Maria Chrin’s path to Wall Street was born out of necessity.

Chrin grew up in Honduras, where she had heard the story of how her grandmother had lost a slew of money after her husband died, leaving her to figure out what to do with the stocks he owned in U.S. banks. Chrin’s grandmother found it difficult to make decisions about what to do with her money, and Chrin wanted to make sure the same thing didn’t happen to her.

So she worked hard and started studying at Columbia Business School in 1987. After she graduated in 1989 she was recruited to Goldman Sachs [GS]. During her 15 years at Goldman, Chrin built one of the premier wealth management practices. In early 2000, she met Ann Kaplan, a partner of the firm who had recently joined the 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 advisor and what advice they needed about managing their wealth. Chrin and Kaplan’s goal was to be an independent team that worked inside of Goldman to place clients with the appropriate advisors within the firm.

Despite the success of that program, “I became quickly aware of how difficult it was to be an independent advisor in a firm that sells products, regardless of how good the products are,” Chrin said in a recent phone conversation. “We did not have full ability to provide comprehensive advice and become deeply involved in areas beyond investment management.”

Two years later, Kaplan launched Circle Financial Group (CFG), a private wealth-management membership organization for affluent women, with 11 others including Chrin, half of whom were from Goldman Sachs. The members used their own situations and professional expertise to develop a process for managing wealth that was truly comprehensive.

In 2007, Chrin founded Circle Wealth Management, a registered investment advisory firm, where she could work with a select group of families using the comprehensive and collaborative model she had developed based on her learning of 20 years in the business both as a professional wealth manager and as a client. While Chrin’s original research focused on women and wealth, her firm does not work solely with women.

Circle Wealth’s average client has about $100 million in investable assets and the firm oversees all of the client’s assets. “There is a real need for independent advisors 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, she said, is that clients don’t trust that these firms have their best interest at heart. “I kept meeting people who wanted an independent advisor who had nothing other than advice to offer.”

After over 20 years 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 willing to pay someone to do that with them.”

To cope with this “wealth revolution,” Chrin suggested in the National Council for Research on Women’s “Women in Fund Management” report, that women need “an objective model based on trust that is product-free, collaborative and understanding of the specific requirements of each client.” She has found that this model is desirable among all of her clients, male and female. Her detail-oriented, collaborative approach is exactly what clients want, she says: “Clients want to be educated through the process.”

Each of Chrin’s clients comes to the table with different biases and expectations. Her job is to help them articulate what their goals are and figure out the best way to achieve them. “We are custodian-agnostic, so we work well with anyone on the Street,” she explained. “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 solely pays for investment expertise, advice and sound judgment.

The financial crisis of 2007-08 was a wakeup call for all investors, many of whom realized they didn’t know the questions to ask to understand their financial situation. “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 little experience in dealing with complex financial situations.

“I don’t want clients to be mystified by the process,” Chrin said. “I want them to be empowered by it.”


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