At Dorion-Gray Retirement Planning in Crystal Lake, Ill., the emphasis is on preparing clients for retirement, with particular attention given to making sure that women are educated about financial issues. Paula Dorion-Gray, the firm's president, says that eventually a majority of women end up in complete control of their own finances and that there is an important need to help them.

This career is not necessarily the one Dorion-Gray set out for herself. It has grown out of a willingness to seize opportunities as they have presented themselves and to adapt her practice to her evolving talents.

In hindsight, her early career seems particularly spontaneous. At age 29, Paula Dorion found herself the divorced mother of three small children, without a college degree, far from her native Canada and her adopted hometown of Chicago. With limited options, she took the first job she could find: receptionist in a New Jersey financial planning office.

Opportunity was thrust on her in the beginning by her boss and mentor, Charles Lefkowitz. "He saw something I didn't see in myself," she acknowledges. "

Early in her tenure, Lefkowitz had Dorion present a series of one-hour seminars on IRAs at Rutgers University. Since she was very green in the subject, he gave her a crash course. She made her presentation and walked away surprised by the positive feedback from her audience. More seminars ensued.

After a dose of Lefkowitz's fire-hose tutelage, she moved her family to the Chicago area. She was hired by Joan Bauer in Crystal Lake, Ill., 45 miles northwest of the city, to compile financial plans for the firm's clients.

Two years later, Dorion migrated downtown for a series of stints with accounting firms, banks and insurance agencies. "They were all too corporate for my taste," she admits. She returned to financial planning, working at a small broker-dealer, gradually building her own book of business.

 

BUYING A FIRM

In 1994, she married Robert Gray, and in 1998, with 17 years of experience and a CFP certificate acquired in 1986, she approached her former boss in Crystal Lake about buying out the small suburban firm. The deal went through in 1999; Dorion-Gray now does roughly five times more business than her predecessor.

Dorion-Gray Retirement Planning's staff of 11 now includes three financial advisors paired with three customer relationship managers who work as teams to manage close to $300 million for 400 clients. Dorion-Gray herself handles 75 clients. One of her sons, Mark Davids, is an advisor, and another, Jim Davids, manages client portfolios as the firm's chief investment officer. Her husband Bob Gray, who has a background in marketing for McDonald's, also works for the firm.

The practice offers both strategic and tactical models in client portfolio design, using a wide variety of mutual funds, ETFs, bonds and stocks within those portfolios. Under its fee structure, which is a bit unusual among RIAs, Dorion-Gray charges according to asset type rather than the total assets under management. For example, clients may be charged around 1.25% on buy and hold equities in their portfolio and up to 2% on a basket of individual stocks that are traded aggressively.

But there are no fees on a client's cash or bond holdings. Money that clients will need within five years is handled conservatively. A new retiree's first-year income needs are kept in cash, the second year in one-year bonds, the third year in two-year bonds and so on.

 

POWER OF DEMOGRAPHICS

Dorion-Gray's emphasis on retirement planning reflects the demographics of her clients. In 2002, with an aging customer base, she changed the firm's name from Dorion-Gray Financial Services and focused her marketing on retirees. She remembers thinking at the time, "This is where the need is!"

To meet it, the firm offers financial planning and investment management, and sells insurance products, including long-term-care policies. They also outsource estate planning to an outside national firm.

Dealing with retirees can prove to be more art than science. Not long ago, a son and daughter approached her, complaining that their mother was refusing to spend money because of worries that her children might not inherit a sufficient cushion. Dorion-Gray managed to talk the mother into a compromise: taking the entire family on vacation and paying for the trip.

 

PLAYING SHERIFF

But she also has clients who will not acknowledge that they are running out of money and refuse to quit consuming. For such spendthrifts, the firm is not averse to laying down the law: "We've actually fired clients in the past who ignore our recommendations about budgeting and continue to raid their investment principal," she says.

For both extremes and for clients in between, Dorion-Gray published Ready, Set, Retire! The book consists of client stories and different approaches to retirement planning. Dorion-Gray also writes a monthly column for The Northwest Herald, a newspaper in Crystal Lake, on financial issues geared to high-net-worth clients.

Recently, she added educational seminars to her repertoire, keeping them short and sweet - one hour max. A summer seminar on Social Security attracted 75 people.

In building the educational component of her firm, Dorion-Gray noticed that women rarely asked questions during presentations that included both sexes. "They were embarrassed to not know the answer to something," she said, "or worried their question would be a stupid one."

In addition, many female clients have told her they prefer talking to a woman about financial issues. Even their husbands tell Dorion-Gray that they feel secure knowing their wives will have another woman to talk to should something happen to them.

It is not unwarranted concern. One male client with cancer attempted Finance 101 with his wife during the last month of his life. He started too late - he had 17 investment accounts. After he died, his wife came to Dorion-Gray because she was overwhelmed.

That client now sits on the firm's advisory council and promotes the new Smart Woman seminar series for women older than 50. The seminars cover a wide range of topics, from taxes to investment basics to estate planning.

Staying current with clients' birthdays, vacations and children is all part of the business. "In a typical hour-long conversation with clients," Dorion-Gray says, "I'll spend 15 minutes talking about their portfolios and 45 minutes talking about their families or other nonfinancial topics."

She cites two tools that help manage information overload: a Securities America study group and an organization based in Toronto called Strategic Coach. Both groups focus on long-term planning (she has learned that many planners don't plan) and balancing one's professional and personal life.

A fanatical golfer, she's not worried about her own retirement. "I could easily golf 40 hours a week," she quips.

 

 

Jim Grote, CFP, is a Financial Planning contributing writer in Louisville, Ky.

 

 

Paula Dorion-Gray

President, Dorion-Gray Retirement Planning, Crystal Lake, Ill.

Credentials: CFP

Experience:Administrative support and advising in the accounting, banking, financial planning and insurance industries before acquiring her own firm in 1999.

AUM:$300 million

How I see it: "In a typical hour-long conversation with clients, I'll spend 15 minutes talking about their portfolios and 45 minutes talking about their families or other nonfinancial topics."