Growing up in Honduras, Maria Chrin heard the story of how her grandmother, a widow lacking financial savvy, lost a large amount of money because she could not figure out what to do with the stocks her husband owned in U.S. banks.
Chrin wanted to make sure the same thing didn't happen to her, and now, as a Wall Street veteran and the head of her own wealth management firm, she helps other women develop the financial acumen her grandmother could have used.
Chrin started her studies at Columbia Business School in 1987, graduated in 1989 and was recruited to Goldman Sachs. During her 15 years at Goldman, Chrin built one of the premier wealth management practices.
In early 2000, she met Ann Kaplan, who had recently joined Goldman's wealth management division in her quest for a new model to deliver financial services to women investors and their families.
Between 2001 and 2002, Kaplan and Chrin interviewed more than 200 women across the country about what they were looking for from an adviser and what advice they needed about their wealth. Chrin and Kaplan wanted to be an independent team that worked inside of Goldman to place clients with the appropriate advisers within the firm.
Despite the success of that program, Goldman was not the perfect fit.
"I became quickly aware of how difficult it was to be an independent adviser in a firm that sells products, regardless of how good the products are," Chrin said in a recent phone interview. "We did not have full ability to provide comprehensive advice and become deeply involved in areas beyond investment management."
Two years later, Kaplan started Circle Financial Group, a private wealth management membership organization for affluent women, with 11 others including Chrin, half of whom were from Goldman. The members used their own situations and professional expertise to develop a comprehensive process for managing wealth.
In 2007, Chrin founded Circle Wealth Management, a registered investment advisory firm, where she could work with a select group of families using the collaborative model she had developed drawing from her 20 years as a professional wealth manager and as a client.
Though Chrin's original research focused on women and wealth, her advisory firm does not work exclusively with women. Circle Wealth's average client has about $100 million of investable assets, and the firm oversees all of the client's assets.
"There is a real need for independent advisers coming from firms that have no product and that have depth in all key areas of wealth management, including expertise in investing, estate and tax planning, and family dynamics," Chrin said. "Large firms aren't equipped to work with clients on a customized one-on-one basis."
The problem is that clients don't trust that these firms have their best interest at heart, Chrin said.
"I kept meeting people who wanted an independent adviser who had nothing other than advice to offer," she said.
After more than two decades in the business, Chrin has seen a tipping point: women are controlling more money and demanding information and collaboration.
"They don't want to be told, 'Oh, it's going to be OK, just trust me.' They are demanding a lot more details and collaboration and [are] willing to pay someone to do that with them," she said.
To cope with this "wealth revolution," Chrin suggested in the National Council for Research on Women's "Women in Fund Management" report, women need "an objective model based on trust that is product-free, collaborative and understanding of the specific requirements of each client."
Chrin has found that all her customers, men and women alike, want such a model from their wealth manager. "Clients want to be educated through the process," she said.
Each of her clients brings different biases and expectations. Chrin's job is to help them articulate their goals and achieve them.
"We are custodian-agnostic, so we work well with anyone on the Street," she said. "Our mission is to know how best to use the firms the clients are working with, how to pay the least fees and find the best ways to implement a client's investment plan.
"We manage the process. We're the client's alter ego, sitting on their side of the table and handling all the details so they don't have to."
With Circle Wealth Management there are no products — the client pays solely for investment expertise, advice and sound judgment. "If you don't know what you're looking for, it's very hard to find it," Chrin said.
Chrin has now come full circle, helping families with all levels of financial sophistication, including some like her grandmother back in Honduras who have scant experience in dealing with complex financial situations. "I don't want clients to be mystified by the process," she said. "I want them to be empowered by it."