As the chief executive and chief investment officer of Manchester Capital Management, Ted Cronin has big-dollar thoughts all day long. His firm, which employs CFPs and has offices in California, New York and Vermont, manages some $2 billion in assets.
But lessons about the limits of lucre that Cronin learned before he entered the business - when he worked in the Peace Corps in rural Thailand - remain central to the philosophy he shares with clients today. "Material wealth is nice to have, but it has little relationship to happiness," Cronin says.
As with many CFPs, the job experience Cronin gained before he started advising others significantly influences his practice. Many planners say the messages they deliver to clients about budgets, investing and setting priorities are based partly on lessons they learned at early jobs. Those jobs were as far afield as apartment rental manager, IRS agent, laborer in a lumberyard, locker-room attendant and computer programmer.
As a young mother, Nancy Seely- Butler, a CFP in Groton, Conn., initially made her living renting apartments. Her boss required her to drive to buildings statewide. She learned a great deal.
"It affected me in a lot ways," says Seely-Butler, who sold a successful financial planning business with $200 million in client assets in 2007 and now runs a divorce consulting business. In real estate, Seely-Butler recalls, she would meet potential renters, hear about their purported financial situation and then pore through their data from credit checks. What she learned, she says, is that few people describe their finances accurately.
"It was amazing to see the difference in the way people handled their money," Seely-Butler recalls. "Some people saved from every paycheck and others seemed as if they had been in debt since they day they were born. It gave me a sense of reality." Observing the differences between what prospective renters presented and their creditworthiness on paper equipped her to "get to the heart of issues with individual clients," she says.
Seely-Butler also gained diplomatic skills that enable her to help clients evaluate what they can afford and what suits them best. "I help people understand the consequences of decisions they make today and how they will play out in the long run," she says. If clients covet a bigger house but will suffer financially, she tells them explicitly the downside of devoting too much of their income to mortgage payments.
LIVING ON LESS
Lynn Lawrance, a financial planner for Financial Network Investment in Dallas, has been working since her preteen years. She had a sister whose medical needs created significant financial burdens on her parents, so Lawrance began working when she was in the fourth grade as a babysitter. Later, she worked as a tutor and then as a gift wrapper for a department store. In college, she paid for her tuition and a car with earnings from a textbook warehouse job.
The chief lesson Lawrance passes on to clients from those experiences: "Any job is worthwhile if you need it and it brings in money." Lawrance eschews the notion that some jobs fall beneath her clients. "People shouldn't attach their ego to a job," she says. In this economy, Lawrance tells unemployed clients facing the prospect of cutting deeply into their savings that they should consider all employment options - no matter how low on the career ladder. Money coming in, as opposed to only going out, justifies even menial labor, she believes.
After she began her CFP career, Lawrance followed this advice. She worked briefly helping to maintain the locker room of a recreation center. At the time, Lawrance had cut back on planning clients to focus on her responsibilities as executor of her sister's estate. Fewer clients meant lower income. But the locker-room job came with the benefit of a free gym membership.
Lawrence Montague, a CFP and tax consultant for Deloitte in Stamford, Conn., remembers physical labor and aching muscles from his days in college working in a lumberyard. He unloaded and stacked wood for seven summers before and during college. Starting in his teens, Montague says, his parents applied a simple financial rule: "If I wanted to do fun things, I had to pay for it."
Their insistence on hard work played a role in how Montague chose to advise well-heeled clients who come to him seeking advice in structuring trusts for their offspring. "I show them how not to spoil their children," he says. Clients often mistakenly assume that a child who reaches 21 should be given "all the money," Montague notes, but he tells clients that such an approach may actually impede these young people from establishing themselves.
Matthew Kelley, a CFP and principal at Gold Medal Waters in Boulder, Colo., started in financial planning immediately upon graduating from college with a journalism degree. That career path became attractive to him after he worked as an intern for Ayco, a provider of financial counseling and education services. As an intern, Kelley helped to write pamphlets with planning advice, which the firm distributed to employees of client companies. His work on pamphlets, Kelley says, helped him realize that "I kind of liked this stuff."
Kelley now manages $42 million in assets as a planner. He has recently written materials similar to those he did for Ayco and posted them on his website. "It's kind of coming full circle," Kelley says.
Louis Kokernak, a CFP and principal at Haven Financial Advisors in Austin, Texas, who manages some $50 million in assets, recalls a variety of summer jobs that began his junior year in college. "I painted houses and I was a janitor," he says. Kokernak thinks those stints, however, influence him little today in terms of his advice to clients. A more consequential event: his decision at age24 to quit his first post-college job, the one for which he had trained for years in school, at IBM, as a computer programmer.
Although Kokernak took the career-change plunge, he cautions many clients who tell him they want to do the same against taking that step. Why? The age differential, he says. He left IBM at a young age, lowering "the opportunity cost" of the switch, he says. His clients, often in their 40s or older, might be considering leaving secure employment and switching to the real estate business. They would be leaving a job with a defined retirement benefit plan. He notes most new careers take time to flourish. "What's the likelihood in the time they have left in their work life that they are going to be successful?" Kokernak asks. Clients who have completed a few successful real estate deals may underestimate the role that macroeconomic factors played in their sales.
AVOIDING SHORT CUTS
Brendan McGowan, a CFP in Bryn Mawr, Pa., whose firm, McGowan & Co., manages $175 million in assets, finished college and followed in an uncle's footsteps to become an IRS agent. As such, he learned plenty about domestic and foreign taxes. Surprising himself, he found the financial world spellbinding. "I was fascinated how it all worked," he says.
But in evaluating other people's tax statements, he says, he developed a philosophy that he has never - in his 30 years as a planner - stopped stressing to clients: "Always do things the right way; don't take short cuts. You are always better off if you do it right the first time."
In his days in the Peace Corps, Cronin says he lived among happy people in southern Thailand who owned practically nothing and he realized, "Money is not the panacea." He believes he would have stayed in Thailand after his Peace Corps assignment ended, but he received a telegram from his family asking him to return to the States to be the best man at his brother's wedding. That visit home led to his helping to manage his family's finances and down the path he now walks.
Miriam Rozen is a staff reporter at Texas Lawyer in Dallas.