Deborah Fox knew it was time for a career switch when one day, working at a fish farm, she was tossing Purina Fish Chow into a tank of striped bass. "I realized this was not what I had in mind as far as work goes. Fish were not very good company. I wanted to work with people!"
So the marine biologist segued from fish to folks: At a friend's suggestion, she became a financial consultant.
That was 23 years ago. In 2004, Fox once again re-invented herself when she took her local practice national to launch Fox College Funding. Now she gives one-on-one help to a network of more than 60 financial advisors in 25 states, each paying an annual membership fee. Fox's college-planning services are offered exclusively to FAs affiliated with Securities America, Fox's broker-dealer, and to fee-only planners.
Securities America came up with the idea for her to go national. At the time, she had a comfortable practice specializing in college-funding planning and was working four days a week. To start the coast-to-coast endeavor was "huge," she says. "But it has forced me to grow in so many ways. It's been an amazing ride," enthuses the advisor, 47, from her San Diego office.
A former OSJ, Fox is using her know-how to show other advisors ways to help clients -- especially affluent ones ineligible for financial aid -- substantially pare down their kids' college expenses, particularly at the eleventh hour.
She turns advisors into college-planning experts not only through training and coaching but, for an additional fee, by preparing custom college-funding plans for them to present to clients.
"This is one area of planning where you can actually get clients to do something. Once their students are juniors or seniors in high school, they go into panic mode because they've waited till the last minute to take care of college funding," says Fox, who concentrates on such late-stage planning. "It's an emotional issue -- parents will put their own planning aside to make sure the kids have what they need."
And therein lies a giant ah-ha: "College planning is really retirement planning. How a family pays for college will have a significant effect on how and when they'll retire," she says. "College can take a big chunk of their budget that would normally go to retirement savings." Her goal: to minimize families' out-of-pocket costs so they can stay on track with retirement planning.
"Without Deborah's expert advice, we would have been lost in the quagmire [of financial aid]. She guided us through this very complex maze and [will have] saved us probably tens of thousands of dollars over our twins' four-year college period," says Fox client Mike Luecke.
Comparatively few financial planners specialize in the college-funding niche, notes Fox. Most of those who do, she says, are working mainly in financial-aid planning. And "in [many] cases, bad apples are using college funding as a guise to sell high-priced insurance products."
She applies three strategies to shrink college costs. One targets scholarships and tuition discounts. A cash-flow strategy aims at minimizing outflows and maximizing inflows. Her tax-reduction strategy is supported by a team of CPAs.
Fox gravitated to this specialty after two separate clients, at virtually the same time, asked how they could cut fast-approaching college expenses. "I felt completely inept. There was nothing compelling I could tell them," she recalls. But once she did some research, the FA "was amazed at [what] could make a difference at the late stage."
She then began adding college funding to her practice as a value-added. After conducting a continuing ed session for her local study group, she was soon flooded with referrals from FAs touting her as the area's college-planning guru.
Fox has now scaled back her own planning practice significantly. "Today my clients are other financial planners. To be able to coach them about college funding and also help improve their overall practices is what I love to do," says the planner, who is forming a non-profit arm to fund scholarships "to help kids live up to their potential."
Santa Monica, Calif.-born Fox, who, as a child, dreamed of becoming a vet, graduated with a BA in aquatic biology from the University of California-Santa Barbara and went straight to work for a cutting-edge San Diego-area company raising fish in the California desert. She wanted to learn fish farming and one day develop a farm of her own.
"I was so fascinated by the science of marine biology," she says. "But when I had that defining moment [with the bass], I thought, 'I don't have to earn my living this way. I can just keep up with the field."
And she found financial services lots more fascinating than fish. Plus, her entrepreneurial bent was a big asset. Starting out working for broker-dealer First American National Services, in San Diego, Fox eleven years later -- 1995 -- went independent, affiliating with Sentra. Eight years after that, she moved to Securities America.
She and husband Dov Krausz -- her firm's operations manager -- and their two teen-aged sons share a home with a rare-breed Coton de Tulear dog, a bearded dragon lizard, one milk snake and a dwarf Rex rabbit. What, no fish? "One day we want to set up a nice salt-water aquarium," says Fox. But she won't be care-giver to this aquacade. "We'll hire a service so I don't have to deal with it!" How's she keeping up on marine biology? "I'm a big sushi fan!" the advisor says, with a laugh.
Founder, Fox College Funding, San Diego
Husbandly advice well taken about whether to go national: "You've been training 20 years for this. It's exactly what you should be doing. This is your chance to make a much bigger impact than you ever thought possible!"
Jane Wollman Rusoff is a contributing editor of Research and is the founder of Family Star Productions.