November 29, 2007

(Wo)manpower

Debra Smith's driving passion is empowering women to take control of their finances

Debra Smith is a wife, mother, and advisor. More than anything, though, she is a crusader.

"I have an absolute passion for empowering women financially," says Smith, head of Summit Brokerage Services in Santa Rosa, California. "It's just stunning to me that in this day and age women still lack financial power."

After a generation of struggle, women have succeeded in claiming their earning power, competing effectively with men on pretty much every rung on the corporate ladder, says Smith. But when it comes to managing their own finances and generating sustainable wealth from those earnings, most women still turn that power over to men.

"I'm not saying kick the man out, but husbands and wives need to be a team. The last thing a woman wants is to find herself in a place where she is suddenly the one making personal financial decisions and have no idea where to start."

Smith found her calling late in her professional life. While she spent most of her career managing offices, putting in a stint as executive director of the American Cancer Society and then running an accounting firm, her husband, Gary, was building his own business as an independent financial advisor. It wasn't until her four daughters were finished with college that Smith and her husband were able to fulfill a long-time dream of working together. She earned her Series 7 and began working with him in 1994.

At the beginning, her focus was on college planning. After a few years, though, it became clear that something was missing. She and Gary were both investment specialists, but nobody was working with their clients on long-term financial planning.

That's when Smith became a Certified Financial Planner and began helping clients put their financial houses in order. That's also when she and Gary took a good look at their own long-term plans. Gary is several years older than Debra, and they both knew that he would be retiring before her, so in 2001 they put together a five-year business plan that would shift most of his book to her.

The goal was to ensure that when he did retire, the firm and their clients would have a smooth transition. When an unexpected illness forced him to retire in May 2007, both Debra and the business were ready, "at least around the office," she says.

That is the lesson she is trying to communicate to her female clients. For married women, Smith emphasizes how critical it is that they understand what is going on with the family finances and that they become equal partners in long-term financial plans.

Smith teaches them not only how to manage their money, but how to manage the voices that too many women still hear in their heads, voices that Smith herself has struggled to shut off: 'Maybe it's not proper to compete in this way. I should be careful not to outshine my husband. Don't do too much so he can look better.'

"I had to work very hard to turn off those voices," says Smith.

Half of Smith's business, though, is made up of single women, many of whom are referred to her after they lose their husbands through death or divorce.

"I have had women come into my office carrying paper bags," she says. "They start pulling out papers, asking me to handle it. They are like deer in the headlights."

As much as she sympathizes with these women, Smith won't take on a new client unless they are willing to roll up their sleeves and work with her. She lays it on the line that they have to be willing to take responsibility for their own financial decisions before she will help them.

"I go about my practice the same way I go about my life," she says. "I treat my clients as the most important people on the face of the earth while they are sitting in front of me--which is the same way I treat my friends and coworkers. In turn, my needs will be met, and I will be rewarded in the long run."

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