From the December 2008 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

Margaret Chow Starner

Career Began: 1981

Home Base: Coral Gables, Fla.

Civic Affiliations: John T. McDonald Foundation and Teach for America.

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In the 1970s, Margaret Chow Starner did something almost unthinkable for a woman at the time when she created a class called "Everything You Wanted to Know about Money but Were Afraid to Ask."

Through the League of Women Voters, Starner had met highly educated women who were savvy about community and political affairs -- but had no grasp of their own finances.

Starner, who was to become widely recognized as a trailblazer in the financial planning industry, was about to change that.

"It was a whole different world. Most people back then didn't even understand how to buy Treasuries," says Starner, whose bio by then included long-range strategic planning for entities such as the Stanford Research Institute, the Ford Foundation and United Airlines. "These were women married to corporate executives who wanted to be part of the decision-making of the family. They really wanted to make a difference in their financial affairs."

Ever the maverick, Starner taught the three-part class at community centers, tennis clubs and non-profits in Miami -- and in doing so recruited women who would one day become her first clients.

Starner first heard about the then new CFP designation in the late 1970s. "I really thought it would be the wave of the future," says Starner, one of Raymond James & Associates' topmost producers -- and its top woman producer. "Conceptually, it was exactly what I wanted to do."

Starner, 70, carved out a career path at a time when there were very few mile markers. "I formed relationship groups with a handful of other planners around the country. We taught each other," says Starner, whose wealth management group manages $330 million in assets. "It was a very pioneering time."

When she joined Raymond James & Associates in 1981, she even cut a deal where she wouldn't be responsible for selling anything her first year. Rather, she wanted to spend her energy learning the business.

"Women take a little longer to develop. In general, women want a higher degree of confidence before they tell someone what to do. Make no mistake, women are great advisors. From a competence standpoint, there's not a huge difference," says Starner, who earned $12,000 her first year. "I wasn't interested in making a lot of money. That wasn't what I was looking for. I was interested in learning the ropes. I had a unique situation -- but underneath it all, I think they thought I would make it."

Today, Starner and her two associates, Scott Weingarden and Bruce Cacho-Negrete, have 150 client units -- high-net-worth widows, corporate executives, business owners and other professionals -- with an average account size of $3 million to $8 million. Their business is purely referral, primarily from attorneys and accountants. And, as Starner puts it, it's invitation-only.

"One of the criteria is that you really have to buy into the planning process. This is a process all about where you want to go in your life. Money is just a proxy for your options in life. Yet a lot of people say, 'I just want to make as much money as I can.' We're not the right group for that person," says Starner, who has a degree in economics from Stanford University. "There's no point in taking clients if you can't make a difference in their lives."

Starner grew up in small-town Mississippi. Her family, the only Chinese in the area, operated and later owned a grocery store there. When her father insisted she attend Stanford, she reluctantly left.

Starner's first career in strategic planning helped prepare her for the eventual move to financial planning. At United, for example, she worked on allocation models for purchasing decisions -- providing a nice segue to asset allocation.

"All my experiences transferred," she adds. League of Women Voters meetings, for instance, are built around consensus and participation. "You cannot stay silent at a meeting. You're encouraged to articulate what you're thinking. I saw a lot of women really develop," she says. "It's the same with the planning process -- helping people begin to articulate what they want or how they feel about things."

Starner has always been an advocate for women -- both clients and other advisors. In 1992, she helped establish the Raymond James Women's Advisory Board, focused on fostering opportunities for women at the firm. In 2006, she was honored as the Raymond James "Woman of Distinction," an annual leadership award recognizing a senior-level woman who has made a significant impact on the firm and created opportunities for the women who will follow.

"She likes to mentor," notes Karen Schultz, director of the firm's Network for Women Financial Advisors. "She's an idea person, she always has ideas: how to do it, how to do it better, how to do it more efficiently. She's always trying to get other advisors to look at their own practices and challenge them. She's someone people listen to."

Named in 2007 and again this year by Barron's as one of the "Top 100 Women Financial Advisors in America," Starner continues -- deep into her career -- to push her own boundaries. "The nice thing about this business is that it's very mental instead of physical. I'm still fascinated and energized," she says. "Best of all, I'm having fun and, I hope, making a difference."

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Freelance writer Ellen Uzelac is based in Chestertown, Md.; the former West Coast bureau chief and national correspondent for The Baltimore Sun, can be reached at ellenuzelac@msn.com.

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