Mark Hebner's path to running a $1.8 billion financial planning firm was anything but ordinary. A nuclear pharmacist by training, Hebner had co-founded a nuclear medicine company when he was fresh out of college. He sold Syncor International 10 years later, netting $6 million on the transaction.

Hebner was just 32 when he handed the windfall to a broker at Merrill Lynch and went about his business, starting and running several other companies and largely ignoring his investment portfolio. But after going back to school to get an M.B.A., a newly widowed friend asked for investment advice. Feeling more responsible for her economic well-being than his own, he decided to read up on the financial markets, delving into decades of academic research on investments. He was changed by the experience and abandoned Merrill Lynch to start an investment company of his own.

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