’m going to continue to work for empowering professional women probably until I can’t anymore, however that is. It may be pro bono or whatever. It’s just something that I really care about and get tremendous satisfaction when someone comes up to me and says, “Thank you. Thank you for reaching out. Thank you for setting an example. Thanks for encouraging women.” The need is huge and so success is doing something that counts.
Let’s roll back to the very beginning. I didn’t like what I was doing when I came out of business school because I couldn’t make eye contact. I couldn’t see into somebody and get that response. Success is now I’m now at a place where I have so many connections and relationships that are maybe very, very brief but they’re deeply felt and I can meet their eyes. That, to me, is just tremendously powerful.
Michael: So one final question then as we wrap up. What advice would you give young advisors looking to become a financial planner today and start a firm? And I guess anything you’d say in particular to young women maybe looking to navigate that path.
Eleanor: Oh, I have so much to say. Don’t be discouraged by business models or whatever. There are people out there that are doing some amazingly innovative, creative things. You do not have to work for a job. You can make your career work for you. I think that’s going to be the wave of financial planning going forward.
As millennials get ahold of our profession and they connect and create and innovate, I think we can create practices that fully reflect ourselves. I think there’s tremendous freedom and potential there. Obviously you have to do the ground work, the blocking and tackling. You have to know your stuff. But then you can . . . The need for financial planning, the need for somebody, a client or an individual can trust is so huge. There’s such potential. So you can find your way, find where you need to be and go for it. If you fail, that’s okay. You’re going to learn from it. Just pick yourself up and do it again.
Michael: I don’t think we can finish on any better note than that, so thank you. Thank you, Eleanor, for joining us and sharing your success story.
Eleanor: It’s my pleasure and can’t be talking to anybody more successful than you, Michael, so I’m honored to have been asked to do this. Thank you.
Michael: Thank you.