Welcome back to the 315th episode of the Financial Advisor Success Podcast!
My guest on today's podcast is Lisa Brown. Lisa is a Partner and Wealth Advisor for CI Brightworth, an RIA under the CI Financial umbrella with offices in Atlanta, Georgia, and Charlotte, North Carolina, that oversees nearly $5 billion in assets under management* for over 1,500 client households.
What's unique about Lisa, though, is how, by digging deeper into an existing firm niche focus of Coca-Cola employees and talking extensively with employees there about their common needs and issues that affected their financial goals, she began to write white papers for them, which was so successful in building her reputation and expertise – and client base – within the company that she gave up her own office space because she was spending so much time meeting with clients in their offices at Coca-Cola headquarters… which just led to even more referrals and growth by being so visible on-site at the company.
In this episode, we talk in-depth about how Lisa realized that by visiting Coca-Cola’s headquarters consistently and engaging employees in-person about their financial issues, she could become known as a familiar and trusted financial expert in the Coca-Cola community, how Lisa leveraged writing white papers about preparing for retirement and what to look for in severance packages in the event of a layoff specifically for the Coca-Cola employee niche as marketing tools to gain even more referrals within the company, and how, as a practice area leader for corporate professionals and executives as one of CI Brightworth’s four key practice areas (the others being business owners, dentists, and retiring clients), Lisa has begun to train and guide the next generation of advisors in the firm about how to become effective business developers by identifying and getting known in their area of specialization, too.
We also talk about how, in the early stages of Lisa’s career, she doubted her future in the financial services industry and decided to obtain an MBA as a fallback, but coincidentally during her first semester, the program began offering a Master's in financial planning that provided the same coursework required to take the CFP exam which ultimately led Lisa to obtain her CFP designation and find a successful career path in the industry, how Lisa credits preparing tax returns for clients during her formative years at Goldman Sachs Ayco as one of the ways she grew her confidence and expertise to feel more comfortable as an expert advisor, and how Lisa leveraged 4 pillars of professional networking, joining organizations and attending their networking events, public speaking, and creating content in the local media to build her personal brand and gain referrals.
And be certain to listen to the end, where Lisa shares how she hit a point where she realized working nights and weekends was taking away from the time she could have been spending with her husband and children, and had to force herself to get comfortable with prioritizing what was urgent versus really truly important to regain more of that family time, why Lisa feels it’s important for newer, younger advisors to surround themselves with experienced advisors and take every opportunity to absorb the knowledge and practices that they put forward to develop as a better advisor and create a successful career path for themselves early on, and why Lisa believes the key to success for her at this point in her career is how she can impart the wisdom she has gained and sponsor younger advisors to help them build the skills and confidence they need to become better advisors and find their own paths to success.
So, whether you’re interested in learning about why Lisa decided to work with corporate professionals and executives, how Lisa and her firm are working to replicate their success at Coca-Cola with other larger corporations and white papers, or how Lisa thinks about and develops processes to increase and improve business development, then we hope you enjoy this episode of the Financial Advisor Success podcast, with Lisa Brown.
Resources Featured In This Episode:
Looking for sample client service calendars, marketing plans, and more? Check out our FAS resource page!
Michael: Welcome, Lisa Brown, to the "Financial Advisor Success Podcast."
Lisa: Thank you, Mike. I'm glad to be here.
Michael: I'm really looking forward to today's episode and to talking a little bit about business development and bringing in new clients, and what to me is just a really interesting shift in how this happens in the industry. Because if you talk to most folks who started back in the, what's called the 1980s, the 1990s, almost all the financial advisor jobs were sales jobs. You work in an insurance company or a broker-dealer, you sold mutual funds or universal life or variable universal life.
And if you did well enough, at some point, you could go get your CFP marks and start doing financial planning. But you only got there if you were pretty good at sales and business development. Otherwise, you literally didn't qualify your contracts long enough to get to the point where you were allowed to become a financial planner.
Over the past 20 years, that's really started to shift, and the growth of AUM firms, I think, in particular, where there's this recurring revenue model, which means at some point firms just want to hire advisors to be awesome advisors for the clients they've already got, regardless of whether you bring in any, creates all these new career opportunities for wonderful financial advisors who may not have much experience or even interest in business development. Except at some point, from a career perspective, you can only go so far in that career if, at some point, you can't figure out how to bring in clients and grow the business.
Most advisory firms will pay a lead advisor pretty well, but it's really hard to, as the label goes, make a partner if you're not able to bring in clients and make the pie bigger. It's very similar to the model in accounting and law and other professions as well.
And so, I know you've lived the latter version of this path, like starting out in a journey that did not have any business development because you'd wanted to do financial planning things. And now, I think, you've gone to the other end of the extreme that you're doing business development, you're driving business development, you're actually teaching other advisors within the firm how to do business development.
I'm excited to talk about this journey of how you go from, "I don't do business development," to, "Oh, wait, I think I can do business development," and when and how that shift came for you. So, I think to kick off, just so we understand the overall context, can you tell us a little bit about your advisory firm as it exists today and your role within the firm?
Focusing On ‘Practice Areas’ To Increase Business Development And Marketing [06:03]
Lisa: Sure. So, I am with CI Brightworth. We are one of the partner firms under the CI Private Wealth umbrella. CI Financial, originally a Canadian firm, came to the U.S. in early 2020 and started partnering with RIAs across the country. And so, there's now about 25 RIAs under the CI Financial umbrella in the U.S., again, our firm being one of them.
And so, I've been with Brightworth since 2005, so about 17 years. And now, we are CI Brightworth. And I think that this journey, as I look back over the last couple decades, has been really, really incredible. But I'm probably more excited now about the future than I probably have been in a long time because of the new opportunities and new colleagues that I'm working with as part of being under the CI umbrella.
Michael: So, help us understand, first, at the Brightworth level, what the firm looks like?
Lisa: Sure. So, we have an office in Atlanta, Georgia and Charlotte, North Carolina. There's about 90 associates between the two offices, and we have four practice areas that we specialize in and really market to from a business development standpoint.
So, I'm in charge of the corporate professionals and executive services group. We have a group that specializes in business owners, a group that specializes in working with dentists, and then our retiring well practice area. So, this is really more content creation and deliverables that are important to our client segment that are retired or nearing retirement.
So, we didn't always have these four. When I started at the firm in 2005, I felt we were a little bit more of everything to everyone. So, we worked with attorneys and widows and divorcees and athletes and business owners and executives, and we still do, we still have a wide variety of clientele. But the marketing focus and the content that we create is really focused now on these four practice areas.
Michael: So, am I thinking about this right to essentially say the practice areas are essentially niches for you? But because you've got multiple niches under the firm, you call them "practice areas," and you've kind of structured a team around that?
Lisa: That's correct. That's exactly what that is. So, our firm, Brightworth, was actually started by two gentlemen in the 1980s, Dave Polstra and Chris Dardaman. And they built most of their clientele, being corporate executives of Fortune 500 companies, in particular Coca-Cola. And so, over the years, most of our client base were these corporate executives.
And as that's evolved over the years, we've expanded into practice areas, focused niches, these four different types of clients and their particular needs and concerns. And it really helps to drive your messaging much more clearly and find the clients you're looking to work for. And clients can see that you work with people like them when your messaging is a little bit more targeted.
So, that's been successful for us. We, again, our firm was built on a base of corporate executives, and we still have lots and lots and lots of corporate executives and do a lot of training here, through my team, to train the planners and the younger advisors on the technicalities of working with corporate executives. I would say this is our bread and butter of our company and still is one of the focus areas that we have.
Michael: So, from a practice areas' end, I guess I'm just wondering, is this primarily a marketing thing? "Here are the different specialties we have, and you can... " As you noted, it facilitates the marketing focus because you can make content for business owners and content for dentists and content for corporate executives.
So, is this a marketing nomenclature around "Here are the types of clients that we specialize with"? Or is this literally part of the structure of the firm, like there are certain advisors and team members, and you're assigned to the dentist practice area versus the corporate professionals' and executives' practice area?
Lisa: Yes, so it's both. So, our Charlotte, North Carolina office, the planners and advisors, they're primarily focused on the dental industry. And they have a deep expertise in working with dentists and helping dentists sell their practice and setting up retirement plans for these dental offices and looking at the P&L statements and the business side of it. So, there's a really deep expertise and specialty there. But that doesn't mean that every advisor or planner working in our Charlotte office can only work with dentists.
So, we do have a handful of corporate executives that we serve out of that office that are local to that Charlotte area. And then, conversely, in our Atlanta office, say, most of the planners and advisors work with business owners and corporate executives here as well as the retiring well practice area. But we have intentionally, over the last few years, tried to do a lot more cross-training of our financial planners to give them exposure to working with all the different client types.
So, we're not trying to pigeonhole somebody to only work with one type of client. We want to provide the training and develop the technical expertise with the different types of clients that we serve and are looking to serve more of, but allowing our planners and young advisors to find what niche they're more comfortable working at.
I know for me, I started my career working with corporate executives, and I never changed my focus. I loved it. It was such a great fit for me. I was fortunate there. I know a lot of advisors who might try to dabble in a couple of different client types then figure out what sticks. But we believe that, from a training standpoint, giving our financial planners and younger advisors exposure to different types of clients will help them find what path they want to go down.
Michael: But does that mean, eventually, if they try a few, are they supposed to pick one eventually? Like, "Hey, you've rotated through all four now, which one are you going after?" Or can they continue to rotate and work across lots of different practice areas at once, on an ongoing basis?
Lisa: Typically, once you become a wealth advisor, you've narrowed down where you want to focus. One of our advisors, for example, Josh, he works with a lot of corporate executives, but has found his own particular niche in special needs planning. So that's not one of our four pillars as a firm that we market and train around, but that's an area he's really enjoyed. He's got a designation in it now. He's built relationships with attorneys in the local area who focus on special needs planning.
And so, that freedom and flexibility to find your own path and build your client base like that absolutely exists here. But again, that's something he really pursued on his own, rather than the firm supporting that niche and developing training around it.
Michael: And so then, how does, I guess, the more senior advisors or leadership work within the practice areas? Because you're kind of framing this around, just the more associate advisors coming up to be full wealth advisors, you get to cross train across multiple practice areas, you tend to start narrowing down your focus to one, maybe you'll go up a new different direction. Otherwise, you tend to pick one of the four.
How does it work for, I guess, just established advisors or the leadership folks? Are they also rotating around, or do they tend to have a particular one that they focus on as well?
Lisa: Yeah, they tend to have a particular one they focus on. So, there's four leaders at the company, we call practice area leaders. So, again, I lead our corporate executives group. And so you have somebody who is really in charge of making sure we're delivering the content, the marketing strategies, doing business development in this area, training on business development in this area, overseeing the technical training for the particular practice area.
But we have partner advisors who have established books of business. They're bringing in business themselves, and they're still participating in one of the practice areas, but less on the training side, right? They're pretty much trained up, and they're more kind of running and doing their thing and building their book. And, eventually, they'll get to the point where their book of business is full and they're still bringing in clients but referring those clients on to more less-seasoned advisors to help them build their books of business.
Michael: Interesting. So, I guess similar in many ways, as I hear that too, a lot of advisory firms that tend to build multi-advisor teams, where there's a more senior person who drives some of the leadership, takes the most senior clients, and does a lot of the business development that gets handed off to other clients. But in your framework, that's not just about teaming per se. The senior advisor at the top of that pyramid may be leading a particular practice area. And so they end up being all in to that practice area and developing the advisors in that practice area and doing the training in that practice area and doing the business development in that practice area. And that's part of their honed focus at the senior level.
Lisa: That's right. And if you think about, from a business continuity standpoint, you want those leaders to be eventually working themselves out of a job, right? So, we should do such a good job of overseeing and training and developing that we have another set of leaders coming behind us that can take the ball and run with it so we can continue to serve our clients with excellence and bring in more clients and keep the continuity of what we built over the years going for the future.
And I found, in my personal experience as an advisor and moving more into the business development side, the light bulb went off when I realized several years ago, if I go really deep in working with executives that work at one company, I can serve a whole lot of people without actually having to work that hard to do it. And sales is actually really easy.
It was so easy to pick up clients at the company I really had my focus on, it was Coca-Cola, because I knew how all of their comp and benefits plans worked inside and out. I could recite those rules in my sleep. I exuded that confidence. People saw how well-versed I was and told all their co-workers about me.
It really… I think it makes the advisor's job a whole lot easier if they can go deep in one area. Now, you've got to like that area. You don't want to specialize in something that you don't want to talk about all day long. But if you find that particular passion, in terms of the practice area, the specialty, life's good. And it's easy.
Michael: So, how did practice areas come about for the firm? Was it a conscious thing? "Hey, this is what the attorneys and accountants do. We're going to try that model in our advisory firm." Where did it come from? And when did it come?
Lisa: Our firm was built around working with corporate executives. And then we had a smattering of other client types. In 2017, we acquired the office that's in Charlotte that specializes in dentists. And so, now, we have two practice areas, right, the dental specialty and the corporate executive specialty.
And it was right around that time that we also engaged with another colleague who came on board that had a particular specialty in working with business owners and helping business owners sell their practice. And so, now we have a third area of expertise that we've really grown and trained around and developed marketing strategies around. And coupled with that, with a lot of our executives having retired at this point, knowing that it was really important to focus on our retirees and address issues important to them, our retiring well practice area was formed.
So, a lot of this really came about in the last five to seven years or so. Looking a little bit further into the corporate executive space, for many, many years, we had said internally, we wanted to go find our next Coca-Cola. So we built this incredible niche at Coca-Cola. We knew everyone there, everyone knew us. We wanted to go replicate that at other companies.
And so, we said, "Well, we figured out the secret formula to go deep with Coca-Cola. Let's take that formula and go try to infiltrate other companies." So, we've also been on a journey of doing that to continue to grow and expand our company and expand our specialties within the corporate execs area.
Michael: And then, just so we understand the overall scope of the firm, I guess, just total of clients or assets or revenue or however you evaluate overall size and scope of the firm.
Lisa: Yes. So, we manage a little over [$]5 billion of assets under management*, with over 1500 clients between our Atlanta and Charlotte office. About half of those clients are in the dental space, and the other half are divided between executives and retirees and the business owners, like I said, with a smattering of other clientele as well.
Lisa’s Journey Through The Financial Services Industry [20:31]
Michael: So, tell me a little bit more about this journey or shift of, I think you just said earlier, "I realized that if I focus on just one area, like my Coca-Cola executives, it's just so much easier to get clients." And I'm struck by that because it feels like the fundamental challenge and fear that most advisors have is basically the opposite of, "If I pick one thing and I narrow it down to one thing, I'm going to lose so many opportunities with all the other clients and prospects that I can't talk to and work with if I pick one thing." So most I find are very fearful to narrow down and focus in that way. So, I'm struck that you came to the opposite conclusion. How did you get to the opposite conclusion?
Lisa: Yes, and it wasn't without testing the waters over the years. As I mentioned, I really started my career working with corporate executives, and I liked that space, and I understood it, and my personality is like an exec.
Michael: Where did you get started to be able to work with corporate executives out of the gate?
Lisa: So, my first job, right out of college, I took a full-time job with The Ayco Company, which is now owned by Goldman Sachs. And they worked with corporate executives. They had these contracts with a lot of the Fortune 500 companies where the Ayco advisors would provide financial counseling services, as well as investment management, and could sell insurance products for these corporate executives.
So, the company would essentially pay the bill, pay the fee for the wealth management services, and the Ayco advisors served those clients. So that's really where I cut my teeth in working with executives. I was 22 years old, so I had no idea what this field was all about. I didn't know what sort of different client issues or strategies were out there. That's how I cut my teeth, was on corporate executives.
Michael: So, how did you land in the industry in the first place? Had you always been interested in financial planning, financial advice, and just Ayco was where you decided to make your mark first?
Lisa: No, I stumbled into it. So, when I was in college in upstate New York, I was majoring in finance and economics. And I think it was my sophomore year in college, I went to the Career Services Offices, and I said, "I really like math, and I really like numbers, but I really like people. Is there something I can do to marry these two?" And they said, "We've got the perfect person for you to talk with. She's the HR director, that's an alum, HR director for this company called The Ayco Company." And Ayco's headquarters at the time were in Albany, New York, and I grew up about 45 minutes from there.
So, as it turned out, I was able to get an internship at Ayco during my winter and summer breaks from school, and I was interning in HR. And I did that for all my breaks through the end of my junior year. And before I went back for my senior year in college, they said, "We know you're getting your degree in finance. You've been interning in HR. We would like to offer you a full-time position when you graduate, you can choose which path you want to go into. You can go into our financial planner training program, or we'll make a role for you in HR."
And the reason I chose the financial planner training program was because, as part of that, once you completed the training, you will get relocated to one of their 12 regional offices around the country. And I had never lived outside of upstate New York. So, I said, "This sounds great." So, I signed on for that role, which was a really sweet position to be in going back your senior year in college and already having a job lined up. But I started in their training program. It was a...
Michael: For the sole reason of, if you took the HR job, you'd have to stay near Albany, and if you took the financial planning job, they let you go somewhere else.
Lisa: That's exactly right.
Lisa: So, I was 22 years old, I was young, I was single, I was ready to go explore the world. And so, I went through the training program. I was only a couple months into it. And they called and said, "Hey, we've got an opening in our Atlanta, Georgia office. Are you interested?" And I said, "Of course I am. Let's go."
So, that's what brought me to Atlanta in 1999. And at the time, I thought I'd only hang out in Atlanta for a couple years and then move back north where all my family was, but 23 years later, I'm still here.
Michael: So, you get this opportunity out of the gate. The interesting thing for the Ayco model, per the earlier discussion, they've got a system that brings in clients that bring in executives under contract with the companies. The job is "just to give them wonderful financial planning advice so that they feel well served and retained with Ayco in the contract." So, what was that like for you suddenly needing to do advisory work for Fortune 500 executives as a 22-year-old?
Lisa: So, it was great, and it was horrible at the same time. Great in that, here I am at 22 and I'm still learning, I'm still learning a lot of technical rules and all that. But I remember this CEO of this company, and I think he was in his 60s, Harold was his name. He called me up one day, and was asking me a couple questions, financial planning related. And I answered them. And he thanked me for my time and hung up.
And I remember thinking, "I'm as young as this guy's grandchildren.” And he just listened to me and took my advice and thanked me for my time. And so, most of us have impostor syndrome at some point in our careers, right? So, that was the first aha moment that I had where I realized, "Yes, I'm young, but I know more about this particular area than those really successful, seasoned executives do." So, that was a huge confidence boost for me.
But where it was horrible being in this business was, again, I was learning and there was so much to know. This is a complex field. And I remember doing, trying to put together these balance sheets and cash flow statements and deferred compensation analysis for clients and the advisor that I was working under, she had this red pen, and she would just mark up my work to no end. It was almost like getting an F on a paper in school. I felt like I was the dumbest person ever.
I graduated at the top of my high school class, the top of my college class. And here I am at my first job, thinking, "What am I doing? This is awful. I'm never going to make it." So, I had this really big conflict that I was dealing with very early in my career. I just happen to be working for somebody who was expecting me to know it all.
And so, I'm like, "Well, I either need to figure this out and learn who I can ask for help. Or I'm just going to drown in this industry." So, it was right around that time that I decided to go to school part time at night and get my MBA degree. As I remember thinking, "Well, if this financial planner thing doesn't work out, I know I want to do something in business, so I'll get this MBA, and that'll be kind of my backstop."
Michael: So, the MBA wasn't necessarily a, "I want to get this to advance my financial planning career." It was, "I want to get this in case this financial planning thing doesn't work out. This will be my fallback, door opener."?
Lisa: It was. It was plan B.
Michael: Okay. A pretty intense plan B.
Lisa: Well, coincidentally, I entered the MBA program, this is at Georgia State University here in Atlanta, I entered this program, and the very first semester that I'm enrolled, they came out with a master's in financial planning degree. And this master's in financial planning provided the same coursework you needed to be able to sit for the CFP exam. And I thought, "Well, that sounds pretty good."
So, I stayed in the MBA program. I majored in financial planning, again, so I got the coursework that I needed to sit for the CFP. So then, I'm like, "Well, I'm kind of killing two birds with one stone here."
Michael: So, at that point, does it feel like you're in some cosmic fate, like, "Apparently, the world is pointing me back towards financial planning"?
Lisa: I've had a couple of those instances in my career where I took a step back and thought, "This is happening for a reason." I think, looking back at that, that happened for that reason. That kept me in the field. And I'm thankful that I had that experience because I've been very happy in this field.
So, I had to grind it out those first couple years, and I eventually found my way and found my confidence. But it was hard. It was hard starting out.
Michael: So, two questions, and one, I guess, I'm just wondering, was the MBA actually useful now that you decided to stay in financial planning besides the financial planning classes you took? Did the MBA prove to be a useful degree for you in financial planning?
Lisa: Not at all, no. I don't think I've used any of the knowledge that I gained 20-plus years ago from my MBA in my financial planning career.
Lisa: I'm not sure that it has helped from a business development standpoint either. It's not even really something that I market much. We showcase the credentials—the CFP and the CIMA, and whatnot. But I rarely have ever had a conversation with anybody where the fact that I have my MBA has come up.
Michael: And so then, where did the confidence ultimately come from for you in those early years?
Lisa: It was doing a lot of work. It was working a lot of hours and trying to teach myself a lot of things and figuring out why I was getting wrong the things I was getting wrong. Eventually, the red pen marks on the work I was doing started to get less and less, so that really helped build my confidence, and just having some more experience under my belt.
At Ayco, we prepare tax returns for clients. And, as much as I know people hate and CPAs hate having tax season, that was one of the best experiences I could have had early in my career because I learned tax. And in our business, in financial planning, taxes impact almost every single area of a client's life.
So, knowing taxes early in my career was one of the things that gave me that big confidence boost. And I got to a point, during tax season, where all of my tax returns were done, finished, signed, sealed, delivered, and off to the IRS at least a week before April 15th. Where I saw a lot of other people just grinding it out and stressing out.
Michael: You have to be careful, someone higher up sees that, "You know what's happening next year? Lisa is getting more tax returns to do."
Lisa: And maybe that happened, but I'll tell you, I continue to finish those early. That gave me a lot of confidence seeing that I produced quality work at a faster pace than some of my other colleagues who maybe were younger, a few years older. Setting myself above some colleagues and putting in the work to do that I think really, really helped me along.
Strategically Choosing Roles To Learn And Increase Business Development [32:33]
Michael: So, obviously, you're not still at Ayco. So, what came next?
Lisa: Yes. So, one of the things that I noticed at Ayco that I said, "I don't want this lifestyle for my career." The Ayco advisors were on airplanes three out of the four weeks a month traveling to see clients. And a lot of them were miserable.
And I watched the woman I was working for. She had a daughter. And I remember her sitting at her daughter's piano recital and then she called me because she wanted to talk about an upcoming client meeting, she had to go jump on a plane for the next morning. And I could hear the daughter's piano playing in the background.
And I'm thinking, "This is crazy. She is taking time away from her child, her only child, to focus on work." And so, between that experience, which you can tell 20-plus years later still has impacted me, and seeing that being gone all the time and how much stress being on an airplane all the time was for these advisors, I knew I didn't want that.
So, I left. And I took a role with a smaller wealth management firm in the Atlanta area that did financial planning and investments, also sold insurance. So, I learned about selling insurance at this next firm. And that was an interesting learning experience for me, again, pretty early in my career. So, I stayed there for a couple years at the smaller firm.
And then I pivoted to a large bank in Atlanta. They were looking for someone to start their financial planning division, so basically, help support the brokers that were working in the branch offices of this bank around town, doing financial planning for their clients. So they brought me on board to train the brokers, why financial planning was important. And then to do the financial plans for clients, which I loved. I covered all over Metro Atlanta. I worked with a lot of different people.
But along the way, the bank figured out that I knew something about insurance. And so, they asked me to also be one of their insurance specialists. So, I was kind of doing a dual role there of selling insurance as well as providing the financial planning.
So, I went from a smaller company in Atlanta, smaller wealth management firm in Atlanta to this this big bank. And that was an interesting experience just in terms of getting exposure to how politics works at large companies.
Michael: Well, but take me back for a moment, how did you get from Ayco to the small firm initially? Just why did you pick them? What was the role?
Lisa: Yes, so I met the CEO of this smaller wealth management firm through my Georgia State program. As I think about this now, I think he taught one of my classes. And so, that's how I got to know David. We talked after class and got to know one another. And I think he approached me one night after class with this job opportunity as the director of financial planning at their firm. And, again, knowing that I didn't want to stay at Ayco long term, I was really fearful of that lifestyle is why I left and took the role as the director of financial planning.
Michael: Interesting. So, what was that role? Because there's a lot of folks that have director of financial planning kinds of titles now, but not very many 20 years ago. That was pretty rare.
Lisa: Yes, it was. So, I was developing the financial plans for the firm's clients and combination, they worked with executives and business owners and retirees, divorcees, a pretty wide variety of clients. NaviPlan was the software that we were using back then. So, I had to become, and did become, the expert in NaviPlan. That's a very heavy, cashflow-based software.
So, I was doing all the planning, and I had an opportunity to dabble a little bit in the financial advisor role there of that was a very heavy bring in business and serve the client, almost like an "eat what you kill" environment at that time. But that was intriguing to me. That was probably the first time in my career that I looked at business development. And I thought, "Huh, I think I can do that."
But I was still in my 20s, so that's a scary thing to do is figure out, "Well, millionaires don't look like me. So, how am I going to find those millionaires and get them to like me, and trust me, and want to do business with me?"
But I had a lot of other advisors there that I could watch and learn the ropes from. So, I was doing a dual role for a while there - the director of financial planning as well as trying to bring in some clients and do some business development.
Michael: And so, how did the business development side go at that point? Because I’m recognizing, you're coming off of Ayco where the mothership provides all and serves up these very affluent, complex, corporate executives to you. So, what did business development look like when suddenly you had to start doing it on your own after you're a couple years into your career?
Lisa: Yes, so I remember joining a BNI networking group. And that was a way to start making connections. I was going to networking breakfasts and dinners, just really trying to be out of the office as much as possible and meet people.
Michael: For those who aren't familiar, can you explain just BNI as an organization? I know they're still around today.
Lisa: Yes, I believe it stands for Business Networking International. So, this is an organization where there's small groups of professionals that form and get together on a regular basis. And the idea is to share leads and to share referrals back and forth. In my group, I was the financial advisor. There was a real estate agent. I think there was a CPA. There was a lawyer. There was a property and casualty insurance agent, and probably a few other small business specialties.
And again, the idea is that there's this small group where you're connected, you meet regularly, and you're all responsible for helping one another grow your businesses and hopefully pass referrals back and forth. I did well in that group. I was able to make good relationships with the individuals in that group.
I also realized too, I had a lens for quality, right? So I started to realize that who you refer a client to is a reflection of you. And so, you need to be careful about these referrals you're making because if it doesn't work out, it can look bad on you.
So, BNI provided me just a really good experiences early in my career to figure out how in the world do you attract people to you and how does this referral relation and why is the referral relationship so important? And it also taught me about building your personal brand, which has been a huge area that I've worked diligently on over the last 5, 10 years.
Michael: So, what ultimately took you away from the firm to decide to go to the bank?
Lisa: I think one of my biggest weaknesses, Michael, and I've said this in interviews, is I'm impatient. So, I probably, at the time, thought I should be having more success than I was. And I left. I actually had this conversation with the now-retired CEO of that firm a couple of weeks ago. We had lunch. And he shared with me, "Lisa, one of my biggest regrets is letting you go." And I said, "That was a mistake on my part, but I was young and immature." I thought I knew everything, and I didn't.
In hindsight, I probably shouldn't have left, I think I would have been very successful there. Twenty years later, I'm still in touch with the CEO and love that relationship. But I...
Michael: So, what pulled you away then? You wanted more opportunity than you were giving you and was like, "Guy, if you won't move me up, I'm going to go find something else that will let me move up."
Lisa: No, it wasn't that. I wanted access to more clients to build my book of business without having to do it all myself. And so, the bank environment…
Michael: Okay. So, you were living enough business development of like, "This is interesting and also kind of sucks."?
Lisa: Yes. And it is hard!
Michael: So, did Ayco, "where they gave it all to me." Did the period, “eat what you kill.”
Michael: And so, the bank, I guess, was kind of the midpoint of, "I need to do some development, but there's a base of clients that are coming through the bank or have a relationship with the bank, so this will be my business development midpoint."?
Lisa: Yes. And I was right in my hunch that that was going to be a midpoint. So, I get to the bank. And I took more of an internal role at first by, as I mentioned, doing the financial plans and supporting the brokers. But eventually, I had to sell the plans. So, there was some business development there, it was more selling internally to the brokers initially, and then helping to close the client business.
But I saw these people would walk into the branches, and just because of the name on the door, they just trusted the people that they were going to sit down with. I'm like, "This is amazing to me. You have people walk in and they already want to do business with you simply because of the brand of the company that you're associated with."
So, that was another really interesting business experience that I had. So, that was a combination of "you still need to go out and get your name out there and find clients," but people still walk through the door. And if you were sitting at a bank branch, chances are once or twice a day, somebody's going to sit in front of that there was nothing you needed to do to attract them into the door other than the fact that you were sitting in that branch, and they opened the door, and they decided they wanted to talk about whatever financial related.
Michael: Okay. And so, I guess in that context, very similar in many ways to the prior firm, that part of your role is leading financial planning, where you're supporting the others in financial planning, building plans for clients, centrally, and then also doing some work building client base, just now you're in an environment that's a little bit less like, "Go hunt it from scratch." There's at least a little bit of a natural flow because of the banking relationship and just having bank branches that people walk into that, at least back then when they walked into bank branches.
So, what led you ultimately to say, "All right, but I still got to leave the bank and find another thing."? What led to that shift?
Lisa: So, this is one of those experiences. I mentioned there's been a few times in my career where I'm like, "This is divine intervention or something. The world is speaking to me." So, I was at the bank, I was doing really well. I was making really good money, had found my footing, life was good, life was easy. I was not looking to leave.
And one night, I went to a Georgia State alumni event. Again, that's where I got my MBA and my financial planning coursework. And the gentleman who was speaking at that networking event, his name was Dave Polstra. And at the time, so he was one of the cofounders of Brightworth. And he was a really impressive speaker. And I also met a number of other associates at Brightworth at the time who were at this networking event and came to support Dave. And I'm like, "Wow, these are really nice and smart people."
The very next morning, after this networking event, in my email inbox of the bank I was working for showed up a job posting for Brightworth as the manager of financial planning position. And I'm like, "This is so weird. I just met all these people last night. I'd never heard of the company, just met all these people last night and really liked them, and in my email inbox comes this job posting."
Michael: So, were you subscribed to something for job postings, or did they target you coming off the meeting?
Lisa: So, I think what happened was they had sent this job posting to Georgia State, who then blasted it out the next morning to all of their financial planning program alumni. And so...
Michael: So, then very appropriate, like the speech of Georgia State and then Georgia State blasted out the opening the next morning and it clicked for someone.
Lisa: It did. And I don't think to that point, I had seen any other job postings from Georgia State come into my inbox. And so, it was just an interesting experience. So, I thought, "You know what? I need to pursue this. This is just too weird. I need to pursue this."
And so, I did pursue it. And that was in 2005. I was hired the summer of 2005. And I remember during that interview process, I was asked, "What is your weakness?" And I said, "I'm impatient." I guess I haven't gotten bored here over the 17 years that I've been here, but it's been a really incredible journey.
Michael: So, you took the role with Brightworth as manager of financial planning. So, I guess, similar now to the roles that both of the preceding two jobs. That sounds very central financial planning support, as you had at the bank and as you had at the small advisory firm.
Lisa: Right. So, it felt comfortable to me. I was confident that I could do it. And it was definitely an internal role, so I was responsible for training the younger planners, doing the technical training, reviewing their work, serving as the financial planner on client relationships, where I supported some of the advisors here.
And so, I got to a point in my career, I guess this is about five, six years in, where I felt comfortable in my abilities, and I knew I could do a good job in that role. And as the role evolved, the partners, thought that I was doing a pretty good job serving their clients and they were able to have their time freed up to go do more business development when they had somebody who was running the show day to day for their clients. And the clients seem to be pretty comfortable with me.
And so, eventually, I started working with more and more clients, and I started enjoying that. And so, I think it was early 2008, had a conversation with the partners here about moving into the wealth advisor role. So, moving out of the internal role and more of the advisor, external-facing role and we decided that that would make sense.
However, I was pregnant with twins at the time, my first children, and so the decision was let's wait till I get back from maternity leave and then full-time role into the wealth advisor role so that I didn't start serving clients full time and trying to bring in business and then go out for three months on maternity leave.
Leveraging Seminars, White Papers, And Consistent Availability To Grow A Niche [48:25]
Michael: So, take me back, though just one more moment, why did you leave the bank job for the Brightworth job if it was nominally the same title and more or less the same duties, like develop plans, train younger planners, serve some clients of the firm as well, which sounds very similar to all the prior roles? You had that, why did you change?
Lisa: So, I actually left the bank and made less money in my first role here. And I'll come back to that for a minute. So, it wasn't for money.
At the bank, what I had realized and experienced was those who got promoted to management roles, VP, whatnot, they were really, really good at sales. They were not technically competent and we're not good managers of people, but they were really good at selling. And so, I did not have a lot of respect for my manager, and I didn't feel like I was learning and growing the way that I wanted to.
Michael: Because you wanted to grow more in the technical end and the managing end, and that was literally not the people who are managing. The people who are managing are good at sales.
Lisa: That's exactly right. And so, when I met and went through the interview process here at Brightworth, I saw a difference. I saw that the leadership, they were technically competent, that was the first thing that struck me. They were very, very smart, very technically competent. They seemed to have a lot of desire to groom people, to invest in people. It was a smaller team. I think there was only 15 associates at the company when I joined.
So, it was a tight-knit group, people seemed happy. And also, one of my friends from business school started working here a couple years before I got here. So, she was influential in me talking with her and asking how your experience has been to get a sense of what it was like.
So, I looked at Brightworth as a place that I thought I could grow. And I could learn from other smart people. And I wanted to, I was craving that after not really having it for a couple years at the bank. So, for those reasons, that's why I left and came here. Now I mentioned that I came here for less money.
Michael: Can I ask how much of a step back did you take?
Lisa: So, it was about $10,000, which, when you're in your late 20s, at that sort of compensation range, that's a pretty sizable number. But what I did, as part of my interview process, was I negotiated with them and said, "If I can accomplish these three objectives," and quite frankly, I don't remember exactly what those three objectives were but we discussed them and agreed, if I can accomplish these three within six months, at the start of the next calendar year, can we discuss bumping my salary up to what it was when I left the bank?"
And we agreed on that. I accomplished those three objectives, and they gave me the raise. So, I think I like to share that story. I think it's a really good business lesson for, especially younger people to hear, that put some skin in the game and roll your sleeves up, and do what you need to do so find the opportunity.
Michael: How did that conversation come about? Because that's a really interesting framing. Was that, like you said, "I want to get back to where I was when I left the bank."? And they said, "Well, if you do these three, then we'll give you the raise." Or did you come to them and say, "You give me three things I've got to do to get back to my old salary? You tell me what they are. I'm going to go do them." Where did it initiate from?
Lisa: Actually, I came with those three things. So, after hearing what they were looking for in opportunities and how they wanted to grow, I came up with those three things.
Michael: Oh, interesting.
Lisa: I said, "If I can accomplish these three things for you in six months, can we adjust my compensation?" And they said yes. And maybe on their part, they thought, "Well, there's no risk here, right? So, if she doesn't do it? Eh."
Michael: That’s the thing. If they're actually good, useful things for the business that move the business forward, it actually gets pretty easy for a business owner. That would only happen if the business was actually bigger by more than enough to pay you the additional salary. So, that's an easy yes as a business owner, if you pick good things that tie to the success of the business.
Lisa: Right. Right. So, again, that's a story I like to share from a mentoring standpoint with younger professionals, because don't think that the offer you're being given is the final offer, right? I had to have some strength inside me to come back to them and negotiate. That's typically a weakness for a lot of women. I was in my late 20s at the time and a female, and I'm so glad that I had that confidence to do it, but it took some guts.
Michael: So, you do this for three years, you're supporting the partners, the founders more on their clients, you decide that you want to make that your main thing as you're heading into 2008. When you were talking about that shift, was that a, "You all are just giving me so many clients, I need to let go of this manager or planning thing just to be able to fully focus on these clients because of a client load dynamic," or was this like, "No, I actually want to start building my client base and that business development was going to come in as a part of the transition to a wealth advisor in 2008."?
Lisa: Yes, it was the latter. So, I started seeing more and more clients calling me directly for things and building relationships, personal relationships with these clients. And it got to the point where there was probably 20 or 25 clients that I was serving for the firm where I really was running point. I really was acting as the advisor.
And so, we knew, working with the partners, that it would make sense for me to really take this handful of relationships over. So, kind of that was part of it, we already know we could seed me with a book that I could then start to build.
But I also realized that, not only did I like serving the clients, I was good at it. And I was starting to get some referrals. So, with that, the business development starting to happen, I think it was a really obvious shift that needed to happen. I was excited about it. I was energized. I always like trying new things, this was going to be something new. And away I went.
Michael: And so, because I’m struck just in context now, so you're almost 10 years into your career at this point?
Michael: Before making this sort of full transition into wealth advisor?
Michael: Which is interesting to me, again, particularly at the time that was a very unusual career path. Most would have been put in where they started in sales and getting clients and just you had to do that to survive.
Lisa: Yeah. And when you're young and in this business, sales is scary. And it's intimidating. And so, you've got confidence/weakness issue. Most people are a little shaky if they don't think they know what they're doing. And you don't want to come off as an imposter here. And so, it's scary.
And you don't know how to start. You don't know where to start. And so, I think, and I've told individuals over the years, younger individuals, I said, "I think getting your start at a bank makes a lot of sense because it's a safer environment to start and to learn. But you also get exposed to business development early on but it's not an "eat what you kill" environment."
The other key moment for me and in making the shift to the advisor position, and this officially happened in early '09. But in 2008, the co-founder, who I saw speak at the alumni event, Dave Polstra, he brought me in to start doing the retirement planning workshops at Coca-Cola with him. So, he had been doing these retirement planning workshops for about, at that point, maybe 15, 20 years or so. And he brought me in to do that with him.
This was such a pivotal moment in my career. So, he provided me this platform to take the ball and run with it and go shine. And so, I started co-presenting with him these retirement planning workshops. I had to dive in and learn all of Coke's comp and benefit plans inside and out so I could stand up on that stage and talk intelligently about taxes and financial planning and how that impacts your 401(k) and pension and all that.
And eventually, got to a point where he handed the whole seminar series over to me, and I was running it solo for the company. And that's when I started to really build my niche at Coca-Cola.
Michael: So, I was going to ask, just this transition where you're going into wealth advisor, there's going to be more business development expectations? You did the bank thing where they come to you, you did the BNI thing. You had some clients coming in by referrals, although usually it's nice when they come in but early on, you literally don't have enough clients in total for referral only to create the volume that's necessary, usually have to do some other some other kind of business development as well.
And so, I was going to ask this overall, as you're staring down this transition into wealth advisor, what was your strategy going to be around doing business development or were you still formulating it as you're looking at the transition in 2008?
Lisa: I was still formulating it. I knew that if I continued to do a good job serving the small book of clients that I was seeded with, that I had been serving as the planner for several years that I could get referrals because I was getting referrals from those clients. I also joined different local organizations, the Atlanta Estate Planning Council, great organization for networking with other CPAs and estate lawyers in town, trust officers.
So, I was getting involved in professional networking, organizations, and attending networking events. So, getting myself out in the community, being present. I also was doing a decent amount of writing articles. I was writing articles for our company newsletter that went out to thousands. So, I was getting my name associated with certain technical topics that I would write on and, eventually, started getting some exposure with sending content to local newspapers, getting my name in "The Atlanta Business Chronicle," "The Atlanta Journal-Constitution," and some other local media publications.
So, it was kind of a combination of getting myself out in the community and leveraging content in the media to start building my personal brand, in addition to trying to serve the heck out of out of existing clients and keep them happy so they'll tell their friends.
And in addition to the speaking seminars at Coca-Cola, I also leveraged that to speak at really any other industry organizations that I could get my foot in the door. So, I realized I loved public speaking and people listened, and I was looking for other opportunities to put myself on a stage because I felt confident in my ability to present well in that format. That probably was a fifth pillar.
Michael: Okay. So, as you look at these sort of four/five different paths for business development that you started investing yourself in with this transition, which ones worked, and which ones didn't work?
Lisa: So, the Coca-Cola workshops, absolutely, homerun, slam dunk. The content, important, it just takes consistency, and it takes time. The speaking, I would say the same thing, it takes consistency and it takes time.
So, you have to, I think if you're expecting to do one of these and have it turn into this huge book of business overnight, you're wrong. It's time in the game here. Dave Polstra used this phrase that I have repeated so many times is that, "Half the battle is just showing up."
And what he meant by that is show up consistently to the same networking groups, write consistently for the same publication, speak consistently to the same audiences. And that's how people will start to realize that you have some knowledge, you're going to be here for the long term, and you're established in the industry.
How Lisa Developed Her Niche At Coca-Cola By Showing Up Consistently [1:01:46]
Michael: So then, what was your consistency cadence and how long did it take? You said it's slow, but how long did it take before it started becoming fruitful and meaningful?
Lisa: Yes, so let me start with the Coca-Cola workshop. So, I started doing those in 2008, brought in a client, I think the first workshop that I did. There was some immediate results there. And in 2012, we no longer have the opportunity to do the workshops at Coca-Cola because, coincidentally, my first employer, The Ayco Company, formed a partnership with Coca-Cola, and they were doing the workshops.
But that really didn't scare me. I didn't think my business development funnel was all of a sudden going to be choked off. Because I had brought on enough clients from doing these workshops at Coca-Cola, where I had a decent base to work off of.
And what ended up happening was around that time, probably in 2012, 2013, because I had built up a decent client base at Coca-Cola and their office is about 15 minutes from ours here in Atlanta, their headquarters, so I was going to Coca-Cola's office to meet with my clients and have their financial update meeting. And as I was with them, they would introduce me to one of their colleagues that was in the office next door. And then next thing you know, I'd be introduced to another colleague. So, by being present in their offices, I started to establish much more brand recognition.
Michael: So just literally by being physically present. "I'm already working with these clients, their offices are right up the street. I want to work with more the Coca-Cola employees. So, I'm not going to make all of them come to our Brightwork's offices, I'm going to do some meetings there. So, they literally get seen and can get organically introduced to others while I'm there."
Lisa: Right. And that's when things took off, Michael. I had never thought they would as a result of that. And I realized, I knew my client, I know this corporate executive client really well. They are busy. They do not have the time or desire to pay attention to their finances. And they value being able to delegate that to somebody.
And so, because that's what I would do for people and I knew that's what they wanted, that's one of the big reasons I went to them. I'm going to make this easy for them to work with me. I'm not going to take a lot of their time. But that ended up snowballing into more business than I could have imagined would have come.
I'll tell you a quick, funny story. In 2016, I found myself spending more time at Coke's office than at Brightwork's office. And I actually gave up my office here to a new hire because I just was never here in Brightwork's office. I was at Coke all the time.
Now, every time I went to Coke, somebody had to sign me, register me as their visitor. Okay. So, if I was going to see one client, they would register me in the system as a visitor, I would go to check in at the security desk, get my visitor's sticker, and on it went.
Well, in the summer of 2016, I was there pretty much every day, like I said, summer 2016, I go to the security desk, and they say, "Ma'am, we cannot let you in." I said, "What do you mean I can't get in? I was here yesterday, so and so registered me." They said, "You have exceeded the number of times that you can come in as a visitor. We have to get you registered as a contractor for Coca-Cola."
I said, "Okay, what do I need to do to be a contractor?" And so, I had to fill out a background check. And they had to check to see if I was on the national sex offenders list. And I had to have one of my clients sponsor me, basically saying, if I misbehaved at the office that this person was responsible for me. But I got my contractor badge, and I got a parking deck pass. So here I go into the...
Michael: You literally have a parking pass at the Coke offices.
Lisa: I do. So, I went in, I parked in the employee parking deck every day. And I swiped in with my badge. Nobody needs to register me anymore. I just swiped myself in and out. And I would just go and work there. And I would position myself in strategic places so I could be seen. And I would still schedule meetings with clients, but if I was in between meetings, I would sit in this certain coffee shop, in this certain area, it's kind of the same spot, and I see people walking up the hall...
Michael: This is mega Coke headquarters.
Lisa: Yes, this is a mega Coke headquarters.
Michael: I'm envisioning a traditional office, just like business office space. Are you sitting in their lobby? Where do you sit exactly? I guess, mega corporate headquarters so big hallways, dining areas, coffee shops, like all the things you have in a mega facility. So, there's plenty of reasonable places to be just sitting and hanging out.
Lisa: Right. And the best place, Michael, was the salad bar line. I would take my time going through the salad bar line at lunch because you met everybody in the salad bar line and talked to everybody. So being where they are, being seen... I had, at that point in my career, the entire floor of clients in two different departments. Those entire floors I served all those executives. And so, one floor started nicknaming me the money lady, "Here comes the money lady."
So, when I said it's easy, if you can develop a specialty with a group of people or a certain practice area, life was easy. Clients were taking me around, introducing me to prospects. And I was there. I had credibility already. So, I picked up so many clients in such a short amount of time. And because I knew how all their plans worked so well, I could rattle the stuff off quickly, easily, and provided a ton of value for these clients, and they recognize that.
Michael: Interesting. And so, there comes a point where you're so immersed in it, and I guess the asterisk that goes along with this is just Coke is a really big company. So, there's still a pretty big pond for you to fish in, as it were. And they're just literally all gathered in one place at corporate HQ. It's like there's a critical mass of people, and it's really straightforward to go and be seen because you just literally go to headquarters and be seen.
Lisa: Right. Now, obviously COVID made that strategy ineffective, right? All these offices were shut down. You couldn't go in. And so, in Coke's example, they were very slow to come back to the office. And like a lot of companies, they're struggling to get people back.
So, I was having this conversation with a colleague a couple of weeks ago, and I said, "That worked really well. COVID put a wrinkle into this. But I think the day is going to come again where we can go into these corporate offices again on a more regular basis."
Michael: So, has that changed what you do to market into Coke and these organizations when you're generating all this business from being physically present for years and years and years, and then suddenly, you can't be physically present anymore?
Lisa: Yes. So, prior to COVID happening, we had started to embark on the strategy, as I mentioned earlier, find our next Coca-Cola. This is the other thing I want to mention that was very, very successful, and this is what we're working to replicate to infiltrate other organizations. We wrote these two white papers. One was called "Preparing for Your Retirement from the Coca-Cola Company." And I believe we launched our first version of that in 2012 or 2013.
Michael: Preparing to Retire from the Coca-Cola Company?
Michael: So, this is very straightforward. We're not coming up with a witty, creative title here. This is exactly what it is. This is what I'm here to do.
Lisa: Exactly. So, this is about a 10-page white paper. And it boiled down, very succinctly, if you retire at this age, with this number years of service, here's what happens to your stock options. Here's what happens to your deferred compensation plan. Here's what you need to be thinking about in regards to your pension option, annuity versus lump sum. Here's what happens to the nonqualified 401(k) plan when you leave.
So, we took the major questions that we had been getting from our Coke clients over the years and said, "Everyone's asking us this, everyone." And we put it in a white paper. And we use this white paper as a marketing piece.
And so, this paper would spread around. Our clients would spread it to their colleagues. If they heard about somebody retiring, they'd be like, "Hey, my financial planner, they've got this paper that talks about preparing for retirement." "Send along a copy." It's also on our website." So, that was a really cool piece. And it showed our specialization and differentiation at Coca-Cola.
Michael: Right because any financial planner can say like, "I do customized individualized financial planning." You give me a client with all the Coke benefits. It's like, "I can read it. I can do the research. I can figure it out. I can give them advice."
But you're showing up with this white paper that just says out of the gate, "We know you, we serve you, we're going to know the answers to your stuff out of the gate because we've got this established specialization. We literally wrote the paper on it."
Lisa: We literally wrote the paper. Now, with a lot of these large companies, they have all different vendors for different benefit plans. So, one company might manage the 401(k), another one might house the deferred comp plan, another one might house their stock option plan. And so, to go get the summary plan descriptions for all how all this stuff works, clients are having to go remember logins to this website and password to that website.
And the intranet, it just took a couple several different clicks to find the information they needed. That was the other thing. I had spent so much time working with clients on helping them rebalance their 401(k) plans or finding the summary plan description for the deferred comp plan, I knew exactly how to navigate their intranet.
And so, that was a huge value add of sitting at their office and helping them rebalance their 401(k) plan together because I knew what buttons to click. They would literally sit there and have me click the buttons while they sat next to me. So, that specialty went really deep.
So, we wrote the retirement white paper. That was a success. And we continue to update this paper. So this has been going on for 10 years now. But the paper that really, really took off, and was another pivotal point, not only in my business development but for the company, 2015 Coke had a big layoff. And we got wind of this because of all of our contacts there. We got wind of this a month or two early.
Coke produced 140-page booklet on, "If you receive the severance package. Here's what you need to know." It was 140 pages. We boiled it down to 10. And we wrote a paper called "Receiving a Severance Package from the Coca-Cola Company?" And this thing spread like crazy. And our phone was ringing off the hook. And that was a year that I was there all the time.
And with severance, it's stressful, it's scary, money is in motion, there's big tax implications. People, they go through this whole range of emotions. First, they're mad, and then they're scared. And then, eventually, they're thrilled. But we knew how to process people out of that company. And we knew how all the severance stuff worked.
And so, again, at a time when people are facing this major life transition, a major life decision, to have this group of experts that's been there, done that, knows how it works, and could boil it down for him, and run their numbers run and how it's going to impact their financial plan, it was huge value for people. And so, we got a lot of clients through that.
Michael: I'm struck by that. Frankly, just in the transition, into the current environment, where markets have been bumpy, not a lot of clarity about what's going to happen as the Fed raises rates and how that may impact the economy in the coming year. But a lot of concern that either we've been to recession or we're tipping into recession, or we're about to hit a recession, and just that's when layoffs start to hit.
And for a lot of advisors, we tend to do well, frankly, when people are employed and growing, and having wealth events. And so, particularly if you work with executives and folks at startups when the options are getting more valuable and the RSUs are getting more valuable and companies are IPOing, a lot of that activity has really slowed down the economic slowdown.
But to me, you highlight that, at least from the advisor end, there's a flip side opportunity for this, which is, if layoffs really rise and severances really rise, there's actually a very material opportunity to make 2023 or the year that you're an expert in severance for blank, whatever your whatever your targeted clientele is, and that can actually be an additional clients in motion opportunity in the coming year, in a difficult economic environment.
Lisa: That's right. And I found, there was a couple-year period, especially after this 2015 layoff, that I felt like severance was the only thing I was talking to people about. And so, not only at Coke, but I had written some articles about it and was getting phone calls from other people at other companies going through this.
So, I would say maybe a subset of my specialty is severance planning for people. And I enjoy that because you have the complexity, the financial complexity to it, but you also have the human emotion side of it. And helping people through this, I've done it before, I know what to expect, I know what they're going through. And I feel like I can do a pretty good job in helping them land well during this transition.
Michael: So is this now kind of become your standard model as you start moving into other companies? And now, with the corporate executive offering, find their big thing, write the white paper on it, start getting known for the white paper, and use that as the way to start breaking your way into working with executives of that company?
Lisa: That's exactly what we've done. So, we now have on our website probably around 10 or so company-specific white papers. It's called "Building Your Wealth at XYZ Company," so building your wealth at UPS, building your wealth at Google, building your wealth at Microsoft, building your wealth at Salesforce.
So, what we've done is taken companies where we've got pockets of clients there, smaller pockets of clients, but we have all the information on our comp and benefits plans. And we've taken this white paper template. You basically do a save as, and then you pop in the company-specific nuances. Those have been our marketing tools whenever we're... For example, if we come across somebody who knows someone who works at UPS, "Oh, here's this white paper, 'Building Your Wealth at UPS.'" It's an immediate differentiator.
The other thing that we did, along with trying to differentiate ourselves and we literally wrote the paper at Coke, well, we wrote a book for corporate executives. It's called "Building Your Wealth Inside Corporate America." And this book was published last year.
And like I had mentioned with Coke, where we said, "We know all the questions we keep getting from everybody, so we're going to write a white paper on it." We took that same philosophy, "Here's all the big issues that corporate executives have that we've helped them address over the years, and we put it in a book."
And so, now, when we meet with any corporate executive, even if it's not a company that we have other clients at, we walk in with this book. That's our marketing piece. We literally wrote the book on financial planning for corporate executives.
And so, that's been really cool for a number of reasons. One, we're getting really good feedback on it. It's helping to get our foot in the door. Other organizations, people are sharing this around. This is a complimentary copy. You get it through our website, or we'll hand it out, different networking events or whatnot.
But also, so there's eight of us total at the company that contributed to writing this book. For me, this is the third book I've gone through the publishing process on. But I've helped encourage my other colleagues, the coauthors, when you introduce yourself to somebody, and this is a business development tip, when you introduce yourself to somebody, instead of saying, "I'm a financial advisor," you can say, "I'm an author and a financial expert."
And so, what's going to happen is you're then going to get a question. The next question is going to be, "Author, that's interesting. What did you write?" Well, then, you just opened up the opportunity to have a conversation.
So, what I've experienced, and I've written two other books besides coauthoring this one, I started introducing myself at networking events as an author. Somebody would always ask me a follow-up question, "Well, what did you write? What's it about? How was the process of writing a book? I've always wanted to do that. Tell me more."
But over the years, when I introduced myself as a financial advisor, guess what happened after that? The conversation stopped.
Michael: I was going to say, they usually take a step backward.
Lisa: Yes, oh, gosh.
Michael: They look for someone else they can make eye contact with.
Lisa: Exactly. Like, "Oh, they're going to sell me something. Here it goes." A couple years ago, I started doing my own podcast for corporate executives, they're topics that applied to the busy working professional in under 30 minutes. So, this is, again, knowing my audience, right?
And so, I now introduce myself as an author, a podcaster, and a financial expert. And so, now I either get the question, "What do you write?" or "Tell me about your podcast? How do I listen in?"
So, from a business development standpoint, I've learned over the years that finding a way to build your brand, differentiate yourself, and to try to not use those words, financial advisor, financial planner as a leading introduction, have been successful for me. And I encourage my colleagues that worked on this book, "Building Your Wealth Inside Corporate America," to introduce themselves at networking events as an author.
The Surprises Lisa Encountered On Her Journey [1:20:57]
Michael: I love it. I love it. So, what surprised you the most about building your career in the advisory business?
Lisa: I think what surprised me is how different every day can be and is, and how you really can create your own path to success. Now, I think a lot of that is I've been aligned with an organization that's encouraged entrepreneurship, and finding your way, and providing the resources, but letting you spread your wings and go hit the ground running, and develop your own path to success.
So, that's been really interesting to me. This has not felt like an environment where I've been trapped or don't have enough opportunity or someone's trying to hold me back.
Also, being a female in this business has been a huge asset but also a challenge. So in our business, there's 10% to 15%, maybe, female advisors out there. I know it's a very small percentage. And we all know the statistics about more and more females are going to be controlling more and more of the wealth in this country and around the world.
But the challenge for me, and this has been disappointing for me, has come where, because I'm a female, I have had other male colleagues make the assumption that I want to work with female clients or that if they have a female prospect, that female prospect needs a woman, i.e., me or one of my female colleagues, in that meeting. And that's been frustrating to me because I feel like, at times, the men have pigeonholed me as a woman as to the type of clients that I should be working with or that I want to work with or that the clients want to work with.
And I found the opposite. Some of my favorite client relationships are my male corporate executives. And I don't hold myself out there as the advisor for women to work with, intentionally. Some of my more challenging client relationships over the years have been working with women. So that's been a surprise and a little bit of a disappointment that I feel like I've tried to a hurdle that I've had to overcome and encourage younger women to make sure they don't find themselves in that getting pigeonholed if they don't want to be.
Now, some women do a great job. They love working with women, it's a great fit for them, they have a great marketing and business development opportunity to hold themselves out there. But I would also never assume that all male clients want to work with another male. And there's studies that have been done that I've read that show gender doesn't actually play that big of a role in what advisor a client hires in our industry.
Michael: So, I guess, just help me reconcile though, as you started that discussion, you'd kind of framed up, female advisors are a small percentage, even though more and more women control wealth in the U.S. and around the world. So, to me, it sounded like you were going to go down a road of, "Therefore, I'm finding an opportunity in working with women or in pursuing an opportunity working with women," but, actually, you're trying to not be pigeonholed in that way, which I understand.
But then, I guess, just help me reconcile then. Is there an opportunity in working with women more directly? Is there an opportunity for pursuing these segments that, as you noted, are controlling more wealth in the U.S. and around the world? Help me connect those dots.
Lisa: Sure. So, I think, as a female, you're a minority in the wealth management business. So, it provides you more opportunity, in terms of, if there are clients that want to work with females, and you want to work with women clients, you don't have a lot of competition. Okay? So, that can set yourself apart. And it can set aside the firm that you're associated with apart, being a female, if somebody wants to work with a female advisor, you're a female, there you go.
Also, we live in a world today where diversity is really important for companies, and the culture and clients are looking for that, not just male, female, but race as well. And so, as a female in this industry, that can be to your advantage, that you may be a more attractive candidate for firms to hire because they want to have a more diverse workforce.
So that whenever I go to any of these industry conferences and I look around, I see very clearly how I don't look like every other advisor out there. And so, your voice may get heard more because it sounds different, because you look different from all the other advisors out there. I've had prospective clients say to me over the years, "I had no idea. I've never come across a female advisor. I didn't know you all existed."
Michael: Are you a unicorn?
Lisa: No, we're a minority in this business. But again, I think you can use that to your advantage. I might be the unicorn in that I tried hard not to get pigeonholed as only wanting to work with women.
Michael: So, you see it as an opportunity, but it is also consciously one that you actually decided you didn't want to pursue as your individual opportunity and path.
Lisa: Correct. Correct.
The Low Points Lisa Encountered On Her Journey [1:26:18]
Michael: Okay. So, what was the low point on this journey?
Lisa: I feel like the lower points happened early in my career with a crisis of confidence that I experienced because I have never had that issue in my life up to that point. I also had another low point, as glamorous as these Coke retirement workshops sounded, and I found my calling and I dominated and whatnot, I also had a low point as a working mom that actually happened with those seminars.
And so, a situation where twins, at the time, I think they were about 1.5, 2 years old... My husband was working full time. He was traveling away on business. I have this seminar to give at Coca-Cola at 8 a.m. the next morning. We have no family anywhere near us. And the kids were in daycare, and our babies were in daycare.
And midnight, one of the babies wakes up and spikes a fever. And I'm like, husband is out of town. I think he was in Texas. I've got to be at Coke's headquarters at 8 a.m. to deliver the seminar. Nobody else at the company was trained, at that point, to deliver the seminar content, it was just me.
And so, I remember going online to an organization called care.com. Midnight. And I searched for a caregiver in my area that was available to come to my house at 6:00 in the morning.
Michael: Just praying that someone is actually awake...
Lisa: Somebody is up and awake.
Michael: ...and seeing this at midnight, who could take the gig six hours from now.
Lisa: Yes. And I think that at 2:00 in the morning, somebody responded, which is kind of hindsight and scary. What's this caregiver doing up at two in the morning? So this woman comes to my house at 6:00 in the morning. I leave my babies with her, I haul it down, I give this seminar, and haul it home. Low point as a working mom, I left my babies with a total stranger, praying to God they would be there and be okay when I got back.
Michael: Fortunately, care.com had a reasonable vetting process.
Lisa: Yes, they did. They did. But that was pretty pivotal for me as well because when we had our third child, I knew something had to give. That rubber band was stretching, and it was going to snap at some point.
So, we made the decision. And that was in 2012 that my husband would retire as an engineer, and he would become a full-time dad. And so, I take that low point that I had in my career. And this was my personal low point as a working mom and figured out how to not ever have put me in that situation again or put my children in that situation again. And so, we changed our whole family dynamic as a result of that low point.
Michael: And so, how does that conversation flow?
Lisa: Well, like most working couples, young working couples, first you got to talk about finances, right? Well, can we make things meet on one income? And when we did the math between daycare expenses and his income, my income, it was like, "Well, your whole paycheck, honey, is going to pay for caregiving expenses. That's kind of crazy."
So, he was working for a company at the time that was large enough to offer FMLA, the Family Medical Leave Act. So, he was able to take 12 weeks off, unpaid, but he was guaranteed to get his job back. And so, we said this was going to be a test run. We're going to try this. See if it works out. If it doesn't, no harm, no foul, he'll go back to work. We'll figure something else out.
Michael: Oh, interesting. So, a 12-week unpaid FMLA leave was like a test run, "Let's do this for 3 months and actually see how it goes."
Lisa: Yes. And we also discussed too, if it worked out, we're going to reevaluate it every six months after that, sensitive to... This is a non-traditional role, right? I know there's now more and more family dynamics where the woman is the full-time worker, the breadwinner, the dad stays at home. But it's not very common in the South, where we are, and that had its whole set of challenges. So, we said we're going to reevaluate this.
Well, Michael, we knew within the first week, it was the right decision for our family. The amount of stress that rolled off my shoulders was significant. I knew my kids were cared for. Their dad was there. He had it. He is so happy being a full-time dad. He worked for a paycheck. He didn't work for satisfaction. So this dynamic worked for us.
And what happened within the first year of my husband retiring to be a full-time dad, because I had this extra time now and focus on my career, I was able to replace his income within one year.
Lisa: So, I attribute a lot of my success since 2012 to my family dynamic, and I've been able to put my career first when I wanted to or needed to. I've said yes to so many opportunities that would have been a challenge prior to, if we still were two working parents.
The Advice Lisa Would Give Her Former Self And Newer, Younger Advisors [1:31:41]
Michael: So, what else do you know now that you wish you could go back and tell you 15, 20 years ago as you were getting started?
Lisa: I would tell myself to not work on nights and work weekends to try to get yourself ahead. So, 2015, I consciously made the decision to stop working on nights and weekends. I had an experience. And so, my husband was a full-time dad at this point. Kids were little. I would put the kids down to bed, sit on the couch. He wanted to watch a TV show with me. And I'd sit there next to him. But I'd be cranking away on financial plans, Excel spreadsheets, emails, whatever, till 11:00 at night.
Eventually, he would get tired of waiting for me to put the computer away and just go to bed. And I had this moment one night. I'm like, "What am I doing? This is insane." My husband is sitting here waiting for me to spend time with me. And I'm putting my career in front of my marriage.
And so, in 2015, I made the conscious decision to stop doing that. 2015, coincidentally, was the year that Coke had that severance package. That I crushed it. But I crushed it, Michael, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. And I stopped. And it is a rare, rare occasion that I deal with business-related matters on the weekend. And it is a rare occasion I do it at night.
And so, if I were to go back and do it again, I would take all those years—the first 10, 15 years of my career—and I would work less at night and work less on the weekends.
Michael: But what changed? Did you shed a bunch of clients? Did you hire more people? Presuming the work was still there that had to get done somehow. So, what changed so that you could turn off the evenings and weekends?
Lisa: So, I just had to get more comfortable that I would never have an empty inbox. I had to get comfortable that I wasn't going to get fired by a client if I didn't get back to them within two hours. And I had to almost start training my clients to not expect immediate turnaround from me.
It was a risk, right? I knew it was a risk because, unfortunately, by being so proactive and so Johnny on the spot, I had trained my clients to expect that from me. I only had one client call the office and say, "Is everything okay with Lisa? She usually gets back to me within two hours, and it's been 24?" "Yes, everything's fine with Lisa."
But so, just, when people start seeing you respond 24 or 48 hours later versus 2 hours later, it's setting those expectations subtly. So, it took some time to do that. I didn't wave this big banner and say, "Don't expect a call back from me within three days." And I started having to do a better job of prioritizing the urgent versus the important.
And so, I took that upon myself. And I just had to figure it out. And I love what I do. And I think I'm more productive and focused during normal working hours because I can balance that a little bit better with my family life and personal goals, not being just exhausted working 24/7.
Michael: And so, was there something specific you did with clients to adjust those expectations? Did you just dial it back from two hours to a day or two and let it be and let the dust settle? Or did you reach out to them and say, "Hey, I just want to update your expectations on what responsiveness for me is going to look like in the future?" Was it something proactive you communicated? Or did you just start doing it differently and manage to it.
Lisa: I just started doing it differently and managing to it. The other time in my career that I made that change and, again, I didn't go wave the banner and tell clients, was in 2017, so this is about two years into not working on nights and weekends.
In 2017, I stopped taking on new clients. Since that time, I've brought in almost 100 new clients to the firm. And so, I really started ramping up my business development and started transitioning clients to other advisors who could serve them more effectively on a day-to-day basis as I was focused more on business development.
And so, business development did, I found that it cut down on things like client meetings. Maybe I'm spending that time outside at networking events. But as I started transitioning clients to other advisors, I was able to know those clients were well taken care of by somebody who had their head in the game all day, every day, if I was out at an event or whatnot.
And so, I started figuring out better how to leverage my skills and time and talent, as well as making sure the clients were well cared for. And I realized I can't do it all. I can't bring in 20, 25 clients a year, and serve 130 clients effectively, and lead a group of people within the organization, and all those other operational things that happen when you're a leader in an organization.
So, it's not easy. It's not easy. I don't think I have the magic formula, I'm still working on it every day. But I think a lot of it is you have to draw your own boundaries because, in this business, the work can be endless, and you have to draw boundaries so that you can operate more effectively and bring your A game when you're focusing on your work, your clients, and your career.
Michael: So, any other advice you would give younger, newer advisors that are getting started today?
Lisa: Yes, I would say any of that confidence crisis you might be facing, throw it out the window. You'll get there. Surround yourself with smart people. Always surround yourself with people that are smarter than you. Watch carefully how other advisors work with clients. Be in as many client meetings as you can early on because that's how you'll figure out how you want to operate as an advisor.
So, take the best of what you like, the best of what you see across different professionals and figure out how to pave your own path and how to create your own brand, and how to become your own success story.
What Success Means To Lisa [1:38:07]
Michael: So, as we wrap up, this is a podcast about success. And just one of the themes that comes up is the literally the word success means very different things to different people. And so, you've had this wonderful career in growing as an advisor and a partner and an author and a podcaster. And so, the career end is going very successfully. But how do you define success for yourself at this point?
Lisa: At this point in my career, success is no longer about what I've accomplished for myself in terms of new clients, new AUM, salary, job title. Success, for me, is how I can bring somebody else along and show them how they can pave that way to success for themselves. So sponsoring younger advisors, really going in there and putting them in the room or helping the see them with clients and watching them develop and make money and be successful and start attracting new clients themselves.
I feel like I'm doing my part to keep the evolution of this business going by helping other people on their path to success. And that's what brings me so much satisfaction now, at this point in my career.
Michael: Amen. That's fantastic. Well, thank you so much, Lisa, for joining us on the "Financial Advisor Success Podcast."
Lisa: Thank you, Michael. It's my pleasure. It was a lot of fun.
Michael: Likewise, thank you. Thank you.
*CI Brightworth merged into CI Private Wealth as of March 31, 2021. CI Private Wealth’s assets under management was $137.1 billion as of November 30, 2022.