July 11, 2011

Esther Stearns: LPL’s ‘Out-of-the-Box’ Tech Guru—Top Women Extended Profile

Schwab’s Dawn Lepore mentored Stearns, helping to pave the way for her managerial success

Esther Stearns knows how to time her career moves--and pick her mentors. 

Stearns joined LPL Financial in 1996 after rising through the ranks at Charles Schwab for about 14 years to become its vice president of information systems. She’s been chief operating officer and president of LPL Investment since 2004 and 2007 respectively.

“My first job out of college was with Schwab in San Francisco,” Stearns said in an interview with AdvisorOne. “Back then, it was a small company, like LPL was around ’96 when I joined. I liked the fact that they were upstarts, outside of the conventional part of the industry. And, fortunately for me, they’ve both had great leaders.” 

esther stearnsAt Schwab, Stearns (left) was mentored by CIO Dawn Lepore, who later was named vice chairman of technology. They worked together to help launch Schwab.com in 1995.

“Dawn did a lot for me and helped me transition my career to technology,” said Stearns, who earned a B.A. at the University of Chicago. “I worked with and for her for 13 years. She was my role model, and she guided and helped shape my thinking.”

At both companies, Stearns says she’s been privileged to work with fabulous men and women with a deep understanding of entrepreneurship and what it takes to make a great company – including Todd Robinson, the founder of LPL.

When Lepore decided to leave Schwab to start drugstore.com in the mid-’90s, Stearns was offered the opportunity to join LPL and build its technology platform -- Branch Net -- from scratch.

“This was back in ’96, when the role of an Internet-based platform was not obvious,” like it is today, explained Stearns, who was working with an LPL advisor at the time on her personal finances. “It as a great model for objective, independent advice, and I had a first-hand view of it.”

Given the chance to participate in the tech “scalability” as LPL’s CIO, Stearns embraced the challenge and never looked back. “Dawn had set a vision for me as a CIO. Still, it was a daunting task – not because of the size of the project, but because technology was so new. It was very challenging and not everyone agreed on what to do,” said Stearns.

Nonetheless, she’s always has enjoyed her tech-focused work, given the pace of change it involves. “And my background’s in business, not technology,” she noted. “This enabled me to bring some out-of-the-box thinking to it.”

What continues to inspire her today? “Our clients, our advisors, both men and women are fabulous. They tell me what they hear and what think about the business and how to grow it,” shared Stearns. “It’s an education.”

After Lepore, Stearns said she continued to have mentors but spent more time supporting others. “I’m less of a networker than some executives are,” she explained. “I am more interested in working to get the right diversity in our management team and coaching in my advocacy role for women. I see that as key to success” for women in the field.

She says that LPL’s management is about 30% female, above the industry average, and its advisor force of roughly 12,400 is about 15% female, along the same lines as the industry. “I’m proud of where we are. It reflects a real commitment,” said the LPL executive.

In November 2010, LPL staged its initial public offering, raising about $470 million. Stearns sold about half of her shares through the IPO and netted roughly $35 million. She sold about one-third of her remaining shares and made about $7.5 million in a secondary offering in May 2011 and still owns about 500,000 shares in the company.

See the lead news article on the 2011 50 Top Women in Wealth.

See the article on the process for choosing the 2011 50 Top Women in Wealth.

See the 2010 50 Top Women in Wealth.

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