At a recent seminar, planner Linda Gadkowski was in the midst of explaining the importance of accurate beneficiary designations when a young man suddenly leaped to his feet. “Wait a minute: You mean that if I die, my ex-girlfriend is going to get all of my money?” he exclaimed, thunderstruck. “Sure. If she’s the beneficiary, it’s all hers,” said Gadkowski. The young man’s eyes nearly popped out of his head. “My gosh! I’ve got to change that right now!” he cried amid a roar of laughter from the other workshop participants; he looked ready to sprint for the benefits office that very instant. As Gadkowski tossed him the reward given to every attendee who asks a question at her workshops–a Hershey’s kiss–the young man declared, “I should be the one giving you a kiss!”
Not everyone at Gadkowski’s seminars is quite so affectionate, but the general sentiment seems accurate; after all, most of the people who end up becoming her clients first encounter her standing in the front of a room wielding a PowerPoint clicker and pitching chocolates to some guy in row three. Clients and colleagues describing her speaking style use words like “energetic,” “engaging,” and “interactive,” and say they appreciate how she sprinkles her seminars with stories about real people. It also helps that she knows how to handle hecklers, sometimes so expertly that she ends up winning them over. “She’s really good at one-sentence ‘Okay-you-can-shut-up-now’ responses,” says daughter and partner Lauren Gadkowski, 32, with a laugh. “In seminars, you always get that one person asking some wacky question about the AMT when you’re talking about 529 plans, and she’ll say just be like, ‘Here’s the answer,’ and moves on. She’s so good at handling them that they’ll usually come up afterward to shake her hand and tell her what a good job she did.”
While some people prefer the prospect of extensive dental work to that of standing up in front of a crowd, public speaking comes naturally to 58-year-old Gadkowski, an outspoken former teacher who’s taught everything from special education to high school history. But these aren’t seminars of the chicken-’n'-PowerPoint-in-the-Holiday Inn variety, held by a hosting planner at great expense. Gadkowski actually gets paid for giving the seminar itself, and never sends out a single mailing.
Paid to give a seminar? By whom? If you’ve ever worked for a company of any size, you’ve probably heard of employee assistance programs, or EAPs, through which employees can receive mental health counseling, employment counseling, and other services. Some EAPs also provide personal financial counseling–and that’s where Gadkowski comes in. Gadkowski has contracts with four companies providing employee assistance programs in the Boston area, and she helps them provide fee-only financial counseling, either by telephone, through one-on-one meetings with employees, or, often, through on-site seminars for groups of company employees. “The companies really like it, particularly now with all the concern about people’s 401(k)s and the poor economy,” says Kathleen Greer, head of a 13-member EAP provider in Framingham, Massachusetts, that has a contract with Gadkowski.
Gadkowski likes the setup, too, especially since she’s practically being spoon-fed new clients. “It’s great: The companies are thrilled to have these workshops, because they help them retain employees; the EAP loves it because it helps them keep the company as a client. And not only do I get paid for my time, I get umpteen billion clients” out of the workshop audiences. (The contact information for her fee-only firm in Centerville, Massachusetts, appears on the seminar handouts.) “It’s a strange way to market,” she says, “but it works very nicely.”
Often one workshop can lead to another–and possibly even several. Gadkowski recently held an EAP workshop for the staff of a large hospital, including the hospital’s fundraising director. Afterward, the director invited her back to do a separate series of seminars, paid for by the hospital, to teach the public about planned giving. “If people have a chance to observe you, and see that you’re good, then they’ll hire you for what they need you for,” says Gadkowski. Indeed, on a separate occasion, an employee who attended one of her EAP-sponsored workshops at work later hired her to give a seminar for the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Topics for EAP-sponsored workshops run the gamut from college planning to debt management, with 401(k) planning often winning the popularity contest. Since every company’s 401(k) plan rules and fund choices are different, each workshop requires some extra legwork. “Linda takes the time to find out about the employee plan before she goes in, which is really important,” says Greer. “That way she knows what she’s walking into.” The stickiest situation is when a company’s 401(k) has deadbeat fund choices or onerous rules; Gadkowski has to balance her responsibility to alert the employees against the fact that the company management is paying the EAP program to pay her to be there in the first place. (Although it’s fairly easy to imagine the plainspoken Gadkowski doing so, she can’t just come out and say, “Boy, this plan stinks!”)”It’s a very delicate situation, and she’s been able to go in and help the employees without making them feel alienated toward the company,” says Greer. “She’s able to educate people about the kinds of questions to ask, while still balancing that she has several different clients to please.”
Fine, I’ll Do It Myself
Gadkowski’s initial foray into the world of financial planning came less as a result of inspiration than of self-defense. After having taught for several years, she had become the owner of a Sylvan Learning Center, a tutoring center for kids. When she sold the center four years later, she suddenly had a significant chunk of money to manage, and she was determined not to lose it.
“My husband is an anesthesiologist, which got us on the call list for every broker in town,” she explains. “They would call my husband at work and tell him they were buying or selling something, and my husband was so busy focusing on his profession that he’d just say yes. We kept getting burned, absolutely positively burned.” When she told her accountant that she feared her Sylvan profits would evaporate in similar fashion, he suggested she become a CFP and manage the money herself. “I said, ‘Okay, I will!’” she says. “So I marched myself off to Northeastern [University], and six courses later, I was a CFP.”
Interestingly, the brokers who’d been phoning all those years kept on phoning, but this time to ask her to join their firms. She had four offers, but she turned every one of them down. “All of them meant that I had to sell something, and I said, ‘I can’t do that,’” she says. “Each one of them says to me, ‘Well, then, honey, you’re gonna starve.’ And I said, ‘Watch me.’”
Drawing upon her teaching skills, Gadkowski put together a financial planning course called Money 101, and, lacking any other convenient audience, presented it to the women in her investment club. “I said, ‘Look, I’m going to market this course somehow, and I don’t know how to get this going, but I’d love it if you’d take this course from me,’” she recalls. When it was over, one club member suggested she call a computer company in the area and offer the course to their employees; the member had been providing quilting classes (yes, quilting) to the tech company’s workers and thought they might like a change of pace. “So I marched myself off to Marlboro, Massachusetts, where they’re located, and they basically said, ‘Come on down!’” she says. The company invited her to present the course to its 1,600 employees at its eight locations around the country, and also allowed her to meet with employees on an hourly basis. She soon started making contacts with other companies, and the greater coup–the EAPs–came soon afterward. Gadkowski was in business.
A Beacon of Knowledge–and CE Credits
Today, Linda Gadkowski, Inc., has three offices in Massachusetts: one in Gadkowski’s home on Cape Cod, one in Boston (headed by daughter Lauren), and one in the offices of an EAP company in Framingham, which Gadkowski uses when she’s in town. Since the Framingham office isn’t technically hers, “my overhead at that office is nil,” she points out. The d?cor varies by location (“On Cape Cod, you’re not allowed to have anything but Colonial,” she says dryly), and so does the clientele: Most of the Cape Cod clients are single, divorced, or widowed women, while many of the Framingham and Boston clients are dual-income professional couples who work in local high-tech companies.