It's not every day that you see a 64-year-old financial advisor doing push-ups with each hand and one foot on medicine balls in front of 100 fifth-graders in a school gym.
But Lincoln Financial Advisors/Sagemark Consulting advisor Richard Harris isn't your everyday advisor. The author of two children's books on basic money concepts, the former physical education instructor has talked to 10,000 elementary school children about fiscal fitness in just the last three years -- a wee fraction of the kids he hopes to one day reach.
"I do stunts old guys don't normally do," says Harris, a certified financial planner in Virginia Beach, Va., and a volunteer in local schools. "I tell them I'm still surfing. I'm helping coach my granddaughter's volleyball team. I work out six days a week. And I use that to ask: 'What kind of older person do you want to be -- pushing your walker to the doctor's or dragging your luggage to a boat? The choices you make today are going to impact the person you become.'"
Harris' two overarching messages to kids: First, live within your means. Second, learn how to practice deferred gratification. In our "I-want-it-now" society, Harris says the two concepts could not be more critical as so many are losing jobs and watching their stock and real estate portfolios wither.
One signature Harris exercise involves "the debt talk." He has a child do 20 sit-ups. Then he asks the child to do 20 more while wearing a backpack full of books. "It's a great way to explain the added weight of debt. It slows you down," he says. "It's a whole lot easier to live without it than with it."
Richard Harris, INVESTMENT ADVISOR REPRESENTATIVE, LINCOLN FINANCIAL ADVISORS/SAGEMARK CONSULTING, VIRGINIA BEACH, VA.
FROM HARRIS' BOOK, "If I Had a Penny....:"
"If I had two pennies, how happy I'd be.
I would handle them smartly,
until I had three."
Harris, who manages $50 million in assets, comes by his passion naturally. As a child he lived in 14 different rentals, sleeping half that time on a cot. His father, a gifted master craftsman, filed for bankruptcy when Harris was four. While he never felt underprivileged, Harris says he developed an early appreciation for money and health. After getting a degree in physical education at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, he taught physical education and biology and worked part-time at a fitness center. In 1972, looking for a career change that would help him better support his young family, he joined Jefferson Standard Life Insurance Co. as an agent.
Harris said he hated the job for awhile, and wanted to quit a half-dozen times the first year. "I took 'No' personally. That was one of the hardest things for me. I've always been easy to get along with," he says. "I wasn't good at having people I knew say 'no.'"
Harris was never all that comfortable with the hard focus on sales. In 1980, when he learned about the process Connecticut General employed -- objective-setting, problem-solving, case design and implementation, ongoing service -- he switched employers. Process-focused Lincoln Financial Advisors bought Connecticut General's successor firm, CIGNA, in 1998. In a twist that was ironic to Harris, it acquired Jefferson a few years later.
Most of Harris' clients are folks with a net worth of $5 million to $50 million who own or have sold businesses. While insurance and annuity products are still part of his mix, Harris is focused today on estate planning, fee-based planning work, retirement income distribution and, notably, client communication and relationship building.
"We don't want our clients hunting for us, we're out looking for them," Harris says. "We want them to know we haven't sold everything and moved to the islands. And I hope we've given them the confidence to hang tight. While we've lost a few clients, we've strengthened our relationship with many others."
A few years ago, when Harris realized that kids weren't learning about money in schools, he started asking friends and associates: Who taught you about money? "The response, even from educators, was 'I learned it the hard way,'" he says. His desire to help kids become financially fit led to two books of rhymes, Who Taught You About Money? and If I Had a Penny... His most recent book, I'm Walking, I'm Running, I'm Jumping, I'm Hopping," is intended to motivate children and their parents to live active and healthy lives -- a theme that he underscores in his talks with school kids.
Harris' partner, Jim Tuthill, says that when Harris recognizes a need, he tries to fill it.
"Kids grow up into adults who have no idea about how to handle money. He told me years ago that he wanted to get to them while they were young. He wanted to make a difference. He's very clear about that," says Tuthill. And kids have responded to Harris -- in part because he's fun.
"Kids see that he's fun and alive, they see it in his eyes," Tuthill adds. "They can't help but be captivated. He's like the Pied Piper in a way."
That joyfulness is also evident in his books. As Harris writes in Who Taught You About Money?:
"Though money is green, it does not grow on trees and most that I've had did not come with ease. Through work and through toil and by sweat of the brow one day at a time you earn it somehow. But earning the money is not the whole issue. What you do with it is the thing that might miss you....So just take your time...ask some questions then more, and financial success just might be in store."
Baltimore Sun," can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
PHOTO By Ashley Twiggs.