Eileen OConnor likes to tell people that she started in the financial planning business with no clients, no income and no clue. In her first year, she literally made no money. She had joined a firm that agreed to pay her a percentage of the revenue she earned and she had no revenue that year. In the second year, still struggling to find clients, she made a few thousand dollars. But since that inauspicious launch just a decade ago, shes become one of the nations leading experts on financial planning for affluent women, and her practice is now growing at a blistering pace.
We are trying to be very deliberate about branding and I think its really paying off, says OConnor, co-founder of Hemington Wealth Management in Tysons, Va. We have had a tremendous influx of new clients.
OConnor and partner Ryon Beyer broke away from McLean Asset Management a year and a half ago, buying out their $165 million book of business. Marketing themselves as the go-to firm for successful working women in the Washington, D.C., area, they had $340 million in AUM as of an ADV dated late February OConnor says a new team member has since boosted assets to $415 million and now employ four full-time planners, with openings for more staff.
Two-thirds of their clients are female breadwinners, either alone or as part of a couple, OConnor says. The remaining third are more traditional households, but with a twist: OConnor says the male breadwinners who have hired Hemington have done so specifically to help their wives understand, and become more engaged with, their family finances.
One of these clients had a cancer scare and he said he couldnt sleep because he was so worried about what would happen to his wife if something were to happen to him, she says. Another client is probably the best individual investor I have ever known, but he realized that his wife would have no idea how to handle their portfolio if he were not around.
SURVEY AS LAUNCHPAD
The key to OConnors recent success was a survey. In 2012 a year before she broke off to form her own practice she co-authored a major research study for the Family Wealth Advisory Council on affluent women.
Surveying more than 550 affluent women around the country, she encountered results that were both promising and disturbing.
In a nutshell, affluent women were handling more money than ever and increasingly becoming their families primary breadwinners. Both willing and able to hire financial advisors, they had become a promising growth market for planners.
The disconcerting part? Women were more dissatisfied with their financial advisors than they were with any other day-to-day issue. Describing planning relationships as disrespectful and condescending, many women said they felt their gender was a factor in receiving poor financial advice.
Even though an increasing number of planning firms were purporting to address womens issues, they tended to act like those issues were common to all females. Their female clients said they felt like they were getting cookie-cutter plans in pink.
In reality, womens financial issues dont conform to the neat categories where planners wanted to file them, OConnor says. Instead, she found, they vary both by age and circumstance and by individual much like mens issues.
Women were desperate for good advice. They were aggressive in seeking help. But they consistently complained that they were not getting what they needed.
The study immediately made OConnor want to build a womens practice but not under the aegis of a firm where she had little managerial control. That was the catalyst for leaving McLean in October 2013.
Since then, she says Hemington has followed a simple marketing strategy that aims to position the firm as the go-to expert for planning for affluent women.
They dont use advertising or slick brochures, she says. Mostly, OConnor just goes out to speak to groups of planners, attorneys and accountants about what women want. She says she spends about one-third of her time this way and may eventually spend half of her time on speaking engagements and more studies.
The concepts involved in serving an affluent female client are the same for law firms and accounting firms, so they are going to want to hear from you if youre willing to share your data, she says. And if you are able to get in front of a room of 50 great referral sources, thats an incredible marketing engine.
OConnor, who recently completed a second study of affluent women to dive deeper into their concerns and desires, says the referrals that come from these meetings couldnt be better. Successful women in the D.C. area come to her saying that they were told that she was the planner the only planner that they needed to talk to.
Thats the perfect referral, she says. Its not Let me give you three names. Its You have to talk to Eileen.
Women dont necessarily need different investments or unique planning, OConnor notes. What they need is to have more detailed conversations about what theyre trying to achieve, and to understand that their concerns are being specifically addressed by the subsequent plan. Too often, she says, they feel that planners are jumping to conclusions about a clients needs rather than listening to her.
When youre an analytical person, its easy to jump to conclusions about what a client needs after just a few seconds of talking, she says. But youre seeing them through your own lens. You have to take the time to look under the hood and really get the whole picture.
Women want deep, meaningful advisor relationships, OConnor adds. And theyre willing to share more information and more personal details to allow planners to do a better job.
A case in point: OConnor works with several members of a big extended family and got a call from one of these clients, telling her that another adult family member was battling a drug addiction. Obviously, that isnt an overt financial issue, but they said they thought I should know, she says.
Indeed, the call spurred OConnor to review the patriarchs trust. Lo and behold, the sole trustee was the substance abuser. At their next meeting, OConnor talked to the patriarch about adding co-trustees to his estate plan.
We might have eventually done that anyway, but the patriarch was in his 80s, she says. If we didnt know, by the time that issue came up it could have been too late.
The studies have also led OConnor to change her discovery process, using detailed client interview guides to make sure she does a thorough job of ferreting out important information.
I am interested in successful working women because thats who I am, but its interesting to me how much Ive learned from these studies, she says. I think theyve made me a better advisor, more aware of my biases.
Kathy Kristof, a Financial Planning contributing writer in Los Angeles, contributes to Kiplingers and CBS MoneyWatch. Follow her on Twitter at @kathykristof.
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