Imagine running a practice with no formal marketing strategy or public relations effort. You haven’t formulated a plan to increase revenues or profits or assets under management or the number of clients, and you tend to work evenings and weekends. You have no employees, and you do all of your clients’ investment research yourself. There isn’t a fancy sign on your office door, you don’t have a Web site, and you’re not even listed in the phone book.
While that description might sound like a young advisor just breaking into the business, in this case you’d be wrong. At age 66, Mary Mettler is no babe in the financial services woods, though she did start her planning practice fairly late in her career.
“I wanted to get out of the corporate world and I used turning 50 as my goal” to do so, she laughs. “Well, I made it out at 51.”
Now, Mettler happily works out of her home office, or “home in her office” as she puts it, and caters to only a handful of clients. “My copier and postage meter are in my dining room,” she says, “and all of my files are in my basement.”
Mettler began her fee-only practice in 1992 and still manages some of the same clients today. “My clients were basically friends or business associates, and then I picked up some of their mothers and brothers and so forth. I got up to about 23 clients, and that was too many,” she explains. “Today I plan for seven families and have $27 million [in assets under management].” She downsized based on client size and geographic location, wanting all of her clients to be in California.
Not at all interested in increasing her income, Mettler operates her practice at very little cost. Her only expenses are entertaining clients, basic office functions like the telephone and that postage meter, and the investment advisor’s basics: her Morningstar subscription and Centerpiece, the portfolio management system she uses.
Her average account size runs between $5 and $6 million, and because she insists she have control of all of her clients’ liquid assets, Mettler manages everything from their retirement accounts to their UGMAs. Knowing all of their finances, she says, helps her plan more efficiently.
Mettler practices what she preaches, too. She’s already sold part of her practice to three other local advisors, anticipating a time when she will want to retire (not yet, she says forcefully), and allowing for the possibility that her clients will be well taken care of should she become disabled (see “First Downsizing, Then Exiting” sidebar on following page).
Jane of All Trades
As a woman, pursuing a career in the early 1960s meant putting your personal life on hold, Mettler recalls. “Back then, if you got married you were expected to stay at home.” That certainly was not going to work for her. “There are many ways to be happy,” she says. After graduating from Stanford University in 1959, attending the Harvard-Radcliffe Program in Business Administration in 1960 (during the first year of the Harvard Business School, that was the only program available to women), and earning her MBA from American University in Washington D.C. in 1962, Mettler has had a prosperous career in many facets of the finance industry.
“The very first career I had was in investment banking,” she remembers, as director of research at Ferris & Company, a regional brokerage firm in Washington, D.C. Later in the 1960s, she joined IBM and helped install the Pacific Stock Exchange. She then worked for a software firm that developed financial application packages and did mutual fund shareholder accounting. Tiring of travel and fearing she’d “die of boredom” in data processing, Mettler switched professions, took the CPA exam, and became CFO of a couple of companies. She finished her corporate career as CFO of the San Francisco Newspaper Agency, the business division of the two daily newspapers in San Francisco.
“I always wanted to have my own business, but until we had [companies like] Charles Schwab and [programs like] Centerpiece, I really couldn’t work on my own,” she argues. “I couldn’t completely retire at age 50, so I knew I had to keep working.”
Before Mettler began her planning practice, and after she spent a year traveling to places like India and Nepal, she set some ground rules.
“I had a bunch of things I definitely didn’t want to do,” she says. As a CFO and VP of finance, she had dealt with 17 different unions and had 125 people reporting to her. “I didn’t want anything to do again with tax withholding, OSHA, employee reviews, and employees calling in sick,” she says. “I don’t much like marketing, so I needed a business that didn’t require a marketing strategy.” Then she decided she was not going to do any kind of budget planning for her clients. “I wanted high-net-worth, successful people,” she says. “I did not want to get involved with clients who had to worry about how much money they spent and how they were going to afford retirement.”
Finally, she needed maximum flexibility in her schedule to do thorough stock analysis, “the fun part of the job,” and to be able to periodically take time off. “My clients know that if it’s a pretty day outside, I may put an ‘out of the office’ message on my machine, which is a euphemism for ‘gone hiking.’”
Interestingly, her unusual work hours seem to be exactly what her clients need. “I work out of my home and thought I’d eventually get a small office,” she says. “But clients want to call at night and on the weekend because they are not going to haul all of their information to the workplace and discuss their estate plan in the middle of the day.” Incidentally, Saturday is a regular business day for her. “It works fine,” she says. “And it’s comfortable.”
The Mettler Process
Having only seven clients may seem like a disadvantage to the average planner, but Mettler enjoys the fact that she can devote a lot of time to each client and plan everything for them. “I manage their emergency funds and [all of their other accounts],” she explains. “When we do retirement planning, I have the all the information right at my fingertips rather than having to search for it all.”